Call of Duty is the beating heart of the first person shooter genre, and a franchise that’s been in full swing for a whole decade. That’s pretty long in the tooth by any gaming series’ standards, and one that’s brought the latest instalment, Call of Duty: Ghosts, into the critical firing line. Has its pulse rate dipped with its age, indeed is the very title’s connotation that it’s outlived its lifespan?
Does it even matter? Activision knows Call of Duty: Ghosts will sell by the boatload. So much so that review copies of the finished game - physical copies that could be played in a real home setting - weren’t made available until after the game had seen public release. Pre-orders abound, midnight special openings at supermarkets, and 24 hours later the title had already bankrolled a cool $500-million. Another day later and - Dr Evil impressions at the ready - it looks set to push through the $1-billion dollar boundary and is the most popular PlayStation 4 title since launch.
We’ll let you into a little secret though: we’ve skipped the past couple of Call of Duty games as, well, we’ve been suffering "CoD fatigue" in the face of seemingly minor year-on-year updates. This review, therefore, is for those who haven’t already topped up the Activision billiometer and are wondering if Ghosts is worth delving into afresh to wile away those rainy, wintery weekends?
Giving up the ghost?
As with any title worth its salt, for us to be interested there has to be a single player game that truly captivates. And despite all the stick that Ghosts has received from various critics, publications and forums, we’re inclined to disagree. Ghosts lobs out the big set pieces in a manner that few other games are able to pull off.
Heck, the game kicks off in outer space. You’re weightlessly floating about when - boom - there’s an attack and everything kicks off. From here in you’re thrust around time scales in a scattergun fashion that, fun though it is, leaves you at a lost to know who’s who.
The story goes along these lines: "Something, something, ghosts… something, something north vs south… shoot lots." We couldn’t really care much about the backstory and what was going on, though, as the places the game takes you to - in the virtual sense, not emotionally by any means - continues the interest with Hollywood-size grandeur.
You’ll be trawling through the jungle; swimming under the frozen sea; zip-lining to a building amid a fireworks display; flying helicopters with guided missile systems; there’s even a scene reminiscent of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises where your plane is hijacked. Well, not quite - there’s no Bane and the voice acting hasn’t had a low-end boost of exorbitant proportions. But you’ll see what we mean when you play through.
The whole movie references are apt too, for Ghosts feels as absurd as a rollercoaster-ride action movie. It’s fun but, ultimately, it’s throwaway. It’ll visually entice, but will you go back? Probably not. It’s all far less intelligent than Battlefield 4, but we don’t mind because it still keeps the heart pumping.
READ: Battlefield 4 review
So why the critical panning thus far? We think it’s because gamers and critics alike have got the same CoD fatigue. The seemingly never-ending year-by-year release schedule sparks about as much interest in many players as if we were to hear that Peter Jackson was going to direct Hemmingway’s The Old Man And The Sea over half a dozen four-hour-long movies. And those who play the campaign each year will be feeling the familiarity; so much so that it's almost as though some cutscene skits between different titles are a repetitive in-joke by the developers.
But that doesn’t make it bad. If Ghosts was the latest title in a series released just every three years it would be received with rapturous applause. It looks great. Yeah there’s the odd frame-rate drop, but it’s nothing awful.
A new generation
We've been digging in to the PlayStation 4 version of the title to see what the step up in graphical power can deliver. The PS4 is the only console to output the game in 1080p, a resolution that immediately makes the game look better. Grass is crisper, there are some additional effects that you might spot if you really look for them, and the colour palette looks a little richer.
Does it make a difference to gameplay? Not a sausage. The PS4 version feels just like the game on any other platform, even if the likelihood is that you'll see more detail on the gun that's in your hand.
READ: PlayStation 4 review
By pushing the title up in the resolution stakes, it's not without one or two hiccups though. During the loading sequences we've seen stuttering playback to the on-screen cutscenes, while frame-rate dips can be spotted here and there. Not so that it's gameplay damaging.
The next-gen version also adds little graphical flourishes - extra water bubbles, sparks, dynamic weather, crumbling dirt, and so on - but, for whatever reasons, the shadows are still rough around the edges.
Of course Ghosts fits into an established sequence of Call of Duty gameplay. Does the latest title live up to the standard and is it good enough to sate those hungry first person shooter gamers? It’s a mixed bag really, as diehard shooter fans probably won’t want to watch out the dialogue, while the clearly plotted lines of your comrades through the landscape can sometimes get in the way. The number of times we’ve been running up the stairs behind the team only to get stuck in a juddery slow wander. Seriosuly, just get out of the way whatever your name is.
Is Ghosts the best ever Call of Duty game? No, but it does manage to be fun even if it’s recycling the same product concept among subtle new feature introductions, as is the case year in, year out.
Heading up the game’s new features is your dog, Riley. Arguably he’s most memorable character throughout the whole game. Indeed we can’t seem to name many more characters than that without needing to look them up - not a great sign of emotionally invested play. We’re also sure there’s some ironic joke in here about an old dog being a new trick.
But anyway, moving on: Riley’s use is limited, but he makes for a fun addition. Beyond using him in a "grenade" fashion type of attack - although the left trigger will shoot him up and away, seemingly infallible, to take down a human target with explosive force - there’s also remote play where you can take command of the canine.
