Call of Duty’s Modern Warfare and Black Ops eras have turned the franchise into one of the true monsters of gaming. But as it transitions to Ghosts and the next generation, I believe it stands at a crossroads.
During the previous generation, Call of Duty has had its ups and downs as a single-player game. Each addition to the series has always been fun, but some titles just haven’t flowed particularly smoothly. At worst, characters and events have felt disconnected, and the plot merely a mechanism to justify amazing individual set pieces. And some games have also been very easy to blast through. At best, the action has felt like a convincing war zone, and delivered an intense and exciting challenge.
This time around, Call of Duty: Ghosts’ story feels solid. The experience is entertaining and enjoyable, and features some spectacular sequences that feel almost cinematic. But it's also a little too brief, taking the better part of an afternoon and perhaps the early evening to complete. That might be a disappointment for some, but to others, the single-player game is more of a sideshow to the main event that is Ghosts’ multiplayer mode. Which this time around feels like business as usual. The traditional modes you’d expect are there: FFA and Deathmatch offer bread-and-butter, no-frills action for purists who simply want to exchange bullets with others. Infected also makes a return, which makes a refreshing change from the usual non-stop gunplay, and indeed brings about a strange silence to the action that’s almost unnerving.
Where things get more interesting, however, is with the objective-based modes – Search and Destroy/Rescue, Domination and Blitz. I’ve played these with pick-up groups, and frankly they can be a bit of a mess if you're with a team of people who aren't paying attention. As a support/defensive player, there’s nothing more irritating than seeing the entire team take off and head for objectives, leaving zero defenders. But if you’re fortunate enough to be playing with people who actually understand the concept of team play and watch what's going on, rather than running around as individuals, these modes are exceptionally fun. Even more so if you’re playing as a true team, whose members are communicating and coordinating.
I’m a big fan of these more team-oriented modes, as they help add a layer of sophistication to the more route-one approach of a typical Deathmatch game. Like I said, they’re not necessarily best suited for pick-up play, because they often descend into chaos, but when played right, they deliver the best kind of multiplayer action: tense, gripping and sometimes incredibly tight matches where snatching victory from the jaws of defeat can totally make your gaming evening.
Kill Confirmed is also an entertaining mode, and it works for all levels of players. It's a simple concept, but mixes up the action enough to give it a slightly different feel. Generally speaking, you have to play offensively and make quick decisions about whether you should pick up or perhaps leave dogtags. You need them to score, but at the same time you don't want to necessarily walk out into the open and get nailed in the head by an enemy soldier waiting for someone to approach. Cranked is also fun, but feels a little gimmicky. Basically you get a boost when you kill an enemy, and you have to keep killing to maintain that boost, or you die. It's novel, but it doesn't bring anything really new to the table.
Player avatar customization does, however, and the addition of female body types is a good one. Add to that a smorgasbord of Loadout options and a terrific range of weapons – I freakin’ love the Assault/Marksman rifle – and you’ve got almost everything a Call of Duty multiplayer could ask for.
And in many respects, that’s the game’s blessing and its curse. With an audience so big, and with a hardcore minority of players so phenomenally vocal, Infinity Ward is stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The hardcore fans are quite conservative when it comes to changes to the fundamental gameplay – as was evidenced recently with player backlash to some subtle tweaks to reload times. Then you have the more casual players who don’t necessarily appreciate the subtleties of COD's multiplayer game design, and simply want exciting new and shiny new things to do. Both are in opposition, and I think it's becoming increasingly apparent that the series is having difficulty catering to both.
This time out, it feels like the developer is playing it a little safe. What Call of Duty: Ghosts delivers is a series of terrific multiplayer environments and modes that can facilitate some of the best gameplay of its type. But at the same time, the single-player game and much of the overall action doesn’t feel particularly fresh or new. It’s playing to the more hardcore fans, and it's playing to them incredibly well. But I feel many casual players will find Ghosts just too similar to previous Call of Duties, and therefore a little disappointing.
However, and this is where I get back to the point I began to make at the beginning of this review, there are two things going on in this game that I really, really hope are a portent of things to come.
Firstly, there’s Squads. This is basically bot-multiplayer, and enables you to build a team of bots, level them up, load them out, give them perks and roles, and lead them into battle against other Squads – including ones that your friends have put together. I really like this mode a lot. Although it still needs work, the AI is very good, and delivers all the multiplayer fun you could want, but without the sometimes unpleasant people. But for me, the real fun comes when you start tinkering around with your Squad. Perhaps you want a fast-moving unit with close-combat weaponry to execute aggressive tactical play. Or maybe you’ll load up your guys with heavy weapons and defensive perks and move more slowly, or even hold ground. I find this aspect of the game really fascinating, and I want more of it. I’d love to see this mode get blown out in a future edition of the game - perhaps even modes where you take your squad into battle and try to achieve a series of tactical objectives. There's so much that could be done with it. Indeed, perhaps it’s time for Activision to cut the single-player and multiplayer modes loose from one another and let them run in separate directions. Cross-pollinate for sure, but the franchise is beginning to feel really held back by having PvE and PvP modes intertwined. I think separating them would be a huge benefit. With PvP, the developers could continue to iterate and finesse, which is what that audience wants. And for PvE, all sorts of new things could happen – one of which I hope would be the continued development of Ghosts' new and largely unheralded Extinction.
This experimental-feeling bonus mode adds a multiplayer cooperative aspect to the game, enabling a team of up to four players to pick specific roles and work together to battle their way through an alien invasion scenario. It’s an unfortunately all too brief experience, but it’s absolutely fantastic while it lasts. As you fight, you get to upgrade your gear and buy new stuff. In many respects, it feels like a mash-up of MMO-style dungeon run and Call of Duty. It’s you and your friends playing specific roles vs NPCs, and I love it.
Like Squads, Extinction feels like a tantalizing glimpse into a potential future. While I’m sure many hardcore Call of Duty multiplayers won't be remotely interested in this, I, being an MMORPG fan, love the idea of a co-op version of COD where you and friends could perhaps work together on strategic goals, level up characters, earn new weapons and all the rest of it. Add Squads to something like this, and the sky’s the limit - the game would have potential to go in all sorts of directions.
But while we all dream of what the future of COD might hold, in the here and now, the franchise has moved from the last generation to the next in good form. It looks terrific on PS4, and runs silky-smooth. The lighting in particular is excellent, with subtle effects helping enhance the action. A special mention should also go to the sound, which is spot-on. The use of voice commands in multiplayer is very well executed, and helps you keep track of what’s going on, and the environmental and gun effects are tremendous. But it’s the content that counts, and depending on your point of view, Call of Duty: Ghosts is either too much of the same thing, or the same terrific recipe that now tastes even better. Whichever your position, I think it's clear that COD is suffering from too much iteration. After six good years, the franchise needs a change-up, and I’m hoping that Ghosts’ new features are pointing the way forward.
While we wait to find out whether or not that's the case, hardcore fans can enjoy the most refined and buttoned-down COD multiplayer action yet. Those who might have become a little tired with the series’ formula, however, might very well enjoy Extinction and Squads - but will probably walk away wanting more.