Over the past five years, the Call of Duty franchise has slow-motion breached its way into popular culture, with millions of fans worldwide eagerly enabling last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II to earn over $500 million in just 24 hours. Whether this trend continues remains to be seen, but the bigger question is: does Call of Duty: Ghosts deserve a similar level of success?
Renowned for their po-faced military dialogue and set piece fetishism, the narratives of recent titles haven’t quite been able to live up to the staggering bar set by the exceptional Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and unfortunately, not much has changed this time around.
You command the role of heavy breathing mute, Logan – an American living in the not-too-distant future. In this interpretation of events to come, the nations of South America have banded together to form a fearsome coalition of countries calling themselves the Federation. Having broken a treaty with the USA, the fierce faction launch a devastating orbital strike on major cities all over North America. The fate of the rest of the world is unclear – although this is Call of Duty, so naturally other countries don’t take priority.
Skipping ahead a few years, Logan is now a fully trained soldier trying to keep Federation forces away from what little is left of unoccupied US soil, and it’s while out on patrol with his brother Hesh (a dog name) and their dog Riley (a human name), that things predictably begin to unfold. Our silent protagonist is then thrust from place to place, where he must shoot people, infiltrate enemy bases, and engage in a little stealth, before eventually stumbling upon and joining the ranks of the legendary Ghosts – a squad of highly trained elite soldiers.
One of the major additions to this instalment is dogs. While they’ve appeared in previous games as foes in the campaign and as a reward in the multiplayer, you’ve never been able to take direct control of them. Although Riley is only playable in a few scenarios, these sequences are stand out moments throughout the latest campaign, and it’s a shame that he’s not available more often. Viewing from the perspective of a camera on his head, his duties involve taking out enemy personnel, and, in one mission, crawling through long grass to avoid detection. While we’re not entirely sure whether a war-ready German Shepherd would be all that inconspicuous when crawling through knee-high grass, the experience is exhilarating, as you attempt to remain undetected while scouting out foes, providing a reminder of the ghillie suit missions of old.
Besides the addition of Riley, the glaring issue with the campaign is its familiarity. You’ll frequently find yourself “Running to location A” or “Hacking object B” – it may be a different game, but it’s precisely the same gameplay that you’ll have experienced in previous titles. Another problem is the frequency with which you jet across the globe, as it becomes easy to forget why you're in a particular location at all, especially when it’s merely to gather nondescript ‘intel’.
Nevertheless, these simple tasks almost always result in massive explosions, a huge loss of lives, and raise numerous questions regarding the status of the revered Ghosts themselves. While we understand that a mission where you walk into a building, hold square to "gather intel", and then walk out again wouldn’t be very interesting, it just doesn’t fit thematically when the titular team are supposed to infiltrate enemy bases undetected, yet somehow end up detonating sky scrapers.
Furthermore, despite the fact that the remainder of the US is treading on eggshells and is a shadow of its former self, it seems to have no problem going toe-to-toe with the Federation, matching, and more often than not, beating them in combat with fleets of tanks, helicopters, and jets. This all begs the question: why didn’t they fight back sooner? It is plot holes like this that will completely rip you out of the experience, and with the main villain being a man who’s made it his mission to eradicate the Ghosts one by one, it feels like the Federation only exists to give you something to do during large chunks of the adventure.
Ultimately, the campaign feels inconsistent, with poor dialogue, a completely daft story, and characters that you could never emotionally connect with. There are a couple of great missions – one of which sees you engaging in a shootout in space – but they fail to redeem the lack of compelling narrative.
While the series’ single player department continues its unfortunate downward spiral, though, Call of Duty enthusiasts will be pleased to know that the multiplayer is bigger than ever, with new modes, customisation options, and class combinations. The first thing that we noticed when we jumped into an online game was the visuals. In prior PS3 releases, there was a noticeable drop in graphical fidelity from the campaign to the multiplayer component, but on the PS4, it looks identical. Every sign is legible, the small print on the side of flash bangs is decipherable, and even the seams of uniforms have made the transition from placeholder blurs to what the developer originally intended for you to see. It may be subtle, but it makes all the difference in the world when you can actually distinguish far-off moving shapes as other players.
New game modes include Grind, where you must collect the dog tags of fallen enemies and bank them at a specific location, and Cranked, where you're pressured into maintaining a killstreak before you explode. In addition, there's Hunted, where everyone starts with a pistol, and must rely on ammo drops to gather new weaponry. These join the plethora of existing modes to round out a well-stocked and varied multiplayer experience, even if some of the maps aren’t as convincing as others.
