Review – Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Platform: Xbox One (reviewed), Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PC

Developer: Sledgehammer Games

Publisher: Activision

Genre: First-Person Shooter

ESRB Rating: M – Mature

The Call of Duty franchise needs little introduction; Activision’s first-person shooter franchise has been one of the most popular in gaming for the better part of a decade.  Sledgehammer Games, however, is another matter.  Formed by Dead Space alums Glenn Schofield and Michael Condrey, Sledgehammer was assigned to help Infinity Ward complete Modern Warfare 3, and then got a chance to make a game all on their own: Advanced Warfare.  So how has Sledgehammer done with this impressive opportunity (and a three-year development cycle, a first for a Call of Duty game)?  In short, they’ve done pretty well.

COD AW Jonathan Irons

Story

Advanced Warfare begins in the year 2054.  You play as Jack Mitchell, a Private in the U.S. Military who, along with his best friend Will Irons, has been sent to South Korea to repel an invading North Korean army.  During the assault, Will is killed and Mitchell loses an arm.  Mitchell then meets Will’s father, Jonathan Irons, at Will’s funeral; Irons offers Mitchell a high-end prosthetic arm and the chance to fight in Irons’ private military company called Atlas.

Those who have played a Call of Duty campaign in the past probably won’t be surprised by what Advanced Warfare’s plot has to offer.  The story is about as deep as a typical summer action movie, complete with plenty of military jargon and some predictable plot twists.  One thing that bothers me about the storytelling in this game is that your character Mitchell talks during cutscenes, but not during gameplay.  This feels jarring, as Mitchell switches between being a definable character off the field with his own personality and interests, and being an empty shell on the field, one who never has a chance to lead but is always following the directions given by the NPCs around him.  All that said, the game contains plenty of exciting and well-choreographed set piece moments to keep the player engaged, and Kevin Spacey delivers an excellent performance as Jonathan Irons.

COD AW Induction Rush

Gameplay

The element of Advanced Warfare’s gameplay that makes the game stand out from previous entries in the Call of Duty franchise is the addition of the Exo suit, a futuristic exoskeleton worn by the game’s combatants.  This suit gives the player access to a variety of skills and gadgets, such as a double jump, a jet-powered dodge, and a portable shield.  During the campaign the abilities you have will change from mission to mission, while in multiplayer you can customize your Exo abilities to suit your playstyle (though some Exo gadgets are only used during campaign).  The extra mobility provided by the Exo adds a layer of verticality that has not been present in other Call of Duty games, and makes a big difference in how you approach the battlefield, as you can quickly hop onto rooftops and other elevated positions that give you an advantage over your enemies.

Advanced Warfare’s campaign missions are, for the most part, very linear, guided experiences; you spend most of the time walking through corridors and clearing small rooms and courtyards.  On the one hand, this narrow focus allows Sledgehammer to incorporate a wide variety of intense, exciting events that keeps the player on the edge of his or her seat.  On the other hand, it also removes a lot of freedom from the player, and sometimes left me feeling like I was just a pawn on the battlefield, waiting for my companions to give me permission to continue the story.  On occasion you get the chance to use some neat futuristic gadgets, like magnetic gloves or a hover bike, but these moments are short and limited to specific moments in the campaign, which feels like a missed opportunity to really open up ways for the player to tackle different challenges.  The linear nature of the campaign also mutes the impact of the mobility provided by the Exo.  The narrow corridors and other small, enclosed spaces that you are often forced to navigate keep you from using the double jump, thus removing the verticality that makes the game stand out.

While the campaign is hit and miss, competitive multiplayer is where Advanced Warfare shines, particularly as it relates to the Exo suit. The dynamic, fast-paced nature of multiplayer gameplay, along with the open spaces and plentiful rooftops found in the maps, encourages players to use their double jump often and seek out higher vantage points.  This verticality provides a freedom to the player that cannot be found in the narrow corridors and shooting galleries that make up much of the campaign.  It would have been nice to use some of the game’s more exotic gear in multiplayer, such as the aforementioned gloves and bike, but the abilities that have been put into multiplayer (which include not only the double jump and boost dodge, but also things like cloaking and the portable shield) are implemented quite well.

Advanced Warfare’s competitive multiplayer boasts a robust selection of game modes and customization options.  In addition to traditional modes like Team Deathmatch, Domination, and Capture the Flag, Sledgehammer introduces a new mode called Uplink, in which teams compete to deliver a ball-shaped satellite into the opposing team’s goal, similar to Halo 4’s Ricochet mode.  The Pick 10 system of loadout customization found in Black Ops II has been updated to a Pick 13 system in Advanced Warfare, allowing you to choose the weapon upgrades, Perks, Exo abilities, and Scorestreaks that fit your playstyle.

