Sledgehammer Games’ Advanced Warfare is, I think, the best Call of Duty since 2007’s Modern Warfare. This feels like an unusual thing to say because, after finding myself unable to generate even an ounce of excitement for last year’s Ghosts, I was pretty sure the long-running series was finally getting ready to complete its slow fade into irrelevance. The formula had started to wear thin. The ideas that had once made Call of Duty one of the best (if not the brightest) multiplayer action games around had been stagnating, starting to come off as increasingly dated. Next to the parkour movement and giant robots of Titanfall, or flawed but fascinating co-operative play of Destiny, it was hard to imagine that a new Call of Duty would feel like anything more than a relic.
This is why Advanced Warfare has proven such a wonderful surprise. Though rocketing the setting into a future filled with superpower-enabling “Exo-Suits” and flashy science fiction guns didn’t seem like the most interesting idea at first, Call of Duty’s high technology turn has managed to reinvigorate the series. Through a simple trick—changing up the controls and arsenal—Advanced Warfare makes its campaign, multiplayer, and co-op survival modes far more engaging. Players can double jump over obstacles, toss grenades that reveal enemy silhouettes behind walls, dash while flying through the air, and shoot a laser gun. These new gameplay mechanics and features couple with a campaign that actually, honestly (surprisingly) attempts to look back at the rest of the series with a welcome level of introspection. Without spoiling the plot, suffice it to say that Advanced Warfare includes many scenarios that come off more as a critical look at past games than any real nostalgic indulgence. It’s all excellent stuff. But it does beg the question of exactly how the next Call of Duty will follow up on these gameplay changes.
Part of what makes Advanced Warfare work is its place in a long-running series. While a lot of fun in its own right, the new mechanics and tightly paced campaign are most notable against the backdrop of prior games that seemed comfortable repeating the same tricks again and again. Compared to the basic set of movement controls offered in the Modern Warfare and Black Ops titles—sprint, duck, shoot from a prone position—the introduction of boost jumps and ground-pounds feel refreshingly kinetic. Another entry to the series that re-uses these mechanics would likely be fun. But it would also lose the sense of novelty that has given the series such a shot in the arm. Imagining how Advanced Warfare’s mechanics can be re-used in other settings seems equally difficult. As much as I liked the game’s vision of the 2050s, the exploration of new technologies and political tensions offered through Advanced Warfare was thorough enough that a string of sequels doesn’t seem necessary. The process of slowly learning what the state of the world was in Sledgehammer’s future is a big part of what made for such an interesting campaign. That’s the kind of thing that can’t be repeated since, well, a mystery isn’t much of a mystery once it’s already been explained.
All of it comes together to make the future of Call of Duty a pretty uncertain one. Advanced Warfare’s changes to the series’ formula are great, but may not be replicable. Without continued reinvention, trotting out the same future setting too often will quickly wear thin and the new movement controls will start to feel rote. Making a return to past conflicts, whether the series’ World War II roots or Black Ops’ latter-20
century missions, would also make it difficult to rationalize using the new (most definitely) improved robotic suit controls, too. Advanced Warfare may have painted Call of Duty into a corner that will require a level of fundamental redesign that seems hard to imagine.
Regardless, I’ll be interested to see where the series goes from here if for no other reason than the complete surprise of finding myself enjoying Advanced Warfare. This time last year I was pretty well convinced that I was done with Call of Duty. It seemed to have exhausted itself, something which is understandable for an annualized series afraid of losing its fan base by making sweeping changes to what is clearly a well-loved style of game. That Sledgehammer Games was capable of accomplishing the seemingly impossible feat of reinventing Call of Duty is remarkable. That alone, I think, warrants a bit of optimism for future games, no matter the challenges they face in discovering new avenues for innovation.