The strongest location by far involves a ruined castle, its grounds, and a hamlet on a hill. From the winding tight corners of the hamlet to the open, hilly landscape outside of the castle walls, it really is a standout piece of design, allowing for all classes and play styles to thrive. Unfortunately, the other locales simply can’t live up to it, with more industrial maps than you can shake a stick at. It's true that most players won't pay too much attention to the scenery while shooting out adversaries, but the aforementioned map was so good that it really made us sit up and take a hard look at the others.
Loadout customisation remains practically unchanged, albeit with new perks, weapons, and strike packages (kill streak rewards). One strike package in particular sees some of Riley’s canine brothers make the leap from the campaign, but rather than swarm enemies in a gang before disappearing, as with previous titles, they’ll follow you around. It’s not possible to directly command your hound, but it’ll tail you closely, rushing any nearby enemies that it sees, and should you die, it’ll trot back across the map to your spawn point in order to rejoin you.
Perhaps the largest addition is character customisation. You can now name, tweak the uniform, and select the gender of your online combatant before taking them into the fray. It’s also possible to unlock multiple characters, customising them all with their own unique loadouts and fashion sense. This is for one of two reasons: the first being that you might enjoy the ease of switching to a whole new character, and the second being Ghosts’ new Squads mode.
Taking pride of place on the main menu, Squads sees you customise your six-person army and lead the computer-controlled warriors into a variety of game types. It’s essentially a bot mode, where you can either shack up with some buddies and take on a team of them, or, flanked by your custom bot team, challenge other players' squads to a showdown – even if they’re offline, with the individuals in question being replaced by more bots. While there’s been a lot of work done to the artificial intelligence since the series’ last outing, though, they still have a nasty habit of acting a little Terminator-like, and you’ll see many a kill cam where they’ll eerily snap onto you through foliage and walls. Also, when playing against an opposing squad, the two teams do tend to rubber band quite a lot, with one group doing extraordinarily well before taking a dive as the opponents attempt to clean up.
Rounding off the impressive amount of content on offer is alien blast-em-up, Extinction. Playing either in split screen or in a team of four online, this sees you transport a compact drill around an alien infested town, protecting it while it destroys the extraterrestrials' hives. Upon placing the drill at one of these burrows, the disgruntled owners will make their opinions known, attacking both the tool and your team, in forms ranging from small, leaping grunts to larger, armoured beasts.
By actually giving you room to breathe and a set of objectives, Extinction already has a huge advantage over its Treyarch developed alternative, but it’s with the addition of loadouts that it really starts to pull away. These aren't the same as those found in standard multiplayer, as you select a class, handgun, ammo type, team support, strike package, and equalizer. Ammo types include incendiary and explosive, and can be thrown on the ground for your team to plunder, while team support includes explosives and armour, equalizers provide high-damage items like miniguns and grenade turrets, and strike packages feature sentry guns and vulture drones.
Just like with zombies, if you die you lose all of your progress and must start from the beginning, but as with the multiplayer, you level up, unlocking more items to kit out your loadout. Everything in your loadout other than your class and choice of handgun is assigned a d-pad direction, and as you kill things and destroy hives you’ll earn money, which can then be spent on placing and using your selected items.
Upon destroying a hive, you’ll be presented with a skill point. This can then be put into any of your loadout slots, from increasing the ammo that a thrown ammo box will award you and your team, to enhanced weapon damage and sentry gun range. There’s a real tactical aspect to setting up your equipment, and no decision should be undertaken without first discussing it with your team. Our fully upgraded armour box came in extremely useful as the level progressed, effectively affording our comrades double health.
Having to begin from the start each time is a little frustrating, and it does get really rather difficult towards the end – but Extinction is a well thought out and slickly executed offering that should provide hours of entertainment all by itself. Attempting to infringe upon Treyarch’s massively popular Zombies mode was always going to be a dangerous game to play, but it looks like the developer in question will have to pull up its bootstraps if it wants to compete in the future.
Call of Duty is a series that's getting stagnant. This latest edition is a solid shooter, with highly tuned mechanics, an addictive multiplayer offering, and a plethora of content to play through – but it very much feels like a familiar game with a few minor adjustments. The new Extinction mode is particularly good, but it's the highlight in a title that's following a tired recipe. Fans of the series will enjoy Call of Duty: Ghosts regardless, but those of you looking for something new will have to dig out those night vision goggles and search elsewhere.