SEB Reviews: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare – PC
Published by: Activision
Developed by: Sledgehammer Games
Price: $59.99
Rating: 3 out of 5

November has arrived once more and with it comes another iteration of the Call of Duty first person shooter franchise. Given the disaster that was last year’s Call of Duty: Ghosts on the PC is there any reason to be optimistic about Advanced Warfare. As it turns out there indeed is. Activision has added a third development house to the effort in the form of Sledgehammer Games. The idea seems to be that the last few CoDs had issues because the developers (Infinity Ward and Treyarch) only had two years to develop their respective titles so by adding a third publisher they can now devote three years to development per studio and still put out a new CoD every year. In theory, having a third year should allow them to polish the game till it’s flaws are few and far between and Sledgehammer is the first studio to have three years to get it right. So do they?

Single Player

First, let’s talk a bit about the campaign part of Advance Warfare. This setting for this game is about 40 years in the future (2054) where things like laser guns and exo suits are now a reality and Kevin Spacey heads up one of the largest private militaries for hire. It’s all very sci-fi-ish and the developers talked a lot about how they tried to keep the game grounded in ideas that are actually being worked on today. The basic plot asks the question of what happens when the leader of the world’s largest corporation decides he can run the world better than any government ever could.

The Goliath mech suit you get to play with at one point.

The Goliath mech suit you get to play with at one point.

You start off as a marine — Private Jack Mitchell — who is gravely injured in a battle against the North Koreans when your buddy heroically sacrifices himself to a long-standing dramatic trope of pushing you away before the thing you were sent to blow up blows up. Despite your buddy’s efforts, you still lost your left arm and as such the Marines opt to boot you out on your ass even though there are prosthetics available that are almost indistinguishable from your real arm that you could be fitted with that would totally let you continue being a badass marine. We know this because at your buddy’s funeral his dad, who happens to be Kevin Spacey, who is also the head of the Atlas Corporation, immediately offers you a position as a merc in his company and along with it a shiney new prosthetic arm.

Thus starts a number of missions against a terrorist organization called the KVA that makes Al Qaeda and ISIL look like a bunch of pussies who couldn’t terrorize a poodle without detailed instructions. You run about killing untold numbers of bad guys who still manage to pull off some epic shit such as blowing up the Golden Gate Bridge. The years pass and, despite some victories on your part, the KVA is totally kicking ass and blowing up nuclear reactors around the world. Whereupon Atlas swoops in to provide relief and help to the millions of people while the world’s governments flail about unable to defend themselves from this insidious threat. Finally you and your team catch up to Hades — yeah, the guy really calls himself that — and take his ass down. Naturally the last thing he says before dieing is “Irons knows” meaning Kevin Spacey knows because that’s who Spacey is playing but I can’t call him that because every time I look at him I see Kevin Spacey.

What he meant by that is that Kevin Spacey knew about the pending attacks against the nuclear plants and let them happen anyway just so he could have Atlas swoop in and play the part of the benevolent corporation and make the world’s governments dependent upon his services. Of course, this is when you and a couple of other People Who Know The Truth have to go on the run because you decoded the video that shows Kevin Spacey knew about the pending attacks on corporate computers allowing Kevin Spacey to know that you know and now he has to kill you. How Hades got a video of Kevin Spacey interrogating and then shooting the KVA guy who told him about the attacks in an Atlas compound is never explained.

"I'm in your base. Killing your dudes." -- Not an actual thing Kevin Spacey says.

“I’m in your base. Killing your dudes.” — Not an actual thing Kevin Spacey says.

After barely escaping from the Atlas corporation with help from a secret task force called the SENTINELS that just happens to be headed by your former Marine Sergeant, it’s revealed that the U.S. Government had suspected Kevin Spacey of being a total douchebag for awhile which is why they set up this secret task force that they totally want you to join now. You do and release the video footage of Kevin Spacey learning and doing nothing about the nuclear plant attacks to the media which forces Kevin Spacey to make a big speech at the U.N. where he totally admits he let it happen because he plans to take over the world. The rest of the game involves you chasing down Kevin Spacey so you can kill him in yet another action movie trope manner.

OK, I’m being a little sarcastic, but it must be said that this is probably the most coherent Call of Duty story that we’ve had in years. If you remember my review of last year’s Ghosts I couldn’t even be bothered to go into the story because I could barely remember most of it. The game mixes things up as you go along and the addition of the exo suits and their ability to double jump in the air allowing you to go over a wall instead of around it and dash side to side and powerslide really does go a long way to making the game feel fresh. There weren’t any overly annoying or tough sequences, though a few of the quicktime events were either very silly (press F to pay your respects) or so sudden that you died a couple of times until you figured out which button you were supposed to press.

