An hour or so into Call Of Duty: Ghosts’ campaign, you rendezvous with a recon team. Its leader, Merrick, turns to you and issues a warning that encapsulates COD’s design ethos so perfectly that it might as well be on the box. “You can stick with us,” he says. “But you do what I say, when I say it. Understood?”
Of course we do: this is the sixth game of ‘follow the grizzled leader’ we’ve played since Modern Warfare. But as is traditional, there is a certain amount of change, too. As before, you’ll spend much of Ghosts in step behind the immaculate shoulders of a gruff marine or three, but you’ll also find yourself chasing after the lovingly textured ears of Riley the German Shepherd, on which so much pre-release attention was lavished.
Ghosts’ premier marketing device is no mere pup. Stand near it and hold the DualShock 4’s Square button and our protagonist pulls up a tablet, which enables you to not only see where Riley is heading but control the hound, too. As Riley, you can sneak through tall grass, with a tap of L1 performing an instant kill up close and a click of the left stick triggering a sprint attack that does the same for faraway foes. It’s also a recon drone, barking to get foes’ attention, with those in his line of sight tagged for another AI companion’s kill. Finally, it takes the place of the standard objective marker, picking up scents and haring off excitedly.
Despite top billing, the dog is far from a permanent presence onscreen, nor is it the narrative’s focal point. Instead, the spotlight falls on the Walker family: Elias, the father; Hesh, the elder son; and Logan, the younger brother, through whose eyes you’ll see the vast majority of the game. While Modern Warfare’s protagonist-hopping has been largely left behind, almost everything else has been brought over, most of it dialled up to ludicrous extremes. Here, the threat isn’t Russia, South America or the enemy within, but sort of all three at once, with the weaponisation of space thrown in on top. Mechanically, it’s the usual fare, an ADHD blend of stealth and shootouts, plus flight, vehicles and a toybox brimming with near-future tech. The dog, meanwhile, takes on a helicopter and wins. It’s thrilling in a dumb sort of way and you’ve played it half a dozen times already – though this time you’ll shoot people in space, under the sea and from behind the controls of a tank with the speed and turning circle of a supercar.
Multiplayer, meanwhile, sports a gently tweaked loadout system; more customisable avatars, including females in a long-overdue series first; and a handful of new killstreaks and gametypes. The killstreaks shift the focus down to Earth, with fewer aerial threats – the trademark Radar is now deployed on the ground – while the gametypes tend to riff off existing modes. Grind is a variation on Kill Confirmed in which dogtags dropped by fallen enemies are banked at one of two points on the map; Hunted is a team deathmatch spiced up by having players start off with pistols and fighting over randomised weapon crates. Maps are more cluttered than ever, another step away from the COD4 days when every piece of cover was there for a reason. Some cover is dynamic, changing mid-game. Walls collapse and bits of scenery can be moved; shoot a certain tree and it’ll fall over, creating a bridge between ledges.
Where, then, is all that next-gen power going? It’s not in the singleplayer AI, which once again spends the first two-thirds of the game politely shooting you once to let you know where the threat is, and the final hour dropping cooked grenades on your toenails. There are, at least, the green shoots of technical advancement in Squads, a new game mode. You create and level up a team of ten soldiers, with bots controlling teammates when you enter a Squads battle. The AI mimics human behaviour, using online tactics such as drop-shots with none of the headset abuse, and some Squads modes are asynchronous, with your crew levelling while you’re offline. The AI’s lacking one crucial element of human behaviour, though: once it gets a bead on you, it rarely misses. Tire of the bots and there’s a briefly entertaining fourplayer co-op mode, Extinction.
As a game released across generations and running on a modified version of an aged engine, Ghosts was never going to be a next-gen showcase, but it’s still a letdown to discover the only tangible result of PS4’s extra processing power is a few sliders being nudged up. It’s a brighter, higher-res version of the same game as ever, and the only sign you’re not simply playing a maxed-out PC build of Black Ops II is the abundance of particles. Whether it’s dust from a crumbling wall, debris fluttering in the aftermath of an explosion or bubbles from a scuba-diving NPC’s air tank, you’re never far away from a big cloud of something small.
Elsewhere, there is only disappointment in how the next-gen consoles’ power has, or rather hasn’t, been used. After a plane crash, we skulk through the undergrowth and dispatch an enemy search party. This abundant hi-res foliage doesn’t react to our presence at all. Things are even worse on Xbox One, where resolution is dialled down in favour of the series’ 60fps tradition and the game runs at 720p. While the PS4 version runs at a native 1080p, that precious framerate drops briefly before checkpoints, which are at least placed so that the odd stutter never affects gunplay. On current-gen consoles, meanwhile, a 12-player cap means the end of the nine-vs-nine Ground War mode.
Many will be satisfied by the simple existence of a COD game on the day next-gen hardware launches, but this is a missed opportunity nonetheless. The studio that defined the console FPS in the current generation has declined to do the same here. By the time it gets another chance, it may be too late.
PS4 version tested. Call Of Duty: Ghosts is out now on 360, PC, PS3 and Wii U. It will be released on Xbox One on November 22 and November 29 on PS4.