Exo Survival is Advanced Warfare’s Cooperative Multiplayer mode, in which players fight off waves of enemy combatants, unlocking new weapons and upgrades along the way.  Objective rounds are thrown in from time to time to keep gameplay interesting.  It’s a nice change of pace from the other modes, and like the multiplayer it makes better use of the Exo’s strengths than the campaign does.

Presentation

This new Call of Duty is undeniably a gorgeous one.  Impressive lighting and detailed character models help the game come to life.  While the environments aim for realism, they mostly avoid the drab browns and greys that saturated previous entries in the franchise, thanks in part to the splashes of color provided by some of the futuristic weaponry in the game.  The pre-rendered cutscenes showcase some of the most realistic characters I have seen in a game, and their beauty helps the performances of Kevin Spacy and the other actors really shine.

COD AW Multiplayer

Conclusion

Sledgehammer has done an admirable job creating a new Call of Duty game.  Advanced Warfare is a breath of fresh air for this long-running franchise; the Exo brings a real change to the traditional Call of Duty formula, and while the campaign sometimes undermines this addition, multiplayer is much improved by the new mobility and verticality it provides.  Those who have grown weary of Call of Duty in recent years should give this game a shot; I myself had gotten tired of these games, but Advanced Warfare has left me pleasantly surprised, and eager to see what see what Sledgehammer will do in the future.

Review – Sunset Overdrive

Platform: Xbox One

Developer: Insomniac Games

Publisher: Microsoft

Genre: Open World, Third-Person Shooter

ESRB Rating: M – Mature

For many years, escapism from the real world has been one of the main draws to people who play video games.  In the world of a video game, the impossible can become a reality, letting you do things that could never happen in real life.  Sunset Overdrive recognizes this fact and embraces it.  This new open world shooter from Insomniac Games (best known as the creators of the Ratchet and Clank, Resistance, and Spyro franchises) lets you bounce off shrubs, hang from telephone wires, and shoot fireworks at robots.  In short, it’s absolutely ridiculous in all the best ways.

sunset_overdrive_blower_OD

Story

In Sunset Overdrive you begin as an ordinary guy or gal in Sunset City working a dead-end job for Fizzco, the giant corporation who runs just about everything in town.  Fizzco hosts a party for the city, inviting everyone to try out their new energy drink, Overcharge Delirium XT, before it gets shipped worldwide.  Unfortunately, everyone who drinks Overcharge turns into a raving mutant, and Fizzco cuts Sunset City off from the rest of the world in an attempt to hide its mistake and protect its pocketbook.  For you, however, this crisis is your chance to shred the rulebook, dress how you want, and turn the city into a playground as you seek to expose Fizzco’s plans.

Humor unabashedly drives the storytelling in Sunset Overdrive.  Your character routinely breaks the fourth wall as you interact with the game’s zany characters, who routinely send you off to perform menial, silly tasks to make them happy (such as retrieving a robotic dog for a preppy student who does nothing but text her friends all day).  All these characters are fairly one-dimensional, but more often than not their sincerity in the middle of such ridiculous situations makes them rather endearing.

sunset overdrive floyd

Gameplay

Traversal in Sunset Overdrive is very reminiscent of the old Dreamcast title Jet Set Radio, and is easily the most enjoyable aspect of the game.  Bouncing off cars and grinding along rails and powerlines are the quickest ways to get around town, and the transitions between all of the grinds, wall runs, bounces, and pole swings are fast and fluid.  The game further encourages you to get off the ground via the Amp and Style systems; Amps are upgrades that can be applied to the main character and to your weapons, and as you fill up the Style Meter at the top of the screen, these Amps activate and add additional deadly effects to your actions.  Some notable examples include an ammo Amp that stuns enemies and a character Amp that causes explosions when you bounce off cars and other objects.

As you bounce and grind through Sunset City, you’ll find plenty of enemies just waiting to put an end to your fun.  Mutants rely on their large numbers to swarm and overwhelm the player, while most human “Scabs” and Fizzco robots attack from a distance with guns or lasers.  The wild and wacky weapons at your disposal are more than capable of handling what the game throws at you, though, from the explosive TNTeddy to the chilling Freeze Bomb.  Different guns are more effective against different enemies, encouraging you to try out new weapons as you acquire them.