All in all I enjoyed the single player campaign and it took around 6 hours for me to complete. Which is about average for a the single player part of CoD these days. It probably would’ve taken longer had I bothered to find all the hidden briefcases, er, laptops that are sprinkled on each level, but I’m lazy so I didn’t do that.

Multiplayer

This is what most folks buy a CoD game for and on which most of the purchasing decisions weigh so lets get the good news out of the way right here at the start: Advanced Warfare is a vast improvement on last year’s Ghosts. The bad news is that it didn’t have to try too hard to be an improvement and, in many ways, it still suffers from the same issues that all the most recent games have suffered from.

You will believe a soldier can fly. Or at least jump really, really high.

You will believe a soldier can fly. Or at least jump really, really high.

Once again prior to its release Advanced Warfare was said to have an “all new engine” driving the game. Turns out, that’s not the case at all. Once again it’s the same base engine with the same bugs with a bunch of new bits added on. I can’t say it with certainty, but it feels like it’s the engine from Black Ops 2 with some of the bits from Ghosts bolted on. Part of this feeling comes from how the game plays — CoD titles from Infinity Ward and Treyarch definitely had a different feel in how they played —  and part of it comes from things like the use of score streaks instead of killstreaks (Treyarch made it so your score is what counts in BO 2, not how many people you’ve killed) and the very familiar attachment options for the guns. They even took Treyarch’s Pick 10 system for class loadouts and made it into the Pick 13 system.

Perhaps they’ve rewritten major parts of the engine, but a lot of the same problems of previous titles still exist. The network code, for example, is still the same shitty Peer to Peer system of past titles. Much like with Ghosts, there’s been a promise of “dedicated” servers that last word had it were supposed to come online in mid-December. (Editors Note: Michael Condrey claims they’ve been online since day 1, but there’s no way to know that for sure in-game as there’s no indication other than how laggy the game is and it’s often laggy. We’ll have to take his word on it.) With the P2P system in Advanced Warfare being the only option at the moment, whether you have a good round is as much a matter of who ends up with hosting duties as it is what your skill level is. Some rounds the game runs great and others you’ll have a subtle lag that makes it seem like you’re emptying whole clips into enemies to get a kill while one or two hits by them from across the map is death for you. If you watch the killcam you’ll often see them emptying a half-clip into you and you never returning fire even if you saw yourself get several shots off.

This map is called Defender. It is the laggiest map ever in a Call of Duty game. Everyone fucking hates it for that reason alone.

This map is called Defender. It is the laggiest map ever in a Call of Duty game. Everyone fucking hates it for that reason alone.

There’s been some talk that AW’s skill-based matchmaking is to blame for this. From what I understand, the game attempts to put people of similar skill levels into the same game for a more balanced experience. Rather than just connecting you to the closest group of players so you’ll all have a great connection, you could end up playing with people in Europe or Asia which is pretty much going to guarantee a laggy experience unless you get lucky enough to be host. The end result is that the benefit of being matched with other players of a similar skill level is offset by the lag from having some of them be so far away. If the player count is low then the likelihood of ending up playing with folks in other countries goes up even more so than it did with Ghosts.

The other big bug that still remains is the killstreak bug that I mentioned in my review of Ghosts. It’s been in the game since at least Modern Warfare 2 and none of the three studios has managed to fix it. What happens is you’ll get a killstreak and go to call it in, the game will go through the animation for it, and nothing happens and you’re left standing there without your gun until you hit the button for the killstreak a second time (which would normally cancel using it if it’s a deployable). The one improvement is that if you hit the button a third time you’ll usually be able to deploy the killstreak as opposed to past titles where you had to die before it would work. I used the word “usually” because sometimes it’ll fail a second and third time taking upwards for 9 buttons presses to deploy the damned thing during which you are unable to shoot your gun. As far as I know this bug is only in the PC version as I’ve never heard console players mention it, but it’s ridiculous to claim you’ve spent three years making an “all new engine” when this bug still exists in the code. I have a YouTube video of it happening in Ghosts that I’ve sent to Activision and I’m working on another one from AW.

The third thing that puts the lie to the claim that AW has an entirely new engine is the fact that the very same aimbots and wallhacks from previous titles were available for Advanced Warfare the day it launched because the hackers just had to tweak the code a little bit to get it to work. Here’s an example from a match I played recently:

Checking his Steam profile page we learned he already had a VAC ban on record. We all reported him for cheating using the in-game tool and I sent this video to Activision on November 30th. He still hasn’t been banned from the game, but with a little luck it’ll only be a matter of time.

