Call Of Duty Ghosts is a quieter, more flexible beast than its predecessor, which takes more risks with the franchise's world-conquering template
By now, Call Of Duty isn't just a gaming franchise, it's an event. Every successive entry in this series lands with the impact of a blockbuster film or a shiny new device from Apple. Fans line up around blocks, millions of units are shifted and loads of people call in sick to work the day after the latest Call Of Duty comes out.
Call Of Duty: Ghosts is the sixth game released since Call Of Duty 4 Modern Warfare transformed COD into a record-breaking and world-shaking gaming franchise. Infinity Ward has to be feeling the pressure.
Call Of Duty Ghosts: Plot
It's to the developer's credit then, that it takes some necessary risks with Activision's flagship shooter IP. Apparently the plot for Call of Duty Ghosts began as Modern Warfare 4, but flowered into what exists now.
The modern weapons, equipment and military tech are still present and correct, but the world of Ghosts is one where the status of United States as a superpower has been obliterated by an attack from a unified South American Federation. The US, far from being a military hegemony, is now on the back foot with invaders pouring through its southern and coastal borders.
The player takes on the role of a soldier named Logan who patrols what's left of the California border after San Diego was reduced to a mass of craters. After he and his brother Hesh pick their way through the rubble of south California for a bit, they stumble across an elite cadre of soldiers known as the Ghosts and it's not long before both Hesh and Logan join their ranks.
Call Of Duty Ghosts: Characters
The fact that the player (Logan) is accompanied on a multitude of mission by his brother Hesh – as well as the pair's dog, Riley – is presumably meant to make them connect to the character on familial level.
One of the themes of Ghosts, we've been told, is the importance of family, but frankly, this is territory COD should never be aiming for. This is a series that banked its reputation on the twin punch of a deep multiplayer and a campaign where shock and awe is the order of the day.
While emotional connection has its place it's hard here as the characters are slightly unbelievable – being as they are presented as unique, elite soldiers, capable of blowing massive holes in the enemies resources and supply lines while numbering just a handful.
The dialogue that spills from their mouths is also so clangingly bad at times, that one surmises the work of Stephen Gaghan – nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay for the film Traffic and credited as writer here – probably contributed, at most, a plot outline.
Call Of Duty Ghosts: Campaign
That having been said, Call Of Duty Ghosts presents a compelling vision of a future in which the USA has been taken down a peg, and while some missions are as one-note as those in previous COD games, there's more variation here overall.
Given the fact that the Ghosts are a stealthy infiltration unit, there's more opportunity for Infinity Ward to hit myriad beats in the same mission. A level where the Ghosts break into a skyscraper in South America stands out, as the way the action escalates from a stealthy hacking mission into a full blown dash through the building as it snaps in half is particularly sublime.
The best level is arguably the mission involving the Ghosts impersonating enemy soldiers as they infiltrate a weapons factory deep in enemy territory. Here, the action moves between knife-edge tension and visceral gun battles and then back again with frightening ease.
The developers even find time to toss in a tower-defence section and chase on rails, with the player covering the Ghosts' escape with a turret gun.
Where Infinity Ward fail to impress with level design, they seek to silence critics with new and interesting battlegrounds. Underwater battles, gunfights in zero gravity in space, power-sliding tank battles and a race across the top of speeding train are just some of the highlights – and they're all as fun as they sound.
The only times the campaign really sags is when its beats feel too familiar (such as when players end up staring at the AI allies backsides because Logan seems incapable of opening doors himself) or when the Ghosts are given any space to stand around talking to each other.
Call Of Duty Ghosts: Multiplayer
But as any COD fan will tell you, the campaign is a mere hors d'oeuvre for players to enjoy before they get stuck into the game's main course: the online multiplayer. For Ghosts, Infinity Ward has taken a more open-ended approach – mirroring Treyarch's efforts in Black Ops 2 in some ways – allowing players more customisation options.
Players can now select perks from the same categories and they're based on points systems, which tie in to how potent they are. KillStreak rewards are balanced, but the biggest sea change here is the fact that players can select and buy any perk, reward, gun or piece of equipment and unlock it, provided they've earned enough in-game cash.
In other words, if it can be used on the battlefield, one can buy it. However, cosmetic upgrades need to be unlocked through in-match achievements and levelling up. In a way they're like visual bragging rights. Oh, and for the first time ever in a COD game, players can select female avatars for their online matches.
The list of match types contains some familiar faces – Free-For-All, Kill Confirmed, Team Deathmatch, Domination and so on – but are a robust list of newcomers.
Some of them feel like mods on well worn match types – Search & Destroy is a hybrid of Kill Confirmed and Demolition, for example – while others are brand new – Blitz, for example, involves scoring points by entering an enemy's end zone while preventing them from doing likewise.
There are a couple here, though, that feel like challenge bait for the hardest of the hardcore; Cranked, for example is a mode in which players have to score a kill every 30 seconds or they die.
Call Of Duty Ghosts: Squads & Extinction
Newbies have a gentler entry into the online fragfest this year through Squads Mode, which is essentially an expanded version of 'Combat Training' from the first Black Ops game. In it, players can compete against each other in where most of their team is rounded out by bots.
These can be one-on-one affairs – in which bots will score the lion's share of the kills on a player – or bot vs humans and bots where mates can play co-operatively with each other. There's even a pared down version of Modern Warfare 3's Survival Mode (Horde) tossed in for good measure, except here it's called Safeguard.
Finally, Extinction rounds out the package. The setting is familiar to anyone who has ever player COD: Black Ops 2's zombie mode; four players are dumped into a map filled with hostile creatures, given a task to accomplish and are awarded cash for each kill, with which they can then buy weapons and equipment. This time, however, they're fighting an invasion of feral alien quadrupeds, rather than a zombie horde.
Even without the undead, there's fun to be had. In Extinction, the idea is to use a drill to dig through the roots of alien plants while alien pooches attack from all sides.
Players can deploy ammo, guard turrets, explosives and there are even a couple of items in their environments – such as a firetrap – that they can unlock, provided they have the cash. It recreates the frenetic shooter action and resource management from Black Ops 2's zombie mode, but it's closer in spirit to Valve's Left 4 Dead series. To wit, communication is essential; if you don't work as a team, you won't last long.
Call Of Duty Ghosts: Verdict
Call Of Duty: Ghosts will probably sell by the truckload and it's likely to delight the COD fanbase. But those who have never been swayed by COD may feel their reservations carry more weight with this year's iteration.
Infinity Wards deserve kudos for making a more flexible beast than they have in recent memories, but Ghosts doesn't push the envelope enough to be considered a true innovation for the series – even if it does have a dog in it.
Call of Duty Ghosts release date: 5 November 2013
Call of Duty Ghosts: £ 39.99 (On Xbox 360)