Call of Duty: Ghosts is a great game that could be even better
It’s time Call of Duty learned to embrace its innate silliness.
This is a game that makes bold claims of authenticity, before asking you to shoot terrorist astronauts, witness a dog taking down a helicopter, and be rescued by a submarine after infiltrating an enemy base in the Andes.
It’s thoroughly stupid at times and gloriously so: here is a campaign whose quality is directly proportional to its daftness, and the same could be argued for its multiplayer component.
But let’s start, as many COD players do, by quickly running through the single-player game. It presents a faintly ludicrous near-future scenario whereby the entirety of South America has formed a Federation, invading the US for no apparent reason beyond the fact that oil reserves have dried up and America perhaps has less weight to throw around.
The Federation commandeers a space station named ODIN, a fitting title given the destruction that follows would be fitting of Norse legend: 27 million Americans are killed, and the country is tasked with fighting “a defensive war against a more powerful enemy”. In other words, you’re the underdog for a change.
And yet Ghosts rarely lets you feel like you’re fighting a losing battle. Despite the apocalyptic scenario – which, in the opening hour, looks remarkably close to a first-person The Last of Us with a stronger military presence - this is a game where you’re consistently positioned as the aggressor.
As part of a select band of super-soldiers, you’re incredibly well-equipped for the episodic missions you’re sent on, carrying remote sniper rifles, piloting helicopters, driving tanks and, yes, guiding dogs. Your four-legged ally, Riley, offers a neat twist on stealth mechanics, yelping to alert the attention of idling guards, before tearing their throats out with disturbing relish.
Aside from the scene where Riley brings down a chopper by removing its pilot, it’s only in the closing stretch that Ghosts’ campaign really finds its feet. Until then it’s a blend of familiar (albeit sporadically effective) set-pieces and a story told almost exclusively in hoarse shouts and gruff whispers.
If only it had a script to match its Eighties’ action-movie excess: even as you’re swimming through reefs avoiding patrolling sharks, it remains a determinedly humourless affair, with nary a wisecrack to provoke even a wry chuckle. It relies instead on bombastic spectacle to thrill, and fortunately there’s enough of that in the final third to compensate.
It’s still a mostly linear affair, of course, but completing or failing certain objectives may give you a different route to the same destination. The latter is often the more exciting option: fail to hide from a Federation helicopter and you’ll be forced into a breathless sprint to safety, as missiles send trees collapsing across your path.
There’s a similar attempt at dynamism in the multiplayer game, though in comparison with Battlefield 4’s transformative (and horribly named) ‘Levelution’ feature, it all seems a little half-hearted. Often, it amounts to little more than the ability to open and close doors, either choice frequently leading to you being shot in the back.
Other changes, however, are much more successful. Randomly dropped Field Orders offer challenges (such as getting two melee kills before your next death) which reward players with care packages when completed, while you’ve far more flexibility in customising your soldier, from appearance to perks to loadout.
Of the several new game types, Extinction mode is the obvious standout. It sees a team of four players tackle waves of aliens while protecting a drill as it bores through enemy hives.
It’s a tense and frantic change of pace, and the action escalates brilliantly: you start with nothing more than a pistol and some perks which unlock once you’ve earned enough cash, though you may prefer to save it towards further weapons and environmental traps.
Meanwhile four distinct classes - tank, weapons specialist, engineer, medic – encourage players to both specialise and to work intelligently as a team as they fend off the leaping, goo-spitting hordes.
The competitive side, meanwhile, has been bolstered by the addition of seven new modes. Cranked is an adrenalised sprint of a game, increasing a player’s movement speed with every kill, but turning them into a ticking timebomb whose counter can only be reset with another successful shot. Blitz is either capture the flag without the flag or a violent take on gridiron, asking you to reach an enemy’s scoring circle before being teleported back to either defend your own or make another advance toward the endzone.
Grind asks you to retrieve dogtags from downed opponents before bringing them back to base, while Hunted has both teams fighting over sporadic weapon drops. Whether these will tear regular players away from Team Deathmatch remains to be seen, but either way the maps here are certainly a solid selection, from the icy nooks of the intricate Whiteout to the windswept and expansive Stone Haven.
If Call of Duty has often seemed to prize individuals over team players, its free companion app suggests a more collaborative side. Its ongoing Clan Wars metagame asks players to join groups fighting to win control points, with individual wins across several multiplayer modes contributing towards a total tally, earning all clan members bonus experience for as long as the objective is held.
It’s a smartly integrated idea that should gently nudge players towards the less popular modes, as those points will be easier to capture. Then again, there’s still a personal incentive to finish top of the pile, with personalised masks and uniforms affording the winners bragging rights over their peers.
These changes may give Ghosts a fresher feel than recent entries, but underneath it all, that Call of Duty core is relatively untouched. A campaign focused on spectacle benefits from next-gen heft (the PS4 game is comfortably the best looking console version) but hardly innovates, while the multiplayer game remains as fast-paced, responsive and downright noisy as ever.
Yet if Call of Duty is, as some have suggested, the gaming equivalent of junk food, Infinity Ward has prepared it to gourmet standard.