All of that said, the new bits do make the game look pretty. Ghosts wasn’t a bad looking game itself, but it ran very poorly for a lot of folks and seem to only be optimized for a handful of graphic cards. Sledgehammer at least seems to have resolved some of those performance issues while retaining the improved visuals of Ghosts. The detail in the environment and player models is astounding when you catch a moment to stop and have a good look at them. On my system it generally runs pretty well except for one map called Defender that slows my system to a slideshow for the first two minutes or so of gameplay. You can see a YouTube video of this problem below.

Note the significant pauses and stutters at the start. After a couple of minutes it smooths out, but other players mention experiencing similar lag throughout the round. A couple of other maps have the same problem, but none of them last as long into the round as on Defender. I don’t have a $4,000 gaming computer, but it’s no slouch with a 4 GHz quad core AMD FX-4170 CPU and an nVidia GeForce GTX 760 video card in it. I’m not entirely certain what’s causing the problem, but some folks have speculated that the scripting for the tsunami event that happens about halfway through the round has something to do with it. That tsunami event, by the way, is pretty cool even if it doesn’t tend to catch anyone off guard when it happens. A few of the other maps also have special things that can happen or special score streak rewards you can get that are unique to the map in question. Still the point is that when you stack a map like Defender with its laggy first few minutes on top of a P2P connection to someone in Afghanistan (yes, I’ve had matches where some folks were in Afghanistan) you get a super-shitty experience.

Pew, pew, pew!

Pew, pew, pew!

Okay, let’s talk about some of the new stuff like the Exo Suits and the way they change up the game. The most obvious, and biggest, difference you’ll have noted if you’ve watched any of the gameplay footage is how you can now double jump and power dodge/slide using the exoskeletons to reach areas of the map that would normally be off-limits in other CoD titles. If there’s a wall in front of you you can just jump over it rather than run around it. You can even “boost” downward onto an enemy for a Super Mario style buttstomp kill that is immensely satisfying to pull off. The suits also allow for unlimited sprinting and falling from great heights no longer results in damage or death.

Additionally, there are a number of Exo Abilities you can assign to your suit that allow you to do things like run even faster or activate a Predator-like invisibility or hover for a short while in the air. All of these abilities are limited in use thanks to a battery that doesn’t recharge after you’ve used it up until you die and respawn. You can extend it a bit by taking the “overcharge” perk, but in my opinion most of the exo abilities don’t add much given the limited battery life and at least one of them, called Exo-Mute that muffles your footprints (a replacement of the much loved/hated Dead Silence perk), is all but useless (more on that in a bit). On the few loadouts I do have an ability on I forget to use it half the time. Had they made it so the battery recharged slowly after depletion so long as you stay alive, but you couldn’t use it again until it was fully recharged, it might make some of the abilities much more useful. As it stands now it’s a missed opportunity.

That’s pretty much it for new stuff in the game. Sure, some of the guns are energy weapons now, but they still work more or less like the other guns just with a different special effect and “ammo” system. They overheat if you fire them continuously for too long requiring you to hit “reload” to pop the heatsink out so it can cool, but functionally it’s more or less the same as any of the slug throwers. One new aspect of them is the availability of “variants” where it’s the same gun, but with slightly tweaked stats. Maybe this one is a little more accurate, but has a couple less bullets in the magazine. Or its rate of fire is slower, but its mobility is higher.

You get these tweaked versions of guns through Supply Drops which gives a little World of Warcraft flavor to CoD. Every so often you’ll be notified that you’ve gotten a supply drop and after the match ends you can check your inventory and click on it to reveal 2 or 3 items. Sometimes it’s gun variants, sometimes it’s a guaranteed care package at a set time into the next match, sometimes it’s X minutes of double XP, but most of the time it’ll be “clothes” for your character that allow you to customize how he or she looks. All items in supply drops are ranked as either Enlisted (common), Professional (uncommon), or Elite (rare) depending on how cool/better it is. No one outside of the developers really knows how getting a supply drop is calculated, but the theory with the most support seems to indicate that the worse you do as a player the more likely you are to get supply drops. The idea being it’s something to offset the frustration of getting your ass handed to you repeatedly. Everyone gets them every few games, but some folks do seem to get them more often than others.

Kevin Spacey's cold, dead eyes will swallow your soul!

Kevin Spacey’s cold, dead eyes will swallow your soul!

Interestingly enough, some of the cooler things from the single player game — like the grappling hook or the ability to rip car doors off and use them as impromptu riot shields — are absent from the multiplayer. I was surprised as hell that one of the score streak options wasn’t a drone swarm considering how many times they showed up in the campaign mode. Score streaks can be customized with up to 3 extra abilities (out of six or seven options) that increase the cost to earn them proportionate to how useful they are.