Now we won’t go into how this could plausibly work, simply because whichever way you look at it, it doesn’t make sense that you can "be" a dog. Must be some kind of weird brain implant or something. Let’s just shrug it off in a fit of bad writing, perhaps they’ve been putting unobtainium into his dog food? But, ever the avid fans of the rollercoaster ride that this game quickly becomes, we really rather enjoy snooping on enemies through the long grass. It’s a good job that none of them are playing throw and catch though.
Elsewhere the core of first person play is a mix of semi-stealth and gun-toting madness. It’s the usual foray of cat and mouse: hide, shoot, reload, advance or retreat. But because of the variety of locations that doesn’t get old as quickly as you might think.
And we say semi-stealth because everything will typically play out in obvious fashion - there are pre-set "take this one out quietly" moments rather than the option to successfully take on the hoards of enemies armed with only a knife and your stealth skill, all the while mentally repeating "Steven Seagal" in your head. Not so here, really, it’s do as the game says and shoot lots when told.
There’s a huge range of weapons too - all with cryptic names so that you never quite have a clue what it is you pick up from the deceased, before realising you’ve ended up with that crap gun once again; you know, the one that takes two seconds too long to reload, all the while getting shot in the face - including long-range snipers, sticky grenade launchers and all that other explosive fun stuff.
You’ll learn to run, slide, duck, lie down, strafe, roll over and get your tummy tickled. Ok, so maybe not that last one, but each step of the process is easy to pick up for newcomers or established gamers alike and there are four difficulty levels that range from the fairly easy - and there’s an aim auto-assist that can be toggled on or off within the menus - through to the kick-in-the-balls hard that will challenge even the most seasoned of players.
Not every gamer in the world has the time to dip into engaging in gun battles against teenagers in Tennessee, say, which is where the multiplayer game really hots up. Is online play for us? Not really, we’d much rather move on to a whole new game to keep things fresh. But is it the interest of 95 per cent of prospective Call of Duty fans? Absolutely.
And for good reason: multiplayer is a blast. Or, at least, it is if you’re really good at it. Otherwise you’ll just find yourself respawning in a persistent cycle of death while playing the classic Free For All mode. Like a really bad Groundhog Day that’s not in the slightest bit funny.
If you’re a younger player - obviously over the 18 rating that Pegi has applied to this game - then get your Dad to play if you fancy seeing him quickly dip into a man rage, before then denying that a responsible adult could possibly get annoyed by such things.
Ghosts embodies some new features in multiplayer such as Squads where you command a team. Only that team is driven by artificial intelligence, so it doesn’t really feel like you’re commanding that much at all. And, in our case, it felt like we were feeding our AI cannon fodder to the meat grinder. We took no pleasure in that.
Elsewhere there are the usual kind of play modes you would expect: Team Deathmatch is the usual 10-minute or 75 kills battle of two sides, while Domination is there for capture-the-flag play.
But there is newness too, or slightly updated modes of play: Hunted offers pistol-only combat where you need to be stealthy and use ammo scarcely (not quite Goldeneye with pistols in Facility, but you get the gist); Search and Rescue replaces Search and Destroy; and a new option called Cranked where you become, um, "cranked" when you kill someone and then have to keep this rampage of death up every 30-seconds otherwise you will explode.
We’ve only spent so long dying lots in multiplayer mode but can see it being the deal-breaker for many - all for the sake of migrating to the latest maps, even though there’s little new or revolutionary on offer in terms of play.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is a nonsense of storytelling that also happens to be a blast. A dumb blast, mind, but it’s fun nonetheless - even if you’re not typically a first person shooting fan. You won’t care what your character’s name is, nor why anything really matters - you’ll just want to delight in the visual set pieces and well crafted shooting sequences in the single player campaign mode.
This game is "the billion dollar effect" in full swing. Remember when James Cameron’s Avatar broke the boundaries of all movie box office takings? No? Ah, yes, that’s because promptly after nobody really cared anymore. It was over, done, finished. Call of Duty: Ghosts doesn’t have much longevity in it either, but that won’t stop the footfall. And go at it we say - it’s worth the ticket price for the experience.
Once you’re done and dusted with the single player in just single-figure hour terms it’s on to the multiplayer mode where the majority of Ghosts players are likely to invest their time. This is where the big bucks lie. Whether this is for you or not will depend on what sort of a gamer you are. It doesn’t add anything so gobsmackingly new to the formula that it’s a must buy in our view, and yet diehard fans will feel that itching necessity to buy in order to access the fresh maps and (ultimately similar) play modes. Call of Duty is gaming crack, and once you’re on it it’s hard to put down; cue to news reel of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford playing all-nighters.
All in all Ghosts feels like a throwaway Hollywood movie: one that you’ll pay good money for and revel in while it’s under way, but one that won’t really warrant any repeat viewings except for the dedicated die-hards who will live and breathe its multiplayer. But, you know what, we as non-CoD fans who’ve stepped away from the series for the last few games due to the fatigue effect, that works out just fine for us. Big visuals, gonzo play style, and a soundtrack of bullets that will all cost less than a Saturday night in a posh cinema with a bottle of wine. Ghosts, a couple of beers and an inane virtual shooting fest? Sounds like a fair alternative, irrelevant of how much better, worse, or apparently uglier this title is compared to the series' last best.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is out now on PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii U, Xbox One and PS4.