My only real disappointment with Sunset Overdrive lies in game’s the lack of difficulty.  Once you learn to stay on grind rails or bouncing into the air, enemies rarely pose much of a threat, even during the game’s later missions.  Bosses are just as silly and amusing as the rest of the game, but the ease with which they can be dispatched robs the player of the sense of accomplishment that should follow these climactic fights.

In addition to the main story missions, the open world of Sunset City is filled with side quests and other activities.  The friendly survivors have tasks for you to do beyond the main story missions, and there are a variety of smaller, timed challenges available throughout the city as well, such as smashing TVs in a back alley or delivering bombs to enemy bases.  Sunset Overdrive’s cooperative multiplayer mode, called Chaos Squad, tasks a group of up to eight players to tackle several of these timed challenges in a row, culminating with a round of Night Defense, in which the team protects vats of Overcharge from thirsty mutants.  Between the main missions and all of these optional activities, there is enough content in the game to keep you occupied for at least twenty hours.

Sunset_Overdrive_Herker_2

Presentation

Sunset City bursts with color and absolutely oozes style.  Bright blue skies smile upon you as you bounce and grind your way through the streets.  Mutants explode into orange goo.  The energetic rock soundtrack, which dynamically becomes louder and more complex as combat intensifies, complements the frenetic action on screen.  All these sights and sounds reinforce the lighthearted tone of the game, and they fit well alongside the silly characters and blatantly unrealistic gameplay mechanics.

Just as important as the appearance of the environment is the customization of your character.  In addition to selecting your gender, body size, hair, and facial features, you can also choose from a wide variety of clothes, ranging from the relatively normal (like jeans and t-shirts) to the downright insane (like a pair of briefs with a kangaroo head on the crotch).  All of these aspects of your character’s appearance can be changed at any time and slapped together into any combination you desire.  As you progress through the game you gain access to plenty of additional clothes, either purchased with in-game currency or rewarded for completing quests, so there’s plenty of incentive to go back to your wardrobe from time to time and try out your new garb.

sunset overdrive action shot

Conclusion

The bright, upbeat world of Sunset Overdrive invites you to hop in and just have fun.  Nothing is meant to be taken seriously, and that’s a good thing, because it lets you do all sorts of crazy, awesome things that don’t make sense in real life, or even in most other video games.  So go put on your best necktie and a pair of gym shorts; it’s time to blow up some bad guys and save Sunset City.

Evolve Big Alpha Impressions

In many online shooters today, teamwork is optional.  While some players will choose to coordinate with each other and develop deep strategies, many others (myself included, for the most part) are content to roam the virtual battlefields of Call of Duty, Halo, and Destiny as lone wolves.  Upon playing in the Big Alpha for Evolve, the new multiplayer first person shooter from Turtle Rock Studios (best known as the creators of the Left 4 Dead franchise), I quickly realized that running around without a plan in this game only leads to disaster.  Whether you play as one of the four human hunters exploring the hostile alien world of Shear, or as the giant Monster who calls this planet home, you’ll need to pick your fights and learn how to effectively wield your unique abilities in combat in order to win.

evolve screenshot 1

Each hunter team contains one character from each of the four classes: Assault, Support, Trapper, and Medic.  While everyone on the team carries at least one damage-dealing weapon, each member needs to utilize the special abilities of his or her class in order to bring down the Monster.  The Trapper, for example, carries a mobile force field that temporarily contains the Monster, thus giving the team a chance to deal heavy damage to the beast.  The four classes feel distinct enough from one another to support multiple playstyles, so those who prefer to hang back and support their teammates should feel just as comfortable as those who want to be in the thick of the action.

The lone Monster may not have to worry about teamwork, but strategy is no less vital.  Finding food and staying on the move are your first goals.  As a weak, level one Monster you have little chance of surviving an encounter with the hunters, but feed upon enough wildlife and you evolve into a more powerful creature, improving your odds in a fight.  In combat, focusing your attacks on individual targets is essential to survival; incapacitating a hunter removes tools from the hunters’ toolbox and can turn a losing battle into a victory, or at least a chance to escape and seek out more wildlife to consume.

evolve screenshot 2

Overall, I’ve enjoyed my brief time with the Alpha; Evolve’s tactical, team-oriented gameplay acts as a good change of pace to the run-and-gun shooters that tend to dominate the market, and there are plenty of distinct classes to keep the game fresh and satisfy different players.

Evolve releases on February 10, 2015 on Xbox One, Playstation 4, and PC.

