Developer: Infinity Ward | Publisher: Activision | Played On: Xbox 360 | Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Xbox One, PS4, WiiU | ESRB: Mature [Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Online Interactions, Strong Language]
A new Call of Duty game on Xbox 360, do you really need a synopsis? I suspect you want to know how the multiplayer plays out, and whether the next-gen potential makes it a system seller. Well, it’s a very good multiplayer experience and, almost to a fault, a classic Call of Duty experience. But as Ghosts tests the next-gen waters, it also blurs the lines between in-family franchises. When Black Ops II went near-future it crowded the space for Infinity Ward’s take on future-modern warfare. Now it’s a race to see who can blow up the biggest building, envision the most colossal end-days world event, and lead a small band to save the world from the apocalypse. For all Ghosts clinical successes as a by-the-numbers, world-shaking shooter experience, it’s impossible to shake the notion that you saw much of this before, from the same corporate factory.
To be clear, that’s all about the single-player campaign, which ticks every box on the Call of Duty roster of gameplay tropes. It’s fast-paced, aggressive, occasionally inventive, and cinematic in the Michael Bay school of outrageous, improbable, popcorn-chewing glory. From space to underwater, from up-close and personal one-on-one encounters to large-scale slaughter this story of a happy Western world decimated by a South American power bloc—the Federation—after their Gravity-defying takeover of Reagan-era Star Wars hardware is pure gaming pulp fiction.
Despite early suggestions, it’s not the story of one man and his dog. Penned by Traffic scribe Steven Gaghan, the campaign is a short six or so hours split into 18 easily digestible chunks. That helps make each moment, and its following events, easily accessible as you might find yourself in a modern firefight, then thrust back in time for story exploration and carnage, then shooting down Apache helicopters, then buzzing beaches with a tankbuster, then using a really cool remote sniper rifle to elicit ultimate pain on those who would destroy a baseball stadium. Oh, and also packing a remote device on your dog, Riley, to control him through shrubbery and use the pooch to rip the throats out of unsuspecting bad guys.
Riley was always going to be polarizing, and his involvement is pretty cool. But his own story arc is bizarrely short-circuited in a way that indicates a story-telling struggle with his evolution as a character as the world-shattering story unfolds. And I’m not going to spoil it. There are very cool Riley moments, and some roll-your-eyes Riley moments.
While the dialogue is never groan-worthy, the pacing, some abrupt switches, and overall family-at-war plotline are thin. Some of the gameplay design does mean you use plenty of weapons and the new sprint-and-slide mechanic in interesting, but hardly groundbreaking ways.
However, Infinity Ward tapped all its talents in a wide range of multiplayer features, functions, and shoot-em-up glory. Multiplayer not only addresses and improves some key fundamentals from past games in the franchise, but it also adds smart, satisfying modes alongside expertly designed maps that should keep every COD multiplayer fan engaged.
I mean, it’s still Call of Duty multiplayer—and to be fair, Black Ops II has largely been a stellar performer—but the tweaks in Ghosts are cohesive and effective. In our time playing it was already clear how a couple of the 14 maps were suiting particular game modes and earning those lobby votes as the choice of newcomers and veterans from the dev team alike. A couple of the new modes riff on the excellent Kill Confirmed mechanic, and they’re all fun to play, with unique strategies and dynamics—Search and Rescue was particularly fun. What isn’t so hot is the much-ballyhooed Cranked mode where when you get a kill a timer ticks down until you explode. Maybe I’m missing it, but the mode just doesn’t work in practice as imagined on paper.
But so many background multiplayer elements make sense. The system of assigning perks based on a points total provides excellent personalization. The new Marksman class of guns is interesting, but without enough time to see how it plays out balanced against the other options, it’s tough to evaluate. As a team player I appreciate the Strike Packages, letting me support my team despite numerous deaths. While weapons are named differently, many will feel familiar and for expert players take just a handful of games to figure if favorite loadouts that work for you work here.
What does make a difference to Ghosts as a value proposition is the inclusion of Squads. You can customize a team of 10 and play multiplayer matches with each individual to level and Prestige them. But then you can bring these soldiers together as a squad to challenge other Squads. The system is so dense in options its almost convoluted, but the upshot is that you can bring six of your guys (real co-op players or AI) into a match against another team. Or, you can put your squad out there and have other players play against the AI while you’re eating, sleeping, ablutioning, whatever. It’s an interesting take, and playing solo with a squad, watching the AI chase down objectives in CTF or Search and Rescue showed that while there are clear patterns of behavior underpinning the AI, it can still shoot, can still hit or miss, and still make dumb decisions. On the more basic difficulty levels it’s likely to be too easy for the hardened players, but ramp it up and those virtual guys can shoot.
Then there’s Extinction, which, quite fairly, will be dubbed as Ghosts’ Zombies. It is, with aliens. The plot line conceit makes fictional sense, but I really hope it’s not part of Ghosts future storytelling. Unless the modern warfare got so modern it became a bug hunt and we’re looking at Ghosts 2 being Gears of War in first-person. That’s not to besmirch the actual mode, which when you’re leveled-up, equipped, and communicating, is a great hour of four-player co-operative action. Playing different roles as tank, medic, engineer, or weapon specialist provides team role variation. The pace is brisk, and a smart team will probably blow through the hour-long story right on schedule. But it does provide a different vibe for the Call of Duty universe. It does introduce a basic race of aliens. It’s enjoyable for what co-op engenders, but will need more content to have the legs of Zombies.
We should also mention that Call of Duty Elite is now simply the Call of Duty app. While the tracking of stats is known and handy, the big addition is Clan Wars, where you form a clan and over the course of two weeks fight battles across different game modes to earn clan points. It’s a meta-game that’s going to take some time to flesh out, and given that “this is not Elite 3.0” it’s clear that lingering concerns with the past iterations are still fresh, even though this new app looks slick, effective, and functional.
Like pretty much every Call of Duty game in the last few years, the volume of content is always impressive. On Xbox 360 the game looks good and you know all the Live functions will work smoothly. There’s no question that the PS4 version has a visual edge, regardless of what we can’t say about other platforms right now. But the content is identical all the way.
From a story standpoint the single-player campaign is less ambitious than Black Ops II and less effective, despite several cool, fun moments. But wow, volume of content, tight multiplayer, and interest in Extinction, Ghosts is classic Call of Duty. How the multiplayer pans out in the competitive gaming space will be interesting to see, but with Clan Wars and modes you won’t be lost for options to keep you entertained until Call of Duty Next. Whatever that will be.
+ Tons of content
8.5 / 10