Last year’s Call of Duty: Ghosts didn’t live up to the franchise’s pedigree. You can blame it on whatever you want. Console transitions. Out of new ideas. Whatever.

This year, Activision had to bring the goods with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. They brought in a new development team to get it done. Sledgehammer Games. The studio was founded by Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey, formerly of Visceral Games. You can see their work in the original Dead Space game.

Sledgehammer Games aren’t strangers to the Call of Duty franchise. Until Advanced Warfare, they were best known for co-developing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 alongside Infinity Ward.

For Advanced Warfare, Sledgehammer Games significantly altered the game with the exosuit and the movement abilities it provided. It is a risky endeavor for Activision and Sledgehammer Games. Call of Duty fans love Call of Duty because of the way it plays.

The most important question about Advanced Warfare is – is it better than Ghosts? Yep.

Sledgehammer Games knocks it out of the park with Advanced Warfare. They retain the Call of Duty everyone loved, while adding a much-needed shot in the arm for the franchise.

Let’s break down what Call of Duty does well, and where it stumbles a bit.

The story. Single player isn’t Call of Duty’s selling point. Multiplayer is where it’s at, but the franchise has seen some solid story campaigns – most notably Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Sledgehammer sticks to the Call of Duty script for the most part with plenty of set pieces that make you say ‘that was badass.’

One thing I didn’t like about Advanced Warfare’s single player is they kept changing up the abilities of your exosuit from mission to mission. It can throw you off when you try to use your thrusters only to remember you don’t get them for that mission.

A cool addition in the story mode was the grappling hook. It adds a bit of variety in how you approach certain missions, which is big considering how linear Call of Duty campaigns generally are. It doesn’t make it into multiplayer sadly, but maybe a future Call of Duty can build its multiplayer around it. It would be a way to keep the fast paced movement, while changing the game up year-to-year.

Another thing, why does your character always fall down in Call of Duty games? You’re a super soldier, damn it. Why are you always having to be helped on your feet. Hell, they should have had you lose a leg instead of an arm. At least you would have reason for needing to be helped up every mission.

Kevin Spacey is great as an evil bastard in Advanced Warfare. Fans of House of Cards will love him here. And, if you haven’t seen House of Cards yet – do so immediately. The rest of the cast also does a great job.

Besides radically altering player movement in Call of Duty, Sledgehammer Games also brought the goods in the graphics department. The pre-rendered cut scenes look fantastic, and some of the transitions at the beginning of each mission are phenomenal.

I played the Xbox One version so it wasn’t full 1080p all the time, but it looked damn impressive. PS4 players get full 1080p, so if you own both systems and you’re looking for the best graphics – pick the PS4.

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Me? Most of my buddies play on Xbox One, so I go where my friends go.

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Advanced Warfare’s Weak Spot

Before I jump into the multiplayer portion of the review, I want to touch on Advanced Warfare’s co-op mode. It’s called Exo Survival and it pits you and three friends against AI controlled enemies in a round-based mode.

At the beginning of each round, you choose one of three specialties. Light, heavy or specialist. Each has their own set of abilities. The Light package grants you the entire range of boost abilities, your pick between SMGs and assault rifles along with the UAV scorestreak. Heavy limits your boost abilities in favor of high armor and heavy weapons, plus the Goliath scorestreak. Specialist has normal movement speed, but limited boost abilities. Shotguns and sniper rifles highlight this class along with a sentry gun for your scorestreak.

These classes can be changed at will during Exo Survival. Weapons, attachments and other various upgrades are purchasable with upgrade points as you progress through the later rounds.

Not every round of Exo Survival is ‘kill all the enemies.’ Various objective-based rounds are sprinkled in, and take cues from multiplayer. Get ‘10 defense kills’ inside a hardpoint, collect 20 dog tags or defuse bombs change up the rounds from time to time.

But, Exo Survival ends up falling flat. It fails to capture the tension of Treyarch’s Zombies. I played it a few times, and it just wasn’t compelling. It’s not something I see myself playing over and over.

