As Infinity Ward bring their franchise to a new generation of consoles, they have also decided to change the setting. Ghosts sets a new universe and timeline in motion, but how well have they done, and what changes have been wrought on the multiplayer?
Call of Duty’s single player campaigns have long been a roller-coaster ride of war, always pushing you from one location and pair of eyes to another. Ghosts sees you sitting down and strapping in for the latest attraction, starting in an alternate universe where the Middle Eastern oil has dried up, the South Americans are the rising superpower and an uneasy peace is breached by the invasion of an orbital weapons platform.
Following these spectacular and cinematic opening events, the United States fight to a bloody stalemate, but ten years later the country is at risk once more with Logan and Hesh – the two brothers through whose eyes you witness the catastrophic ODIN orbital weapon strike – right at the heart of it all, alongside the eponymous Ghosts.
The first third of the story is easily the weakest part of the game. The lines are hammy and delivered by inconsistent performances that can vary from sentence to sentence at times. It’s also where it sticks closest to the standard Call of Duty formula, but somehow doesn’t quite hit the mark. A helicopter mission, for example, has strangely poor event timing, and there’s a persistent lack of objective pointers throughout the whole game, meaning I was too often hunting for where to go next and what to do.
However, once the obligatory time jumping mission has passed, something just clicks into place. It starts to feel like an action oriented spy film, or perhaps more accurately, a series of heists. Yes, it still descends into shooting and gunplay regularly, but one mission you’re rappelling down a skyscraper, the next it’s blowing open a vault and busting your way back out.
It knows when to speed up and slow down, but by the time the final act kicks in, with the game’s pace ramping up quite formidably on the way to the climactic sequences, I’m in for the ride to simply enjoy this Hollywood-esque blockbuster.
That’s not to say that there’s aren’t those problems along the way. To my previous grievances you can add a fairly uninspiring nemesis and a disappointing hangover from previous enemy and ally AI systems. Poster-dog Riley, for example, is a lovely creation, but exhibits the exact same ability to switch from one action to another in the blink of an eye, and just watching him breaks that lifelike facade very quickly.
Between console generations the animations, AI and set pieces are replicated identically from PS3 to PS4, so that the current generation only suffers in comparisons through the lower resolution, lower detailed and sometimes bad looking assets, and sees noticeable pop-in in places. The PS4 version though, is a delight in 1080p and has plenty of opportunity to impress you. The opening in outer space is a particular highlight, with a mass of debris flying everywhere, and there are plenty of other spectacular moments throughout. It’s difficult to go back to the current generation after that.
Instead of the AI in single player, Infinity Ward have crafted Squads for multiplayer, a new section of the game which to all intents and purposes bring bot matches back into the limelight. The key focus has been to make them play in as human a fashion as possible.
It’s an addition off the back of being able to customise the appearance of your soldier, from gender to uniform suit, for the first time. Now you can curate a group of ten characters, levelling them up, creating load outs for them, and taking control of individuals in the online battles. With Squads you can then take your soldiers online as AIs to do battle with other squads in a handful of ways, from co-op to head-to-head.
On the whole, I’d say they do a fairly good job. They will camp to a certain degree, while an AI equipped with a sniper rifle will go and try to actually snipe while shotgun toting AI will zip around and get up close. There is just that feeling of being able to see the inner workings under the surface, as I saw (admittedly high levelled) AI swivel and gun me down quite unerringly, via the killcam.
It’s an aspect which will no doubt iterate over the years, but for now provides a nice diversion for those that don’t want to head online into the fray and who still want to earn experience, which folds back into the main multiplayer progression.
As ever, so much of the game will ride on the multiplayer, and this is where the majority of people will spend their time. Simply put, it feels like it’s more Call of Duty, but with some of the tweaks that you would expect to occur.
The new setting naturally brings new guns, with the excellently named Honey Badger Assault Rifle and a new class of Marksman rifle added to the roster, sitting a step below sniper rifles for medium to long range and quick firing. Assault, Support and Specialist return as the three Strike Packages, rebalanced since Modern Warfare 3, while the perks system has been shifted to a more open system.
You can pick whatever you like, up to a ten point limit. The balancing comes in how many points a perk costs, so the more powerful ones cost three points, while the more subtle changes are just one. I found it very easy to cobble together something with speed and stealth in mind.
It all comes together nicely in battles, with a variety of new game modes added to the mix. Team Deathmatch and Kill Confirmed are where most people will play, but there’s a bunch of variations on these themes. Search & Rescue takes Search & Destroy but allows you to revive comrades, Grind sees you needing to bank your kills in two control points, Blitz is like a frenetic form of Capture the Flag where every player is a flag, and so on.
Some of the maps are quite lovely, in a fairly subdued fashion. Stonehaven sees a sprawling British castle ruin turned into a war zone, in what is surely one of the biggest and most open maps to have featured in a Call of Duty game. It compliments the range of maps which are mostly derived from single player locations, and shifts the visuals in a new direction.
Each map features some elements of destruction, but these are definitely on the more subtle side of things. Strikezone does feature a player triggered map-wide explosion that transforms it into a smouldering wreck, but generally it’s the small scale changes, which maybe deforms some cover or sets a pile of logs rolling. It’s nowhere near the destruction that can be wrought in Battlefield, and I’m not sure fans of the series would want it to be.
That’s where the game is stuck, in finding the right balance between change and staying true to the core. Even a minor shift can turn the large and vocal fan base away, and so this isn’t the big sweeping change to rejuvenate the series in the eyes of those who have tired and moved on.
Call of Duty: Ghosts does a good job on all accounts. The single player eventually goes in a direction which I liked and enjoyed, while the multiplayer holds onto what it does best, with a few tweaks to the formula. It even manages to straddle the generational divide quite well, even though the current machines suffer badly in comparison.
However, it is generally more of the same, and really doesn’t push itself hard enough to overhaul and redefine what Call of Duty can be.
This review is based on the PS3 and PS4 versions of the game, which were played at a dedicated two day event, hosted by Activision. This involved a hotel stay at their expense and playing the game under tailored and ideal conditions.