Trust Infinity Ward to fire the first shots in the renewed console war. As Call Of Duty makes the tactical transition from current to next gen, it has us questioning what is truly important in a first-person shooter, let alone one fit for the Xbox One. Let’s get this out of the way now; the 1080p, 60fps dream we had for this game has seemingly been sacrificed in the face of multiple iterations and releases this year. The Xbox One version of Call Of Duty: Ghosts has sacrificed 360 vertical pixels in favour of it running at a deliciously smooth 60fps – the same certainly can’t be said about the title on rival platforms. Still, Ghosts on Xbox One isn’t a visual game changer, like Infinity Ward’s Xbox 360 launch title Call Of Duty 2 was, but it does enough to make it the crispest and sharpest Call Of Duty game to date. Most importantly, however, Infinity Ward has kept the wickedly bombastic moment-to-moment gameplay intact, using the power of the Xbox One to enhance every aspect of the experience. Infinity Ward is handing us the very best in military fetishism, making us tourists to the absurdity of war, and COD has never looked (or played) better.
After ten years and ten titles, we harbour pretty extreme expectations going into a Call Of Duty experience. There’s no other franchise in the history of videogames with the balls and tenacity to force the player through so much unrelenting chaos. Though it’s some of that same chaos that spiralled out of the digital realm and into Activision’s ranks three years ago, threatening to burn out the biggest gaming franchise in the world. After a very public-collapse and a hard-earned recovery, one that ushered in the culmination of the Modern Warfare trilogy, Infinity Ward is back with Call Of Duty: Ghosts – and it’s remarkable. Ghosts is one hell of a package: not only maintaining the high standards of Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare trilogy, but offers what could be the best iteration of Call Of Duty’s time-conquering multiplayer to date, a wildly entertaining twist on Treyarch’s survival mode and an interesting attempt to significantly broaden the core multiplayer experience with Squads.
Ghosts’ over-the-top action continues the Call Of Duty tradition of making Michael Bay blush with its bombast; built on a foundation of tense shoot-outs, furious sound and adrenaline pumping setpieces. Its enthusiasm is often overwhelming; few games retain the crazy rollercoaster pace that Infinity Ward is so adapt at delivering. Ghosts overdoses on spectacle within its opening moments and never lets up. Amazing setpieces explode into an almighty shitstorm of bullets and fury like clockwork – sure it’s predictable, but it’s the Infinity Ward way. Those expecting another reinvention of the FPS model from the studio will likely be disappointed.
The shooting mechanics have been refined to the point of wonder; gunning down waves of faceless grunts has never felt so satisfying. Between the usual array of assault rifles, and the increased emphasis on single-shot marksmen rifles, the gunplay feels extremely responsive and well-tuned. The game presents one hell of a challenge, as always, with the Hardened and Veteran difficulties ready to kick your ass up and down its digital gauntlets of death and destruction. Say what you will about the studio’s continued problem of trying to balance narrative and interactivity (and we will get to that too, just bear with us), but Infinity Ward has certainly nailed the nuances of the FPS genre. Taken as a whole, Ghosts doesn’t quite live up to Modern Warfare’s outstanding campaign – but it gets closer than we expected it to. At its core, the story echoes that of THQ’s Homefront in posing the fall of the USA against a seemingly unstoppable rival nation, though the execution is (obviously) far more kinetic and engaging than Kaos Studio’s attempt. Frantic assaults on toppling skyscrapers; panicked sprints through flooding streets; rescue missions that keep finding new ways to go wrong; gunfights in zero-G and the lingering danger of the world seemingly falling apart around you at all times. Yet, despite Infinity Ward’s best intentions, the narrative has a way of taking a backseat to the carnage.
Perhaps it should; there’s an argument to be made that you don’t buy into Call Of Duty for the story. In fact, for many of you the single-player campaign is simply designed to hold your attention on those occasions when Xbox Live goes down, but Infinity Ward has placed so much credence on its story throughout the preview stage that we’d be remiss to ignore it entirely. You can see the seeds of a good plot peppered throughout, the desire for us to buy into the story of a military family turned ultimate soldiers – but messy plotting and the reliance on loading-screen intel briefings to drive everything forward is contrived at best. Honestly, you never feel like any of the characters is anything more than a load-out in a balaclava. As always; the plot makes little sense and is ultimately difficult to follow – we have a feeling Academy Award-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan won’t be featuring Call Of Duty: Ghosts on his resume alongside Traffic.
For all of its fun, the campaign does feel decidedly last-gen. Shave away the new story, setting and refined gunplay and you’ll see the same heavy reliance on scripting that’s become the bane of modern shooters. Levels threaten to open up on occasion, to welcome us into the scope and scale the Xbox One can achieve – but quickly fall back into the familiar claustrophobic corridor shootouts of old. In many respects, Call Of Duty is still the most emergent and entertaining on-rails shooter available, and that’s okay. It’s slick and polished to an almost unbelievable level, firing on all cylinders at an uncompromising 60fps. Being that it’s releasing across multiple platforms, we are willing to give Ghosts the benefit of the doubt, though this will be the last time. We’ve been content with following the leader through checkpoints for six years, but the time where we expect nothing less than the spontaneous and evolving worlds that games like Titanfall and Dead Rising 3 are touting is fast approaching.
