It's been a while, hasn't it, Call of Duty? You haven't been high on my radar, but that's not your fault, you're just not within my normal wheelhouse. I tend to prefer third-person titles and my deathmatch shooter of choice was the old sci-fi-leaning Unreal Tournament series. My last foray into your pond was the first Modern Warfare, which I admit was a game of great craft that just didn't hit me in the heart. Certain first-person titles can definitely capture my interest, like last year's Far Cry 3 or Dishonored, but my preferences tend to lie in a different direction.
So here we stand on the eve of a console transition and Call of Duty: Ghosts stands as one of the games that can truly illustrate what you're leaving behind with the current generation and what you're gaining with the next. So how did the PlayStation 3 version fare with me?
Surprisingly okay actually.
Let's hit those graphics first. The Call of Duty engine is definitely showing its age. Ghosts does some impressive things with its levels - more about that later - but after spending much of the year with next-gen console demos and my PC, the PlayStation 3 version feels like it's at the end of its lifespan. Textures could use some work, characters sport noticeable polygon heads at times, and the entire thing is jaggy and aliased all to hell. If I had to guess, the team at Infinity Ward prioritized framerate over sheer graphical quality as Ghosts just didn't wow me as much as Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag did last week. It's a different aim and I'm sure hardcore FPS fans appreciate the 60 frames per second more.
The story in Call of Duty: Ghosts surprised me, because it shares more with post-apocalypse science fiction or G.I. Joe than it does with real-world events. The game begins with the destruction of California via orbital bombardment and first-person atmospheric re-entry, only to jump ten years into the future to what's left of the United States. While the war between the weakened United States and the South American Federation fills in the game's background, the game's driving conflict is the Ghosts versus former teammate Gabriel Rorke. A mission gone wrong saw Rorke left for dead and now he has returned for revenge on those who betrayed him. Yeah, it sounds pretty 'action movie', and it really is.
The cast is pretty small. You're thrust into the role of the mute Logan Walker, but Logan really isn't the main character of the game. Instead, Logan's brother Hesh and his father Elias are the focuses; Hesh does all the talking that a normal main character would do, in and out of loading screens, and Elias has a past directly tied to Rorke. Outside of Hesh, Elias, and Rorke, there's also a few Ghost team members, notably Merrick and Keegan. And... that's it. You'll spend most of the 18 mission, five-hour campaign following these guys around and they're not given much depth. In practice, they're like talking versions of the waypoint notifications you'll find in other games. They'll tell you what you need to do, they'll sit at the next door you need to breach, and they'll shoot at enemies with you. They're mostly invincible, so you can peg them in the head and they'll drop to the ground, only to get back up seconds later. I tested what happened when you really unload on them: the game chides you on friendly fire and sets you back to the last checkpoint. Ah, well.
You're probably wondering how the dog, Riley, fits in. Riley captured everyone's attention at the first reveal of Ghosts, but he doesn't play a huge part in the game. Riley is only in the game for around three missions and one of those has you carrying him for half of it. Otherwise, he operates as a living drone: you'll occasionally take control of Riley for scouting and stealth sections. That's all you get. He's not around long enough for a strong bond to be created, outside of the fact that he's a dog. You love dogs, right?
Call of Duty: Ghosts reminds me of Uncharted when it comes down to actual gameplay: rote, refined cover shooting punctuated by absolutely stunning set pieces. The level design is pretty boring since it's based on real-world locations and facilities, but what Infinity Ward does with those levels at times is awe-inspiring. The first mission starts with a city caving in around you and the rest of the game continues to deliver. A hectic chase across an ice field, parachuting from a falling skyscraper, running through a city as it floods, swimming on the ocean floor amid falling debris, and sprinting across the deck of a sinking aircraft carrier; it's all pretty damn awesome. You've done the shooting before, but the crazy level destruction Infinity Ward gets up to is worth a look.
That's why it's a shame that the graphics aren't completely up to snuff. Some of the things done in the levels make me want to pick up the next-gen version of Ghosts just to see what Infinity Ward did with significantly more powerful hardware. And I can do that easily because Activision not only has a $10 upgrade program available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but progress carries over to next-generation consoles via your Call of Duty account.
