Twelve people, sitting in front of their respective PS4s, screaming, laughing, the odd swear word. They hate each other, love each other, then hate each other again, the mood changing round after round.
It is what it is. It was what Call of Duty multiplayer does to people. And you won't find the top FPS dog groomed anywhere better than here on next-gen.
Ghosts is pacy and relentless across all modes. You immediately make peace with the fact that you will die quickly. Stay alive long enough and you'll string together the killstreaks necessary to truly dominate each map. You can use the Maniac to slice 'em up as a serial stabber, or launch the helicopter or drone. And then there's Riley, the biting and snarling German Shepherd. If he's on your tail you'll fear the dog. If he has your back, you can rest easy.
Speaking of fear, there was a lot of anxiety with regards to the next-gen consoles. This review only deals with the PS4 version, as there is an embargo in place for the Xbox One version that expires on November 12 - come that date we'll add our impressions here (it should be noted that Activision has confirmed the game runs at 720p on Xbox One).
The PS4 version looks stunning both in single player and multiplayer, running at a native 1080p and at 60 frames per second. Truly a next-gen experience. The image is crisp down to the smallest detailing. Call of Duty looks more alive than ever before. The current-gen version on PS3 and Xbox 360 may not achieve the graphical quality that the franchise's main rival Battlefield 4 does, but what's on screen remains competitive. No shame in that or reason to hide it away, even if there are texture issues when you compare certain sections of the PS3 and PS4 version side-by-side. There's a great level of variety as far as the visuals go, in both campaign and multiplayer.
Call of Duty: Ghosts may at first strike you as nothing but a rapid succession of multiplayer deaths, and complete mayhem, but that's not an accurate description. It hits the right balance of skills and kills. No one will stay alive for the duration. It's more a question of how your kill/death ratio will look. Respawn is just a fraction of a second away, but perhaps you might want to take the time and learn from your mistake by watching the Killcam.
There are nine game modes; Infected, Grind, Search and Rescue, Hunted, Cranked, Lightning - while the classic Domination, Team Deathmatch and Deathmatch still endure. Over the years COD multiplayer has evolved, grown. In Ghosts, its matured further.
The designs present in the fourteen maps included are interesting; varied and different from what's come before. Prison Break provides close-quarters jungle action. Octane delivers open fighting with a gas station as a meeting place for the trigger-happy town folk. Whiteout sends us into snow-covered Alaska. We're just as happy shooting friends in a sterile tank factory as we are in the Scottish highlands in Stonehaven. On this huge outdoor map you can experience wonderful differences in verticality that takes it beyond frantic chases through various floors of buildings.
Field orders are a fresh addition to the formula. The first player killed loses a blue suitcase containing said field orders. They are made up of small tasks such as having to kill two enemies from behind or killing someone while jumping. The reward for completing these tasks are random weapon drops and, at times, large events that change the map completely. An exploding gas station or a satellite crashing down will reshape the map. These events happen very rarely, so they're not truly game changers in that respect. There are also smaller events that can be triggered without a field order. This may, for example, open up new a shortcut by shooting down a tree. Nothing as massive, dynamic or radical as you'd see in Battlefield 4.
Perks are for Call of Duty characters what steroids are to athletes. As with the weapons and attachments, you can purchase all the perks right out the gate, but in contrast to weapons you won't be able to use them all from the start. As you master challenges you earn experience points levelling up your character. You also earn squad points that can be used to buy everything, including the 40-odd perks.
They are divided into a grid made up of seven categories - speed, handling, stealth, awareness, resistance, equipment and elite. Each character has, depending on his equipment, a set number of perk points available - each perk then costs a set number of points. Adding a perk that does away with fall damage costs a point, while staying invisible on enemy radar and Sat-Com will set you back three points. It's a massive rock-paper-scissors game with 40 variables. You'll spend weeks trying to find the perfect setup for your play style.
