It's hard not to approach Call of Duty: Ghosts with a sense of déja vu - afterall it's the ninth game in the franchise that will see release on Xbox 360. We know what we're getting to a large degree. An over-the-top campaign, intense and addictive multiplayer, a progression system that will keep us hooked and some kind of co-op element to top things off.
That said Ghosts represents a new direction for the franchise, perhaps the biggest change since Modern Warfare came along and brought the series out of its World War II roots. This is supposed to be a more tactical game, a game where you're not using the best technology available, but instead have to rely on the element of surprise and tactical awareness. And it's a game starring a dog that somehow managed to rise to become the symbol of the franchise over night. Riley, the vest-wearing German shephard. We'll get back to Riley later, but for now let's take a look at the prologue and the backstory of Call of Duty: Ghosts.
The background story for Call of Duty: Ghosts was teased back at E3. Now the complete picture is in full view. Odin, father of Gods and ruler of Asgard in the Norse mythology, also serves as the name of the orbital weapons station at the centre of the Call of Duty: Ghosts single player campaign prologue. Tina Palacios, senior community manager at Infinity Ward, described the moment the team had seen that first trailer from the upcoming feature film Gravity. There had been laughter, as well as a collective sense of having seen the opening of their game visualised in a stunning movie trailer. Of course, the Gravity trailer doesn't have astronauts engaging in firefights nor zero gravity blood gushing. This is a Call of Duty game afterall.
Odin is equipped with devastating rods that, when sent down to the surface, decimates the surroundings much like an atom bomb. Except without any of the radiation fallout. The player is thrown into the situation as one of two astronauts going about their routine business in space, when all of a sudden other astronauts wielding assault rifles show up to ruin your day.
As shuttles and space crafts are destroyed, you manage to grab a gun and deal with some of the attackers, but apparently they've gained control of Odin and an ominous voice informs you that cities like San Diego, Houston, Miami and Phoenix have been targeted, with casualities estimated at 27 million. Your attention moves to try and destroy Odin by altering its course and having it burn up in the atmosphere. You succeed. Sort of. Obviously rods still did enough damage to America, as the rest of the game takes place ten years after the Odin incident, with the United States no longer a super power and under the occupation of a South American alliance. It reminds us a little of the scenario in Homefront.
From a UK & European perspective it could be interpreted as American arrogance and big brother mentality coming back to bite them in the ass. Hubris. But perhaps that interpretation isn't entirely correct, as this game seems to banking on players having the sense of disillusion that is brought on when something that was meant to protect us has been used against us. But let's not dive into the politics - it's hardly meant to be overly analysed.
The single player is said to offer more tactical gameplay than what has previously been the case in Call of Duty titles. But don't worry. There were plenty of explosions in the campaign montage that close out the presentation. You've probably seen the somewhat stealthy underwater mission from E3. Expect more of that, but also expect the kind of ridiculous over-the-top moments we've grown accustomed to. Afterall, Riley (the dog) will be jumping up onto a helicopter and take out the pilot (hopefully jumping away to safety before it smashes to the ground).
As we've come to expect from a Call of Duty title, Ghosts rests on three legs - campaign, competitive multiplayer and co-op, called Squads in Ghosts. It's time to come clean. I'm no expert Call of Duty player. I enjoy a few rounds here and there, but I've probably had more fun with things like Spec Ops than with traditional multiplayer. Squads is for people like me. Tina Palacios stops short of saying it's been designed for players who lack the necessary skills to compete with the best in multiplayer, but the message is clear. Squads is where you can play alone or with your friends against bots or other like-minded people, while you still get all the progression and benefits of the multiplayer system.
While progression and unlocks come slower in Squads, the basis of the experience is that you use the same characters that you create for multiplayer. Tthere's even a very neat system were your squad (the characters you've created and their load outs) can be challenged by other players while you're offline. The success of your squad of bots will then earn you a modest amount of experience. Think of it as if you'd earn experience in FIFA if someone challenged the team you play with in career mode with your tactics and formation, and if the AI successfully wins using your team, you'd earn experience points.
Most importantly, the fact that Squads is completely integrated with competitive multiplayer, and that you can play the same maps, means that it will ease more players who may have hesitated to try out multiplayer into that whole experience. An experience that remains core to what Call of Duty is all about. In that respect Call of Duty: Ghosts is no exception. The scope of Squads is quite impressive and given it supports solo play, co-operative and competitive (squad vs. squad). It seems more fleshed out than the complete multiplayer of most other big games.
The idea of building your own soldiers (apparently there are more than 20,000 combinations) and managing them much like you would a sports team or RPG characters is intriguing, and will only help to make players even more invested in the game. The fact that your unlocks and squads will be available wherever you play (through your Call of Duty profile), and the additions of the new clan features (that includes an ambitious new meta game) is simply icing on the cake.
It's clear that Infinity Ward is pushing hard as they enter the last few months of development. Senior community manager Tina Palacios was on hand for demos, hands-on and interviews, but her work will kick into full gear once the game is released so she could be spared while others stayed back and worked on completing the game. Another hint that the team is pushing hard towards release is that we were given time with the same multiplayer build that was playable at Gamescom in Cologne. An updated build would obviously have been preferable, but one can only speculate the Infinity Ward's time was deemed better spent on something other than putting together a stable build of something new for journalists to sample.
