Seated comfortably and treated to all manner of finery the service industry has to offer – I assume at the expense of Activision, those charming devils – staring at enticing plates of smoked salmon rolls and miniature eggs Benedict bites, with mango and ginger shots and coffee and biccies galore. I must say, that even with such an advanced level of not-for-sale journalistic integrity in my possession, I found my knotted grudges with the publishers slowly unwinding, thinking, ‘With all this food, they can’t be all bad…’. Happily my sweetened disposition was not to be proven wrong, as after all the sundries it was time for our merry band of awkwardly shuffling, twitchy journo types to enter a darkened room, with the projected words ‘Call of Duty: Ghosts’ resting over virtual gunsmoke – my posh eggs were soon forgotten.
First to come was a presentation by Senior Community Manager at Infinity Ward, Tina Palacios, who dove straight into explaining the boundlessness and expansion of Infinity Ward’s new battleground. The multiplayer demo was played for us, along with its associated aggressive Slim Shady vitriol, to offer context and then some new, potentially game-changing features were unveiled and clarified. After a few videos we were ushered off to get to grips with the new title on Xbox ONE hardware (and some very swanky monitors) to dance the tango with the latest edition in a time-hardened series.
There’ve been whispers on internet blogs and amongst the industry in general discussing whether dispensing with Campaign modes in such huge military shooter titles should be the route forward, with many claiming to not even bother with the story, preferring to descend pure and virginal into the mucky fray of online combat. It’s clear that Infinity Ward have taken this to heart, and while they’ve obviously put a lot of time into the story, there was a great focus in the presentation on multiplayer, including how issues have been resolved based on community feedback and observational research.
With Call of Duty having utterly infiltrated the throes of ordinary life, medicine to some, poison to others, it’s unsurprising that Infinity Ward are trying to maximise their appeal, especially with the bloated and oversubscribed FPS genre representing a source of such stiff competition. The features on offer have been diversified further, the new ‘Squads’ modes offering respite from the toil of online deathmatch in a range of degrees:
- Squad vs. Squad, wherein you pit your custom-designed squad of six soldiers, yourself playing one of them, against another player’s squad, online.
- Squad Assault sees you and up to five other players taking on an offline player’s squad, designed and customised, and tasked with the defence of a map chosen by the defending player, and presumably best suited to their squad’s loadout.
- Safeguard sets up a situation similar to Modern Warfare 3’s Survival mode, offering up to 4-player Co-op against wave after wave of enemy onslaught. This is potentially very exciting after the success of the game type in MW3.
- Wargame allows you and a squad of custom soldiers to take on another squad, where a friend can jump-in and assume position in your team for rapid and flexible Multiplayer Co-op.
The importance of this range of modes to the game cannot be oversold. At the most basic level, these options will offer various avenues of entertainment, but more importantly, moves such as this could be the revitalising lightening rod thrown into the stagnating pond that the series has been becoming. This is not one new mode, this is an entire package of new routes to take, all interconnected, which might turn Ghosts into more of a military shooter suite, instead of just another game. If CODs before have seen you quaking too close to addiction, perhaps Ghosts could prove an even more slippery slope.
Characters, Perks & Points
But how are these squads composed? Why from your characters of course! Infinity Ward have made a move to capitalise on everyone’s seeming adoration for persistent stats and character growth, allowing you to forge a personal connection with crazed online combatants of your own design. Your online soldier is designed by you from head to toe, glad rags and all, with Infinity Ward promising up to 20,000 customisation combinations available, and when designed these characters each have their individual level and room for improvement as they rise through the ranks. The scope for character creation seemed satisfactory but far from comprehensive, and I was unable to see any potential for altering how the character body looks, though perhaps this is a knowing omission by the developers acknowledging that, despite the rich wealth of knowledge and intellect amongst the gaming community, it would only be a matter of time before the online arena was flooded with heavy-weight melon-breasted female gun-harpies and Arnie-a-like, juiced-up ‘roid tanks, the whole thing descending into parody and pastiche immediately upon release. It’s alright, Infinity Ward, I wouldn’t have trusted an internet’s worth of morons either.
