It's easy to be cynical about Call of Duty these days. The biggest games franchise of them all has developed an inevitability of death-and-taxes proportions. And Advanced Warfare, the eleventh (we think - it's hard to keep count) instalment of the game, saw a drop in pre-orders compared with last year's Ghosts, leading doom-mongers to speculate that the great cash-cow was on its last legs.
However, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare feels like something of a mini-reboot. It's the first full CoD game made by Sledgehammer Games - which is now on the regular development roster with Infinity Ward and Treyarch, so they'll all get three-year development cycles - and its clever future setting freshens up the gameplay significantly. Indeed it's the best Call of Duty for some time.
Back to the future
Advanced Warfare takes place 50-odd years from now, and charts the rise of Private Military Contractors (PMCs) - to be precise, one in particular, called Atlas, whose CEO is Jonathan Irons, played by Kevin Spacey. You're Jerome Mitchell, a US Marine, whose best friend is Will Irons, son of Spacey's character.
At first, you're sent to Lagos, where the KVA, a terrorist organisation, has kidnapped the President; on freeing him, you uncover a KVA plot to perpetrate a 9/11-style atrocity on a global scale. Despite your efforts, the KVA carries through on its threat and after flashing forward four years, you find yourself working for Atlas, now the world's biggest military force, while sporting a prosthetic arm and an exoskeleton which gives you semi-superhuman powers.
Despite some trite dialogue (a far cry from what Spacey will have been used to at the Old Vic theatre), Advanced Warfare's single-player storyline is vastly superior to anything we've found in recent CoD games. It's full of twists and turns, and fuels some truly spectacular sequences.
While the single-player game still isn't the longest, it's much more satisfying than those of recent CoDs, introducing a military nut's wet-dream of a futuristic arsenal. The exo-suits generate abilities such as a huge double-jump, cloaking, Overdrive (which briefly slows time), the ability to see enemies through walls and a stim-pack for when you're low on health.
One excellent stealth level lets you move undetected from building to building with a grapple, which also serves as a means of enacting stealth executions.
The weapons are equally futuristic, although still plausible. You can cycle between tactical grenades that highlight enemies for a period or release EMP pulses (vital against drones and guys in full-on mech-suits). And there's a smart grenade which will target any particular enemy you aim at. Attack-drones, a futuristic tank and especially the mech-suit, with its auto-targeting missile swarms that take a while to reload, augmented by a rocket-launcher and a chain-gun, are particularly satisfying to pilot.
And at last, Advanced Warfare looks as sweet as a true new-generation game should - the cut-scenes are really convincing, and Sledgehammer clearly had fun with some of the settings, such as an intricately detailed Santorini and, amusingly, the urban paradise that is New Baghdad.
The arrival of exo-suits in Advanced Warfare has also had an invigorating effect on the multiplayer side of the game.
Most obviously in the level design where, because of the boost-jumping, verticality has come into play, so multi-storey buildings are the order of the day. Much more crucially than in the single-player game, you must swiftly master all the exo-suit's built-in boosting and dodging moves, plus the good old knee-slide.
The extra mobility relieves the run-and-gun tedium that had been setting into modes like Capture The Flag and Team Deathmatch. Meanwhile, Hardpoint is back (and should prove popular), and there's a new mode called Uplink which is a bit like American Football with weaponry from 2080, that involves passing a drone around and getting it into a sort of goal. That was initially confusing (we Brits generally don't get American Football either), but could prove popular with the CoD multiplayer hardcore. Kill Confirmed, meanwhile, in which you're encouraged to collect the dog-tags of dead enemies, is perfect for making those who don't possess superhuman fast-twitch skills feel like they're contributing. The Combat Readiness Programme provides a much-needed arena for CoD multiplayer neophytes, too.
The amount of customisation you can avail yourself of online is almost bewildering, but worth getting to grips with: Black Ops' Pick 10 system has become Pick 13, so you can really tailor your loadout to suit your abilities (swapping high-end kill-streaks you're never going to get for more fundamental boosts, for example). You do get access to some of the exo-suit abilities from the single-player game, like cloaking, and there are some new ones like a temporary health-boost. But you can see how the likes of the grapple and the mech-suit would unbalance everything online.
Exo Survival, the co-op mode, is probably the least imaginative part of the game, although it does vary between defending against waves of exo-suited enemies and sending you on more offensive missions. But at least in this mode you get to employ more of your bad-ass future cybernetic warrior abilities than you're allowed to in the conventional multiplayer game.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is a massive, and much-needed, return to form for the franchise. Sledgehammer Games has made a mighty entrance at the controls of the all-conquering first person shooter franchise and thrown down something of a gauntlet to Infinity Ward and Treyarch.
Advanced Warfare is still identifiably a CoD game - there's still loads of running and gunning, and the action is permanently cranked up to Michael Bay levels - but it also feels fresh and is a real showing-off of the new-generation consoles.
In short, Advanced Warfare should reaffirm the faith of those who were getting jaded by the previously diminishing returns on their annual CoD-fix. Its clever future setting, new game mechanics and the generally higher standards make for the best Call of Duty in a number of years.