(Warning: Spoilers below.)
My favorite mission in "Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare" feels more like "Mortal Kombat" than any game with bullets.
It's 2054, and I'm sneaking through dense shrubbery and glassy architecture at the compound of Kevin Spacey's Jonathan Irons, head of private military contractor Atlas. As if his swarm of security drones and exosuited goon squad isn't enough incentive to stay quiet, I also have a grappling hook.
That I can use to violently yank guards in my direction.
So I tip-toe from rooftop to rooftop, flowerbed to flowerbed, waiting for my marks to walk into position. Then — thwoop! — I lasso them into unconsciousness. No, I don't need a gun. And no, I'm not above muttering "Get over here!" as I reel the grunts in.
This mission, "Sentinel," is one of many adventurous romps in the best "Call of Duty" campaign since "Modern Warfare." Traffic dodging, drone sniping, mech stomping — Sledgehammer Games unloads fiery spectacle and fun twists on the first-person shooter formula at the manic clip of a studio with something to prove. Indeed, after last year's joyless "Ghosts," "Advanced Warfare" feels like "Call of Duty" again.
Sledgehammer's solo debut doesn't look like such a ground-breaker at first. Protagonist Pvt. Jack Mitchell goes through the usual soldier bro motions with buddy Pvt. Will Irons before a pod drop into 2054 Seoul that, on PlayStation 4, quickly outdoes the previous 10 "Call of Duty" games in volume of pixels chaotically blinking and zipping and exploding onscreen. At the end of the mission, Mitchell loses his left hand and Irons dies. Then, as Internet memes have made us all too aware, you pay your respects.
Soon after this clumsy effort to make you feel feelings, you meet Mr. Irons, played by Frank Underwood himself. And so "Call of Duty" pivots from brotherhood to fatherhood, from its favorite familial theme to its second, as Irons adopts his son's best friend into Atlas. He even lends the amputee a literal hand. (The scene where an Atlas scientist perfectly recalibrates the fully articulate prosthesis based on a few of Mitchell's movements is actually even more absurd than "Press X to Pay Respects.")
Sledgehammer mines Mitchell's disability for more profound moments, though. During a simulated Camp David rescue mission, the hand malfunctions, wresting away your control of the gun. Later, he loses the prosthesis altogether, forcing you to play "Advanced Warfare" like "Doom," without the down-sights aiming we've all come to depend on. It's maybe the most direct, empathetic way "Call of Duty" has ever confronted you with the disfiguring consequences of war.
The game isn't short on empowerment, either. For most of it you wear an exoskeleton suit that grants you double-jumping, time-slowing and other superhuman abilities. The mid-21st-century weaponry also includes guns that display HUD information on their stocks, tactical grenades whose effects cycle from EMP blasts to tagging enemy heat signatures with the press of a button, and, naturally, freaking lasers.
Sledgehammer is not only smart to keep the technology grounded — you can jump half as high as you can in "Titanfall," stay cloaked half as long as you can in "Crysis" — but the studio also doesn't rely on the gimmickry. "Advanced Warfare" could just as easily take place in 2014 and provide essentially the same globe-trotting, war-weary thrill, just with less drones in the sky.
Only two things really hurt the campaign. The first is the unreliable checkpoint system, which will fail to save your progress between skirmishes on one life and save it five times during that space the next. (I was also the victim of a rare bug that, twice over the course of the campaign, erased my progress through its challenge-based upgrade system and intel collection — though not my save game, thankfully.)
The other blemish is Kevin Spacey's brow. The Oscar-winning actor is a magnetizing presence in "Advanced Warfare," whether he's knocking back Scotch with the boys in Atlas' sunlit barracks or revealing himself to be the game's bad guy in a ballsy speech to the United Nations. (Is that even a spoiler? It is Kevin Spacey.) But as graphically close to the uncanny valley as his visage gets, it's so under-animated as to do a disservice to one of the most mesmerizing faces in Hollywood.
Among "Advanced Warfare's" more tempered successes is the introduction of Ilana, the first major female character in a "Call of Duty" campaign. That's good, to be sure, but what'd be even better is not having to wait another 10 games in the series to actually play as one. Unfortunately, the role of women in the world's militaries is one thing I'd wager Sledgehammer undershot in its vision of 2054.
However, women are welcome avatars in "Advanced Warfare's" multiplayer mode. Here, the game's high-tech weaponry and exo suits make a more dramatic difference in the game play, especially since it's otherwise the same old "Call of Duty": The same match modes, the same level-locked upgrade system, the same score streaks. But the old and familiar works well as a baseline for the new and exciting ability to cloak, to buff your health, to double-jump above the skyline. As such, "Call of Duty" matches have never been so hyperkinetic and hostile to camping.
"Advanced Warfare's" maps also handily beat those of "Ghosts," particularly the snowy hangar housing a levitating jet and the blown-out prison with anti-personnel turrets that activate at regular intervals. All told, its multiplayer is a worthwhile new entry in the series. Meanwhile, straightforward co-op mode Exo Survival falls short of "Ghosts'" lone triumph, the harrowing insectoid hunt Extinction.
As I played more "Advanced Warfare" multiplayer, however, I ran into a weird dilemma: "Destiny."
The other AAA shooter in Activision's portfolio beckoned as I blasted my way through the ranks of the latest "Call of Duty." I don't have time to commit to two long-term, level-based multiplayer experiences — so, after enough hours to review it, I fled "Advanced Warfare's" arena and returned to the Crucible of "Destiny." Not only do its super moves alter the complexion of combat in even more wildly fun ways, but because it's seamlessly integrated with the greater game, my progress feels more meaningful, if slower.
"Advanced Warfare" does mark a return toward the top of the shooter mountain for "Call of Duty." But actually reaching it again might take even more outside-the-box offense.