These characters, as with the custom classes of the past, can be augmented with perks, and yet again, the perks system has been tweaked…by very large hands. Replacing the slotted perk system is now a points system, with the higher-powered perks costing more dough. The perks are also split into seven categories: Speed, Handling, Stealth, Awareness, Resistance, Equipment and Elite. How you utilise your points should reflect even more precisely than ever before the play-style that you are aiming for, another way to tell apart the mice, the men and the mad. Some new perks we got to try included ‘Takedown’, which prevents your kills from revealing an enemy’s death location to the other team and ‘Ping’, which shows nearby enemies on the mini-map when you score a kill. ‘Wiretap’ will allow you to receive mini-map information, effectively hacking their intelligence.
Whilst we’re chomping through the plethora of changes in Ghosts, we may aswell explore the new killstreaks that have been added, for instance the ability to call-in a guard dog to accompany you through your battle. Requiring only a 5-streak this is an easily achievable feat and what is laudable is that the dog persists and returns to you after your death upon respawn, meaning that your enemies will have to dispense of your pooch as well as you, unless they want to be dog chow. Another helpful aspect of the guard dog is that it should make it difficult for players to sneak up on you, given that your canine buddy emits a menacing growl when enemies are in a certain range. Modelled here, as in the campaign mode, on the aesthetics and behaviours of real US Navy Seal hounds, Infinity Ward are clearly gunning for authenticity, but beside that, the dog offers a well-balanced and smoothly implemented mechanic within the game to break up the tedium of online play and offer another potential style, diversifying the experience.
The new killstreaks don’t stop there however, as in our playtest we also got to sample SAT COM, which is a sort of augmented UAV improvement. Instead of calling in a drone and seeing the red dots, the player will place a SAT COM unit and this will start displaying enemies on the minimap. However it’s more complex than that – if other players on your team also receive SAT COMs as rewards, they too can place them, resulting in a multi-tiered radar system that becomes more accurate and precise as the number of players on your team with active SAT COM units increases. This works well in practice and actually encourages closer teamwork.
If that was a little dry for you however, we did get to play with one more killstreak reward that is perhaps a little less on the sensible side. Maniac, at 9 kills, sees you don a Juggernaut suit and shed your cumbersome firearms in favour of knives. Your sprint is also unlimited. If it sounds overpowered, that’s because it is, though there is a caveat for the budding maniac: health regeneration is switched off, so a persistent assault on your hulking form will always see you to the deck at some point. Much as with the SAT COM features, this adds a subtle encouragement towards teamwork, as to get these behemoths down will take a little focussed fire, to say the least.
Guns, Guns, Guns
And now, what you’ve been waiting so patiently for. Guns:
A new gun/class type makes its entry here, the Marksman. Marksman rifles, as Miss Palacios tells us, feel more like the M1 Garand rifles of Call of Duty 2 yore, and on getting a chance to get my feet wet with them I find myself in strong agreement. After jamming around awkwardly with a rearranged loadout customisation page for a couple of games, I really started to succeed in the multiplayer playtest when I busted out these badboys. Powerful, only taking 2 shots to kill, the semi-auto IA-2 from this Marksman class of guns really brought the thunder, and as the others played it safe with more recognisable guns and the new ‘Honey Badger’ (silencer integrated), I rained death and destruction, an unstoppable force. For a little while at least.
For snipers -myself having tested out the L115- there’s great news too, with an infinitely more functional build that is far better-balanced than those seen in previous titles. The issue with incorporating a sniping class into the Call of Duty formula is self-evident. These sorts of guns are used by the military to shoot and kill targets from over a mile away, but in the gritty, rapid, even frantic killboxes that we’ve been given by COD thus far, the benefits of sniping have been far outweighed by the costs, with a crawling fire-rate and a gaping vulnerability to attacks from maniacal P90-toting lunatics, rampaging through all attempts at skilful, strategic play styles like an amped up bull in a gun store. In Ghosts, however, we’re given a smooth experience, with far more functional sniper rifles, aided in no small way by the new and much touted dual-layer rendering feature present when sniping, which in short is as thus: previously the area outside the scope has been obscured, but in Ghosts, when scoped, the periphery is still rendered, allowing players to make use of the blurred area to spot enemies entering the sightlines. This feature was apparently introduced as a reaction to community input, so let’s all join in a cry of ‘power to the people!’ before moving swiftly on.
It’s also worth noting that the perennial issue of quick scoping, boon or annoyance depending on which side of the fence you rest, has been addressed. Due to alterations to ‘sway timing’, quick-scoping in the traditional sense has taken its leave. Only time will tell whether this exploitative technique will find another guise in which to show its face again.
