News, Views, and Reviews
Call of Duty: Ghosts continues a decade’s tradition of releasing a high quality, high octane, over-the-top action, first person shooter every November. The single-player campaign is easily their best yet, and my favorite of the Call of Duty campaigns, but many fans of the series will probably just skip it and go right to the online multi-player. That’s not an insult to the campaign (they are missing out) but a testament to the quality of the multi-player experience. Ghosts makes many adjustments to the series, probably more than any previous iteration. It tweaks and balances some issues, adds entirely new concepts where needed, and adds several new game modes. The amount of content that comes with COD: Ghosts is staggering: a very robust versus mode, the five hour single player campaign, a new co-op/versus mode called “Squads,” and a new co-op game called “Extinction” that faces four players versus, believe it or not, an alien invasion!
As I mentioned in my single-player review, there is a fine balance that the developers have to maintain with each new version of Call of Duty. They have to keep it familiar, but add enough new content and new features to keep it fresh. For the most part, Ghosts is fresh and familiar, but some of the depth and complexity they’ve added might be a little intimidating at first. This might be a little problematic, as part of the success of Call of Duty is that it appeals to a wide range of ability, from the inexperienced “casual” player to the dedicated “hardcore” crowd. The new complexity could alienate the “casual” players, but the new “Squads” mode can be used as a very robust and self-contained learning mode. There are so many modes and ways to play Call of Duty that there is bound to be something for everyone.
Online Multi-Player: 1-12 Players (PC and next-gen have 1-18 players) Versus modes. 1-4 Player Co-Op “Extinction” Mode, 1-6 Player Co-Op/Versus “Squads” Mode.
Local (Offline): 2 Players Split-Screen; 2-12 Players System-Link or LAN Versus modes; 1-4 Player Co-Op “Extinction” Mode; 1-6 Player Co-Op/Versus “Squads” Mode.
Custom game options: Free, online or offline, extensive versus modes customization is available. Limit player “perks” and weapons, kill-streaks, match settings, etc. “Squads” modes can also be customized, including AI controlled ally and enemy “bots” capable of replacing human players.
There are eleven standard versus modes spread over fourteen maps (fifteen if you count the “Free-Fall” map available from pre-ordering the game), a new co-op/versus mode called “Squads,” and a new co-op game called “Extinction” that could more or less be an entirely separate game all by itself.* Describing each versus mode would take a really long time, but here is a list: Free-For-All, Team Deathmatch, Search and Destroy, Domination, Kill Confirmed, Search and Rescue, Grind, Blitz, Cranked, Infected, and Hunted. There are currently two more “alternate” modes that include a “Hunted” variation of Free-For-All and a match-making (online) version of the “Safeguard” game usually played in “Squads” mode. All game modes can include “hardcore” variations, or can be further modified for custom variations. Custom matches don’t award experience points for ranking up Soldiers.
Soldiers: Playing regular versus modes let you rank up and unlock new weapons, new weapon attachments, new “perks” or player skill modifiers, and ways to customize your appearance. Like previous Call of Duty games, these options can be equipped to several different “classes” before any match starts, and players can switch “classes” during the match if they need to adapt to different strategies. One class might be equipped with a sniper rifle and “perks” that make him invisible on the enemy radar, and another class might have a silenced sub-machine gun and the “perks” to run faster and carry more flashbang grenades. For the first time, players are able to change their soldier’s appearance, and can even choose between male and female avatars. Further, players can create up to ten different soldiers, each with up to six different classes, with a total of 60 different playable classes and 20,000 variations of equipment, attachments, perks, and kill-streaks. If this seems too daunting, there are some pre-set classes like “assault” or “sniper” to choose from to get a player started, and then they can modify each soldier and class as they go. Practicing in the on or offline mode “Squads” is a great way to become familiar with Call of Duty and the new “Create a Soldier” options.
Squads: The versus modes are replicated in the “Squads” modes, with the added benefit of AI controlled ally and enemy “bots” capable of replacing human players. One could play “Squads” all alone, and still feel like they’re playing the online versus modes. “Squads” also provides its own “meta” game in that your squad can challenge – or be challenged by – other players’ Squads. Players can choose which of their Soldiers are included in their squad, determine which Soldier they will play as (in any of the Squads or regular versus modes), decide the order in which the AI controlled Soldiers will be swapped out by human players, and can even set their “home turf” or map that they will defend when other players’ Squads attack your Squad. If this seems confusing, don’t worry, these are just options. COD: Ghosts is taking the “create a class” feature and expanding it into its own game. You Create a Soldier, give him or her a name, and then create different classes for that soldier. Those different classes keep that soldier flexible for different situations – some maps favor snipers more than others, for example. Modifying their appearances is just a fun bonus. You can play any multi-player mode, including Squads, without changing anything, as the game includes six pre-made Soldiers. Or, you can modify a few of the soldiers and their classes just so you have more options in multi-player, and not even worry about Squads. But, the Squads mode provides more than just a fun way to create different Soldiers and classes, and practice offline or with your friends, it also includes it’s own co-op game: Safeguard. Like it sounds, you and up to six players have to survive waves of enemies, with the ability to set up defense turrets or other gadgets that randomly drop between rounds. All in all, the Soldier customizing options and the robust Squads mode should keep players busy for a long time.
