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Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is here, and this is what we think so far

We’re officially in “Day Zero” territory for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the first game in Activision’s venerable series produced with Sledgehammer Games as the lead developer. Reviews are starting to surface from those who have had extended time with the game, but we’re holding off until the end of launch week to give you a proper critique. It’s important to see how the game behaves in a “live” setting.

For now, we’ve managed to knock out the entire single player campaign and spend a handful of hours messing around with both Exo Survival, Advanced Warfare‘s new cooperative mode, and competitive multiplayer. How do these pieces stack up?

Related: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare review

Let’s start with the campaign. As Call of Duty roller coaster rides go, this is a good one. In a series that survives by being reliable and never changing, Advanced Warfare‘s six to eight hour story mode feels like a fresh twist. Much like Black Ops II and Ghosts did in years past, Sledgehammer isn’t afraid to introduce new ideas. In a first for the series, these ideas bleed into the other modes as well, but we’ll get to all of that in a bit.

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The story is as coherent as it’s been since the very first Modern Warfare waved smelling salts beneath the noses of World War II-fatigued gamers. Much like the 2007 release did to shake the series out of its Saving Private Ryan-induced funk, so too does Advanced Warfare come along with a confident step away from familiar, predominantly brown settings and convoluted war stories set in a convoluted modern world. Sledgehammer leans on simplicity: Go shoot the bad guys, and do it with style.

Related: What kind of monster computer machine will you need to run Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare?

Style matters in Advanced Warfare, though not for any concrete gameplay gains. You’re just compelled by the tools the game equips you with to make like a badass. The heart of this is the new Exo suit, a powered exoskeletal armor that allows you to jump higher, hit harder, and bring an assortment of other tools to bear on surviving the game’s constrained battlefields.

The story is as coherent as it’s been since the first Modern Warfare waved smelling salts beneath the noses of WWII-fatigued gamers.

The familiar constraints are eased in Advanced Warfare. For every sequence that sticks to a pre-ordained script — sneaking through a moon-lit forest under the cover of cloaking technology, raining hell on an enemy force from the cockpit of an attack fighter, that sort of thing — there’s another that kicks down the doors and opens things up. We’ve seen wide open Call of Duty battlefields before, but Exo abilities make them feel bigger somehow, more like the lethal playgrounds the series has always aimed to capture.

There’s a brand new upgrade system that rewards players for reaching body count, headshot, grenade kill, and intel (collectibles) milestones with points to spend in a simple upgrade tree. These amount to stat boosts, buffing everything from overall health to explosion resistance to reload speed. There’s choice in how you spend your points, and it really depends on your style of play. Like to wade into the mess with everyone else? Boost up that health. Prefer to hang back and snipe while the AI maintains the front lines? Invest in recoil reduction.

More game-changing abilities, like the much-talked-about boost jumps, are defined by the overall purpose of whichever Exo suit you’re wearing in a given mission (it’s a scripted thing). The aforementioned forest creep kits you out with a sweet cloaking device, but limits the enhanced mobility that other suits enjoy. A couple of scenarios set you up with a handy grappling hook, used not just for traversal but also for stealth kills and quick, one-hit mech takedowns that drag pilots out of their powered “Goliath” suits, but limit your warrior tools in other ways.

The result is a varied campaign experience, moreso than it has been in a very long time. The pace is just right, alternating between traditional (yet still Exo-enhanced) run-and-gun warfare and a range of other activities where you’re given special tools that suit the situation. Sometimes it’s an Exo that allows you to make yourself invisible, and other times it’s a tank equipped with armor-denting explosive shells, swarm rockets, and EMP blasts.

As much as the campaign stands on its own as a Call of Duty thrill ride, the variety, particularly in the Exo abilities, serves equally well as training for Advanced Warfare‘s multiplayer. On the competitive side, boost and dash capabilities are standard for every player, with more unusual functions reserved for a special slot in the Create-a-Class menu.

Related: Here’s our first hands-on with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare‘s multiplayer

The result is a dramatic shift in the way Call of Duty’s multiplayer feels. There’s an easy point of comparison in Titanfall, with Respawn Entertainment’s high-flying, parkour-inspired traversal feeding into the same spectrum of entertainment that Advanced Warfare‘s Exo suits. The latter feels more grounded in the known world. These aren’t Pilots, they’re soldiers. They don’t run on walls, and they don’t (often) summon towering mechs down from the heavens. Sure, they jump a lot higher than they have before, but there’s no hang time. For all of the enhanced mobility, much of this latest Call of Duty’s gunplay still plays out on the ground.

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And that’s fine. Changes to the multiplayer create a shift in the flow of the action, but it’s not so dramatic that this feels like a different game. There’s a definite learning curve, and likely a frustrating one for most since the same servers that host Joe and Jane Gamer are also the training grounds for a growing eSports community. Though it’s apparent even after just a few rounds that the speed and immediacy of Call of Duty multiplayer is intact in Advanced Warfare.

Finally, Exo Survival should be immediately familiar to anyone that enjoyed Modern Warfare 3‘s similar mode. It’s wave-based survival gameplay for up to four players, with currency points earned during each round spent on upgrading gear and — fittingly — Exo abilities. It’s a challenging hold-the-line type of scenario that favors teams capable of working together and rallying around a single, defendable point.

In a blockbuster series like this, there are good games and there are bad games. This happens to be a good one.

Though Exo Survival mixes things up by introducing objective rounds that give squads one of several tasks like collecting all the dog tags that appear, searching enemy corpses for intel — that sort of thing. Complete the objective and you’re all good, and go to the next round. Fail, and you’ll have to deal with some horrible disadvantage when the next wave approaches. Maybe your primary weapons jam, relegating everyone to pistols only, or maybe your whole Exo suit system is hacked … at which point you might as well pack it all in, because the screen distortions are nigh impossible to play through.

We’ve still got a ways to go with  Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, but if you’re looking for a kneejerk summation: It’s great. Yes, it’s undeniably Call of Duty. A few tweaks to movement and an arsenal of future-world weapons doesn’t change the basic style of play to the point that it’s going to usher in a whole new audience of fans.

But is that ever the point with a Call of Duty game? In a blockbuster series where iteration generally trumps evolution, there are good ones and there are bad ones. This happens to be a good one. Go get it, fanfolk. More to come on Friday.