And then there is the campaign. The single player of Call of Duty is often mocked as surplus to requirement, but this time it's actually worth more than just a glancing look, even if it's not the main attraction. The story revolves around Hesh and Logan Walker, who want to save the United States with their father Elias. At times it's unbearably patriotic, but it offers up compelling entertainment.
Most of the levels and missions are linear in their design, even if there are several ways to progress through almost every section. You can flank your enemies and even crawl under water. There is a gorgeous Amazonian level that breaks up the usual linear formula. We land in the dense undergrowth by parachute. We're barely given a recognisable path to the target. Equipped with a silenced pistol, a knife, and a smartphone with a heartbeat sensor, we must meet up with the our team.
On the hardest difficulty each level is a challenge, a bitter experience - especially when you're forced to retreat under fire when you're barely able to see where the shots are coming from. It's an issue in the visually stunning underwater level as well. Call of Duty: Ghosts borrows from James Bond, as it feels like one of those old flicks with the villain intent on setting off nuclear weapons under the water's surface. It's great stuff. It's hard to top the level where you float around a space station, which feels like a brand new experience and a nice one at that. Taking out enemies in zero gravity feels fresh and it's something we wish they had included in multiplayer, but there's always the prospect of future DLC...
Ghosts is rammed with stunning moments. There is a fierce battle in defence of an aircraft carrier. Piloting a tank through a desert to help guide remote strikes. Stepping out of a collapsing skyscraper after having emptied a baseball stadium with a 50.cal sniper rifle. Some may not like the bombastic nature of the presentation, but the pacing is superb. The eighteen missions that make up the campaign provide us with nearly six hours of the best popcorn entertainment you can imagine. It will take significantly longer to complete for those who pick the most challenging difficulty setting.
But that's not all that's contained in Ghosts. In addition to multiplayer and campaign, Ghosts offers two additional modes and a companion app. The Extinction mode gives zombies a much needed break as aliens step into their place. It's co-operative arcade fun for up to four players, fighting through endless waves of extraterrestrials. The sessions tend to be very long, but you're only given one life. There are no save points and if you fail you start over at zero. Each kill earns you currency and these funds can be used on new weapons, ammunition, turrets, electrical fences and flaming barriers. The longer you manage to stay alive the more options you'll have at your disposal. But as you'd expect the threat levels also escalates accordingly. It's a trivial mode, but still great fun. This is particularly true when the nastier aliens arrive - there's those that spit acid and others who explode on contact.
The Squads mode is a variation of multiplayer and producer Mark Rubin said it should serve as an introduction to competitive multiplayer for beginners, and a fun option for COD veterans. You can play together with friends against AI controlled bots. These bots showcase varied styles and intelligence. They may either get the jump on you as you round a corner, or camp and wait for you to come to them. They appear almost uncannily human, acting as a team (at times very aggressively) and they're never predictable.
There are four modes. In Squad Assault we play against a team of bots that have been assembled by other players. Map and mode are selected based on that team. Safe Guard is a take on Survival in which the equipment is randomly dropped in. In Squad vs. Squad, two players face off with five bots completing each team. You pick which bots you want to join in. Depending on your selection, the bots can quickly be the deciding factor here. Wargame is like a giant playground, one that you will use purely for training purposes.
As you'd now expect these days, there's also an app. This allows for a game mode called Clan Wars via tablet. Eight teams will compete against each other over the course of two weeks. There are ten tasks that you can use to capture a point simply by playing. Hold on to one of these points and you get an in-game bonus in a certain game mode (for example, 25 percent more experience points). In addition, items in the game are unlocked by Clan Wars. Your tablet can also work as a second screen, letting you quickly change load outs. The focus here is context sensitive actions that should help making the gaming experience even faster and more streamlined.
It's wrong to try and compare Call of Duty to Battlefield. While both live for the multiplayer, Call of Duty relies on an incredibly intense, if not necessarily realistic, experience. Battlefield is completely different in its approach and play style. What fits yours will dictate where you'll want to wage your next year of digital warfare.
As far as Call of Duty: Ghosts goes, from our time with the game, it's hard to find something else that offers so much to the player. Ghosts is the complete package.