By Ian Boone. The Call of Duty franchise has worn down over the years, for various reasons. While the state of the gaming scene upon its arrival featured pocketed battlefields that threw you into an arena of competitive violence, Call of Duty stuck its hooks into users, sweeping us up with a persistent character that only grew stronger the more we invested in its play time. But Activision and the various studios producing Call of Duty have been at a loss to innovate past those old formulas brought forward by the groundbreaking developer, Infinity Ward.  This year’s entry, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, has come thundering out of a three year development with huge changes to its gameplay and boasting real star power, in the from of Hollywood bigshot Kevin Spacey. With all this momentum behind it, and burdened by a huge legacy, Advanced Warfare is here to rocket-punch us into the holiday gaming season and beyond.

The preceding screencap succinctly lays down the premise for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. The year is 2050, and many nations have turned to international, privately-owned military contractor ATLAS to handle hostilities and the necessary rebuilding that comes after said hostilities. You see this world through the eyes of Jack Mitchell (portrayed by the ubiquitous Troy Baker) as he is wounded and discharged from the US Marines only to be recruited by ATLAS CEO Jonathan Irons (Kevin Spacey’s unholy simulcra.) Irons takes to Mitchell immediately, using ATLAS prosthetics to restore his fighting capabilities in order to send him off on deadly missions around the world. Soon you’re tailing a terrorist leader called Hades, who leads a group carrying out strikes across the world for some reason or another. When nations fail to go after Hades on a solid tip, Irons sends ATLAS forces to cut through the red tape to enact justice.

Notice that name? ATLAS? This is a story of the conversation between Objectivism and altruism: Irons lost his son in a military action of which he personally questioned its oversight, and since the man has made a full time career out of privatizing and bettering government functions, that doubt is well deserved. His company is doing a better job of creating infrastructure and stability than our elected politicians ever could (he even brings water to Detroit, making everything sadly topical).

But, just like Ayn Rand, Irons fails to acknowledge that his company’s existence is owed to that tax dollar. He bites and bites at the hand that feeds him, and maybe his greatest attribute is that his nose somehow never gets a swat. To contrast this, many of the characters we are introduced to through the story are comrades born in blood and necessity; they give and sacrifice because they accept their small roles in the scheme of things, and seem grateful for that one opportunity to make a difference. Maybe Irons’ late son typifies this best, as he chose to serve his country in the Marines over working for his father’s PMC, and paid the ultimate sacrifice for it.  Truly this is the part that stings Jonathan Irons most: his son died living for an ideal he himself didn’t believe in.

Ham-fisted efforts at philosophy aside, the story is not terribly suspenseful.  There is one major twist that anyone could anticipate –

– and a lot of juxtaposition around different war zones on the planet. Previous Call of Duty plots thrust players into so many character perspectives that important details were muddied. Advanced Warfare keeps it clean by having players only experience Mitchell’s story. But game developer Sledgehammer’s desire to keep the locale in flux cannot be tamed, as Mitchell and cohorts go on a wild adventure under the most contrived circumstances: hunt down a bio-terrorist hiding in Detroit one day, but blink and you’ll miss the segue to New Baghdad…

On-screen warnings that would normally be indicated by traditional HUD displays are gone. Now your in-game exo-suit will conjure holographic projections to caution you from grenades with illuminated radials. These future soldier enjoy enhanced movement options like rocket-assisted jumping and the lethally versatile grappling hook. (I’d love to give the grappling hook a special shout-out, actually, for having an amazing stealth kill taken straight from Mortal Kombat’s Scorpion.) The biggest shake-ups are the exo-abilities, which boast short duration powers during cooldowns. Cloaking, bullet time, shields… all of this can be yours if you can just stay alive long enough to finish recharging. All of this may sound like it could interfere with the quick and dirty gameplay that the series is known for, but weapons still excel at their purpose -taking lives. With all these new tricks in your arsenal, it isn’t simply the technology that will decide who lives or dies – it’s how well that tech is utilized.

It’s staggering to me that this much use is still getting dragged out of the last Unreal Engine: the weather and lighting look authentic, the mechanisms of the exo-suits move and tick, and I’ve noticed a large amount of new art assets. The game is clean in terms of graphical presentation, the character models are highly detailed, and the stage direction and design has a beautiful sense of suspense that could make you turn blue for how much you’ll anxiously hold your breath.

Sledgehammer used the rendering software from James Cameron’s Avatar to produce the cutscenes that accompany the story. While the final product looks nice, it does highlight the disparity between the aging game engine and what computers are now capable of rendering. I also noted a feel of the uncanny valley while watching digital Kevin Spacey work his magic: while the audio takes were pitch-perfect for the most part, seeing an actor I’ve become so familiar with recast in animated 3D is strange. His expressions just didn’t seem to ever go quite as far as the passion in his voice. This does not come across so much in quieter story moments, but at more explosive beats(such as when Irons is shouting over the United States’ top brass), the model’s face just doesn’t seem to fully commit to his tone.

I can’t close out on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare without discussing multiplayer. The format made the series the force it is, and compelled others to follow in imitation. It’s still very much the same affair: make your little army man (or woman), ply your lethal trade in sundry match-lists and get XP for everything but disconnecting, and kit your soldier out in Weapons, Perks, Killstreaks, and Wildcards. But the new exo-abilities are in play here, and they certainly shake things up. Experience the verticality of having an enemy jump-jet behind you on a game of Domination to plant two barrels in your spine. Or thrill as a skilled user of Cloaking dismantles your team. Exo-Stim will probably send a lot of players over the edge of rage as users will turn into unkillable hulks with jetpacks and guns. Level design has evolved to compensate, and you’ll want to get into the habit of elevation attenuation early and often, as most of the maps are multi-tiered. Play with the new firing range, and test out your new unlocked toys in between rounds so you’re not learning under live fire. After all, shit flows downhill; you don’t want to be at the bottom.

It will hurt in the beginning. You’ll feel that pain as old strategies and expectations are altered and broken, adapting to new threats and learning to counter them. The movement is also not as rapid and fluid as Titanfall, meaning that alert players can try a more grounded game and still perform pretty well for themselves. The unlock system seems more accommodating to start with than older games in the series, offering early unlocks to perks that were previously a drag to work up to. Every Call of Duty is generally friendly to entry-level players, but Advanced Warfare is particularly geared towards getting you running and gunning. This really gives the experience more of an arena shooter vibe, since there is much more equal footing among players of different levels. If you’re looking at this game for online multiplayer, get it now. The quality of the experience always goes down as exploits are discovered and the casual players boil off to reveal a pustulent hardcore crowd.

I was a little disappointed to see several major differences in the HUD from the single player: grenade warnings were set back to an easily-missable white marker, and while there was no overhead minimap in single-player either, it’s back for multi. Overall the screen is so much busier in multiplayer sessions, and too much information can kill as much as knowing too little.  Love it or hate it, quick-scoping is back again as well.  While tougher given how much more fast-paced the movement is, give a man a straightaway, a rifle, and a river of noobs, and he shall pwn.

With the already announced return of Zombies as a downloadable game mode and no small amount of maps to come after, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare will keep the conflict fresh for a while to come. For those who have written the series off as a dead horse, and for those who have devoted your red-eye hours to your umpteenth career prestige, this is for you. When a franchise returns this strong, it’s a comforting feeling, like when your best friend moves away for a few years: they come back with a nose piercing and a new hairstyle but they’re still down as hell.