After 45 minutes with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare's multiplayer, I'm thinking most about rugby.
Well, not quite rugby. I'm actually thinking about Uplink — one of Advanced Warfare's two new gameplay modes. In Uplink, there are two glowing spheres on the map, one red, one blue, and a satellite uplink module. The goal of Uplink is to take the uplink module to the glowing sphere assigned to your team in order to hack the enemy's satellite signal. The team with the most points at the end of the time limit wins.
But let's be clear: the uplink module is a ball — it's even shaped like one. Each uplink point might as well be a net without a backboard. You can pass the module to a teammate with the left trigger, or throw it with the right trigger. Throwing the module through your uplink nets you one point, and carrying it through gets you two.
There's shooting, of course. You're not going to get to the uplink module or your uplink point without attempts at intervention from the other team, generally involving bullets or projected energy. But Uplink isn't about shooting. It's about movement and smart navigation and in-game athleticism. And despite a number of major changes to Call of Duty's until-now untouched environmental traversal, and a future-shock of energy weapons and exoskeleton-powered armor abilities, it's the rugby-like sport involved in Uplink that I keep coming back to.
But let's start at the beginning.
Sledgehammer Games was originally formed in 2010 to assemble a third-person action adventure offshoot in the Call of Duty franchise. But, after the internal implosion of original COD developer Infinity Ward in early 2010, that project was scrapped. Instead, Sledgehammer provided some much-needed help on Modern Warfare 3 back in 2011. But MW3 was, ultimately, another studio's game, someone else's success, someone else's shipped thing.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is the first Call of Duty game that Sledgehammer has owned, from start to finish. And it appears set to introduce the most radical changes the series has seen since the progression system introduced in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Studio co-founder and chief operating and development officer Michael Condrey demurred when asked about the effect of Call of Duty: Ghosts' tepid critical response in 2013, explaining that once work on Modern Warfare 3 was completed, Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer went their separate ways.
"Coming in and working with and co-developing with Infinity Ward, it was an interesting time, and we poured our hearts and souls into that, and it was an 88, and it was also action game of the year," Condrey said. "At that time we were proud of what we did, and that's when we took feedback and moved on to this, and Infinity Ward set off to make Ghosts."
After working on Modern Warfare 3, the Sledgehammer team knew they wanted to move in a different direction with their first solo shot at the franchise, and luckily for the team, Activision seemed willing to give them more development time than any installment in the franchise has ever had — as well as the welcome prospect of a new hardware baseline. "Coming out of MW3 three years ago ... Activision supported us with a three-year cycle and we focused on next-gen platforms," explained Condrey. "We decided that we were going to put a mark on it," he said.
But there was discussion inside Sledgehammer about how the Call of Duty fanbase might react to significant changes to the series' fairly steady formula. "I think [when we started] we felt like we were taking some risks, and I'll be honest, not everybody was comfortable with it," Condrey said.
Advanced Warfare is the first Call of Duty that Sledgehammer has owned from start to finish
The "it" in question is Advanced Warfare's most obvious change, the exoskeleton. Each soldier has an augmented combat chassis strapped to their body, which allows for things like "boost jumping" — allowing troops to leap into the air and then jump in a completely different direction if they prefer — as well as boosting dashes, which in turn can be added on to a boost jump for more sophisticated navigation of environments.
Each player's exoskeleton also allows for combat equipment customizations such as cloaking, energy-based riot shields and more. This considerable change to basic character movement in Advanced Warfare has led to some major philosophical changes in Call of Duty level design, based on the four maps on display so far. Multiple levels of verticality are everywhere, and the old patrol routes and lines that defined multiplayer before are broken up, remixed, unreliable. Death could come from any direction now, and the levels are built to deliver it to unwary players.
But Sledgehammer has worked hard to ensure that despite the new additions, Advanced Warfare still feels like a Call of Duty game. "We feel like the speed to engage and fluidity of motion and low latency of the controls that makes COD is there, but in a more elegant, robust way," Condrey says.
In practice, though, it's more complicated than that. The vast array of new, alien options to basic movement in Advanced Warfare introduces a brand-new learning curve, arguably for the first time in Call of Duty since Modern Warfare. I had to learn how to dash, what the capabilities of my boost jump were and how that all fit into a new kind of level-design puzzle.
