As I looked over Activision’s ‘Destiny’ and ‘Call of Duty: Ghosts’ booths at E3 this year one thing jumped out and slapped me in the face: Destiny hauled in a crap load of E3 awards while Ghosts had none. Not one award at E3. Okay, maybe one award for “best use of a dog in a game”, but when it comes to somewhat meaningful awards Ghosts was goose egged at the show. How could this be? How could a billion dollar franchise get shut out like this? This was puzzling as I found the Ghosts demo impressive with some of those fancy next generation Call of Duty visuals on display. Yet everyone seemed ‘meh’ about the game and perhaps even mocking it. A @CallofDutyDog Twitter account even surfaced. Sure it was pretty funny at the time but it also touched on that undercurrent of negativity which has followed the franchise over the past few years. Despite this, the series continues to break sales records year after year. Call of Duty is a household name, it has a massive fan base and it is a fabric of our culture. So where does the franchise go from here? Well a new storyline, new characters, some new modes and a “new” Call of Duty engine is a good start.
I know, it all sounds promising. A new story, some fresh faces and even a dog – sign me up. Heck we even get a new graphics engine. But wait a second. After all these years would we really see a “new” engine? Not quite. It remains the Call of Duty engine of old but it is one that has been refined, or rather evolved into what has become a well-oiled and smooth running machine. After some extensive time online and after finishing off the single player in both hardened and regular modes, I am left with the opinion that this Call of Duty game is as smooth as ever. It feels great and there is no question the franchise has come a long way since Call of Duty 2 first launched on the Xbox 360 oh so many years ago. Low latency controls and the 60-frames per second benchmark remain intact. It plays great. It remains Call of Duty. Yet does it push the franchise forward as we move away from current-gen into next-gen? In some ways it does; however, I cannot help but feel this has to be the end of the line for the franchise on the Xbox 360. I, for one, am looking forward to what the future has in store for the long running CoD series.
As good as the game feels and plays, the same cannot be said for the single player story. It is not necessarily a bad storyline or one that doesn’t make any sense; I was just left a little underwhelmed. Perhaps a little more confused than anything as the story that arrives in Ghosts is simply not the one that was advertised on the brochure.
You see, when Ghosts was announced just before E3 much was made of what was to be your relationship with Riley the dog. You would fight for him and he would fight for you. At least that is what they told us and to some extent that is true. Yet I had this image of Will Smith with his dog in the movie ‘I am Legend’. I expected one of those ‘a man and his dog’ type scenarios. Heck I was preparing myself for the dog to die and some cinematic moment where I would have to press pause and wipe away a tear or two. I didn’t get that in Ghosts. There was really no bond with the damn dog and in the end I am left wondering why Riley was ever included. There was also some hoopla over Activision enlisting the talent of Stephen Gaghan who won an academy award from his work on the movie “Traffic”. Needless to say, I expected a riveting storyline. One that is exhilarating and powerful. I expected a little more character development and I didn’t get that. I didn’t get that at all.
The story you do get however is rather predictable and is one we have seen in some shape or another in many other shooters. In summary, there has been a mass event where America is crippled and its military forces have been decimated and the government is in disarray. A group known as the “Federation” emerges as a dominant superpower and they are the ones behind the attacks. As a player in the game you are the underdog and you and your group of ‘Ghosts’ are fighting back against superior forces. Along the way, there are some significant twists and turns but in a nutshell that is the games story. Yes, I recognize I am leaving out the game’s main “bad guy” or not explaining some of the events leading up to why he is the game’s main “bad guy” but I can’t really get into it without spoiling it.
The single player experience will take you anywhere from 6 to 7 hours to complete. It took a little longer in hardened mode but regardless the short single player campaign still remains an issue for me. I understand there is only so much space on one disk (well 2 disks if you count the install disk) when you have a robust multiplayer mode, extinction mode, squad modes and a 6-hour single player. Yet, still 6-hours? As the ESPN NFL Countdown dudes say: “C’mon Man!” Six hours is far too short in this day in age especially when you consider you won’t get multiple endings like you did with Black Ops 2.