Other seemingly minor alterations have crept in, which though simple on face value are far from ineffectual in terms of gameplay. These sorts of changes manifest in how the player can navigate the map. Gone are the jerky, abortive attempts at dolphin-diving, or going prone mid-air whilst running, and in come knee slides. Past awkward clambers over obstacles, negating both momentum and your kill/death ratio, are replaced with (almost) graceful mantles over the outcropping humps and bumps of the environment. I linger on this point to emphasise exactly how much these modifications improve online gameplay, adding fluidity with a flourish. Also new are context sensitive leans from behind cover, perhaps bringing console gamers up to the speed of the ever elitist PC set. That’ll give them a little less ammunition to throw our way and also elevate the series to more intuitive heights.
Game Types & Maps
New multiplayer game types promise to fragment the drudgery of a Team Deathmatch losing streak and also to provide an enjoyable alternative to the standard kinds we’re used to with COD. Search and Rescue is a spin on the old Search and Destroy where you have a chance to rescue downed team-mates by collecting their tags before the enemy. This could give a chance for those new to the mode – who in the past must’ve spent far more time spectating after being plugged by some distant, dead-eye basement-dweller over and over and over again – to regain their patience and give it another shot. ‘Cranked’ is the streaker’s dream ticket, with each consecutive kill increasing speed and agility. Thirty seconds without a kill, however, and you’re splattered up the wall. Better keep killing then…Finally, ‘Blitz’ sets two teams up with a portal at each base, your mission: to charge guns blazin’ across the map, decimate whatever defence your opponent poses and charge into the portal they’re defending, being instantly teleported back to your own team’s portal with a cheeky point to your team’s tally. This game type was a particular favourite, providing quick, cheap thrills and an opportunity to excel where others were stuck focussing on killstreaks. So far so good, and we’re looking forward to testing out the full selection of game types on release.
Last but not least, I’m very happy to report that the maps on offer (as far as I’ve played) are spectacular. Not one of those we got to play proved a disappointment. Gone is the unnatural and tiresome linearity, which has crept into some maps in more recent COD titles. Theses have been replaced with complex warrens, operating across a wider range of vertical planes, which can be navigated via countless routes. ‘Whiteout’ offers a coastal cluster of snowy outcroppings, tunnels, gorges, and buildings, in possession of viable vantage points for the snipers and corridors for the charging SMG warriors. ‘Chasm’ holds vertigo sufferers in paralysis as its half-collapsed buildings rent new access routes through others and out onto rubble-littered streets, with faster cross-map travel the reward for those daring to leap its gaps. ‘Strikezone’ sets the stage for attacks from all sides. There’s plenty of cover here, but the tension arises from the chance of being snuck upon. Dynamic map features and unique player-activated events (boom) promise to make each map a mystery to begin with and add another layer of wonder to the online experience, the KEM Strike, a one time per game airdropped reward, acts much like a nuke, killing the entire enemy team and altering the map, both visually and in how its possible to navigate it. Though the dynamic map is not new in the field of gaming, seen before many times in the Battlefield series, it is a welcome addition here.
At the preview we were also lucky to get a glimpse at a new map, named ‘Stonehaven’, apparently inspired by European architecture and landscapes. With refreshing greenery, it’s a happy departure from the seas of brown and grey it can be all too easy to become accustomed to in this genre, with plains of grass catching a coastal wind against a the foreboding shadow of a ruined castle. Vantage points and fortifications galore, it looks like it could prove a fun sniping map, but also has the valleys, trenches and field-cover to ensure its operable as any class – an aim which seems to have been high on Infinity Ward’s list this time around.
What is refreshing and, at least to me, surprising, is how much effort Infinity Ward have taken in making a definite move away from the beaten path with their new title. Where Call of Duty has become drenched in ubiquity and is rare to be found lacking from most gamers’ collections, one could expect and perhaps even forgive the developers for sticking to the proven formula, and in a sense they have, but the innovation on offer here is more than enough to offer a revitalising shot of adrenaline to a package that, while a staple and an undeniable monster, has been found wanting of novelty for more than a few iterations. The changes here are more than tweaks, and less than total overhauls, and I think that could prove a successful manoeuvre, satisfying both the purists and those tiring of the series.