How I Learned to Love a Fighting Game

I’ve often considered myself fairly open-minded when it comes to trying out different kinds of games.  During my childhood I spent most of my time zipping through Green Hill Zone, commanding and conquering futuristic armies, and trying to Catch ‘Em All.  Once I got to middle school and high school, I found myself racing around Rainbow Road and blasting aliens on the amazing ringworld Halo.  And in recent years, I’ve pumped up the crowd in Rock Band, galloped through the Old West, and taught Clementine how to fend for herself in a harsh, unforgiving world.  But there was one genre that always seemed foreign to me: fighting games.

My experience with fighting games is extremely limited.  Up until this year, the only fighting games I’d spent any real time with are the Smash Bros. games (which I thoroughly enjoy, but have never been very good at playing) and Soul Calibur 5 (which I rented for a couple days out of curiosity).  The extent of my skill was spamming a few decent moves and hoping that my opponent wasn’t smart enough to work around it.  Looking up move lists for a character didn’t help much, either.  Deciphering the arcane combinations of letters and directional buttons was like trying to read another language; “…left, down, A, B, G, K…wait, there are no G or K buttons on my controller!”

So when Microsoft announced a reboot of the Killer Instinct franchise for Xbox One, I was a little caught off guard when I realized that I wanted to learn more.  I loved the raw, intense art style, and the way that the announcer screamed “ULTRAAAAAA!!!” until his lungs gave out.  Over the coming months, the game’s developers discussed the various modes that would be available to players for free, including a tutorial that taught all the basics of playing KI, and I started thinking more seriously about giving it a shot.  “I can learn how to do this,” I said to myself.  “I learned how to navigate the twitch-based waters of first-person shooters like Halo, so who says I can’t play a fast-paced fighting game?” So upon picking up my Xbox One in early 2014, Killer Instinct was the first game I downloaded to my shiny new console.

Once everything was ready to go, I dove into the tutorial mode, ready to be instructed in the ways of adrenaline-fueled fighting game action.  It started off easily enough; jumping, blocking, and executing a few basic kicks and punches.  “Hey, this isn’t so bad,” I gloated, “I’ll be winning games in no time!”  And then the game asked me to make a Z-shape motion with my control stick.

“Huh? I have to go right, then down, then diagonal?  And I have to do it that fast?”

This was the first time in a long time that I had to learn basic muscle movements for a game.  Years of playing first person shooters had burned proper camera controls into my brain, and I had no problem navigating tricky platforming segments in old Sonic games, but this?  This was something completely new, and I had no idea if I could even pull it off.  “…Maybe I can’t do this after all.  Maybe fighting games just aren’t for me, and I should just give up and wait for some other games that I’ll be more comfortable with.”

But I kept at it.  I forced myself to repeatedly bang my head against a wall until I finally figured out how to pull off an uppercut…some of the time.  And then I pushed myself into stringing together a few hits; and then a full combo; and then a combo with thirty hits that took out half of the opponent’s life bar! Those small, but hard-earned victories gave me the motivation to persevere until I could keep up with other people online, some of whom have far more experience in fighting games than I.

And just like that, I’d learned how to play a game in a genre that, for all my life, had been a mystery to me.  Conquering those basic moves and knowing that I could experience a whole new type of game was one of the most satisfying experiences I have had in all my years of gaming.  Since then I’ve played hundreds of matches online, picking up tricks from other players, learning how to play with a few characters and how to defend against others.

Am I a very good Killer Instinct player now?  No.  I still find myself on the losing end of most matches.  I still can’t pull off a Z-shaped move with any consistency.  And if you put me in just about any other fighting game, I’m still the easiest of prey.  But I’m getting better, and ultimately, the satisfaction of simply learning a game in an unfamiliar genre was worth all the effort it took to get there.

New Quantum Break Trailer

A new trailer for Remedy’s upcoming Xbox One exclusive, Quantum Break, has just been released, featuring some commentary from the game’s creative director, Sam Lake.  Most of this footage has already been shown, but from about the 10 minute mark we see new gameplay, focusing on protagonist Jack Joyce using his time powers to navigate through a crumbling bridge.

It’s quite a stunning trailer; Remedy have clearly put a lot of effort into creating some outstanding effects and set piece moments.  I also like that powers can be used outside of combat.  My only criticism is that this new platforming sequence is quite linear; it seems like a decent change of pace from the gunplay, but I hope the final game will also contain some challenges that are more open-ended, perhaps in the form of some light puzzle-solving sections.