But the payoff is there. So far, there's a very solid sense of satisfaction in simply navigating Advanced Warfare's world that hasn't been a factor in previous games. Similar to games like Crysis and more recently, Titanfall, the capacity for experimentation made it more fun to learn the layouts of each new level.
That could change, of course, once better Call of Duty players get their hands on the exo. According to Condrey, one of the former eSports competitors that now works at the studio saw the exo and said, "We can exploit the hell out of this." So the team has worked with competitive players to continuously refine the multiplayer systems in the hope that things don't tip over too much in one direction.
That may be additionally complicated by the return of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2's most popular addition to the franchise.
One eSports competitor said, "We can exploit the hell out of this."
There's always been a very distinct separation of priorities and design sensibilities between Infinity Ward and Treyarch's releases of Call of Duty, and the most contentious recently may well be "Pick 10," the character customization system introduced in Black Ops 2.
In Pick 10, players were no longer required to have a specific number of perks, weapons, grenades and kill streaks. Instead, each perk, weapon, slot and ability was given a point value, allowing players to determine up to 10 options for their character, maximizing strengths, avoiding whatever that player might determine to be superfluous to their class. This was enormously popular, part of what defines Black Ops 2 for many (including Condrey) as the best multiplayer suite the franchise has ever seen.
But in Call of Duty: Ghosts, Infinity Ward attempted to tweak this system with its create-a-class feature to more difficult-to-understand results. Thankfully, Advanced Warfare takes a step back to Treyarch's idea, but expands on it with Pick 13.
Players now have 13 points to spend, but they've also got more potential options to spend their points on. For example, Sledgehammer has brought back Scorestreaks from Modern Warfare 3, which allow players to earn streak bonuses without needing to earn consecutive kills, but they've also added modifiers for these bonuses. One scorestreak allows you to place a turret, for example. But you can also modify it to fire rockets, rather than bullets, or you can modify it to allow you to rip it off its base and carry it around as a heavy weapon (similar to stationary weapons in the Halo series). And all it will cost you is, well, something else.
Pick 13 folds into new choices you'll need to make in Advanced Warfare's multiplayer, as you'll have more choices to make about what you can and can't do than ever. Exo abilities are assigned by points as well as other perks and weapon attachments. Maybe you don't need an exo ability, would rather have an additional modifier for your weapon or an additional perk. Maybe perks are your priority, and you only need a simple gun to make things happen.
Advanced Warfare seems to be comfortable letting you figure it out for yourself, aside from the usual cluster of premade classes. But Sledgehammer isn't leaving new or less-experienced players out in the cold. In fact, the return of scorestreaks isn't the only way the developer is accounting for a broader audience than the most elite players.
For starters, the pregame lobby now allows you to boot into a virtual firing range instantly, allowing you to test your loadouts without setting yourself up for a potentially unfortunate real-world field test. This is one of the most innocuous-seeming additions, but it's also one of the most "next-gen"-feeling — there's no real delay, no loading and no inadvertent discouragement for switching up loadouts between games. Much like the traversal upgrades built into Advanced Warfare, the firing range encourages experimentation.
The game is peppered with touches like this that feel geared toward drawing new players in. There are new cooperative scorestreaks that allow newer players to help the murder machines on their team with their ordnance calldowns. And lobbies are now virtual spaces where you can see how the people you're playing with are outfitted.
The burned-out prison shell of Riot seems like a Call of Duty standard until you realize that walkways and second floors are only a double-jump away. There's a smart consistency of egress in every area of Riot — you can never be safe from every direction, and that includes from above. The metal detectors are also a nice tactical touch.
Ascend features what Sledgehammer is calling map-based scorestreaks — in this case, a team can hack the level's automated sentry system to bloody results. For CTF, Ascend is perfect — multiple routes to each flag drop along with lots of improvised runs using the exoskeletons' enhanced mobility options.
Like something straight out of an older Bond movie, Biolab features a secret base complete with eerie dudes-in-tubes that will in all likelihood find some much-needed context in the single player campaign. Biolab is the most like older Call of Duty maps, as it's the flattest of the levels I played. It's much more about maneuvering around walkways and structures out in the open than vertical target acquisition. That may be why it was the setting for our time with Advanced Warfare's Team Deathmatch mode.
Defender features a dynamic event — when the emergency horns start blaring, everyone had better clear the shore before they get drenched by a tsunami. Defender was the scene of our time with Uplink, and the map seems perfectly designed for it. The large barrel-shaped structure in the middle breaks lines of sight while you're running directly toward each side's uplink point.
