"Here we go again," I yawned as my first multiplayer match in this year's Call Of Duty started to count down. "Business as usual." Right before I leapt a full storey-and-a-half into the air, airboosted onto a roof, slammed into the ground and shredded two opponents into chunky kibbles with a pair of high-tech miniguns.
I cackled like a madman. Then, perhaps deservedly, my celebration was cut short by a terminal dose of laser to the face.
When it comes to teaching an old dog new tricks, you can't go far wrong by strapping your mutt into an insanely mobile exoseleton and arming it with exotic future boomsticks [don't try that at home, kids - DARPA]. It's still the same beast, only more... awesome. Sledgehammer Games promised to shake up the Call Of Duty formula this time, and I'm delighted to report that Advanced Warfare feels comfortably familiar yet entirely, brilliantly different.
And no, I can't believe I just wrote that either. We still can't make a value judgement, and they might still cock it right up, but let me explain.
It's amazing what a difference verticality makes, since the ability to double-jump more than twice your own height completely changes the way you play Call Of Duty. Rooftops and balconies become firetraps and battlegrounds, granting you multiple ways to approach a objective or evade a pursuer. Why take the stairs or risk a potential choke point when you can careen through a skylight or flank foes from the air?
The four maps I sampled are all designed to make full use of multiple levels, notably within a ruined prison which placed Domination capture points atop outbuildings or within the cell block, allowing defenders to take overwatch on the balcony above and smash down on unwary foes with devastating ground pounds.
Attackers, meanwhile, can just jump up there. Or thump a grenade onto their perch courtesy of a mean wrist-mounted launcher. Throwing is for chumps, after all, we're in the future now.
As such, Advanced Warfare arguably feels even faster and more hectic than its predecessors, as a brick wall usually doesn't mean a dead end and the skies are full of whooping murderers.
Leaping over rooftops may be all well and good, but once you've mastered the lofty double-jump, you'll need to come to terms with the Dash. It's a simple matter of clicking the left stick, which instantly shoves you a couple of feet in the direction of your choosing. On the ground, you can avoid grenade damage or swoop in for melee kills. In mid-air you'll dodge bullets and joust enemies while aloft. This may sound subtle, but it's arguably the most important new ability of the lot.
I'm not entirely sure exactly how much of Advanced Warfare was planned as a knee-jerk reaction to Titanfall. Having spent the last few months playing Respawn's effort little and often, my muscle memory served me surprisingly well. But the dash brings back memories of Unreal Tournament's dodges and even brawler backsteps, suggesting that Sledgehammer have taken their inspiration from several good places.
Including basketball. The new Uplink gametype tasks each team with securing a drone -- helpfully the same size and shape of a regulation ball -- and throwing it into an enemy score zone suspended in mid-air. Scraps for the drone become ridiculous airborne affairs as teams pass between rooftops, or canny enemies throw the drone at nearby foes, forcing them to pick it up and lower their guns. It's silly, mobile, acrobatic fun, and quite unlike anything I've played in a CoD title previously.
Team player that I am, I spent much of my time as our team's de facto goalkeeper with my faithful akimbo miniguns, so it's high time we talked about weapons. As per usual Call Of Duty provides a dizzying array of guns, most of which are familiar mainstays that would still be in circulation several decades down the line along with some slight upgrades.
You don't need to look far to discover some crazy futuristic kit, however. Case in point, the EM1, which sends a laser death beam sizzling across the map. Operators will need a steady hand to keep it focused on target for enough time to score a kill, and nerves of steel since the aforementioned sizzling death beam is easy to trace back to its source, but it's arguably a terrifying psychological weapon more than anything. Being targeted makes you run for cover as the arcing, crackling ray scours its way towards you.
The infamous '3D printer rifle' is also a mean piece of kit, though sadly has now been assigned the much more boring designation of IMR. Its four-round burst is deadly accurate and delivers serious damage even to centre mass, meaning that two or three bursts is usually enough if your first salvo misses the cranium. Also, in case you missed the memo, it 3D prints its own ammo. Because, erm, it's a 3D printer rifle.
Personally, though, I spent much of my time rocking the ridiculous power of the XMG. Or the XMGs, technically, since you can simultaneously wield two enormous rotary miniguns and turn entire enemy squads into chunky soup. Sure, there's no ADS. Granted, you're a slower and more vulnerable target. But it's difficult to care when you're throwing out dozens of rounds per second and can 'lock down' to increase your fire rate to frankly silly levels. Trust me, if you're on Uplink defence, you might want to bring twelve barrels to the gunfight.
Beyond the snazzy future boomsticks (sizzlesticks?), Advanced Warfare's new customisation suite is worth a mention. Black Ops II's Pick 10 system returns as Pick 13, with a baker's dozen potential options to equip, including mainstays like perks and scopes alongside new Exo Abilities. These short-lived gamechangers replace non-lethal grenades, allowing you to temporarily absorb more damage, hover in mid-air or prematurely detonate incoming ordinance with an onboard TROPHY system.
As you doubtlessly know by now, you can also test loadouts directly from the create a class menu, in order to make sure your setup is actually viable, while new 'Supply Drops' provide a randomised selection of guns (including rare specimens with improved stats), gadgets and customisation options after completing matches and/or progress targets.
I smell the foul stench of microtransactions, but hey, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Or burn it.
All-told, it's hard to know whether Advanced Warfare will be the true breath of fresh air that the series needs after Ghosts turned up with nothing much in the tank. The singleplayer campaign could be rubbish, Spacey could phone it in and the remaining maps could be godawful. Conversely, hardcore series fans might leave in droves, itching to get back to two dimensions, ladders and lack of sizzly death lasers.
What I do know, however, is that Call Of Duty feels totally fresh and new after my first hour of play -- and that the fun and vertical new mechanics really have changed the series on a fundamental level. After the rehash that was Ghosts, Sledgehammer seem dead set on living up to their name. Out with the old, in with the lasers.
Platforms: PC | PS4 | Xbox One | PS3 | Xbox 360
Developers: Sledgehammer Games