The crest of the wallet-emptying wave known as the “Holiday Season” for video games has kicked off as of last week with Assassins Creed 4 Black Flag and Batman Arkham Origins, although both of those titles are playing catch up to the massively successful Grand Theft Auto V which launched a month earlier, earned a billion dollars in three days, and has already shipped 29 million copies.
This week, the two biggest shooter franchises face off against each other with Activision’s Call of Duty: Ghosts in one corner, and EA’s Battlefield 4 in the other. While I expect that Call of Duty will continue to outsell Battlefield, as it has done in the past, this might be the beginning of the end of the dominance that it has enjoyed. Read on to find out why.
A couple of weeks ago, Activision invited some video game journalists down to a swanky hotel in Southern California. We were put up in very nice rooms, complete with a big screen television that they had brought in, along with a 5.1 sound system, and both next and current-gen game systems. Even the gigantic mirror in the bedroom had a huge Call of Duty: Ghosts skull decal applied to it, just so you wouldn’t forget why you were there.
I have a love/hate relationship with these types of review events. First of all, you’re getting a trip that is entirely paid for by the publisher, along with food and drink, and you’re playing the game under their conditions. For instance, we had several rooms allotted to our group for multiplayer sessions. But we weren’t playing the game through the internet like we would be at home. We would have to wait until after the game was released to see how it would behave under those conditions.
But on the other hand, it can be nice to be fully encapsulated in a game without distractions. We had a baby four months ago, and finding time to game has become increasingly more difficult. So being able to leave the house and check into a room where I had access to the game 24/7 allowed me to focus without distractions. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Some people worry that this means a writer will be biased in their review, since they got a free trip, but if you can’t be unbiased in the business of writing about entertainment, you have no business being in it.
With that out of the way, let’s get on to the game.
ONE IS THE LONELIEST NUMBER
This installment in the series takes place in the near future, although separate from the timeline of the Modern Warfare series of CoD games. You play Logan Walker, a young, tough-as-nails type raised with his brother Hesh (voiced by Brandon Routh) under the tutelage their father Elias, who has trained both of them to be top-notch soldiers. As the story opens, he is telling his boys the tale of the Ghosts, a legendary group of soldiers who hid under the bodies of their fallen comrades, using stealth to take out an overwhelming force.
Without warning, a tremor rocks through Southern California storytime and they begin heading back home, assuming that it was an earthquake. But Elias quickly realizes that it is actually an attack from ODIN, an orbital defense initiative satellite under U.S. control. He heads off to get their pickup truck, while Hesh and Logan seek shelter at home.
The story then shifts to 15 minutes earlier, to a sequence that most people will say was ripped directly from Gravity, although given the development time for most video games, it is most likely just a coincidence. As an astronaut amidst a collapsing field of debris, you’ll have to fight off attackers while trying to disable the ODIN system, which has begun firing on U.S. targets. You can check out that sequence in the video above, complete with hot NASA action.
Cut to ten years later, where it is revealed that the enemy is all of South America, united under a single banner and called the Federation. The United States has fought them to a standstill, with much of the country being destroyed in the process. Now, a new enemy is knocking at the door, and it turns out to be someone that Logan, Hesh, and Elias know all too well. The bulk of the single player campaign is about confronting that enemy and chasing him down.
Unfortunately, once you finally do, the game ends on an enormous cliffhanger. I’m surprised the words “TO BE CONTINUED” didn’t appear on the screen. That represents an extremely frustrating piece of storytelling after playing through the entire campaign. It is unclear if that is going to be addressed via DLC or a sequel, but it represents a disservice to gamers after completing a single-player experience that feels short and incomplete.
The campaign itself feels very familiar to the Call of Duty series, with seemingly invincible soldiers facing a megalomaniacal enemy hell-bent on destroying everything. There are a few fresh moments scattered throughout, like Riley the dog (who is playable), a tank level, a helicopter level, an escape across a frozen river where you can shoot the ice out from under your enemies, underwater levels, a level where you rain fire down from space: but they are few and far between. For the most part, this is standard, mission-based gameplay that ekes the story forward.
But for many gamers, the single player experience isn’t even a part of the Call of Duty universe. For them, multiplayer is where it lives and dies. For many months, my go-to game when I was done with a day of work was Call of Duty multiplayer in Modern Warfare 3 or Black Ops. Grab a controller, collapse on the couch, drop into multiplayer and zone out while fragging. I was able to become fairly decent at multiplayer, but only after thousands of deaths. I still die a ton in CoD, it has just become part of the process.