I know I am all doom and gloom up to this point and none of my comments about the single player thus far sound flattering; however, there is still plenty of ‘awesomeness’ in the game’s single player mode. Throughout the campaign you can expect a great deal of chaotic moments where you are running from cover to cover trying to avoid the bullets whizzing by your noggin. This is standard CoD stuff but remains enjoyable and satisfying. Infinity Ward did a nice job mixing up the combat and giving us some varied gameplay. You will be doing such things as firing laser pointed rockets; manning turret guns; controlling Riley the dog; repelling down a skyscraper, controlling tanks, piloting a military chopper, and avoiding great white sharks. There is combat that takes place underwater, on top of a futuristic train and even shooting sequences in space. Yes in space! There is also a collectible element to the game where you can find Rorke files scattered throughout the experience. Needless to say I was impressed with the amount of variety in the single player campaign. Sure you still feel like the game is guiding you along from one epic set piece to the next, yet I still give full marks to Executive Producer Mark Rubin and company for mixing up the gameplay and keeping us guessing from one mission to the next.
Now that I have driven the single player experience into the ground, I will shift my attention to the multiplayer experience which gets the nod over the solo play. Once again, Infinity Ward manages to up the ante and deliver that stunning multiplayer experience that fans have all come to love about the franchise. The adversarial multiplayer is deeper than ever. Sure just as the single player goes so does the multiplayer as it still feels and largely plays like other Call of Duty games. Yet there are plenty of new additions that make the online experience as good as ever. Not to mention it feels much more balanced too.
For starters I counted 14-maps out the box. In fact, an extra downloadable map (Free Fall) came with my retail copy of the game. So really you get 15-maps which is impressive. Sure there are a couple of maps I would be happy to never see or play again but still 15 maps is superb. There is a good mix as well. You have some smaller ones where those proficient with shotguns will rack up some killstreaks and large ones where snipers will run amok. For instance, ‘Stonehaven’ takes place in the Scottish highlands where you are fighting amidst a ruined castle. In this map the snipers seemed to dominate, and being an assault rifle kind of guy I found my kill to death ratio suffered a tad here. ‘Strikezone’ was my favorite of the new maps and takes place in the concourse of a baseball stadium. This map is not only nice to look at but the action is frantic. It is not ‘Nuke Town’ chaotic but is fast paced and small which leads to some high kill counts. All in all, I found the maps were all pretty solid and I really enjoyed how there were no real similarities from one map to the next. Whether it be sneaking up on enemies by a prison located in the heart of a jungle or launching grenades in a town decimated by mortars, Ghosts is a game that has plenty to offer when it comes to the games multiplayer maps.
Granted the environments do not blow up as much as they could and a lot was made of the “dynamic map events” but the combat online feels very balanced and the spawn sites seem more random than ever. The addition of the knee slides is fantastic. Being able to shoot enemies while sliding on your knees and into cover adds another element of strategy. Likewise, being able to move fluidly over objects, while not losing momentum, is another little addition to the online combat that is welcomed. It makes for an online experience that feels a little more evolved than it has in the past. The only concern I had when playing online was the fact you can only play in maps of up to 12 people. With the Xbox One version you can play with up to 14-people in a map. I am not sure the reason of this but in the end I found the online gamers never suffered as a result.
In terms of the new multiplayer features, there are many so I am not going to put you to sleep by listing them all. Instead I will just go over some of the more significant ones that stood out for me when I was gunning down fellow journalists, developers, Activision PR folks and QA Testers at the review event in California where I got my hands on the game. Right off the hop I noticed the character customization has been revamped. You can now choose a female soldier. I can’t believe it has taken this long but finally we see a female soldier in a Call of Duty game; but it doesn’t end there as you can customize various weapon loadouts as well as the physical appearance of your soldier. In fact, there are over 20,000 possible combinations. It’s impressive to say the least and I cannot wait to see what kind of characters people will come up with when the game hits the masses.
Another change is how you purchase and unlock weapons, attachments and equipment. As you play online and gain XP you earn points which can be used to unlock weapons, attachments and equipment. Once again, the game rewards you for leveling up. The more you play the more points you earn and the more goodies you can unlock. It is as simple as that but I am warning you it does take you longer to level up this time around.
The new Perk system is crazy deep this go around. If you thought there was a lot of Perks to choose from last year you ain’t seen nothing yet. This year the Perks are assigned point values, with some of the more popular or effective Perks naturally costing more points. You are given eight points to use at your discretion. You can choose four Perks, each valued at two points apiece, or eight Perks, each valued at one point. You can even choose to go without your secondary weapon which opens up yet another perk. Like I mentioned. it is deep and you will be impressed with the amount of Perks you can choose from. The Perks have been divided up into categories which makes it a little easier to navigate but make no bones about it, you will be tinkering with the Perks for quite some time before you discover your ideal loadout.