Ghosts is played by the book. You'll rush from area-to-area and scene-to-scene, shooting up South Americans and hunting Rorke. Ghosts' delivery is like a big-budget action film: things explode, people yell, threats are made, and everyone's deadly serious. It doesn't always work. One emotional moment between Logan and Hesh is delivered as orbital kinetic harpoons destroy a fleet of the enemy's ships in the background. After the semi-serious ending, the credits are accompanied by a new Eminem song. That's just the kind of game it is: all bravado, falling debris, and explosions. The campaign would probably work better in an action film because there the lead character would pull you in with a great performance or sheer charisma. But Logan is a non-character, and Hesh is just an angry cipher. As I said before, Ghosts felt a lot like Uncharted as I played it, but the game lacks that great cast to keep you invested.
I entered with few expectations, having only played Modern Warfare, but I left with a renewed respect for Infinity Ward's craft. They've put together a nice little thrill ride in the campaign, even if the old engine lets them down a bit on the PlayStation 3. If you can wait, the game's presentation may be better suited to a platform with greater graphical fidelity, like the PlayStation 4 or PC. The plot is straight out of an action film, but if you know that going into it, you'll be fine. I'd honestly say it's perfect for a Redbox if you're not to tied to Call of Duty multiplayer.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing exactly what Call of Duty: Ghosts delivers on the multiplayer front, and after giving it some “real world” post-release playtesting, it’s clear that it’s business as usual.
First impressions are good. The graphics are a step up from previous editions of the series, with a little more finesse and detail that helps improve visual acuity. From muzzle flashes and smoke to player movement at the edge of draw distance, the game feels visceral and more immersive. It’s certainly not a big leap forward, but these details help articulate the action in an even more realistic fashion. It’s something you get used to almost immediately and the take for granted soon after, but it’s a positive step forward.
New multiplayer modes have been introduced as expected, and most are fun. There’s the usual suspects in the form of FFA and Deathmatch modes, and Infected will be familiar to anyone who has a history with the franchise. Search and Rescue/Destroy and Domination step it up a notch by adding some objective strategy to the usual bullet exchange, and Cranked is a little gimmicky, but fun when you’re with a good team. I also like the idea of Kill Confirmed, which changes the way you approach the game tactically, because you’re often faced with the choice of taking a risk and running into a firing lane to pick up dogtags, or sitting back and waiting to see if you can catch out an enemy player.
Squads is perhaps the most interesting departure for the game, and adds some much-needed variety to the action. I think it still needs some work – the AI isn’t always convincing – but it’s a welcome change of pace, and one that I think works well for those like me who like multiplayer, but might want a break from spending time with other real players, particularly after unpleasantness. I'm hoping that Infinity Ward continues to develop this aspect of the game in future editions, as I feel it has some terrific potential, particularly if it could be applied to more sophisticated game modes. It's the sort of change-up I think the series needs, and would open up new avenues for the game designers to explore.
Put all of this together, and you have a rock solid multiplayer package that contains just what the hardcore COD audience wants, while conservatively adding some new features and modes to switch things up a little. It's the classic COD formula, with new modes and a suite of tweaks, refinements and fine-tuning. And that's its blessing and its curse. In many respects the series feels like the same old song, albeit a great one, being expertly remixed. It’s a winning formula, and I cannot blame Activision for sticking with it, as it seems to be something that people love. But as we transition generations, I'm hoping to hear some different melodies – and perhaps even a different song.
Sure, Call of Duty: Ghosts is a very good multiplayer shooter, and undoubtedly the best of its type. But it stands on the shoulders of the greats that have come before it - and because of that, I feel like it's suffering from diminishing returns. I cannot deny its quality and finesse, but after a generation of iterative refinements, it’s feeling too familiar. Too safe. Ghosts is better than the last COD game, but it’s incrementally better, not significantly better. Which means if you still love COD’s very focused multiplayer gunplay and just can’t get enough of it, or, more importantly, you play regularly with a team, this is nothing but a Very Good Thing. But if you’re a more casual player who’s experienced previous COD games and was hoping for something a little more varied and different this time around – perhaps something like the excellent Extinction Mode explored to its full potential, or cooperative modes that are more creative and fun – you’ll be disappointed.
- Visuals: Call of Duty's old engine takes another lap around the track, but it's definitely slowing with age.
- Music: It plays appropriate action movie music, but I couldn't tell you a theme that sticks out for me.
- Interface: Ghosts has a minimal UI that tries to stay out of your way. It works well.
- Lasting Appeal: Most people are playing Ghosts for multiplayer, but if single-player is your thing, the campaign is five hours tops. Not much to see after that, other than picking up the hidden Rorke files in each level.