The new virtual lobby system has another purpose, though — highlighting Supply Drops, Advanced Warfare's new loot system. Ranking up and meeting other challenge objectives will reward you with these supply drops, which consist of both purely cosmetic items as well as special versions of weapons. Loot has three rarities: Enlisted, Professional and Elite.
The more rare the weapon, the more specialized they seem to be, with stats farther and farther away from the base model's capabilities. These were a spot of concern for me — I worry about the balance and abuse issues that might come with Elite weapons in the hands of, well, elite players. It's a "time will tell" scenario.
On the bright side, Supply Drops do bring the small thrill of loot-driven games in other genres, complete with a cinematic unveiling of each new swath of gear. And the potential for new customization options for Advanced Warfare's male and female characters is a welcome one.
Looking for eSports' 10-yard line
Spending a decent chunk of time with the four maps on display, I was struck by the aforementioned learning curve and how much readjustment seemed necessary to properly navigate Advanced Warfare. This isn't just about movement. The new directed-energy weapons also feel genuinely new, and each provides a completely different set of pros and cons and a different kind of feel to Call of Duty gunplay. The new Minority Report-style energy shotgun is my favorite addition in this respect. It's powered by a wobbling, rippling blast of clear-ish energy that abruptly stops after a short distance. There's an interesting balance there that's always seemed to elude Call of Duty — it's a wrecking ball up close, but it isn't the anti-aircraft gun that's always seemed unfairly accurate from too far away.
The directed-energy laser, meanwhile, feels plucked from the Halo series, and I'm curious to see how the community reacts to it. It's a beam weapon that requires a sustained bead on a target to take it down, but there's no reloading involved at all. Instead, use the laser too long and it will overheat and need to cool down. I wonder how the competitive base will take to it, how it will play against more conventional Call of Duty standbys (though the future setting of Advanced Warfare means no gun is completely recognizable). But mostly, I was struck by how fun and interesting it was to play a game that was at its heart a Call of Duty game with such new, different variables in play.
This was clearest to me playing Uplink, as I mentioned before. But Uplink is interesting for more reasons than "it's fun and new," in that it is so clearly designed for the eSports community. Uplink is joined by a revived spectator mode to offer a more promising candidate for public viewership than last year's Ghosts — or any other shooter I can think of.
It was this topic where I found Condrey the most animated.
"I only got into eSports something like five years ago," Condrey said, "but I'm a sports fanatic. I'm a football fan. But my first introduction to eSports wasn't a great spectator experience. It was great to watch the competitors ... but it was difficult to understand what they were doing, to grok all the strategy. It was pretty intimidating. And outside of even first-person shooters, I remember the first time I went to BlizzCon and watched some of their tournaments. It was a great time, but I had the hardest time understanding what was going on. I saw the spectacle but the strategy escaped me."
Condrey pointed out the advances made in spectator sports like football and basketball in the last 40 years to make them more comprehensible, and the commensurate success that they enjoyed. "For us," he said, "the idea that the spectator and broadcaster mode can help fans understand what's happening and get into it is our focus."
This philosophy is driving a renewed focus on eSports for Call of Duty in the wake of the success of games like Dota 2 and League of Legends in bringing in millions of viewers, a mass audience that no shooter has managed to approach in the medium. "I think that we want to be part of eSports and part of that community, and that comes from a very genuine place," Condrey said.
Some changes to Advanced Warfare seem to make it a better candidate to occupy that space. The reworked engine results in a game that feels different, not just gameplay-wise but in its presentational foundation. Watching killcams and seeing other players move around, everything feels more weighted in a unified world — the sense of floatiness and unhinged animation that made previous games in the franchise odd to look at from the outside are gone. Advanced Warfare feels more physically rooted, and it makes it more fun to watch.
Ideally, Condrey also hopes the renewed focus on competitive gaming will serve the general audience. "I hear people say that if you focus on the 1 percent of eSports players we're somehow not catering to the majority of players, but I don't believe that at all."
Flashing back to Uplink on the map Defender, I think about how different and fun it felt. I think about how geared toward competitive play it clearly is, how uncompetitive at Call of Duty I am and how it nevertheless is the part of Advanced Warfare I'm still thinking about days later. And I think that Condrey might just have a point.