While Sledgehammer Games had a hand in previous Call of Duty games, Advanced Warfare marks the first time it was given the reins of the highly lucrative series. Advanced Warfare is also the first entry that's been solely developed for current-gen systems. Though it struggles like Ghosts before it to present any narrative depth in its single-player story, Sledgehammer's investments in the multiplayer arena pay off with tremendous results. Advanced Warfare is the most exciting Call of Duty has been in years.

Taking place some 40 years into the future, Advanced Warfare first begins with the U.S. military taking on an invasion force in South Korea. During the battle, our hero, Jack Mitchell, loses his arm and best friend in a tragic explosion. It just so happens that that friend's dad, Jonathan Irons, is in charge of a private military organization named Atlas. Distraught over his son's death, Irons invites Mitchell to come work for him at Atlas, where he'll be given the full Luke Skywalker treatment, robotic prosthetic arm and all. From here, things start getting a little loopy. Atlas has the world's largest standing military force, and since it isn't aligned with any one country, can apparently do whatever it wants. After a series of coordinated terrorist attacks, which Atlas is able to stop after five years of conflict, miraculously and without much explanation, Irons makes a play to become one of the most prominent leaders of the free world. Until he decides it's not going to be so free after all.

Sledgehammer Games

Advanced Warfare's story never dives deeper than the surface of what kind of power a corporation like Atlas might wield in the future, and whether something like a complete global takeover by a private organization is even remotely possible. It's gorgeous, for sure, but it just doesn't have any spark. Kevin Spacey, Troy Baker and the rest of the cast do their best to provide the much-needed oomph the story needs, but it doesn't matter how great the actors are if the dialogue is nothing more than standard action flick fare. The Modern Warfare trilogy set an impossibly high standard for what players should expect from a Call of Duty story. As such, it's been tough sledding for every team that's followed Infinity Ward's footsteps after Modern Warfare concluded. And yes, that includes Infinity Ward's Ghosts. It seemed like Sledgehammer might be the first to overcome the plotting troubles its brothers in Activision's arms encountered, what with the inclusion of a fully digitized Spacey and Baker providing the backbone of Advanced Warfare's narrative. Unfortunately, both are completely squandered with a story that's ambitious and hollow.

It's fortunate then that Advanced Warfare's action is intense and satisfying. If there wasn't some compelling gameplay driving everything forward, Sledgehammer could have fallen rather close to Ghosts territory. The Exo-suit nearly every single soldier wears in Advanced Warfare changes almost everything about how you engage your enemies. While you hardly get to use specialized abilities like the magnetic gloves or the grappling arm, save for a few scripted sequences, the base Exo-suit allows you to experiment with verticality in ways you never could in a Call of Duty before, and offers a slight tinge of customization in single-player. The boost jump makes the largest difference, giving you the ability to reach new heights, while shooting all the while. It's something more fantastical shooters and platformers have been making use of for quite some time, but in a series somewhat rooted in reality, it's a first. There's also the super-strength and a focus ability that seemingly slows time while you line up perfect headshots. For the first time, you actually feel like a soldier that could single-handedly win a war rather than a man always in the right place at the right time.

Sledgehammer Games

New weaponry adds to that sense of superiority, as it includes some technology we haven't seen put to use in-game before. Well, that's not necessarily true. We have seen items like threat detectors and thermal vision and homing rockets before, but they've never been implemented quite like they have in Advanced Warfare. Sledgehammer smartly introduces these scientific breakthroughs in a way that allows you to wrap your head around the idea of a multi-purpose grenade without having to simply write it off as, "Oh, it works like this because video games." Better scopes on guns is one thing you can easily take for granted, as it makes sense that optics will improve in the next 40 years. But it's really the seamless integration of all these concepts and technologies that gives Sledgehammer's take on the future of warfare some realistic boundaries, despite how incredible these ideas may seem at the outset of the adventure.

It isn't until you can really let loose in multiplayer that you get a true sense of just how magnificent it is to suit up in one of these Exos. You can customize your ride, so to speak, using the new Pick 13 guidelines, which is an evolution of the Pick 10 system that originated in Black Ops. The additional three points give some flexibility when it comes to the abilities added by the Exo-suit like limited shields and cloaking ability. You can choose not to enhance your Exo, but you'd be doing yourself a bit of a disservice online, since almost everyone else is taking full advantage. Like previous Call of Duty titles, you'll have to work to unlock attachments and new weapons by leveling up. New perks and scorestreaks open up too, and you can even customize things like the turret with rockets or a rotating stand for a few more points. Every last little detail is full customizable to your every whim.

Sledgehammer Games

Where Sledgehammer takes things one step further is with Supply Drops. Earned by completing tasks or playing any of the multiplayer modes for a certain duration, these Drops act as loot chests of sorts. Inside you'll find customization items of varying rarity (there are three tiers), such as cosmetic items for your character, weapons or even special limited use perks/scorestreaks. It's a nice way to add personalization into Call of Duty, and adds yet another incentive to keep returning to the various multiplayer modes.

Sledgehammer's also added the new Combat Readiness option, which is a low intensity competitive multiplayer mode with no stakes. You can't earn any gear or level up at all, but you can get a handle on how different loadouts work, and learn how to better control your Exo without getting your butt handed to you in the real competitive multiplayer portion. All names and perks are tossed aside, and you're simply labeled as friend or foe. Some characters might be bots. Most will be real people. It's a good way for newcomers to slowly integrate themselves into the fast-paced COD life.

Of course, if you are in the mood for something a little less combative, you could try your hand at Exo-Survival, the lone co-op mode included. The wave-based gameplay is available on every multiplayer map, and lets you and three other friends see how long you can last. Occasionally there will be objective-based waves to draw your team out from your perfect killbox, and every single wave is randomized. No two games should ever really play the same. Upgrades for both weapons and armor can be purchased between rounds with points earned during the match, giving you a chance to try different loadouts and strategies to see what suits you best. This is another good mode for those first attempting the Call of Duty online portion to grasp how everything works and controls without fear of underperforming in large crowds.

Sledgehammer Games

No matter how you're playing online, the Exo brings plenty of freshness to the multiplayer experience. Where once your sightlines were constrained to whatever was in front of you, or in your periphery, now you must be aware of your surroundings on the X, Y and Z axes. Death can come from anywhere thanks to the boost jump. While there are ladders around (mostly for the modes which remove the Exo entirely), valuable time is wasted climbing them. It takes but a brief second to elevate yourself with your suit. You can also dash out of the way of grenades or attacks in mid-air, providing yet another layer of strategy and evasion to an already complex mix of tactics. Just as there are many ways to die in Call of Duty, there are seemingly as many ways to survive the onslaught.

There's a lot to like about what Sledgehammer has done here, and it will be interesting to see how the other developers in the Call of Duty family handle their respective franchises after all the big changes Advanced Warfare has brought to the table. It's been a long time since a Call of Duty game has felt so new and foreign. With Advanced Warfare, Sledgehammer Games has managed to invigorate a once familiar franchise that was in danger of growing stale.

This review was completed with a retail copy of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare provided by the publisher for Xbox One. We also tested multiplayer and co-op in private play sessions with the developer post-release.

9.0 out of 10 arcade sushi rating