Maps: As a fan of the series, I can usually tell which studio, Infinity Ward or Treyarch, developed each Call of Duty game based on their maps. For better or worse, Ghosts definitely looks like an Infinity Ward game. The maps have a lot of variety both in location and layout, though many share IW’s “fingerprint” of overly dense structures, with multiple pathways and corridors, windows, perches, and obstacles. This creates a lot of tension, because you can never feel completely safe in any location, but it can lead to some strange moments of not finding anyone because they’re all on different portions of the map. Unlike Battlefield 4, what you see is what you get. These maps don’t scale down to adapt to different game modes or player counts, so every map has to accommodate every game mode available. To be fair, there isn’t nearly the massive differences in player count that BF4 has to contend with; BF4 matches range from 12 players to 64 players and COD matches are usually only 12 players. I should point out that the PC and next-gen version of COD: Ghosts will support up to 18 players, and that might be the sweet spot for many of these maps and game modes. Probably a bigger concern for IW, then, was not worrying about different player counts but making each map viable for a much larger variety of game modes. Capturing conquest points in “Domination” or making a break for the score-zone in “Blitz” use completely different strategies, and the maps have to support that. Like the “Levolution” feature in Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts features dynamic map-changing events. Some seem pretty minor, like flooding a weapon factory with vision obscuring gas, but others can dramatically alter the landscape, like an orbital cannon strike that devastates everything. I think it’s a fun way of shaking up a match and making players adjust their strategies on the fly. It also validates the need to create different “classes” or weapon and equipment loadouts, as you might have to switch to a weapon with a special thermal scope to see through that gas, or switch to short range weapons because the map is now covered in wreckage and debris. The graphics may be dated, but each map feels unique and authentic, with lots of details to sell the location.
As much as I appreciate the complexity and ingenuity of the maps, I have a few complaints. More than once I found myself comparing them to the multi-player maps in Resistance 2, a PlayStation 3 game that came out in 2008, and featured matches with up to 60 players. The size and complexity of the maps weren’t the only thing that reminded me of Resistance 2, their color themes and surface details were similar, too. Again, it is a different story on PC and next-gen consoles, with sharper resolutions and fancier graphics settings, as well as the higher player count. But for current gen, and only 12 player matches, the maps in COD: Ghosts seem a little too barren and look a little dated. Unfortunately, IW’s “fingerprint” of frustrating re-spawns is all over this game. It doesn’t always happen, as game modes with team objectives versus regular non-objective games makes a difference, but I either re-spawn right next to an enemy player or far away from everyone, instead of near my team mates. This is a problem that plagues many, many shooters, though it seems like the Call of Duty titles crafted by Treyarch fair better than those made by Infinity Ward. To be more specific, I think Ghosts is a little better than Modern Warfare 3, which had the worst problem with re-spawns, but not as good as Black Ops 2.
New to consoles is an effort to add more and more dedicated servers, which should alleviate some of the lag and internet issues that have plagued shooting games for years. One of these issues is called “lag compensation” which basically means what you see is not what you get. Any given online match will consist of players from multiple locations with a range of internet speed and quality. The game tries to keep everyone playing at the same speed, but sometimes the upload/download data pauses or “lags” to catch up. When this happens, the game will appear to freeze for a few seconds, start again, and maybe do that for a few more seconds, resulting in something like a “slide show” of images instead of a smooth, consistent flow. Most games don’t bother fixing that issue, it just happens, and unless you’re playing a very high-paced, competitive shooting game (like Call of Duty) it doesn’t really matter. But, if you are playing a game like Call of Duty, it DOES matter; making aiming and movement decisions based off a stuttering slide show is nearly impossible. Even more problematic, those “slide shows” are going to be player specific, which means I might be having a hard time aiming at you because my screen keeps lagging, but you’re not having any problems at all, so you easily defeat me. Call of Duty tries to “compensate” for this visual appearance by smoothing out those frames, making it virtually unnoticeable. But, because it’s player specific, I might still be having a hard time aiming at you and you are having an easy time aiming at me, I just can’t TELL that I’m having problems. This can lead to a lot of frustration as what I see on my screen is very different than what is actually happening in the match. Even worse, at least one player will always have the fastest, steadiest connection in the match. This is sometimes called “host advantage” as a peer-to-peer online match automatically detects the different internet connections and assigns the player with the best connection as “the host” machine that connects everyone else in the match, and that unfairly favors that host. If you combine the issues of “host advantage” with “lag compensation” you basically get the situation where one player has an easier time than everyone else, and everyone else is getting frustrated because they’re just not fast enough, or it looks like they shot first but the match says differently, and they just don’t know why they keep losing. It would almost be better if the game went into slide show mode when it starts to lag, just so it would be more obvious why players are getting out matched.
