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Advanced Warfare: Can sci-fi spectacle replenish Call of Duty's sheen?

By Nick Cowen on Wednesday 25th Jun 2014 at 9:36 AM UTC

The Call Of Duty franchise has blown up the world so many times it's becoming harder and harder for it to make it look spectacular. Think about it; over the Modern Warfare and Black Ops franchises, players have witnessed the destruction of Los Angeles, Paris, New York, Washington D.C. and (cough) Bagdad. In the scheme of things, in Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, my city got off easy; all London merited was the detonation of a dirty bomb.

For its first solo swing at Activision's annual shooter, developer Sledgehammer Games kicks off its E3 demo by blasting a hole through San Francisco. The centerpiece for Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare's presentation - a level prosaically entitled 'Collapse' - involves splitting the Golden Gate Bridge in half and dropping both the player and a ton of AI NPCs, both friendly and enemy, into the icy waters of the bay below.

It's the sort of spectacle COD used to do so well - a mixture of shuddering sound effects signifying disaster and the slow destruction of one of the world's most recognizable pieces of real estate. And yet, as has been mentioned in the earlier reference to this series' proclivity for sturm and drang, it all feels rather perfunctory.

I blame the first two Modern Warfare games, frankly. After all, once you've nuked the Middle East and survived a shoot out in the White House against an invading Russian army, where the hell do you go from there? The Black Ops series side-stepped these problems by first telling a better and more involving story (Black Ops) and then kitting out players with weapons that seemed like the stuff of science fiction (Black Ops 2).

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Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare takes a cue from Black Ops 2 with its sci fi ordinance, except this time it isn't just the guns the player wields that makes them feel like they're soldiers from the future. The protagonist in this game is kitted out with an exo-skeleton - a steel frame clasping their limbs and spine that looks like the rig that Matt Damon was wearing in Elysium - that endows them with superhuman abilities. They're faster, tougher and able to jump incredible heights and distances using something called the 'boost' mechanic.

Said mechanic looks, for all the world, like the jetpack boost from games like Evolve and Titanfall, so it's not exactly what you'd call a game-changer. The fact that they offer the player a sidestep boost doesn't break any new moulds either (Titanfall again). However, it comes in massively handy in 'Collapse' where a car chase in a pugnacious-looking carrier called a Pitbull descends into a bullet festival on the Golden Gate Bridge as the player and their quarry hit gridlock.

After a brief interlude in which the gravelly cockney tones of one character reveal that Jason Statham has found a new way of paying the rent, the action comes fast and frenetic as the pitbull charges down the San Francisco highway, the player pounding round after round into a series of cars, prompting both men and machines to spiral off into oblivion.

"The new guns look suitably meaty, but it's the grenades that make the most immediate impression"

Once the traffic brings the car chase to a close we're firmly back in FPS territory, but it's here that Advanced Warfare's new kinks start to bleed through. The new guns look suitably meaty, but it's the grenades that make the most immediate impression since they come with multiple settings.

Twist a dial on the top in one direction and they become a thermal marking system, highlighting any and all targets in their immediate vicinity. Twist the dial again and they hover in the air, targeting airborne enemies or those place on higher ground.

Players are also able to rip off the doors from vehicles in their immediate vicinity, providing both a temporary shield and then a projectile, when enough gunfire has turned the door into something resembling a block of Swiss cheese. This is more use than it sounds in a firefight since it's not just AI soldiers slinging lead the player's way; quad-copter drones swarm across the screen, peppering the protagonist with bullets and their dainty movement makes them a pain to draw a bead on.

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The second level on display, BioLab, isn't as immediately overwhelming. It takes place somewhere in the centre of the campaign after an EMP pulse has knocked out the protagonist's helicopter and temporarily taken their exo-skeleton offline. BioLab begins with the player and Mr Statham running towards a tree-line, evading sniper fire, and trying to grab some cover before enemy troops begin to hunt them down.

Once the frames have rebooted, the demo reveals they're also able to bend light, allowing the soldiers wearing them to become basically invisible. BioLab, then, starts off as a stealth mission with the player and his AI comrade sneaking through a forest, taking out the odd enemy and generally evading the vast numbers of troops scouring the forest for them.

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The stealth camo isn't limitless, however, and has to be used in timed bursts. During the demo, the protagonists also come across a thermal detector called a Seeker, which essentially renders their camo useless and thus has to be avoided.

Once they're out of the woods, the player and their group have to head into a military installation filled with chemical weapons that they have to destroy. It's quite hard to glean any over arching plot threads in the demo - as has always been the case with COD presentations at E3 - but, interestingly, the protagonists here are British and, from the sounds of things, the troops they're trying to avoid are American, which may hint that perhaps Uncle Sam's forces aren't on the side of angels in Advanced Warfare.

The remainder of BioLab is a frenetic gunfight through the installation followed by a bout of carnage in a Hover Tank. Yes, you read that correctly - Avanced Warfare has a tank that hovers. It's basically a beast bristling with guns that allows the player to paint multiple targets and then film them with high calibre tracer rounds.

The Hover Tank also boasts a rather large cannon that can blast a crater-sized hole in pretty much anything it's pointed at. As the protagonists race to a rendezvous point, the Hover Tank sends bodies flying, reduces tanks to smouldering rubble and swats helicopters out of the sky like gnats.

Between the rumbling soundtrack and the bursts of fire on screen, it's clear Sledgehammer has a handle on COD's primary appeal even if it's hard for the developer to put a signature stamp on it. This series has always been big on spectacle, but whether that alone will be enough to replenish the sheen that went off the series with Ghosts remains to be seen.

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