There is good news for Zombies fans, though. Sledgehammer Games will be bringing their own take of Treyarch’s popular game mode to Advanced Warfare as DLC sometime in the near future. It’s not the best solution (seriously, DLC?), but for those looking to scratch the Zombies itch – it’ll work.

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A Return to Form

Multiplayer is where the exosuit truly shines. Advanced Warfare is the biggest departure in a Call of Duty game since the franchise shed the WWII setting years ago. Multiplayer is full of fast-paced, frantic action.

The faster pace does have a few drawbacks. Call of Duty’s sometimes notoriously bad spawn system rears it’s ugly head again. Especially, in objective modes. The quicker movement speed means you’ll see enemy spawns near you more frequently.

I know one guy I played against probably broke his controller. I killed him once, turned immediately to my left and killed him again. These are the kinds of spawns that can be rage-inducing for Call of Duty fans. I know I’ve hurled my share of F-bombs at my TV when it happens to me.

Net code is another area where the faster pace can cause some WTF moments. The easiest way to see what people refer to as ‘lag compensation’ is to watch the killcam. Thought you made it behind a concrete wall? Not on his screen. You were still in the open. The worst ones are drilling a guy with half a clip and that person then turns around and shoots you once in the face. The killcam shows you shooting just two bullets.

For some, this is a debilitating issue that ruins the multiplayer experience for them. Me? I’ve had some issues, but the game has been running smoothly for the most part.

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It’s launch week, so I’m not shocked that there are issues. Sledgehammer Games says they are working hard to address the issues. And, with more competition in the FPS genre this holiday season (Destiny, Halo, even Battlefield 4 after it’s most recent patch) – Activision/Sledgehammer know they have to address connectivity issues quickly.

Sledgehammer Games opted for a ‘pick 13’ system for Advanced Warfare, similar to Black Ops ‘pick 10’ system. It’s a good system that offers tons of variety for different players. Want to stack up on perks? Fill ’em up to your heart’s content. Fan of score streaks? Pick up to four, and customize them as well.

That’s right, scorestreaks can be customized using modules. Want a longer lasting UAV? Add it, but it will take more points to get it. For example, a standard UAV takes 400 points to get. Add in the Extra Time module and it now takes 500 points. Every scorestreak is customizable with at least four different modules. Some have up to 6 or 7.

Exo abilities offer temporary boosts to your character as you play online. These include, Exo Overclock (temporary speed boost), Exo Stim (temporarily generate health beyond normal levels), Exo Cloak (cloaking, which I hate by the way) and others.

Advanced Warfare comes packed with all the typical Call of Duty modes including Domination, Search and Destroy, Team Deathmatch, etc. Sledgehammer Games introduces a couple of new ones with Uplink (grab a satellite and take it to the enemy team’s Uplink Station to score) and Momentum (a successor to World at War’s War mode). Both are fun additions to the usual slate of modes.

The year of the loot continues with Advanced Warfare. Now, you can customize everything from sunglasses to your boots. Even guns have different versions. One might shoot a bit faster, but take a hit on damage – or less range, but better mobility. None of them appear game-breaking with the stats only changing 1 or 2 ticks.

It’s just another incentive to keep people playing. Plus, it might just get me to prestige for the first time since Black Ops 2.

Sledgehammer Games also did a great job with the maps in Advanced Warfare. The aesthetic is similar to Black Ops 2, and so far, I haven’t found one I absolutely hate yet. I’m sure that will change in the coming weeks, but it’s a good sign.

After playing Advanced Warfare this week, I don’t know how Call of Duty can go back to the way it was. The exosuit is executed so damn well. Every multiplayer battle plays out differently each time as you find new routes for traversing maps. Verticality plays a big part in multiplayer as you’ll quickly start jockeying for position over the opposing team.

Advanced Warfare’s multiplayer is the best since Treyarch’s Black Ops series. The single player is a blast. Co-op falls short, but the rest of the package is great. If you are a fan of Call of Duty, or have been one in the past – Advanced Warfare is a must-own. It’s a great entry into the Call of Duty franchise following last year’s lackluster Ghosts.

Note: Retail copy provided by publisher. Played single player, co-op and reached level 50 on multiplayer.

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