Platforms: PC | PS3 | Wii U | Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developers: Infinity Ward
Call Of Duty is the kitchen sink of the Christmas shooters. It's all things to all gamers - bombastic singleplayer, robust co-op and manic multiplayer action - something for everyone in a single convenient package.
Every year we hear the same old backlash, the tiresome accusations of stagnation and laziness, but every year I've upgraded anyway and recommended that you do the same. Whether we're seeing Captain Price's moustache chronicles through to completion, enjoying new tweaks to the multiplayer formula or revelling in Treyarch's anarchic attempts to subvert the experience, there's always been a reason to ride shotgun on Activision's bandwagon.
What was it again?
For all we know Call Of Duty: Ghosts might feel like a real step forward for the franchise on PS4 and Xbox One, while the PC version seems to be the definitive edition in terms of visuals and features. But if you're sticking with PS3 or Xbox 360 and already own Black Ops II, Infinity Ward's latest effort might feel like less of an upgrade and more like filler material. In fact, the current-gen console version feels so noticeably pared-back that I'm compelled to review it as a standalone product.
We find ourselves in the near future, as the USA fights for its very survival against a federated South America who hijack an orbital weapons platform, because clearly videogame writers have run out of barely plausible ways to cast the most powerful military nation on the planet in a sympathetic light. Into this nonsensical yet astonishingly straight-faced waste of a new setting stride a team of deeply uninteresting nonentities with grim callsigns and no personality whatsoever, pulled along through can only be described as a hot mess of set pieces, slow motion breaches and timed escapes.
Criticising a Call Of Duty game for being a nonsensical stream of 'whoa' moments might seem a bit churlish, but Ghosts goes beyond anything we've yet seen from the series by stringing a selection of truncated set pieces together with no context or vague attempt at pacing. Many of situations in which the forgettable characters find themselves have potential, such as a helicopter strafing run, a tank rampage or rapelling down a skyscraper under cover of darkness; yet every section ends far too quickly to ever develop into something memorable, while the biggest surprises have no build-up at all. You're in space, then back on the ground, in all of ten minutes. The tank is all too keen to throw you into an on-rails turret just when things start to get interesting.
Set pieces only really work when they break up a regular gameplay rhythm, and Ghosts has none whatsoever, nothing to make its biggest moments feel momentous. Unless you count a small number of glum ground-pounding sections that exist solely to knock you over so a squadmate can pick you back up. Or following someone around as they tell us to "hold up" while an enemy patrol passes, else get killed instantly, which we were frankly bored of by the end of Modern Warfare 2. Welcome to the next generation.
Black Ops II may have been equally schizophrenic, but at least its cruelly-underrated branching narrative served to put everything in perspective and give us some replay value beyond the 4-6 hour runtime. Plus, its innovative strike force missions are nowhere to be seen, not to mention memorable characters and big decisions to make.
Sorry Riley fans, but the adorable dog is criminally underused in all but a scant handful of levels, and his big stealth showcase is wasted by the sheer amount of disbelief you'll have to suspend. Beyond the fact that idiotic guards don't hear their screaming mates getting their throats torn out by a slavering mutt mere metres away, we remote control a dog using a tablet. No, really. That rather says it all.
I've always loved Call Of Duty's singleplayer offerings, even including Modern Warfare 3, but Ghosts' campaign is a train wreck. Loud and bloody; a total disaster that's over in a heartbeat.
Luckily the beating heart of the franchise is still pumping away, the slippery nervy team deathmatches that keep us glued to our televisions after a hard day's work. Ghosts is still as enjoyable as ever, making small tweaks to the formula and some subtle smart changes.
Lengthened knife kill animations give attackers a moment of vulnerability to consider, the new slide move lets you round corners in style, while a retooled killstreaks system brings aerial drones and UAVs down to ground level to even the playing field. Though lacking some of the more exotic equipment that Black Ops II brought to the table, it's still seriously good fun, offering a generous selection of gametypes including the new Cranked mode that forces you to kill against the clock. Thoroughly mental stuff, and definitely in keeping with the crazy catharsis that the series is famed for. Especially when you don a set of Juggernaut armour and run around cutting opponents to ribbons while a guard dog watches your back.
The Create A Soldier suite has undergone a fairly radical refit. We're now able to unlock a team of ten squadmates, all of whom boast their progression, cosmetic customisation, loadouts, ranks and unlocks, and all of whom can be played as. It's an initially confusing system that can lead to you taking the wrong soldier into battle, but continued play reveals a versatile new perk system that lets you quickly and easily select the abilities you want, and focus on honing your specific situational playstyle. Weapons handle broadly as you'd expect, a traditional smorgasbord of well-balanced customisable boomsticks.
That said, there are some less-than-successful tweaks to the formula. Mid-mission challenges sometimes task players with completing weapon-specific objectives for extra XP, which can be distracting while playing the objective since it incentivises your teammates to concentrate on their own goals rather than the overall mission, and even occasionally rewards us for teabagging downed opponents. I just... I can't... why?!
