The future, it seems, is now. When Modern Warfare impressed upon the world the grittiness of combat, its pin-sharp shooting smartly muddied by the sociopathy of its soldiers as they went about their wetwork with the glib efficiency of plumbers, its dust settled across an entire generation of shooters. Call of Duty moved on from one extreme to another, ending in a tangle of late Brosnan histrionics that reached a nadir with last year's Ghosts, while elsewhere the war has moved on to far-fetched sci-fi fantasies such as Titanfall or Destiny.
Sledgehammer's Advanced Warfare, the studio's first solo Call of Duty having deputised on 2011's Modern Warfare 3, takes the fantastical and runs with it. The result is the biggest shift for the series since the original Modern Warfare, and what is easily the best entry since Modern Warfare's ceasefire.
Advanced Warfare impresses you with just how much fun war can be. The reference points no longer seem to be Black Hawk Down or Red Dawn - it's now the bubblegum sci-fi of Star Wars and Halo leaving their imprint. This is a world stuffed full of exquisite toys, where jet bikes tear through cities constructed of towering glass and concrete - all of which crunches delightfully underfoot when it's inevitably pulled down under the thundering weight of another explosive set-piece - and where guns hum and whir like weaponised fax machines.
Sledgehammer has applied real imagination to the Call of Duty formula. The future setting is a marvel, conjuring up a world of wonder and colour; drone swarms darken the skies of a Korean city in scenes more akin to the fantasies of Sin & Punishment than the drudgery of the modern first-person shooter, while Baghdad returns as a shining metropolis where the sand has been swept under the gleaming towers of mega-corporation and private military company Atlas.
There's novelty, then, but the chassis can still creak underneath. Kevin Spacey blankly stares his way through the central performance as Atlas' head, an exercise in pantomime villainy that's more Lex Luthor than Francis J. Underwood, and the hint of subversion in having the enemy within as the main opposition is snuffed out as once again it's America under threat. Advanced Warfare veers dangerously towards self-parody, too: a funeral scene early on prompts the player to press X to pay their respects over the closed casket, a moment too absurd to take at face value.
Kudos to Sledgehammer, though, for keeping the narrative through-line clean, for involving you in the theatrics and for crafting a story that is at least coherent, even if it does all fall a little flat. With its super-soldiers and corporations orchestrating the battlefield, it all comes off as Metal Gear Solid-lite, like a Kojima yarn with that delicious sense of irony completely excised.
It's hard to care, though, when the toys excused by the setting are so fine, the gadgets so joyous to play with. You're no longer a soldier lost in the noise of war - you're a superhero, cutting through the fury with superpowers of your own. The exosuit is central to your suite of powers, and it profoundly alters the rhythm of play - multiplayer is lent a new emphasis on verticality as you boost jump your way to higher ground, with maps designed to suit, while in the campaign you're empowered with a suite of tools that are steadily, smartly doled out across the missions.
Sledgehammer knows how to pace a campaign, and while the default is a sprint towards another sub-bass powered set-piece, Advanced Warfare provides a refreshing amount of variety across its seven hour campaign. Gadgets are layered in slowly, while old Call of Duty staples are delivered with a fresh twist; there's a vehicle section, though it's now a breathless chase in a speedboat that bobs under the waves as missile strikes pepper the water's surface, the compulsory on-rails shooting section coming while you're strapped into a mech suit dangling precariously from a low-flying helicopter. There's even some restraint exercised, and at times Sledgehammer is even comfortable taking the gun from your hand as it cribs on its own Dead Space. Advanced Warfare is at its best, though, when you're given a new toy to handle.
Advanced Warfare's arsenal is a treat, its weapons amplified and polished until you can't help but be impressed by how expensive everything feels. Grenades are reimagined as both explosive pocket computers, able to paint targets or bring down drones with a well-placed EMP strike, and homing devices that fizz their way towards the enemy. The guns themselves, meanwhile, are a thumping delight; the sense of impact is unrivalled, while futuristic twists on old favourites such as the Tech 19 shotgun thwomp their way through opponents.
Such improvements only deepen the satisfaction of a multiplayer that feels revived after the limp Ghosts, where the regular chiming as you work your way through the levels is given fresh emphasis. There's not quite the acrobatic dynamism of Titanfall, though Advanced Warfare's compulsion loop, fleshed out with loot drops, promises to best the short-lived thrills of Respawn's shooter. Whether it can trump the enthralling long game of Destiny remains to be seen - and the somewhat limp nature of much of that loot, and of player customisation where you're choosing between one pair of work boots and another, suggests it won't, but right now Advanced Warfare sits comfortably between the two.
Sledgehammer didn't have the advantage that both Infinity Ward and Bungie enjoyed, of course, in having a fresh brief, a blank slate with which to start anew. In many ways, what the developer has achieved with Advanced Warfare is even more impressive with that in mind. After a slow slide towards mediocrity, Advance Warfare halts the decline with style and imagination. It's another Call of Duty, familiar and at times frustrating - but it is without doubt the finest Call of Duty for some years.
This article was written after attending a review event. Activision paid for accommodation. Our full review from live servers will be published later this week.
Will you support Eurogamer?
We want to make Eurogamer better, and that means better for our readers - not for algorithms. You can help! Become a supporter of Eurogamer and you can view the site completely ad-free, as well as gaining exclusive access to articles, podcasts and conversations that will bring you closer to the team, the stories, and the games we all love. Subscriptions start at £3.99 / $4.99 per month.