Fall brings three things: turkey, Christmas creep and a new Call of Duty game. The 2014 edition, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare expands the customization options introduced in 2013's CoD: Ghosts. It also brings new goodies such as rail guns, the coveted double jump and — wait for it — Kevin Spacey. Are Hollywood prestige and a whole lotta sci-fi enough to warrant an upgrade?
Plot is for noobs
In the late 2000s, the Call of Duty series was known for having some of the best storytelling in video games. Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 are landmarks in the medium. Sadly, Advanced Warfare falls well short of that high-water mark. It features a frustratingly mundane story we've seen half a dozen times before in the CoD series.
There's the requisite megalomaniac, the inexplicably evil Eastern Europeans who missed the memo about the end of the Cold War, a Russian squad member constantly buzzing in your ear, and groan-worthy plot twists. There's a lead character upon whom everything hinges, despite his being little more than a glorified receptacle for other characters' exposition. The plot feels less like the first part of a planned trilogy and more like something the developer, Sledgehammer Games, just copied and pasted from past CoD games.
The only thing Sledgehammer didn't copy and paste is the delightfully nuanced near-future world. The science fiction of Advanced Warfare is, for the most part, well grounded. It's all near-future exoskeletons and rail guns that actually exist now.
The most outlandish fiction in the entire game is the politics at play. Kevin Spacey's Jonathan Irons is a military mogul with the largest private army in the world. With real-life military actions being partly outsourced to companies such as Blackwater, Irons' Atlas Enterprises doesn't seem too far-fetched — until you note that his company is based in the United States, where private armies are, of course, illegal.
MORE: Best Gaming Keyboards
The real kicker comes when Irons accepts an invitation for his corporation to join the United Nations. Sledgehammer Games fully embraces its moniker when it comes to subtlety. The clumsy attempt at satirizing the military-industrial complex is so bad that it makes a lurid show like Scandal look realistic.
CGI vs. Botox: The Kevin Spacey Story
Using the same face-tracking technology found in James Cameron's Avatar series, Advanced Warfare seeks to pull a little bit of Hollywood into the digital world, but it falls short of its goals.
Cameron wisely used actors as underlying structures for whole new models; Sledgehammer Games, on the other hand, attempts to digitally reproduce every actor in minute detail. The luscious, long locks of the lead character flow like Fabio's hair, and the facial tics of the actors are all reproduced nearly perfectly.
The attempt at digitally reproducing actors works for unfamiliar-looking voice actors such as lead Troy Baker, but fails horribly in the case of a household name. There's something disturbingly off about the digital Kevin Spacey; his silicone-like skin and dead eyes make him look more like an android than a human being.
Double jump to victory
One of the biggest changes from previous CoD games is the double jump. Friends and family may not understand the glee you experience while clearing 10-yard gaps on the field and launching yourself up into prime sniper perches, but shooter fans will happily fist-bump you.
Coming off a weeklong Destiny bender, I felt right at home in Advanced Warfare, as I hovered overhead for half a second to pick off other players, or surged up over them and slammed their ragdoll corpses into the ground. It makes your character more agile than ever before, and it's the kind of game-changing mechanic that will leave future CoD games lacking if they're left out.
Excuse me, waiter, there's RPG in my shooter
This is, without a doubt, the best multiplayer yet in the Call of Duty franchise. Cherry-picking ideas from games such as Titanfall and Battlefield, Sledgehammer Games has created an addictive multiplayer experience.
It's not just the double jump that brings to mind the parkour of Titanfall. Character customization is now on a par with what's found in Battlefield, allowing you to change everything from your character's exoskeleton to his gun attachment to the color of her shoes. While I'm stuck playing as Bland Hero the Third in single-player mode, in multiplayer, I can happily choose from five different women and then outfit them like blood-thirsty Barbies.
Superpowers have also been added; the game calls them "Exo abilities." The usefulness of each is entirely dependent on playstyle. Cautious players might veer towards the radar that shows bad guys on command, while run-and-gunners will want the toggable speed boost.
Most often, I leaned towards using the invisibility cloak. Nothing feels more gratifying and less CoD-like than skidding up to a flag completely invisibly, then fragging the other team back to their mothers' basements.
The customization isn't just deep; it's thoughtful. You're allowed a finite number of points with which to equip your character. Do you take two grenades? Or is an invisibility cloak more valuable? The limitations inject a healthy dose of RPG strategy into choices that were once exclusively about style.
There is one big problem with Advanced Warfare's multiplayer mode: Character-collision detection is absolutely awful. Characters bump, crash and hang on one another. I died more than one senseless death after another player spawned on me and tripped us both up. It makes otherwise agile gameplay feel frustratingly clumsy.
However, anything vehicle-related is even clumsier. Battlefield this is not; driving hovercrafts and flying jets made me feel I was like trying to steer a soapbox racer built by a toddler. Thankfully, the driving portions of the game are limited to brief bouts in the single-player mode. Had they appeared in multiplayer, the game would have been DOA.
With Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the first-person shooter has officially evolved. Agile, parkour-like movement, superpowers and thoughtful character customization are now de rigueur, and the whole of the genre is better for it.
While the lackluster single-player campaign won't turn any heads, the addictive multiplayer mode will bring fans back again and again — at least until Call of Duty 2015.
Alex Cranz is the Assistant Reviews Editor at Tom's Guide. When she's not devising tests for new tech, she's figuring out the best way to run Plex on it. Follow Alex @alexhcranz. Follow Tom's Guide at @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.