The news cycle for the Call Of Duty franchise has settled into such a steady rhythm over the last few years, you could almost set your watch to it. Activision's PR machine trundles at a clip, belting out trailers, punching up content and rolling out reveal events with machine-like precision. Its patterns have become so familiar that hacks now know exactly when to expect their first hands-on with each new COD entry; it's usually at Gamescom and it's usually the multiplayer.
This makes sense; both Activision and the developer taking its first solo swing with this series, Sledgehammer, want to keep plot details in the campaign buttoned up. So the only available way to show off any in-game improvements and features is by allowing some journos to blow the hell out of each other for a couple of hours.
Sledgehammer has its work cut out for it. Over the past five years, Call Of Duty has gone from being one of the industry's FPS heavy-hitters to an eSports staple. There's pressure to bring something new to the party, but Sledgehammer can't tinker too much with what draws players in every year. You'll get new guns, new equipment and more than likely new perks, but don't expect quick-scoping - one of the most cheap and effective mechanical exploits of all time - to disappear.
The big buzzword Sledgehammer tossed around at Advanced Warfare's Multiplayer reveal was 'verticality'. The reason being that now players access to high, hard-to-reach places within each multiplayer map, thanks to Advanced Warfare's new signature piece of kit, the Exo.
The Exo (short for Exo-Skeleton), is an iron frame strapped to the body of every avatar that gifts each player super-enhanced movement. Players can use it to boost up to higher platforms and crash onto players on the ground beneath them. The Exo also allows players to dodge gunfire, slide along the ground and slam into opponents.
If this sounds a little bit like the jetpack mechanic from games like Halo: Reach and Titanfall, well then, yes, there is an element of that. Sledgehammer's take on the COD template bears more than a passing resemblance to Respawn's Man Vs Mech fragfest.
What sets them apart initially is the depth of movement offered in Sledgehammer's shooter; once the player is airborne, they can deploy the sprint mechanic to dash through the air, granting them the ability to extend their jump. The freedom this grants them can cause problems, as occasionally it allows them to leap outside the map's boundaries.
Players can also select one Perk associated with the Exo, which gives them a boost or power that can be deployed for a limited space of time. These include the ability to hover in mid-air, cloak, run at increased speed and deflect grenades and other thrown projectiles. There's a type of Exo Perk to suit pretty much any style of play and since you can only select one at a time, there's no chance of any them unbalancing the game.
What Sledgehammer has brought to the COD party overall, though is an increased sense of speed and strength. Thanks to the Exo players feel less like some meat sack with a gun and more like they're controlling a human wrecking ball. They can whip between buildings, free running and floating through the map nimble as can be yet when they deploy a melee attack, their target goes flying as though they've just been hit by a tank.
The game's weapons are a mixture of age-old staples and sci-fi ordinance, much of which, according to the developers, are in the prototype stage. They all give a pretty satisfying kick when fired, although a couple of shotguns and beam weapons felt a little lightweight when I tried them out in a couple of matches. There are also a variety of explosive devices available - Stun, Gas, Frag and EMP grenades are all present and correct, but these are now fired from wrist-mounts.
"What Sledgehammer has brought to the COD party overall is an increased sense of speed and strength"
Advanced Warfare's load-out structure is based on the Pick 11 system from Call Of Duty: Black Ops II, except now players have 13 slots to spread their assets, Perks and Streak Rewards over. Like Treyarch's cyber-themed FPS, players have a ton of choice in how they stack their load-outs and the more they mix and match and experiment, the more likely they're comfortable to be.
For example, in one load-out I stacked an Exo speed boost with a second fast-movement perk and slapped a flack jacket on to for good measure. While my troop was still vulnerable at long range, at close-quarters I was able to close the gap on most opponents and, provided they weren't armed with a shotgun, I was able to pick them off with a melee attack pretty easily.
There's a virtual firing range where players can try out their new ordinance before committing to them in a load-out. Players can also customise their avatar according to gender, head shape, uniform, Exo suit and colour schemes. It's all pretty facile stuff, but it allows players to put their personal stamp on their soldiers. More interestingly, XP is now tied into a reward system called 'Supply Drops'. Once enough XP is accrued, players will be tossed a Drop in their load-out page, which gifts them with new weapons and equipment.
There were four maps on show at the multiplayer hands-on: BioLab, Riot, Ascend and Defender. All of them adhered pretty faithfully to the standard COD shotgun hotbox template - narrow corridors, rooms with multiple openings, split-levels - but they also allowed players to take advantage of Advanced Warfare's verticality. The speed at which one could scale the sides of buildings and take advantage of the high ground quickly became addictive, although it's worth pointing out that if players who deploy their Exo frame's thrusters give their position away on the map.
Each environment also contained a unique kink that players could take advantage of. For example, in Riot, which is set in a burned out prison, players could hack the internal security settings allowing them to see where the enemy team members were on the map. In Defender, which takes place on a beach underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, a tsunami appears at set time in the match, crashing into one side of the map and forcing the players to scramble for higher ground.
The game will ship with 12 modes on day one; TDM, Domination, Capture The Flag and Search & Destroy are all present, as you'd expect and fan favourite, Hardpoint is back. There are also a couple of new match types on offer - the only one available to play at the demo was Uplink, in which two teams fight for control of a satellite and they score points by tossing into their opposing team's goal. It's heaps of fun, although Unreal Tournament fans will note that it's rather similar in structure to Bombing Run.
Call Of Duty has always had a certain swagger to it as a franchise, and Sledgehammer has certainly added some heft. But it's hard to stack up Advanced Warfare against the halcyon days of this series. This is a fun game, sure, and it's way better than the multiplayer in last year's Ghosts. But one can't help but feel there's a certain amount of fatigue creeping in to Call Of Duty and whether or not an Exo frame is the jolt this series needs to keep trundling profitably on, remains to be seen.