[How does Call of Duty: Ghosts fair on next-gen consoles? Check out Alex's manifesto on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions here.]
If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Another November means another Call of Duty, but things are different this time. The Infinity Ward we once knew is no more and the Modern Warfare sub-series that made the military FPS franchise what it is today has been left behind. Now, the remnants of the once genre-revolutionizing studio have teamed up with the folks at Neversoft and Raven to create an entirely new Call of Duty series, but is Ghosts different in more than just name?
Well, sort of. Activision stumbled across something very special several years ago when Call of Duty 4 stepped onto the scene, changing the FPS multiplayer landscape as we knew it. There's a secret sauce that makes Call of Duty what it is, and veering too far from that formula could yield disastrous results, alienating millions of its fan base and single-handedly killing the franchise. So it should come as no surprise to you that Call of Duty: Ghosts plays it rather safe in this regard, providing a solid, albeit predictable, experience that delivers exactly what you might expect from the next entry in the series.
Despite the fact that Call of Duty is a predominantly multiplayer-focused series, Activision hasn't done away with single-player just yet, and Ghosts delivers plenty of those "wow" moments you've come to expect from an Infinity Ward-developed campaign. From rappelling down the sides of skyscrapers to swimming in a sea of deadly sharks, there are plenty of standout moments that you'll want to chat about with your buddies at the water cooler the following day. That said, there's nothing quite on the level of Modern Warfare's iconic ghillie suit mission or MW2's controversial "No Russian" level.
What does differentiate Ghosts' campaign is the inclusion of Riley, a war-trained dog that accompanies you through a large portion of the story. In a handful of instances you'll call upon his help, at times even controlling the combat-savvy canine to take down a field of foes. I went into the campaign wary of his inclusion, afraid that the dog would end up hogging the experience or be overused to cheesy effect, but I'm pleased to report that Riley is incorporated with careful restraint, making him a welcome addition.
As far as the story itself goes, I don't want to get into too much detail so as not to spoil the experience. All you really need to know is that for the majority of the game you play as Logan, who alongside his brother Hesh and father Elias, must fight to preserve what little power the United States has left under the crippling rule of a multi-country conglomerate known as the Federation. It's a nice change of pace now that the Modern Warfare trilogy arc has wrapped, but don't expect it to have you welling up with tears when the credits role. After all, most of you aren't buying COD for the single-player anyway.
Instead, like millions of others around the globe, you're probably coming to Ghosts for the multiplayer, and if you've enjoyed the multiplayer modes of prior entries in the series, you'll find just as much to love here. The leveling and progression system, as well as perks, upgrades, and the like, are all here yet again, making the transition from Black Ops II (or any previous current-gen installment for that matter) rather seamless. Fast, fluid, 60-frames-per-second play is here just like you've come to expect.
A wide array of game types are available, including tried-and-true favorites like Team Deathmatch and Kill Confirmed, as well as a handful of new ones, not the least of which includes "Cranked." In this new mode, the game plays out like a typical round of Team Deathmatch... but with a twist. Instead of getting to take a breather after you score a kill, you'll be greeted with an ominous countdown timer. Should you fail to get another kill before the clock hits zero, you'll explode. In addition, you'll be granted new abilities to make scoring the next kill a bit easier, but the pressure of the clock ramps up the tension considerably, making your typical deathmatch a far more frantic and sweat-inducing experience. During my many hours with the multiplayer, this match type stood out the most; every match of it I played, my heart was racing, even if I racked up the least amount of kills on my team.
And that's not all that's new on the multiplayer front, as Ghosts also brings with it a completely new component: Squads. With Squads, you can create your own team of customized soldiers that can then be taken into battle with you in an array of different modes. If you're feeling competitive, you can jump into a two-player match where you and your squad face off against a friend and their carefully-crafted team. You can also elect to face off against other squads, even if they're offline. If you're looking for some co-op fun, the Safeguard game type allows you and three friends to take on waves of enemies in a survival-based "horde mode" of sorts. While each of these options simply offers another way to experience the same run-and-gun gameplay you've been familiar with the past five-plus years, it does help to keep things relatively fresh when/if you ever tire of the traditional online MP.
Then there's Extinction, which is basically a play on Treyarch's super-popular Nazi zombie mode, re-skinned with a few twists to hide the striking similarities. In it, you and a couple of pals fend off waves, and waves, and waves of alien creatures in a fight for survival. A drill must be transported around the map to bore into the hives of these glowing beasts, and it is up to your team (of up to four) to defend it. You can customize your class, opting to be a medic, engineer, or one of the other typical pre-defined setups. Naturally, it is wise to have a balanced team, so having each player be one of the four available types is ideal.
As the waves roll on, the enemies get more and more difficult, so accruing cash from killing foes is absolutely essential. The earned money can then be spent on things like better weapons, upgrades, etc., which can be found littered throughout the dark and dreary map. Speaking of which, the mode may get old rather quickly once you've grown accustomed to the abandoned Colorado town, but if one thing's certain, Activision will be releasing new maps via DLC sometime down the line. As it stands, Extinction (like Squads) will likely serve as an entertaining distraction from the multiplayer, but don't expect something revolutionary.
Before I wrap up my assessment of the game, I have to address the elephant in the room. Yup, I'm talking about the visuals. While I can't speak to the Xbox One vs. PS4 resolution controversy (at least not yet, anyway), I can speak to the current-gen versions and how they compare to the PlayStation 4 version. If you're a hardcore Call of Duty fan and need to play this game on day one, then go out and buy a copy for PS3 or Xbox 360. The game plays great on both versions. That said, I strongly recommend you upgrade to the PlayStation 4 version down the line, as the visual disparity is quite profound.
After spending considerable time with Ghosts on PlayStation 4 and then diving into the current-gen versions, I was shocked at how much worse it looked. Let's face it, the engine that powers the franchise is really, really showing its age, and make no mistake, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions are hardly eye candy at this point. The PS4 version looks leaps and bounds better, with crisper textures, more vibrant colors, and superior lighting effects. That said, don't expect it to hold a candle to something like Killzone: Shadow Fall. Oh yeah, and the DualShock 4 lends itself to quite a comfortable and enjoyable COD experience on a PlayStation console. The concave triggers and tighter sticks make a world of difference, so if you've been apprehensive about playing shooters on a PlayStation in the past, there's no need to be anymore.
Call of Duty: Ghosts may play it safe when it comes down to the game's core mechanics, but the folks at Infinity Ward, Raven, and Neversoft have taken steps to ensure that there are a few unique changes that keep this new entry in the series from being entirely the same. And with the addition of Beachhead's new app that brings forth a new "Clan Wars" metagame, who knows what the franchise may evolve into sometime down the line. Will we all soon be customizing our loadouts and monitoring our clan's quest for world domination with a tablet on our lap while scoring headshots in competitive team deathmatch? Activision sure hopes so.