E3 2014: Three Things I Learned After Seeing Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

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Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is the first game in the blockbuster shooter franchise to be led by Sledgehammer Games, a relatively new studio in the Activision stable of developers. As such, this is the best opportunity in years for the series to bring a fresh perspective to its familiar formula. If you saw Microsoft's press conference yesterday, then you probably have a good idea of what Sledgehammer intends to do: focus on futuristic technology, present the occasional moral dilemma, and maybe even have a character lose an arm every now and then. And after having seen some additional gameplay behind closed doors at E3 2014, I can add a few more bits of information to that list.

Those fancy toys aren't just for show

Call of Duty has tinkered with new gadgets and equipment for a while now, but Advanced Warfare is the first game in the series that seems to be really committed to making that stuff a fundamental part of the game. It begins with your basic sense of movement. In the Seoul level I saw, which involved a big shootout against drones and foot soldiers on a war-torn urban street, the player was constantly leaping about with a boost jump mechanic to gain new perspectives on the battlefield. he would take cover behind a tipped bus only to double-jump up onto the roof to unload a few rounds, then take a gargantuan leap forward to hide behind a more modestly sized car. That boost pack sure does come in handy.

All the while he was employing fancy new weaponry. As the player proceeded through the devastated streets of Seoul circa 2054--turns out the North Koreans are getting ready to invade their neighbors in about 40 years--he was constantly toggling between crazy new grenade types. There's the smart grenade, which is essentially a heat-seeking missile you chuck into the air and let it find the enemy for you, and the IR grenade that automatically tags enemies and renders them a bright red silhouette, which can come in very handy for shooting at targets hiding behind penetrable surfaces.

None of those gadgets are terribly crazy on their own, but strung together in rapid succession they create this sort of rhythm and general sense of motion that you've never really seen in earlier games. All the double-jumping up to high perches and tagging hidden enemies with an IR grenade--it was fast and chaotic in the way Call of Duty has always been, but presented in a way that feels very slick and fluid. Add in the fact that you're not just facing human soldiers, but packs of menacing drones that practically feel like a swarm of killer bees and the whole thing feels that much more crazy and futuristic.

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It's not afraid to slow things down and get a little creepy

The second level Sledgehammer showed off was quite a departure from the first one. This was a slow and atmospheric sequence, in which two characters began in a dark forest without any weaponry to speak of. They had to rely on their cloaking shields to sneak by enemies, because even though they could quietly take down a foe or two and steal their guns, they were still no match for the enemies patrolling the area in walking mech suits.

And so, the player snuck through the dark forest, avoiding enemies and darting away from scanning beams that would expose their cloaking shields. I'm pretty sure they went a good 15 minutes without firing a single gun. This section really let you appreciate the atmosphere too, with its moonlight trees and creepy, foggy surroundings. It was a huge change of pace from the level before it, and seems to underscore a dedication to mixing things up throughout the campaign.

You still don't seem to have a lot of control

And here's what leaves me a little bit cautious about Advanced Warfare. As much as I enjoyed the futuristic gadgets and the way the game feels confident enough in its sense of atmosphere to slow things down on you every so often, there's almost always another character nearby shouting orders at you as you're guided along from one very clear objective to the next. I'm all for big cinematic moments and the value of a carefully crafted campaign, but after a while you start to wish for a little more player agency. Keeping to that very overt way of guiding the player just seems to conflict with the newfound freedom of those futuristic gadgets.

At any rate, I'm still curious to see more of Advanced Warfare. I suspect there are plenty more gadgets to check out, and crazy levels to behold. It may not be as open-ended as I'd like, but it does have some very cool things going for it.

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