Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Whiskey Reviews: Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Platform: PC
Release Date: 4 November 2014
Developer: Sledgehammer Games/Raven Software
Publisher: Activision
Where to get it: Steam
Price: £39.99

Call Of Duty is probably the most divisive game around these days, and not for any of the regular controversies. Coupled with poor treatment of fans and the ongoing deterioration of the quality of the series since its peak title seven years ago we've seen CoD go from strength to strength, most recently from the pretty good Black Ops 2 to the utterly shameful Ghosts. So where on the spectrum does Advanced Warfare land? Hit the link to find out!

Being the latest annual entry in a series so bewilderingly loved and reviled you could very easily write Advanced Warfare off as a loss and no one would blame you. This time we have Sledgehammer Games on development duties, most see them as a newcomer to the series but they did in fact do some work on the so-so Modern Warfare 3.
Already sounds like a nail in the coffin right? Thankfully not, Sledgehammer have put together the first quality Call Of Duty in years, but it's still not entirely worth buying - and if that sounds like reader bait, it is!
I kid. I kid.
Lets delve into the details of Advanced Warfare to see just what I'm blathering about.

Steam's screenshot function does not do the quality of these CGI cutscenes justice.

The single-player campaign of AW revolves around a private military corporation called Atlas and the hiring of main character Mitchell and his subsequent work for that company in thwarting a terrorist threat from an organization called the KVA.
There's a few twists and turns along the way but I'm not going to spoil them here - story wise they're not a big deal, you can probably infer what one or two of them are just from the above paragraph but discovery is part of the experience so I'm not going to take that away.
A strong cast of characters supports and hinders Mitchell along his journey through everywhere from South Korea to San Francisco, Antarctica to Baghdad.
The locales aren't spectacularly huge but are detailed and designed well enough to be believable, even the more futuristic settings like the deck of a huge ship or a futuristic weapons lab.
The levels are also designed to be mostly linear but several large battles offer enough variety like flanking routes and buildings to move through instead of just being stuck on the street. You're not going to go exploring a Greek sea-side town taking vacation snaps but you will be running and leaping through shops and streets spraying bad guys with bullets.
Speaking of bad guys, for once the enemies aren't brown people for the first time since a World War 2 setting. You battle a handful of North Koreans at the start of the campaign and then move on to the KVA (mentioned to be Chechen, but they're mostly masked anyway) and PMC forces.
Even though these enemies are largely faceless goons the story does lend a little bit of personality to them and though you won't ever be feeling bad for shooting them there's enough personal investment to keep you wanting to push forwards.

And push forwards you do; lacking the constantly respawning enemies that have become such a bane to the series single player offerings, fights are over relatively quickly for the most part and you're constantly propelled forwards seeking out new things to shoot and do.
It doesn't feel rushed, or as on-rails as the previous CoD pacing and barring a couple of areas where you have to wait for an NPC companion to open a door it mostly allows you to advance at your own pace with NPCs teleporting or running to catch up if you get there ahead of them.
It's a small change, and one that has been standard in more action driven games for the last couple of decades but Call Of Duty has finally caught up and AW's campaign is far less frustrating because of it.
The few parts where control is taken away from the player (a pre-determined drone flight path for example) are brief and usually end in an interactive segment to stop the player getting bored.
There are one or two lengthy on-rails exposition sequences however but the surroundings are packed with enough detail and atmosphere that even on their second or third viewing, when the dialogue is burned into your memory, you can still enjoy the ride. 
There's one stand-out segment like this near the end of the game (which I won't spoil) that really brings in the sense of dread, you're worried for your character's safety for a while - in a game where you're shot at constantly that's quite an achievement.

Gone are the lengthy battle-plan style briefings of previous games, instead taking a more personal approach by showing the characters time outside of missions in beautifully rendered CG. At one point I actually did a double take when the CG looked like real footage. At the time of writing there's an audio-video syncing error that results in the audio playing slightly ahead of the video but it's not a major issue, they're not entirely separated and though it detracts from the quality a bit it doesn't ruin it.
The cutscenes are so engaging because they've been acted out by the various actors even lending their likenesses to the main cast. Apart from Kevin Spacey most of them likely won't be immediately recognisable 'big-name' actors but a quick look at IMDB will reveal the entire main cast to be brilliantly captured.

R. Lee Ermey - "Bet you could suck a golf ball through a garden hose!"
Also, the extra in the top-left looks like he really needs a hug. I kinda feel bad for him.

That's where the praise ends for now though, because AW isn't all drone swarm rainbows and nuclear accidents for entertainment.
The arsenal available is wonderfully futuristic but grounded in modern design, with even the game's HUD being projected around the gun itself. However the futuristic nature and made-up names of most of the guns make them less relatable than their real-world counterparts despite still shooting bullets for the most part.
Two truly futuristic weapons do stand out from the crowd; the EM1 laser rifle emits a red beam of death and must be what cats see when presented with a laser pointer. Baffling however is the fact that it has recoil.
The other stand-out piece of kit is the MORS sniper rifle, a railgun that when fired from off the hip has lightning arcing down the length of the barrel in a way that makes it look wonderfully dangerous. It stands out for the sound design though - there's no muzzle flash or report because it's a railgun, there's no propellant, instead what you hear is the crack of the projectile itself going supersonic.
The grenades also see a huge overhaul, gone are the days of having one offensive and one tactical grenade and now you carry all your grenade types at once, handily split into offensive and tactical slots.
The offensive slot holds smart grenades which home in on your targets like a flatulence powered hummingbird, contact grenades which explode as soon as they hit anything and the frag setting which makes them act like regular old grenades in case all this futuristic nonsense is giving you the vapors.
The tactical slot holds the expected flashbang setting as well as a Ghost Recon Future Soldier style threat grenade which highlights all enemies in its range in red and finally an EMP grenade for disabling electronics such as drones and the exoskeleton armour of enemies.
Having all the grenades at once is rather nice, but having to hold the grenade key while tapping the use key to cycle through types can be a bit cumbersome in a fight and if you're rushing to lob a flashbang for example it's very easy to lob a useless EMP or threat grenade. This often led to me ignoring the grenades or simply spamming off a bunch of smart grenades, though with more time spent in the campaign I'm starting to see the advantages of each type more - smart grenades don't handle confined spaces very well for example.

