Call Of Duty: Ghosts multiplayer – a few series firsts and as slick as ever, but no great leap forward

Well that’s a first. Two firsts, in fact. We’ve never seen a canine killcam in an Infinity Ward Call Of Duty game, but here it is: someone’s faithful, four-legged companion just earned the final kill of the match, and it plays out in slow motion for all to see. More importantly, perhaps, the other first in this sequence is that the throat our furry teammate has sunk his teeth into belongs to a female soldier.

The presence of soldiers of both sexes makes precisely zero difference to COD’s combat mechanically, but it belatedly arrives as part of an increased focus on cosmetic character customisation. The Create A Solider option on Ghosts’ lobby screen hybridises loadout adjustments with purely decorative tweaks, letting you change your soldier’s headgear, while also deliberating over what sidearm they’ll equip and which perks they’ll use in a modified version of Black Ops’ flexible Pick 10 system. As with last year’s game, the shift away from defined numbers of perks, grenades, and tactical equipment should allow for more freedom to experiment when creating soldiers – though during our hands-on we’re limited to the pre-built loadouts.

It’s a significant change in that it waltzes right across the most recent dividing line in Infinity Ward and Treyarch’s approach to the series’ multiplayer, but in truth Ghosts’ combat feels distinct from Modern Warfare’s anyway. Or at least it does if you’re intimately familiar with the series’ combat rhythms – this remains a Call Of Duty game, after all, built on quick kills and the powerful incentive of strike package rewards.

Streaks retain their prominence and importance, but they’ve been literally grounded in comparison to the aerial excesses of Infinity Ward’s last two games. There’s a genuine focus on ground-based equipment over sky-based assistance here. The ubiquitous UAV has been shot down for the last time, instead three kills earns you the right to place a satcom – a bulky satellite scanner – on the ground, whereas five points lets you ensure that singleplayer’s extensive canine motion capture sessions haven’t gone to waste.

Guard dogs might lack the glamour of sending in a predator drone strike, but they’re quite possibly more lethal over time. As with the attack dog swarms you could call on in Black Ops, your canine companion can kill enemies with a single attack. Unlike those packs, however, you only get the one dog, and it sticks close to its master, growling when enemies are near. Similar, but considerably less adorable are the various drones you can call on to float by your side, as well the rewards that temporarily change your class into a hulking juggernaut of a melee-focussed maniac.

It’s not that Killstreaks have been depowered (If you still feel that their decision to reward the better-performing players with more powerful toys is misguided, you’ll find nothing to change your mind here). But the sense is that streak rewards have been adjusted, when possible, in favour of adding texture and depth to ground-based combat, rather than simply wiping out soldiers from on high. In truth, in a straight fight against a soldier and their dog you’re as likely to end up dead as if they’d called in that drone – but at least this way you get to look your killer, be they man or beast, right in the eye.

Infinity Ward’s much vaunted destructibility, meanwhile, feels like precisely the kind of inflexible system you’d expect, which isn’t to suggest it doesn’t add one or two tactical wrinkles to the game. We do notice a few things falling apart during our demo – but they’re the same environmental features in each game, of course. The single greatest instance of a map transforming also happens to be the most prescribed: during matches on Strikeout, a small-to-midsize map that didn’t particularly wow us on the first impression, a package containing a K.E.M strike will appear. Whichever side claims and activates it gets to wipe out everyone on the map, tactical nuke-style. But they also wipe out the map in the process, turning Strikeout to rubble and completely rewriting its routes, paths and sightlines. Destruction adds some genuine unpredictably, then, but you won’t be tunnelling through to the enemy flag with aid of a rocket launcher in Ghosts, that’s for sure.

To be fair, that’s possibly because they don’t have a flag in the first place. One of the new modes we play in Ghosts, Blitz, is classic CTF minus the most thrilling part of the mode: the bit where you run, flag attached, back to base. Instead, Blitz sees each team defending a capture point housed within their own base. When an enemy player steps on that glowing patch of ground, they immediately score a point, get teleported home, and the capture point goes into a ten-second cooldown. In defence of Blitz – it’s a mode that makes base defence more important than in Capture The Flag, for the obvious reason that you can’t chase an escaping flag-runner down, but for that reason it also feels like the speeded up and simplified variant that the name implies.

Another new mode, Cranked, adds a dash of explosively slapstick charm to proceedings, meanwhile, by ensuring that once you’ve earned a kill you’ll become increasingly fast and powerful, but only have thirty seconds to kill again before you die and earn a temporary reprieve. With a bunch of fresh players it encourages hyper-aggressive play and plenty of movement, but we’re concerned about the extent the mode will favour those who don’t need any help chaining multiple kills together.

There’s no multiplayer quite like COD’s, which blends peerlessly smooth gunplay and utterly transparent incentive systems to keep players compelled and engaged. Infinity Ward’s map design is still peerless – one map, Whiteout, which links together a village of log-cabins, an ice-packed, half-sunken warship and a snowy series of drifts via multiple routes has already become a favourite – and COD’s combat core remains as slick as ever. It’s not the change a new generation of consoles might once have heralded, but it’ll give you something familiarly thrilling to do on them, all the same.

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