Luckily, Infinity Ward knows that they didn’t need to reinvent the wheel here, so the multiplayer is just tweaked and refined, without being totally overhauled. They have added game modes, killstreaks (like Riley, the dog), and weapons. They have also tweaked the movement systems, and you can now lean against certain obstacles, slide on your knees, or mantle over some objects while firing.
Clan support is back, and an all-new Squad system, which allows you to play online and offline against friends and foes using their player data. Also new are Field Orders, represented by a blue briefcase onscreen. Pick it up to receive orders, like “Get Two Kills While Prone,” and carry that out without dying to receive a Care Package and an ammo and equipment reload.
The biggest change to multiplayer is the new Perk system in the Create a Soldier menus, which requires some juggling. Perks are now broken down by types, like Speed, Handling, Awareness, and so on, and they now fit into a slot system. Certain perks take up more slots, so finding your build can take a lot of trial and error. You can also customize your soldier this time around, down to multiple pieces of gear, and they have added female fighters to the game for the first time.
ALIENS. YES, ALIENS.
Ever since Call of Duty: World at War, Treyarch has included a zombies mode in the games they have developed for the series. They experience has grown into a massive, sprawling world of its own, filled with some secrets that gamers haven’t even discovered yet. For the first time, Infinity Ward has finally answered that with a mode of their own, which is the four-player Extinction game where you battle aliens through survival horror.
This didn’t provide nearly as many “crap your pants” moments as zombies has over the years, but that was mostly because zombies involved a lot of “I have no clue what the fuck is going on” gameplay experiences. Hunting down obscure switches and flipping them only to find out they do something weird on an entirely different part of the map is a little too esoteric for a game that is all about emptying a clip of ammunition into the face of your enemy.
Extinction provides a much tighter experience, where you rely completely on your teammates. There is bit of exploration built-in, as you’ll need to scrounge through debris for ammunition and different weapons, including the awesome Hypnoknife that will turn an enemy to your side when you throw it at them. This mode is class-based, allowing you to choose your roles before the game starts, so you’ll need to decide who is the tank, the healer, the turret-dropper, and so on.
After playing this mode for a few hours, it didn’t even feel like we were playing Call of Duty anymore. This felt like a standalone game, and our squad grew very tight through the experience, even though we lost spectacularly. The goal is to destroy alien hives with a portable drill that you have to protect, and if you can survive through 12 hives and some truly devastating onslaughts, you can activate a nuke and destroy everything if you get to minimum safe distance as a team. Our drill bit the dust on hive 12, which was frustrating, but we still had a blast in the process. Definitely one of the highlights in the game, although right now it is only limited to one map. Hopefully that will change.
The multiplayer experience here, along with the newly added Extinction mode, are what you’re going to pick this title up for. It still provides the same crack-like addictiveness that forces you to keep playing “just one more game,” and it all feels familiar like an old pair of jeans. The problem is that these jeans are becoming frayed at the bottoms, and developing a hole in the crotch. I’ve spent the last week playing Battlefield 4 single-player and multiplayer, and if these two workhorses were in a race with each other, this is the moment where BF4 starts inching ahead.
Throughout the Call of Duty: Ghosts, single-player experience, I never felt tied to the characters. Brandon Routh’s deadpan delivery didn’t help, but the entire story just kept them all at arm’s length. The characters in BF4 have drawn me in with a much more human touch, and as a result you’ll feel more grounded in that story. Plus the BF4 experience feels more gritty and realistic. Or as realistic as a video game can be right now. Plus the multiplayer in BF4 allows for 32 on 32, providing some truly enormous battles.
It might just be CoD fatigue that has my head turning towards Battlefield 4 right now, although I truly did enjoy playing the Ghosts multiplayer, and I can’t wait to get back into Extinction. At the event, I spent most of the time playing on the PlayStation 4, and to my surprise it looked better and smoother on that system. Plus, the PS4 controller feels much better than I had expected. But we aren’t talking exponential leaps in look and feel here, and if you are looking for that familiar Call of Duty experience, chances are you will enjoy it on whatever system you have access to.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is available now on Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii U, and will be coming on November 15 to PlayStation 4, and November 22 to Xbox One.