There are a couple of new game modes such as “Momentum” where you battle to capture flags at set locations with each capture increasing the rate at which you can capture the next flag unless the other team manages to grab it. There’s also “Uplink” where you have to get a ball through your opponent’s goal and the person carrying the ball can’t use their gun (though you can throw the ball at your opponent forcing them to catch it and allowing you to then shoot them), but, on the PC at least, the vast majority of folks still play straight Team Deathmatch and Domination (both regular and HC) with maybe some folks in Kill Confirmed so it’s no often you’ll get to play the new game types.

Let’s take a moment to talk about the absence of the perks Dead Silence and Amplify which were very popular in Ghosts and other past CoDs. A lot folks were upset to learn that Dead Silence was not going to be in AW (and more than a few were thrilled at the same news), but Sledgehammer promised they would have a replacement for at least Dead Silence. That replacement turned out to be the Exo-Mute ability I mentioned earlier. As it turns out the replacement isn’t really necessary because most of the time you’ll never hear an enemy’s footsteps anyway. If you watch the couple of gameplay videos I’ve included in this review you’ll see at least a couple of times that someone managed to sneak up and melee me without me ever knowing they were there. You can hear your own footsteps loud and clear (which was one of the major reasons to take Dead Silence) and you can even hear your teammate’s footsteps — a fact that has gotten me killed more than once because I looked to see who was behind me only to see it was a friendly while I was shot by the bad guy in front of me — but it’s very rare that I ever hear the enemy’s footsteps. Worse, there’s no perk makes it easier to hear enemy footsteps. Amplify is gone as a separate perk and it wasn’t folded into one of the other perks like in previous CoD titles (e.g. Modern Warfare 3).

What you can hear is the exo suit’s jetpack when people double jump or boost-dodge. You’ll also see an indicator on the minimap when they do so unless they’ve taken the boost-suppressor perk which also muffles the sound a bit. I actually keep both feet on the ground a lot because it’s the best way to sneak up on people because of the footsteps issue. Still, it’s highly irritating to be surprised by someone you never heard coming when in past games you’d have a chance to notice and turn around. Dead Silence and Amplify were part of almost every loadout I used in Ghosts and the fact that both perks are gone from AW is a major disappointment.

Ultimately, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is like pretty much every new CoD game that has come after CoD 4: A mix of interesting new ideas that are hampered by many of the same problems the game has suffered from for years. Sledgehammer had three years to develop this title and that was supposed to make all the difference in the world and yet after seven games since the release of CoD 4/WoW we’re still putting up with the same bugs and crappy P2P system (with the exception of the first Black Ops which had dedicated servers on PC). All the fancy new movement systems and cool new weapons don’t mean much to gamers if the game plays like shit thanks to crappy network code and lag inducing maps.

Player counts on the PC have been slowing fading with each new release and while Advanced Warfare is still doing much better than Ghosts after the same number of days, it’s still only seeing daily peaks of 12,000 to 15,000 players during the week. Today’s peak was 12,044. Compare that to Team Fortress 2 which peaked at 61,888 today. That’s a game that is seven-fucking-years-old and allows fans to run their own servers and make their own maps and items which can end up in the game. Hell, they’ve been giving the game away for free for years and are still making a shit-ton of money off of it.

Oh, and special mention should be made of Sledgehammer’s decision to remove the ability to see how many players are in each game mode that pretty much all of the CoDs released in recent history has had. Yeah, we know most of them are in TDM, but it’d be nice to see if there was anyone playing Kill Confirmed without having to sit in a lobby for half an hour.

As frustrating as all of that is, when things come together and you get a good connection (or better, host) and it’s not one of the maps that induces lag, it’s still a lot of fun to play. I’m still playing it despite the problems I have with it and am on my fourth prestige at this point. Here’s a YouTube video of a match where the connection wasn’t bad and I manage to have a pretty good run using akimbo submachine guns to give you an idea of how good the game can be when it works:

Then again, that’s a lot of things that have to come together and, more often than not, they don’t.

Should you get it? If you’re as hardcore a fan of it as I am then chances are you already bought it. If you prefer to play on consoles — and the Xbox(es) in particular — then that’s probably the better place to pick it up as that’s where Activision is focusing most of their efforts on the game. It’s pretty clear that they’re not as concerned with fans on the PC by the complete lack of any real discussion of the platform leading up to, and even after, the launch. Which will only lead to steadily lower player counts on the PC which will justify their decision to continue to ignore us. I won’t be surprised if there comes a day they don’t bother with a PC version at all. They can’t seem to be bothered to fix the long-standing problems on this platform as it is. Sooner or later the number of sales on the PC will be low enough for them to drop it altogether.

Until that day comes, I’ll keep playing it despite its flaws. Several of the folks I commonly play CoD with have already dropped Advanced Warfare and gone back to Black Ops 2 or even Modern Warfare 3.  They’re pretty disappointed with it. I’m less so, but then I got a review copy so I don’t have the sting of having spent $60 on it either.

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