If Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare were an OK Cupid profile, it would be the kind you gently mock for its cartoonishly mainstream interests—of course that guy’s favorite movie is Fight Club. Call of Duty is the hacky sack of video games, the Dave Matthews Band of First-Person Shooters; a salmon-colored shorts wearing, moccasin-shod, Keystone Light beer of an entertainment franchise.
But then one night, you’d be sorta bored… and to be honest, Call of Duty is kind of cute when it’s not wearing sweats. And hey, Call of Duty is also self-aware and can carry a conversation really well. Like, you guys wouldn’t believe it, but Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is actually kind of thoughtful. Hey, did you hear? Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is moving in next week. You all should come hang out with us.
It’s easy to pick on the Call of Duty franchise; the series has been crowding shelves with a new installment every year since 2003, and it has become the poster child for all manner of gamer stereotypes. It doesn’t necessarily hide this either. Just look at this ad:
But sometimes, it’s also terribly fun.
Call of Duty faces the same sort of predicament as sports games like Madden—it has to justify each annual entry as being sufficiently “new” and “different,” while at the same time keeping those games familiar enough to avoid alienating Call of Duty fans. The balancing act is so difficult that publisher Activision has three separate development teams working on the franchise, giving each one three years to develop its installment.
This year’s spin around the merry-go-round is Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. “Advanced” because it’s set in the future; “warfare” due to all the shooting. Nothing in the title, however, explains Kevin Spacey. Kevin Spacey is in this game.
Why? Glad you asked. Let’s talk about the plot.
Set in a period that spans from 2054 to roughly 2060, you play Private Jack Mitchell (voiced by Troy Baker), a US Marine. After a terrible accident that costs you your arm (followed by a really strange scene), you become best buds with Jonathan Irons, who is played by Digital Kevin Spacey. Jonathan Irons is pretty much Frank Underwood from House of Cards without the accent. He runs the Atlas Corporation—a private military company with a name so Randian it’s not even a spoiler—and smooth-talks you into his employ. Of course, he’s got secrets, and things get ugly for you once you find them out.
Clocking in at about six hours, this is a big, bombastic affair that stays well within the series’ well-defined, Michael Bay-esque over-the-top action. Advanced Warfare’s biggest advance, outside of the graphics—this game has so many graphics—is the Exo Suit. They’re rugged military exoskeletons that look an awful lot like the ones Matt Damon bolted onto himself in Elysium. They’re pretty cool.
The Exo Suit gives you a number of abilities like boost jumping and portable riot shields—but outside of the few times the game tells you to use say, your hover jets or sonics, you don’t really need them. In fact, you don’t bring the full suite of Exo gizmos with you on every mission. And the game really suffers for this—it essentially tells you about all this cool stuff you can do, but only lets you do those things at certain approved points. This is a real shame, because having a plethora of high-tech options for tackling missions would’ve made for a really fun, very different sort of Call of Duty. What Advanced Warfare is instead isn’t bad—it’s just more of the same. There are a few stretches where all the mindless shooting gets exhausting, and some—like a stealthy breaking-and-entering mission on a highly-guarded estate—that are genuinely thrilling and fun.
The multiplayer, however, is probably the most fun I’ve had with a Call of Duty game since Black Ops, for a very simple reason: everything is better with jetpacks.
Playing Call of Duty online against other human beings can be a frustrating experience. And if the series’ trademark, twitchy live-die-repeat firefights aren’t your thing, Advanced Warfare isn’t going to change your mind. It does, however, offer a method to ease you in with its Combat Readiness program, which lets you play through the multiplayer modes with a bunch of computer-controlled bots.
Otherwise, the essence of the thing remains constant. Playing competitive multiplayer in a Call of Duty game is akin to striving to achieve another plane of consciousness, one where you fall into a trance of digital chaos and bloodshed.
Maps are intricate and layered, and once you get the hang of your jetpack and other Exo abilities, you’ll have a lot of fun outfoxing your opponents—getting the drop on someone is really satisfying, and makes you feel vaguely like Jason Statham. Forget about your jetpack and you’ll probably die a lot more.
Most of the classic game modes return. Hardpoint is a particular favorite, where you have to race with your team to a particular location and defend it from the other team—but it’s not quite as good as Uplink. Uplink is sort of like basketball, but with assault rifles and explosions—i.e. pretty much the perfect sport.
The game also comes with a third mode of co-operative play: Exo Survival. It’s fine, but it takes after the campaign in feeling a lot like previous installments. The Exo abilities remain a fun addition, but unlike the Extinction mode in last year’s Ghosts, there’s no sort of narrative thread or cohesive feeling to it. It ends up feeling very dry, and is best experienced with a bunch of friends you like playing with. Also, if your preferred method of co-operative shooting previously involved zombies, the lack of undead here is kind of a buzzkill.
To borrow an expression from another medium, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is pure popcorn. It’s slick, well-made, and fun to play—and just thoughtful enough to remain engaging. It is by no means a great leap forward, but it is good at what it sets out to do—and if all that entails is adding jetpacks to original recipe Call of Duty, then hey, job well done. Like I said, jetpacks are the best.