Version reviewed: PlayStation 4
Where does a developer take a game franchise after it's conquered the world? Once you've wowed critics, broken sales records, shifted millions of units and attracted a gargantuan fan base, where do you go? The bubble can't just continue to inflate, can it? Eventually the twin-threat of stagnation or sea change will arrive at the door. Opt for the former and critics will cane you while fans grow restless. Opt for the latter and you risk alienating the core.
So spare a thought for Infinity Ward as this is the quandary the Santa Monica-based developer finds itself in with Call Of Duty: Ghosts. Having wrapped up the Modern Warfare storyline two years ago, COD: Ghosts finds the developer - and the COD franchise - at something of a crossroads.
From the looks of things Infinity Ward doesn't want to simply make Modern Warfare 4 - the campaign takes some necessary risks in its level design and plotting - but the developer also doesn't want to deviate too much from its past work either. And then there's that whole pesky 'COD-is-now-an-eSports-game' factor that needs to be considered during the online mode QA testing.
First up, the game's campaign is a brief, six-or-so-hour affair that establishes new characters and a new world. In Ghosts, the United States is no longer an unstoppable superpower and is trying to fend off invaders from the South American Federation. The set-up is no less preposterous than that of Russia invading the USA in retaliation for the actions of one black ops agent in Modern Warfare 2, but it's interesting that the player is cast as part of a force that's constantly on the back foot.
The player takes on the role of a US infantry hardhead called Logan, who along with his brother Hesh - and family dog, Riley - find themselves patrolling the California border after Federation forces nuke the US from space. Their dad, Elias, sends them out beyond the California safety zone on reconnaissance and, lo and behold, they come across a group of elite military troops called the Ghosts.
It's not long after this that Logan and Hesh (and Riley) are drafted into the ranks of the Ghosts who, it turns out, are the USA's best chance at backing off the Federation. The story also jumps back and forth through time in order to establish the game's villain.
Since the Ghosts are essentially a stealth-based infiltration unit, the COD game template has been tinkered with in places. Some missions are your standard run-and-gun affairs but Ghosts finds time to toss players into scenarios where staying out of sight and leaping from the shadows is better than the direct approach. This isn't a wholly new experience - as anyone who played COD 4 and Modern Warfare 2 will know - but it's more improvisational here. Staying silent makes your life easier in some missions, sure, but it isn't a requirement throughout.
The level design is equally off-piste. Infinity Ward has always been great at constructing action set pieces and they don't flag here. One mission sees the player struggling to survive after a burst dam floods a city. Another sees them stealthily picking their way through a skyscraper before bombs split the building in half.
The best level is arguably the one in which the Ghosts penetrate a weapons factory while dressed in enemy uniforms. The action here moves from tense subterfuge to pitched gun battles and back again with an impressive subtlety. A tower-defence set piece and a turret rail-shooter sequence feel like icing on the cake.
"Ghosts operates like a Saw film: if you just run with it, it's highly enjoyable"
The real eye-openers occur when Infinity Ward junk the whole '24' feel their games have enjoyed up until now and head for James Bond territory. To wit, players can expect to blast through a muted fragfest beneath the waves, a gunfight in zero gravity in space and even a chase across the rooftop of a speeding train. Infinity Ward moves from Thunderball to Moonraker to From Russia With Love and barely casts an eye over their collective shoulder.
It's not all good news; the dialogue in the campaign is plonkingly bad at times and the plot is utterly nonsensical. Like previous entries, COD: Ghosts operates like a Saw film: if you just run with it, it's highly enjoyable, but if you stop to think about it, your brain will melt and pour from your ears.
But then, most players aren't signing up for the campaign. They're here for the multiplayer. To that end Infinity Ward has built on the legacy of the Modern Warfare series of games while taking a couple of notes out of Treyarch's open-ended approach to the multiplayer in Black Ops and Black Ops 2
For the first time there's an easy entry for noobs. Squads mode is both a tutorial and a real-time experience that allows players to try out the multiplayer mode without having to plunge in at the deep end. Over four match types, players can learn maps, experiment with load-outs and generally get the feel of the COD online experience, while playing in co-op or just going head to head with one each other. Squads mode is you and your bots pitted against however many human opponents you feel like taking on. It's the draft for COD's burgeoning eSports community.
Those who don't fancy the online multiplayer's trial by fire also have Extinction mode to get stuck into. Like Treyarch's zombie mode, Extinction is a co-op game that puts a premium on working together as a team. Instead of the undead, players have alien quadrupeds to deal with.
Players earn cash for every kill and they can use that to buy weapons, tech, equipment or items in their immediate vicinity to help them get through each set piece. Make no mistake, though, teamwork and communication in Extinction are key factors; if players lack either, they won't last long.
Once you feel your reflexes have been honed to the point that you can tackle COD's multiplayer, a veritable world of pain awaits. And it all dovetails nicely into COD's new Clan Wars feature, which will be accessible through an app on both Android and iOS. Infinity Ward has created a space where the player's level of involvement in the online community is down to them, but everything they do will feed back into their profile.
Those committed COD-heads will find that management is a far more malleable affair and clans are no longer platform-bound. It's possible to round up a clan for a weekend-long shootfest (as it always was) but now, you no longer have to ensure players are all on the same console. PS3 and Xbox 360 player won't be able to play together, but players can both contribute to the same 'clan pot' on any platform.
Progression is also open-ended. Players earn in-game currency (just as they did in Black Ops 2) and they're able to buy weapons, equipment and military tech. Nothing useful on the battlefield needs to be unlocked. Cosmetic attributes, however, are a rite of passage.
There is an overwhelming sense of familiarity one gets from playing Call Of Duty: Ghosts and that's probably because an iteration of this series drops every year without truly reinventing the wheel. Its formula is a world-record-breaking recipe for success. It's fun, sure, but it's not ground-breaking. But then, for the purposes of its audience, does it need to be?
Infinity Ward delivers another unsurprisingly familiar yet consistently enjoyable CoD blockbuster.
- Campaign delivers big dumb fun
- Deep and layered multiplayer
- Extinction is a welcome addition
- Strong feeling of familiarity - even on next-gen
- Really bad dialogue