Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 | PS4 | Xbox One (tested)
Developers: Infinity Ward
For all of the gentle ribbing, the dog jokes, the constant yearly laments of iteration rather than innovation, Call of Duty has a place of pride on my gaming shelf. It's never been my favourite FPS series, but it's so readily accessible, so easy to slip into. It's like a comfy pair of slippers or a pint of London Pride: it's a safe bet. You know where you are with Call of Duty.
But in a bid to ring the changes this year, Infinity Ward are bidding goodbye to the Modern Warfare sub-franchise for the time being and looking towards something a bit new. It'll be rigidly scripted, of course; there'll no doubt be plot holes galore and cheesy, overbearing statements of patriotic propaganda; but so too will there be enormously entertaining setpieces, reams of ridiculous explosions, and no small amount of high-drama and cinematic tension.
Call of Duty is a multiplayer leviathan, but we'll get to that in due course. Let's kick off with where Infinity Ward are taking the Michael Bay-esque, rollercoaster of bombast that is the campaign first of all. Let's go into space.
The mission we witness in our developer demonstration is the same that's referenced in the recent singleplayer trailer. The backdrop to Ghosts is that America is no longer a superpower; we'll be fighting as the underdog in this one. With dogs. Geddit?! But now we know why. It seems that in order to try and maintain its position as the dominant world power, the US developed a satellite superweapon named Odin. This device would be capable of firing rods at precise targets around the globe that could have the impact of a nuclear strike but without any of the radiation fallout.
But south of the Equator, the countries of South America have formed a new rising power, banding together to form the Federation, and an uneasy truce between the Americas is broken when Federation troops mount an attack on the space station looking after Odin, and attempt to take control of the weapon.
Our demo starts with the player assuming the role of one of the Odin astronauts. The space shuttle Daedalus cruises into view -- our ticket back to Earth has arrived. But floating back to the station with our companion, we quickly reaise that something is wrong once the airlock has been shut. Enemy combatants pour out of the shuttle, swimming towards us in zero-G, spitting bullets. The epic drums kick in, the music swells, voices are shouting instructions and alerts, and Houston is not responding. Several Federation soldiers are dispatched in messy fashion, the tight confines of the space station perfectly suited to COD's narrow, linear stylings. There's an explosion, and we are sucked out into space.
The radio crackles, Houston is on the line, and the folks back on Earth do not bring good news. The Federation have wrestled control of the satellite away from the US and Odin begins to charge up. Rods spit forth, hurtling towards L.A., San Diego, Miami, and Houston itself. The astronauts are charged with desperately trying to blast the satellite off course by blowing up bits of its chassis, hopefully realigning the device and eventually bringing it into Earth's atmosphere where it might burn up on re-entry, or plunge towards detonation on the surface. The death toll from the first wave comes in: there have been 27 million casualties, and the US is being invaded.
It's absurdly silly stuff. This is the stuff Moonraker was made of, after all! But I find that the more ridiculous Call of Duty gets, the more I enjoy it, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't watching all of this unfold with an enormous grin on my face. I shouldn't be able to hear these explosions, I think to myself. And what about the guns themselves, operating in a vacuum. Would that even work? And then I remember that modern ammunition can actually oxidise itself, so that wouldn't be a problem. But I only think about these things for a second or two, because then my mind is overrun by the big, dumb, beautiful spectacle.
So, more COD, then. But now in space. Sweet.
From there, we hit the multiplayer, and a few changes have been rung here. For starters, the Perks system has been overhauled. Things are much more freeform now, with an emphasis on personal customisation. You can now invest in whatever you like, whenever you like thanks to the new points-based system, which is a welcome change. The Perks grid is divided up into seven categories -- Speed, Handling, Stealth, Awareness, Resistance, Equipment, and Elite -- and you can mix and match to your heart's content.
Strike packages have been brought back from Modern Warfare 3, but they have been somewhat rebalanced and there are a few new toys to play with. The Night Owl is a useful little aerial drone for the Support package, which identifies enemies in the near vicinity and will move to distract adversaries and defend you in combat. Riley's brethren also make an appearance. Attack dogs are awesome. They'll bark and growl when danger comes too close, and they'll avenge your death should you cop it in front of them, before defending your corpse. If you respawn before your dog gets shot, your canine buddy will come bounding over to wherever you respawned, taking out enemies on the way.
Dogs are awesome.
Squads is an interesting new game mode too. Taking the place of SpecOps, the Squads mode place an emphasis on players creating multiple profiles on their account, perhaps tailoring these soldier profiles to specific class types with specific loadouts. You choose six out of the ten slots available to you, and those six soldiers form your Squad. From here, you can play offline against AI bots, with the AI taking over control of your squadmates too, or you can invite up to five friends to get involved as well. Players will also be able to battle it out against opponent squads in a sort of asynchronous multiplayer manner, with defending, offline players, determining the battle map and fine tuning the loadouts for their squads. If your squad does well, you get a nice little XP bonus even while you're away from your game.
Speaking of soldier creation, Ghosts finally brings female playable characters to the table, and it's about damn time. It's a shame that this is even an issue, because there's really no excuse for not having female playable avatars in a multiplayer title, and let's hope more games follow suit. Choice is wonderful, after all, and if you're going to be sinking days, weeks and months into a game, you want your virtual character to look the way you want -- the 24,000+ different outfit combinations should help with that.
There were a few other things to take away from the preview event as well. The first is that Call of Duty ID is a thing, and all it really means is that there'll be cloud saves for your profile. This seems like a small thing, but given that Activision are heavily incentivising next-gen upgrades (it'll cost just £10 to upgrade if you want a shinier version of Ghosts for your brand new Xbone/PS4), it's good to see that you can port across your profile, unlocks, progression, and Prestige. If you have a 360 and your friend has a PS4, it's no problem. Just download your profile and get cracking.
The second is that Infinity Ward are making a big deal out of destruction modelling too and changeable battlefields. It's a little underwhelming at first, in the same sort of way that Battlefield 3's Close Quarters expansion pack was a little underwhelming. Trailers promise us clouds of debris and whirlwinds of smoke, but that doesn't really happen. There's a bit of Levolution going on here too, though Activision aren't calling it that. One of the Team Deathmatch levels we find ourselves in has a player-triggered event that will see the petrol station at the heart of the level collapse in on itself. It happens once during our hands-on, and the scripting that works in singleplayer feels little flat here. Another level sees a KEM strike level the entire map, reducing pretty much everything to ruins and rubble, , but we don't really get to see this happen. The strike occurs, kills us, and we wake to find the level has changed. It's like a magic trick where someone tells you that they can make something disappear, asks you to shut your eyes, and then chucks whatever the item is into a nearby bin and shouts, "Ta-daaaaah!"
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Ghosts, though, is how much the development team have listened to their fanbase. The inclusion of female soldiers came from clamourings for exactly that. The same goes for the tactical slide, which is really an animation answer to the player behaviour of immediately dropping down when you encounter an enemy. Now it looks cool and feels badass, and that's pretty much COD's modus operandi. There's a Rainbow Six Vegas-esque lean mechanism now, and mantling feels far more natural than it has before. It's not on a par of something like Titanfall, but it does mean that you won't lose speed when dashing along.
I hadn't played a game of COD in 18 months, but it's like riding a bike, and I had a blast. Welcome back, soldier/astronaut/canine warrior.