More damning however is the options menu - lacking an FOV (field of view) slider for the single player campaign only is practically tantamount to a cardinal sin. Being locked at a console style FOV (usually around 60-62 degrees) as opposed to the wider PC standard FOVs (anywhere between 80 and 110 but usually 90) can mean motion sickness or headaches for many, including myself.
Similarly damning is the graphics settings themselves; while rich with options several simply bork the game beyond recognition with antialiasing and cache-ing for sunlight and shadows causing this:
Not even a caption can make this funny.
That happens to about three-quarters of the games textures, with the rest looking of dubious quality at best with those options enabled. Carefully setting up your game, and sitting through a dozen loading screens after each small options change to try and find the right settings is like trying to crack a safe with no tools or know-how.
Supersampling, anywhere between 2x and 8x provides an excellent alternative to antialiasing however and arguably does a far better job thanks to its effects on overall image quality.
That said, the game looks beautiful when properly configured; textures are crisp and models are detailed. Astounding for the game's small size is the overall texture quality even on environmental incidentals such as books littered on the floor or computer screens - almost all of which will be readable if you take the time to bother, not that they say anything worthwhile.

Finally, the game's difficulty is more finely balanced than before. Hardened and Veteran difficulties don't result in a never ending rain of grenades while regular difficulty is a decent challenge without feeling unfair. Recruit difficulty suffers most from the rebalancing however, as players used to enemies dropping in a single bullet (as seen in previous CoD games) will be disappointed, as will many other players by the seemingly gormless AI. At Recruit difficulty the AI often sprays bullets at nothing when you're right next to them and sometimes won't even bother turning to face you if you flank them and move in for melee. 
Definitely give Recruit mode a miss this time, it feels almost engineered to damage the experience as much as possible.

There are two other modes to AW other than single player, and I've tortured myself for your entertainment by spending several hours playing the multiplayer portion of the game.
Without dedicated servers the quality of a game is largely dictated by the host, seemingly chosen at random and if their connection is bad lag can be absolutely terrible.
Net code is about on par with Battlefield 4, bullets often don't register, grenades can go off right next to someone without causing damage and already experienced players have learned that if they move fast, usually with jumping or exo-suit dashes they can cause their avatar to teleport all over the place for other players and become near impossible to hit.
Most kills come from catching another unawares, with face-to-face battles turning into frantic jumps and dashes in an effort to glitch out the net code and avoid getting shot.
I did have some fun however, and the game practically showers you with accolades for even the smallest of actions but suffers from the same multiplayer issues that have plagued the series since Modern Warfare.
The starting guns are shit, lets just get that out of the way - they suck, they're basic and not well specialised or damaging and you'll hate using them. Experienced players who've put in a few hours will have unlocked new guns and perks and attachments that give them a considerable edge over less experienced players.
On a shorter term scale the issue still persists, as one team or player starts to pull into the lead it becomes insurmountable as the killstreak perks begin to kick in and a player leading by five kills quickly becomes ten, then twenty and the supporting drones, orbital strikes and other bonuses serve to allow the opposing team to be demolished more and more easily with each passing moment.
I'm sure many many people can still enjoy it but I am not one of those people, the shoddy net code is the biggest culprit but poor design choices keep the playing field firmly tilted in one team's favour in most matches.

The last mode on offer is Exo-Survival. A cooperative game mode much in the vein of previous entries Zombie modes. You pick from one of several classes, limiting what weapons and abilities you're allowed, and then set about attempting to survive wave after wave of enemies in increasing numbers until you either die or get bored.
Completing kills, challenges and objectives gains you supply points to spend on better guns, gear and exo-suit upgrades to help you cope with the more challenging waves but playing solo you're still not going to get more than a half dozen waves in at the very most.
It all felt very basic and limiting, why not multiplayer matches against bots like Ghosts did, with proper loadout selection and custom classes? Why not just have a cooperative campaign, opening the best bit of the game to playing together could only have made it better.
There really isn't much to say about Exo-Survival, it feels like a tacked on extra given little to no effort just to tick a box so that it can be included in the marketing blurb. It's crap, pointless and inferior to the other two modes by a long shot.

Overall Advanced Warfare is the best Call Of Duty game in years. The single player segment stands out on all fronts for quality and is long enough to not feel like an afterthought. Multiplayer suffers just like every other modern CoD game from not having dedicated servers, which I feel could alleviate several of the mode's issues and perhaps make it a more worthwhile part of the package. Meanwhile Exo-Survival is sitting in the corner with a dunce hat on and eating crayons (the red ones taste best apparently).
As a package, it wouldn't feel whole if it was just the single player campaign but the other two thirds only serve to drag it down. As such, I'm not going to give this game a single score but instead three to be fair on the actually good bit of the game.

Single Player Campaign Score: 9 out of 10 headshots.
Multi Player Mode Score: 3 out of 10 host advantage killing sprees.
Cooperative Exo-Survival Score: 1 turd out of 10.

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