Having watched 20 minutes of gameplay, I can confidently say that Ghosts is Call of Duty plus a dog. Sure, the story and characters are new: the player controls one of two brothers who have joined an elite band of American soldiers known as the Ghosts in a future where an as-yet undisclosed event has toppled the global balance of power. But make no mistake: this is Call of Duty, in all its heavily directed, blockbuster film-baiting glory.
To be fair, the franchise looks better than ever thanks to significant improvements that have been made under the hood. Ghosts runs at sixty frames a second on a heavily overhauled version of the Infinity Ward Engine – so modified that for the sake of expedience, the developer is fairly calling it new – and its advancements are immediately apparent.
New lighting has the player character’s eyes adjust in a more realistic fashion when moving from shade to light, and the game’s use of displacement mapping and subdivision surface (sub d) techniques – the latter a movie technology that consoles are finally advanced enough to use – has everything looking smooth and round, from gun sights to the game’s environmental textures. Sub d also allows the inclusion of smaller details such as cuts and imperfections on all character models.
Level of detail tricks have also been well-implemented by Infinity Ward. Traditionally, when the player backs away from an object its polygon count decreases to allow more objects to be displayed. Sub d does the same thing but in reverse, says Infinity Ward senior editor Chance Glasco: as you get closer to an object, the engine draws more polygons as needed to keep its surfaces smooth. “It’s nice to have all those doors open as far as technical aspects – rendering and all those extra things the consoles can do,” he says, singling out the RAM and rendering abilities of both next-gen consoles for particular praise.
The first of three snippets we see is from a jungle level called No Man’s Land. Taking place ten miles north of San Diego, it begins with the brothers and their dog Riley hiding in long, waving grass as a patrol scouts nearby. Riley is a key gameplay mechanic and an integral part of the unit says Infinity Ward, and we soon see him in action. As the patrol moves closer, the player character pulls out a tablet and uses it to issue commands to Riley while a camera mounted on the latter’s back essentially gives us a first-dog view of proceedings.
Riley stalks then attacks one soldier while an AI ally shoots another, a classic Call of Duty double kill, but here it seems as easy as pushing a single button once the dog is in range, which is worryingly simple. Later, his bark is used to distract soldiers so they may be picked off easily, which is a better use of the canine companion.
The brothers move further through the forest and emerge on the edge of a gigantic crater, into which most of San Diego has fallen or is currently falling. Then Riley is sent through a window into a small hut to flush out some baddies, and the result plays out like a typical door breach in reverse – time slows as enemies burst out the front door and into a hail of gunfire.
We’re then on to a level called Federation Day, which takes place atop a high rise in Venezuela. It’s night, and fireworks spark and helicopters whir over the gleaming skyline as the brothers deploy zipline launchers across to an adjacent building and abseil down its glass walls. Again stealth is paramount, and the player is directed to shoot the odd enemy once others move away.
The glass is then cut with a laser, and the brothers make their way to the building’s power system. They are in the process of planting a bomb when the presence of an approaching squad gives them two options: hide or fight. They hide in a particularly shadowy alcove and the group move past, the rear guard getting a silenced bullet between the eyes for his heightened curiosity.
Then it’s back out to the ropes, and the pair run down the building, shooting or knifing enemies as they emerge onto balconies. Soon after, back inside the duo are spotted and this brings what seems like artillery fire smashing through the building’s walls and floor and sends it lurching violently to one side, then completely over in an massive avalanche of debris. Cut to black.
Our final peek is at Into The Deep, another Riley-deficient stealth-focussed level which takes place in the Caribbean Sea near South America. Using scuba gear, the brothers swim near the sea floor past nets, fish, and plants. An enemy sonar ping periodically sounds, and the player is told to stop or hide every now and then to avoid detection by passing boats.
A vessel then drops off two divers, and the player shoots one with an automatic APS underwater rifle. In the interest of time we then fast-forward to a section where the brothers are swimming past wreckage of both nautical and terrestrial origin, before a particularly large ship passes. This is shot with a tablet-guided propeller-powered torpedo, and the resulting detonation sends debris slicing through the water, pinning the player just as enemy forces close in.
None of the above scenarios will feel even remotely alien to even those with a cursory familiarity with the Call of Duty franchise, as it’s the same guided gameplay and sneak-sneak-explode dynamic we’ve seen time and again. You certainly can’t blame Infinity Ward for not messing with what is still a winning formula in the eyes of millions, and the series’ dogged reliance on the same aging story and gameplay tropes at least keeps the product consistent and thus its worth easily evaluated by potential consumers.
It’s also clear there is still much developer enthusiasm for a shinier version of the status quo: “This is by far our best game,” says Glasco, despite predictions of sales lower than those of last year’s Black Ops 2 from stablemate Treyarch. “We’re making the best game possible and it’s up to marketing and business to figure out all the statistic and business stuff.”
Unfortunately, Infinity Ward is not yet ready to talk about multiplayer except to say that events during matches such as falling buildings will change maps, and that some of these will be player initiated. It also won’t disclose whether there will be any second screen functionality, a Wii U version (“We expect to announce something soon”), or field of view options – something its last COD title lacked.
But what there definitely will be is a prettier version of what has come before, plus a dog. For many, that's already enough.