In terms of game new modes, Grind and Cranked were two of my favourites; however, there are 7 new modes in all. Just like the movie ‘Crank’ with Jason Stratham, Cranked is all about killing and keeping your adrenalin pumping. It is a high intensity version of Team Deathmatch where once you get a kill you have 30 seconds to kill another player. As the clock ticks down, you are ‘Cranked’. In other words you are running at high speeds, throwing grenades at lightning speed and re-loading in a split second. If you don’t kill anyone within 30 seconds you explode and re-spawn back into the game as a normal player. Its fun, its hectic, and a great game for those who enjoy run and guns style gameplay. Campers need not apply in this mode that is for sure.
Additionally, Ghosts multiplayer includes a glut of new weapons, new strike packages and new field orders. These orders are randomized challenge drops in the map that award you with a Care Package when you complete the order. I never found myself attempting to pull off one of the challenges but in the end it is just another in a long line of new additions to the online game which remains the best in the business when it comes to online shooters on the Xbox 360.
If a ‘beefy’ multiplayer mode and single player mode wasn’t enough there is more. Ghosts includes a Squad Mode which is ideal for those new to the Call of Duty scene. In Squads your objective is to build your squad and compete in various game modes against AI-controlled opponents. What is cool about Squads is that you can earn XP and Squad Points that you can use in multiplayer. You can take your squad online against another squad or just practice against a team of bots. There is also a horde-like mode within squad where you are battling waves of enemies.
Speaking of a horde-like mode, Ghosts also includes a new mode called “Extinction”. For those that enjoy Treyarch’s Zombies mode, this mode is for you. It is a four-player, co-op game mode that is all about survival and defending your base. As waves of menacing aliens come sprinting towards you your objective is to keep them off your nuke and work together to take them down by any means necessary. As you play, you will find items located throughout the map and there is a currency system where you will earn enough points to drop a sentry gun, activate an IMS or trigger an electric fence. Simply put this mode is a blast and loads of fun as well as a nice addition to a game that is already packed with content.
It often seems like I am in the minority when it comes to Call of Duty visuals. Year after year I see the improvements that not only Treyarch pulls off, but Infinity Ward also manages to raise the bar year after year as well. Yet many seem to gripe about the engine and the visuals. I am often baffled by this response and I am sure the interwebz CoD haters will be out in full force yet again when I say the visuals in Ghosts look great. That’s right, they look great. Putting the next-gen resolution debate aside, the Xbox 360 version of Ghosts looked great on that high def Samsung TV I played on. I found the colours popped from the screen and the level of detail that went into the games map design is pretty impressive. Not one detail is overlooked. The particle effects are stunning and the draw distance is equally impressive. When you first arrive in “No Man’s Land”, just stop and look around – it’s gorgeous. Even Greenway Park looks exactly like a modern MLB stadium. Everything from the underwater sequences to the combat scenes in space, Ghosts is a game that delivers in the visual department. I am sure the naysayers will all disagree with me but when it comes to the graphics in this Call of Duty game I was quite satisfied even on this current generation of hardware.
Sound wise, Infinity Ward has done a nice job with the weapons. It appears as though the development team listened to the Call of Duty community by giving us some weapons that really pack a punch. At higher volumes these weapons will jolt you out of your chair. To me they sounded life like. Granted, I am not shooting a Honey Badger Assault Rifle or Vector CRB in my backyard; however, to me the guns sound great and stand as the most noticeable improvement when it comes to the games audio. In fact, the multiplayer audio does sound the best it’s ever sounded. Footsteps are incredibly clear and explosions will rock your subwoofer. Otherwise, everything else sounds more of the same which is not a bad thing as those big sweeping Hollywood-esque orchestra tunes manage to set the perfect mood. So does the over-the-top dialogue in the game.
Simply put, Call of Duty: Ghosts is a game that pushes the franchise forward, especially in the multiplayer department. That giant leap we saw when the original Modern Warfare game touched down is not quite there, but yet in a time when the development team had to stick handle a game what would be a released on 5 different consoles (Wii U, PS3, PS4, Xbox One and Xbox 360), Ghosts is an impressive feat. The single player campaign is a wild ride despite its underwhelming storyline and short play through while the multiplayer aspects of the game take the cake and raise the franchise to even higher heights. It’s jam packed with all sorts of new content from an engaging squads mode, a hectic Extinction mode and a new slate of multiplayer features to keep the core Call of Duty gamers playing for hours on end. Call of Duty Ghosts isn’t the best Call of Duty game of the series but the multiplayer alone is worth the price of admission.