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E3 First Look: Combat takes a high-tech turn in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

“Power changes everything.”

We’ve noted before that the tagline for Sledgehammer Games’ Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is a key idea to keep in mind as you process new details on this latest entry in the shooter series, and that definitely holds true after our E3 first look.

Related: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare review

Call of Duty has officially transitioned into science fiction, albeit a very near-future (and grim) vision of the genre in which corporations lock horns with first-world governments and boost-assisted soldiers spring around the battlefield like never before. For those that constantly demand fresh ideas in their annual Activision shooters, look no further. Advanced Warfare appears to deliver.

Story/Concept

Don’t mess with Texas Instruments. The key focus for Sledgehammer in crafting Advanced Warfare‘s story is showcasing the rise of the privately-owned military force. Imagine a present-day “military contractor” like Academi (formerly Blackwater) growing an army large enough to challenge one of the world’s superpowers. How would that play out?

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare sets its story in the mid-21st century, with the PMC known as Atlas, run by Jonathan Irons (Kevin Spacey), declaring war on the United States after numerous failed attempts to convert foreign nations into democratic societies. Irons is fed up with so-called peace efforts, and he seeks to shift the global power balance in his favor.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

A soldier’s journey. Advanced Warfare features a single protagonist, Mitchell, with the story following an eight-year trajectory that begins in Seoul, Korea with an invasion by northern forces. Mitchell enters the fray as a young Marine in this opening level of the game, the one showcased during Microsoft’s E3 press conference. A later level, demoed behind closed doors, picks up with Mitchell and his squadmates investigating a suspected bio-weapons facility.

It begins with one of the series’ trademark sneak-and-follow sequences, with Mitchell and his CO advancing on the suspected facility — deep in a remote forest — under the cover of night. The level picks up just after the two are spotted by a sniper while a spotlight-equipped chopper circles above. Their mad dash to safety ends with a scramble up a rock face, followed by a slow creep past enemy forces with the help of high-tech cloak suits.

They eventually link up with two more squadmates and make their way into the facility to complete their data theft mission. A triggered alarm escalates the tension in the final third of the mission, with a rushed firefight through the facility and an escape that puts Mitchell at the controls of a powerful hover-tank equipped with a cannon, machine guns, cluster rockets, and an EMP blast.

Gameplay

Suit up. The heart of what’s new in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is realized in every soldier’s exe-skeleton-enhanced Exo suit. Enhancing standard movement controls — in single-player, multiplayer, and co-op — are boost abilities that allow for powered high jumps and boost-assisted strafe dashes to the left, right, and back.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

It’s a subtle shift, and one that’s going to require proper hands-on time to really get a sense of, but there’s promise here for a very different approach to Call of Duty’s action than we’ve seen previously. The Exo suit has other abilities as well that allow soldiers to more easily scale surface, drop from high places, and — as seen with the cloak — stay out of sight, but some of these appear to be contextual.

Sledgehammer didn’t get into the specifics, but Advanced Warfare‘s single player story does feature — for the first time in a Call of Duty game — an upgrade system that allows you to spend accumulated points on improving different Exo abilities.

Toys of war. There’s also an assortment of new gear to play with in Advanced Warfare. Players can dig into a whole new class of directed-energy weapons, which fire sustained, laser-like beams. They don’t use ammo in the traditional sense, but you can only fire for so long before the weapon needs a few seconds to cool down.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

We also got a peek at a couple of the game’s new grenade options, which fill both tactical and offensive roles. Threat Grenades popped up during the Microsoft press conference demo; they highlight any nearby enemies as red silhouettes, providing intel on the surrounding area. Seeker Grenades hover in mid-air for a few seconds after they’re thrown before homing in on the nearest enemy. And Contact Grenades — as you’ve probably gathered from the name — explode on contact.

Presentation

The art of advanced war. The little we’ve seen of Advanced Warfare looks sharp, if typically Call of Duty. There are visual improvements that take advantage of new console hardware, but more immediately noticeable is the sci-fi future style that pervades everything.

The HUD-free interface in campaign mode imparts information to the player in a more organic way than we’ve typically seen. Augmented reality is what’s key here. Holographic displays deliver all of the vital details, from the ammo count displayed on your gun to the all-purpose grenades with a scrolling marquee that informs you which type is currently armed.

Takeaway

Seeing Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare in action for the first time gives a clear sense of what Sledgehammer is trying to accomplish with its near-future vision of warfare. The team has a tough balance to strike here in delivering the familiar flavor of action that’s made the series such an enduring success while introducing new control mechanisms that change up the gameplay in not-so-subtle ways.

There are many more questions to be answered before the game bows on November 4 for PlayStation/Xbox consoles and PC, but our first impression after seeing Advanced Warfare in action is that — as first promised — power does indeed change everything.

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