For a while now, I’ve sort of seen Call of Duty as the gaming world’s equivalent of the Fast and Furious franchise. And by that I mean that a) there seems to be loads of them (essentially at least one new version released every year), b) they’re glossy, shiny and full of high-octane explosions and whatnot, and c) neither of them are what you could call “intellectually challenging” (or at least not with a straight face, anyway).
Lest I be misunderstood, I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. Indeed, sometimes with games, as with films, we want to be awed and mesmerised by slick, action-packed set-pieces, and sometimes, we return to a franchise precisely because we know that’s exactly what we’re going to get.
If we accept this (admittedly not watertight) comparison, I think it’s fair to say that Call of Duty: Ghosts gets off to a great start. The first thing that struck me, at least with the PS4 version, is that it looks good. Like, really, really good. The cut scenes and the animations that start the levels are genuinely fantastic, well produced and extremely high-quality, and the actual in-game stuff is similarly lush, with characters, environments and vehicles all rendered in beautiful, high-def detail that, should one take a breather from shooting people in the face, cannot fail to impress. At one point, for example, I was ordered to hide behind a waterfall to remain undetected whilst an enemy patrol passed, and I genuinely got distracted by the beauty of the location until I was told, in no uncertain terms, to get my ass moving again. Human hair seems to be the benchmark by which the industry judges its progress towards photo-realism, but I’ve always been a water kinda guy, and whoever was responsible for the watery stuff in Ghosts definitely gets a gold-star from me, because it looks as real as anything I’ve yet seen. In fact, consistently, as the action moves around the globe, from city, to jungle, to snow covered mountains, pretty much everything looks stunning.
Likewise, the quality of the audio work is brilliant too. Everything sounds great, and, as far as I know (having never actually been in a post-apocalyptic gunfight, per se….) is pretty realistic and well engineered. To give another example, when you live in a tropical country, as I do, you develop a hyper-sensitivity to the presence of mosquitoes, and during the jungle level, I found myself reaching for my electrified mosquito racquet to zap the little bugger buzzing around behind me, only to discover, with some embarrassment, that it was in the game!! As an A/V geek, I really appreciate that sort of attention to detail, even if it does make me look daft.
So, anyway, now we know it looks and sounds great, just as we’d expect from a CoD game, how does Ghosts actually play? What about all the button pressing stuff?
Well, as I alluded to earlier, this is very much a part of the CoD canon, and, as such, is very much in keeping with the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ ethos of previous games. That is to say it’s a lot of aim, shoot, repeat, broken up by the odd bit of gadget usage, vehicular aim, shoot, repeat, and, rather bizarrely, being a dog. Yeah, you read that right: Being. A. Dog.
And to be fair, it’s actually quite entertaining, being a dog. Without wanting to give too much away, you’re often massively outnumbered, behind enemy lines, or both, so, thanks to a camera cunningly strapped to the family Alsatian, you can sneak around and kill enemy combatants via the medium of canine in a way that you wouldn’t be able to as, say, a human. At times it feels a bit gimmicky, sure, but, on the whole, I think it just about works. There’s also attack choppers to get to grips with, a remote sniping machine (which I found especially cool), a zip lining/abseiling section (also pretty awesome), and UAVs. In essence, all the elements we’ve come to expect from, and love about, the CoD franchise.
Commendably, Ghosts does sometimes take you in slightly different directions from that of all-out gunfights too. In the aforementioned jungle level, you find yourself separated from the rest of your team, with a neat little gadget telling you where enemies are, a knife, and a silenced pistol. Here, the emphasis is very much on stealth, and minimising your exposure. I found myself pleasantly reminded of GoldenEye on the N64, complete with the rush that accompanies sneaking up on an enemy unawares, rising from the undergrowth briefly, and despatching them with a quick ‘ppfff, ppff’ of my silenced weapon, before, once again, disappearing from view.
In terms of AI, I think Ghosts is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, enemies seem pretty smart, and keep moving around (between cover) enough to make shooting them a challenge. On the other, I actually found my own allies to be a bit on the stupid side. On more than one occasion, I’d take a wee detour (to look for a Rorke file – because nothing says ‘shock and awe’ like putting a daring raid on hold to look for a laptop) and on the way to catch up with my squad, I’d find myself set upon by a group of baddies who were just procrastinating in the rooms between us. I mean, I never went to Special Forces school, but I’d imagine that at least one of the classes was about clearing and securing a room properly, yet, with my particular group of elite soldiers, everyone seemed to have skipped that class. I know it’s about finding a balance, and the game wouldn’t be much fun if, by the time you’d got to grips with the lay of an area, your squad had already killed everyone, but it frustrated me that I, the rookie, was left to clean up their mess.
Elsewhere in Ghosts, when you’re not playing a murderous game of fetch, or castigating your squad for their schoolboy errors, there’s also the non-linear narrative aspect that seems to have become a feature of more recent FPS games, which, as with other games, works and doesn’t work at the same time, or different times, or both.
Yes, it fleshes out the story (which is arguably more necessary in Ghosts, because there’s a guy who’s gone rogue, and as always, there are very specific reasons for that) and, yes, it enables you to be a part of the history that led to your present position in the space-time continuum, but at times, it just feels a bit too contrived to play through a section where you’ve got no choice but to be knocked unconscious, watch the screen fade to white, only to realise it’s yet another segue into a ’10 years earlier……’ bit to explain why, in fact, you’ve just been knocked unconscious.
I know it’s a game, and as such we all know it’s not real, but for me it does decrease the intensity of the will he/won’t he survive scenarios somewhat, for example, when you know he’s definitely alive 10 years later because you’ve just *totally* seen him…
And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the game, I really, genuinely did, and for the whole time I was playing it, was fairly focused on all the shooting I needed to get done. Afterwards though, when it was done, I was reasonably OK with the fact that it had been done. Sure, at some point I’ll go back and get all those damn laptops, and I’ll fire up the multiplayer, and even play through it again, for the sheer hell of it (especially while we’re all waiting for new PS4 games), but until I do any of that, I won’t really be thinking about it, and I won’t be itching to get back to it in the same way I am with some other games.
But that’s OK, really. I was in the mood for some explosions, action, and fast-paced gunplay, and I got it. In that respect, it’s difficult to find fault with Call of Duty: Ghosts. It’s a specific type of game, for a specific type of mood, and as with every other game of the franchise, there’s just enough both new and familiar here to fill that particular niche with beauty, skill, and aplomb.