Still, so much of the campaign is so god damned entertaining that it’s easy to ignore the story and enjoy the ride. And if you’re wondering (we know you are), yes, Riley the dog is awesome. Seriously, if we have one complaint above all else it’s that the bestest dog in videogames doesn’t feature enough. It topples helicopters, rips throats and loves to call shotgun in the humvees – we just wish Infinity Ward had fashioned him a little space suit.
All of this considered, the campaign is only going to take up six or so hours of your life. Multiplayer is the reason you’re picking this up on launch day, and you won’t walk away disappointed. Infinity Ward has packed in so much content and variety across the game modes and types that it’s hard not to be impressed.
Naturally, the conditions we experienced Ghosts under aren’t fully representative of the world at large getting hands-on – the true wrinkles in design will only become apparent when people have been playing nonstop for months – but, right now, everything about the multiplayer component feels balanced beyond belief. The core gameplay will be immediately familiar to anyone that’s picked up a Call Of Duty game in the past, and with the collective community racking up over 2.5 billion in-game hours online across the franchise that should be relatively unsurprising to hear. Infinity Ward has continued to iterate and refine the formula it first introduced in 2007’s Modern Warfare, delivering the most satisfying version to date.
Key changes to the perk and weapon systems make the game far more welcoming for anyone who feels left behind by the constantly rising skill level of the average player. Ghosts’ multitude of weapons, items, perks and kill streaks each has a character level and a Squad Point cost associated with it. So far, so familiar, but the major change here comes with the way these items become accessible. Once you reach the listed level, the item is automatically unlocked. If you want to unlock it early, you can spend the listed amount of Squad Points. Ultimately, this means you aren’t restricted to creating crappy load-outs while the players with more time than you run around like kings with thermal scopes. Ghosts will let you get on a even playing field quickly, with Squad Points unlocked through completing in-game challenges and the like.
This, combined with a variation of Black Ops II’s ‘Pick Ten’ load-out system, makes Ghosts incredibly accessible. Your loadout has a pool of eight points to spend on perks (each weighted with a point value of 1-5 across seven categories). In addition to the initial eight points, a single Perk point is tied to the Primary Weapon slot, Secondary Weapon slot, Lethal and Tactical. You can take away one of these items for an additional Perk point, allowing for a maximum of 12 points to spend. If you’re feeling brave you can forego all weapons and equipment and spawn with a combat knife and 12 points worth of perks – good luck.
The multiplayer component is packed with content and game types. If you’re bored of traditional Team Deathmatch, then you’ll quickly find something to entertain you. Hell, Infinity Ward has also put interesting new spins on newer game modes like Kill Confirmed. If you’ve ever enjoyed a first-person shooter, then there will be a mode here that you’ll enjoy. This is helped by the wonderful map design; from rolling British countrysides to intense shootouts across abandoned train yards to slowly making your way through wonderfully deadly jungles – this is Infinity Ward at its finest.
The fantastic multiplayer is also supported by two new modes: Squads and Extinction. Squads is an interesting idea let down by execution. Infinity Ward has identified players who feel intimidated by online service, and has subsequently included a mode that allows you to create a full squad of soldiers – from look to weapon load-outs – and can then take them online for a multiplayer experience free of griefers, crying kids over headsets and the constant danger of a good ol’ fashioned teabagging.
It works well enough, and being able to take your own personal squad up against your friends (or random players across the world) is fun enough – but at the end of the day, it’s bots. We aren’t seeing Ghosts employ AI that learns from your style and actions (like Forza Motorsport 5’s Drivatar tech), nor are we seeing it dynamically react to the world around it (like Titanfall), so it’s disappointing to see them include the mode but not work with the Azure Cloud Servers technology. You’ll have some fun with squads no doubt, but when you see a bot swivel instantly on the spot and headshot you from close range with a sniper rifle, you’ll start to wonder whether that teabagging threat is really so bad after all.
Extinction mode on the other hand, is going to keep you coming back for a very long time. A tough as nails, co-operative mode that sees you and three others tackle an alien threat in suburban America. As much as we enjoyed Treyarch’s zombies mode, it was often confusing. Extinction on the other hand, is instantly accessible, yet tough enough that it will demand multiple playthroughs, communication and teamwork to get through it alive. Teams will need to co-ordinate everything from classes and perks to in-game weapon selection and distribution of abilities and items. Sadly, there’s only one map available at launch, a great shame as we had a ruddy fun time blasting aliens, defending chokepoints and generally pushing that slick Ghosts engine to its fullest when the carnage got really off the chain.
It’s easy enough to hate on Call Of Duty and its runaway success, but it’s also easy enough to forget that there are several good reasons for it. Infinity Ward has essentially led the Call Of Duty franchise on to define the modern FPS genre, and Ghosts is easily one of the most spectacular in the series. As you welcome the Xbox One into your home this Christmas you can be content that, with Ghosts in your possession, one of the most robust and consistently entertaining multiplayer experiences is once again ready and waiting to invite you into the rather wonderful horrors of make-believe warfare.