It only takes a few minutes of playing Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare to understand that the multi-billion dollar franchise – the reigning top gun of the first-person-shooter genre – is having an identity crisis.
Squint a little too hard and it's easy to mistake the upcoming game for one of the handful of other shooters out there, what with all the futuristic weapons and jet-pack jumping going on. The only thing missing are giant robots and Warthogs.
On the other hand, if it wasn't for all the new features – cloaking devices, force fields, directed-energy guns, wrist-worn grenade launchers! – another round of critics complaining about the same-old, same-old would inevitably follow when the game launches in November.
It's the burden that Call of Duty, now in its 11th year and major iteration, is forced to bear, which itself is partly the result of publisher Activision's insistence on an annual release cycle. If a new game in the series is too similar to the previous year's, people will complain. If it's too different and bears a resemblance to competing games, well… people will probably complain too.
The franchise has amassed its huge audience – more than 100-million players worldwide – on gritty military realism, but for the past few years has been barrelling headlong into sci-fi cartoonishness.
Today's Call of Duty thus bears little resemblance to yesterday's Call of Duty, which ultimately leads to the question of what exactly does the series stand for now?
Michael Condrey, co-founder of Foster City, Calif.-based Sledgehammer Games – the rookie studio charged with developing the game – sums up the difficult evolution succinctly: "Fans are clear that they want new ways to play, but how do you innovate without alienating them?"
With Advanced Warfare, both Sledgehammer and Activision are aiming ambitiously high with a desire to accomplish both.
"We really want to replicate that 'new era' feel of the first Modern Warfare [released in 2007]," he says. "We want to get that feeling back with this game."
There's no doubt the new game will be different. Set 50 years in the future, the storyline of Advanced Warfare puts players into conflict with technologically advanced private military corporations, led by a villain played by the Machiavellian Kevin Spacey.
In the game's multiplayer bread and butter, many of the new features are delivered by way of an exoskeleton suit. Chief among these is the ability to boost-jump using boot jets, which allow players to scale multi-storey buildings.
Call of Duty battles will thus feature verticality for the first time. In a showcase hosted by Activision in Los Angeles last week, it was clear how dramatically this changes the game. Now, rather than simply worrying about who's in front of and behind them, players will also have to be aware of who's above and below them too. Combat is faster, more frantic and strategic as a result.
The addition is sure to draw comparisons to Microsoft's Halo and Electronic Arts' Titanfall franchises, or even Activision's upcoming Destiny shooter, all of which feature verticality as part of their core action. But with those games developing players' expectations for true three-dimensional combat, Call of Duty's move away from simple ground-based combat was inevitable.
But, because it is a new addition for the series, the verticality strikes at its core identity. Most previous games were set in past conflicts such as World War II and the Vietnam War, so the exoskeletons and their boost-jumping capabilities represent a point of no return of sorts.
Advanced Warfare could thematically handcuff future instalments from Infinity Ward and Treyarch, the other two studios in Call of Duty's annual development rotation, since it will be difficult for them to rationalize the new capabilities when the in-game technology to deliver them doesn't yet exist.
"We didn't think about that," says Sledgehammer co-founder Glen Schofield. "Our job was to make sure we made a game that was set 50 years in the future and had the technology that supported that."
Mr. Condrey concedes that going back in time will be difficult to justify in the future.
"When people get a taste of what boost jump brings, it won't take long before going back feels like going a long way back."
The franchise' transformation from its roots as a realistic historical shooter into a futuristic sci-fi action game looks irreversible at this point. Will fans like the attempt at a new identity or will they dismiss it as too similar to other competing titles? As always, this is the burden that Call of Duty must bear.