The upside of this was that we were given a full hour to sample what the Gamescom build had to offer, away from the noisy and stressful floor in Cologne. There are four modes available; first up we try something called Blitz. There are two teams spawning on each side of the map with a portal in each base and scoring through the portal teleports you back to your own base instantly. The objective is to pass through the portal on the other side (giving your team one point), while preventing the opposition from scoring in your end. The portal only lets one player score and then a timer counts down from ten before it opens again, so you cannot rush in all players at once and score multiple points.
The first map on which we played Blitz featured a postapocalyptic city centre with an underground station ravaged by Odin (Chasm). It's fairly easy to score here as the portal is close to cover, and you only have to rush a few yards in the open in order to score. That it's early goings with the teams being a little disorganised may play into the ease of us scoring. With an organised defence and well timed attacks this mode could prove fun, even if it feels a little bit silly when compared to something like Domination where you need to hold positions and not just run through a portal.
The second game of Blitz proved more tactical, and here Assault Strike Packages came into play more. Having a guard dog (available with 5 kills) with you when defending or attacking a portal proved effective, and I found out the hard way that when a defender has a Sat Com (available with 3 kills) activated it's going to take teamplay to score points.
Speaking of Strike Packages and killstreaks, we were somewhat limited in what we could play around with (Assault and Support, not Specialist). The ones that reset were Sat Com, Guard Dog and Maniac (Assault) with the ones you earn even if you die included Night Owl, MAAWS and Helo Scout (Support). My colleague, GRTV's Nick Holmberg, playing next to me, managed to kill streak his way to the Maniac killstreak (Assault strike package - 9 kills). Basically it turns you into a juggernaut with a knife and unlimited sprint. "A lot of fun, but I don't see myself using it when playing for real", was Nick's verdict. He was clearly more fond of the guard dog.
And it's easy to see why; the dog often buys you that vital extra moment when running into an enemy and also has your back covered, and can alert you to incoming dangers. Nick did say that Maniac was very useful offensively when playing Blitz, as you were able to sprint into the portal with lots of armour, making it a breeze to score.
The Marksman Rifles is a new category of guns that has been said to bridge the gap between sniper rifles and assault rifles, with comparisons drawn to Call of Duty 2's M1. After equipping one of the two available in this category for half a round, I had to switch my kit. Perhaps it's a case of not being used to the optimal range, or perhaps it's a category of weapon that simply falls in between the gap of the two other categories and so isn't very useful at all. Perhaps it was just a matter of the map and the group of people playing. I was getting repeatedly murdered, more so than what is usual. Maybe it just takes a little getting used to. Nick pointed out that it might simply be because I sucked and that it reminded him of the FAL in Black Ops 2, a gun now banned for pro competition as it is deemed overpowered in the hands of expert players.
Cranked is another new mode. A very intense one as you explode if you can't get a second kill within 30 seconds of your first. It's interesting in that a really hot player stringing together kills can make all the difference for one team as there is a multiplier in play.
We then played a bit of Domination in a snow covered map (Whiteout), nothing much to report there. We jumped on points in pairs and dropped to our stomachs. Speaking of dropping to your stomach, Palacios noted that some players tend to do this when they run into an enemy and this in turn has prompted them to include a knee slide animation.
We did not get to sample the new Search and Rescue mode (a new take on Search and Destroy where a teammate can save you after you die by grabbing your dog tag).
The last round we played was a round of standard Team Deathmatch on a map called Octane. Apparently it's based on Las Vegas and as with all maps, it features some key components that players can alter (in this case blowing up a gas station). I wish I had blown it up when there was a sniper lying on the roof of the gas station, but sadly no such thing took place. It's one of those maps where snipers can be fairly effective overlooking a bit of openground from two story buildings. It took five seconds before the first sniper killed me, and with my assault rifle loadout (Honeybadger) I was forced to adapt to the situation.
As with the specialist strike package, most of the perk system was locked down. It is however quite obvious there is a lot of potential and possible combinations to be exploited. The new Elite category had some interesting options including the most costly one (Deadeye) that will increase your chance for bonus damage with each kill. Potentially extremely powerful when equipped by a player on a streak.
There is nothing more satisfying than sneaking up on a sniper and knifing him from behind. It's one of those moments when time appears to be standing still and I tend stop and savour the moment if only for a fraction of a second. If it's accentuated by a revenge kill message at the end it's even better. I managed a few of those as the match became a sniper vs stabber battle. I also had the pleasure of gunning down the sniper on the roof of the gas station as he pointed his scope just to the left of me and I had time to pick him off. Snipers now benefit from the dual image render system that gives the, a blurred out peripheral vision outside of their scope. Expert players will likely be able to make great use of this feature with time as it makes sniper less vulnerable.
Then there's Stonehaven - a previously not shown map we're only given the flyover treatment of. It's a different style Call of Duty map in many ways. It's set in a castle ruin and its surroundings and it's meant to be both large and claustrophobic at the same time. Nick whispers "there is going to be a lot of sniping there", and it's easy to see what he means. The castle provides snipers with plenty of great positions and even if the nature outside provides some natural cover and the inside of the ruins are dark with winding hallways and stairs, a sniper is likely going to have success in Stonehaven. Perhaps the greys and greens that dominate the environment outside will camouflage players somewhat, but it looks like a map where you probably won't last many seconds in the open. In one corner of the map what looks like some part the Odin space station towers ominously over players. It's certainly a map that will stand out, remains to be seen how it plays.
Lean mechanics, peripheral vision when sniping, and knee slides aside, Call of Duty: Ghosts presents an experience that remains true to the Call of Duty experience we've all grown used to over the years, and honestly there is little reason to mess with a formula that works.