I bring all of this up to proclaim the benefits that having dedicated servers will bring to Call of Duty. By having a neutral “host” on a server somewhere, everyone’s connection speed should be equalized. The “lag compensation” problem still pops up once in awhile, but it appeared a lot, lot less to me these past several days of playing online, and I am super excited about that! Naturally, playing an offline or a local/system-link match will also avoid the lag problems, as it always has, and playing a custom variation will likely be played on a peer-to-peer connection instead of on a dedicated server. So, experiences may vary, but this is a huge step in relieving some of these internet issues.
Still, aside from the issue of randomly re-spawning in an inconvenient place, the range of player preferences for smaller to larger maps, and the possibility of experiencing lag compensation, the function of Call of Duty: Ghosts is impeccable. It still holds up to its high standards of fast, smooth game play with tight, responsive controls and a solid 60 fps. This isn’t just maintaining high quality, IW has also tweaked the controls and balanced the multi-player experience. Jumping or “mantling” over waist high obstacles is smoother than ever, and there is a new “knee slide” animation that keeps you moving quickly and aiming forward when you transition from sprinting to crouching. Aiming down the sights functions a little different for long range scopes, which may take some adjustment. For now, the game seems very tightly balanced, even though there are 39 weapons, 12 pieces of equipment, 35 new perks, 36 scorestreaks spanning three categories, and various weapons attachments to choose from. Overall, there seems to be a greater emphasis on ground based, close proximity battles, as evidenced by the “scorestreak” rewards in Ghosts compared to other Call of Duty games. Instead of summoning a bombing run or an attack helicopter that mercilessly rains death from above, you’ll summon the attack dog featured in the single-player campaign. Replacing the entire map viewing capabilities of a UAV drone, the mini “SAT COM” device only places nearby enemy locations on the mini-map. If someone does get to call in an attack chopper, it’s usually a smaller attack drone that can easily be shot down with regular machine gun fire. Long range weapons are still an option, and Ghosts introduces a new sub-category of “marksman” rifles that fit between sniper rifles and automatic rifles. Overall, there seems to be a lot of options for players to find something they like, and still fit in with other people playing their way.
All of these, and many others, modifications help balance the overall multi-player experience, and that’s the most important thing. The game is still fast and fun, yet it doesn’t veer into vastly unfair situations like previous versions. I’ve barely scratched the surface in this review, and that can be both good and bad. As I mentioned, the new layers of complexity could alienate newcomers, although features like “Squads” and being able to play offline could help get them up to speed. As a “cross-generation” game, or a game that has to appear on current gen and next gen consoles, I think some of the features feel held back. The graphics look dated and the larger maps seem more appropriate for 18 players, not 12. Personally, I don’t mind sacrificing a little visual fidelity and player count to achieve the smooth game play the series is known for, and it gets me more excited for the Xbox One. I should also mention that both Sony and Microsoft are offering an “upgrade exchange” program. If you buy Ghosts for the Xbox now, for only $10, you can upgrade to the Xbox One version when that comes out in a few weeks, and the same is true for PS3 owners upgrading to the PS4 version for only $10. Preferences may vary, but I usually prefer a game with a lot of maps, a lot of game modes, and the ability to play offline and make custom game variations. At any rate, there is SO MUCH CONTENT in Call of Duty: Ghosts that I am sure I will busy for some time. (I haven’t even touched the Extinction mode!)
Call of Duty: Ghosts is rated ‘M’ for Mature for Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, and Strong Language. COD: Ghosts launches November 5th for PC, Xbox 360, Wii U, and PS3, November 15th for PS4, and November 19th for Xbox One.
*I’m sorry, but there is so much to take in, that I haven’t even touched the Extinction mode yet. I will hopefully do a separate review for it later!