Ghosts' map design is a mixed bag, offering some visually bland arenas taken from the campaign along with some more imaginative stages such as a sprawling ruined castle that's ripe for snipers to ply their deadly trade. A token attempt at destructible scenery and setting traps can occasionally make for some interesting dynamic gameplay opportunities, while a range of elevations provide fodder for snipers and shotgunners alike. You'll soon come to pick a few favourites, and appreciate how different game modes totally change the way in which you approach them.
However, if you felt that Modern Warfare 3's maps were too open, directionless and chaotic, you'll be saddened to learn that Ghosts pushes this philosophy yet further. Death can come from anywhere, at any time, with so much open ground and numerous flanking or mantling opportunities to exploit, along with eccentric (read: upsettingly random) spawning locations that can see you appear a stone's throw from unaware enemies. Many matches don't tend to flow and ebb around shifting battle lines and choke points, rather they're messy melees that, while frantic, have little rhyme or reason to them. Whether you enjoy that comes down to personal taste.
Unfortunately the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions have been compromised in several aggravating ways, to the extent where features we took for granted in Black Ops II and even earlier Modern Warfare titles are completely missing. Twelve maximum players in maps balanced for sixteen. Two splitscreen players only. No custom-designed emblems. No replays. No eSports streaming. Though the next-gen and PC versions get around these issues, whether due to their increased player count or onboard DVR that makes Youtube integration ubiquitous, it's thoroughly disappointing to see the current-gen offering so shockingly neutered. If you're wondering, I've docked a whole point for this.
Indeed, if you already own Black Ops II and don't plan on jumping into the next console generation, I'm not entirely sure why you'd want to spend good money on a game with less features. It's fun, sure, but may only be worth an upgrade if all of your regular online acquaintances plan on doing the same.
Squads & Extinction
The new squad-based progression system filters into Ghosts' retooled botmatch mode, predictably named 'Squads.' Go figure. Your entire team can be specialised, customised and named to your heart's content, and then brought into battle against other players' dream teams. Both synchronous and asynchronous matches are available, making for a neat new way of challenging your friends without them having to be online. There's nothing quite like logging in only to discover that your pals have humiliated your squad in your absence, requiring swift vengeance.
Though many players will never touch Squads Mode, I personally rather like it. Whether you want to experiment with new loadouts without letting down a human team, earn a little extra XP, earn bragging rights over your mates or ease yourself into multiplayer in a less fearsome environment, Squads is a smart new addition that can prove surprisingly addictive. Mind you, it's odd that the squads weren't factored into the singleplayer campaign since they're such a prominent new feature. Infinity Ward arguably should have called it Call Of Duty: Squads and let us take the same team of soldiers into the campaign, co-op and multiplayer proper.
Speaking of co-op, the new Extinction mode is a surprise highlight. In contrast to Treyarch's obtuse and impenetrable Zombies mode, Ghosts throws 1-4 players into a very straightforward 'horde' mode against ravening aliens; travelling around an expansive map to destroy alien nests while facing impossible odds. A streamlined class system, standalone progression and a range of handy deployables (mines, ammo crates and turrets to name but a few) encourage players to work together and designate specific roles - not to mention exploit numerous environmental traps such as electric fences or fire walls. It's simple, effective and wonderfully satisfying.
More maps would have been appreciated (sorry: more than one map would have been appreciated), but each match feels totally different and switches up your defensive locations every time. Frankly, I want to see more of this going forward.
- Multiplayer is as enjoyable as ever, plenty of modes and maps
- Smart customisation and addictive new Squads Mode
- Extinction mode is a blast while it lasts
- Atrocious campaign absolutely mustn't start a trilogy
- Multiplayer lacks features and suffers from lowered player count on current-gen consoles
- Many maps are too large for 12 players, all can feel chaotic and unfocused
- Bereft of any meaningful improvements or innovation, even compared to previous games
The Short Version: Call Of Duty: Ghosts is a surprisingly tough sell on current-gen consoles, and wastes the opportunity to push the franchise forward in any meaningful way. Though still a solidly-built shooter that offers the kitchen sink, the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions lack players and features compared to both the next-gen editions, PC and even - most damningly of all - Black Ops II.
It's galling to see a sequel offer less, not more, than games we already own. We'll review the next-gen versions as soon as we can.
Please note that this score pertains specifically to the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions.
A note on platforms: We haven't tested the PS4 or Wii U version of Call Of Duty: Ghosts, and aren't at liberty to discuss our hands-on time with the Xbox One build. The PC version, however, is noticeably superior to the PS3 and Xbox 360 offerings, both in terms of visuals and player count.
Brendan's also made his way through the single player side of the game on the PS3 recently. Check out his feature article, The Highs and Lows of Call of Duty: Ghosts’ Single Player.