It’s unsurprising that of all the carefully curated elements included in Activision’s Call of Duty: Ghosts multiplayer reveal – all the celebrity endorsements, all the new multiplayer modes and mechanics, and all the overtures to the community and eSports events – that nothing gained as much traction as the closing tease of a playable female soldier.
Within gaming circles, the two prevailing topics that have come to define 2013 are the next generation of consoles, and issues of gender. To the casual outsider looking in on what is fast becoming the biggest entertainment industry, the portrayal of women and kinds of discussions taking place right now must seem staggeringly parochial.
To the mainstream mindset, Call of Duty is videogames. It is our flagship brand whether we play it ourselves or not. When Call of Duty speaks, the whole entertainment world listens, and this week it overheard a lot of misogynistic ugliness as many gamers reacted despicably to the news that women would be able to more accurately portray themselves in the game.
It’s also a cause of some inward reflection that shooting female soldiers and hearing their death screams is immediately and extremely discomforting. On the other hand, soliciting any kind of emotional response from the typically unfeeling process of shooting others on the modern battlefields portrayed in videogames is an experience many may not have had in years.
The ability to outfit a female soldier is an important option in a new and very robust character customisation system. There are more than 20,000 possible combinations, reports Activision. That’s an impressive number to be sure, and choice is never a bad thing, but given the pace at which any multiplayer match of Call of Duty is played, anything other than the binary faction and gender options are probably too nuanced to be noticed by many other players.
From here, things turn towards the familiar again. Players select a loadout including a primary and secondary weapon, grenades, and sights. Next they’re able to spend eight points on perks – more if they discard parts of the basic loadout such as a secondary weapon – like faster reloading or longer sprinting duration.
Once customised, a soldier becomes one member in the player’s squad of ten, a roster of personal avatars that can be customised for different playstyles or situations. These soldiers are also adopted by the new Squads modes, in which players can compete against the AI and others in a range of quasi-multiplayer modes that come with all the unlocking rewards but none of the manufactured pressure that can come with dipping one’s toes into multiplayer.
For example, two players can go head to head on any multiplayer map alongside four of their selected Squad characters which are controlled by AI. Another mode, Wargame, pits five squadmates versus AI. Safeguard is a kind of Squad versus Horde, and Squad Assault is five players against Squad characters.
None of these Squad modes were available at the Call of Duty reveal event in Los Angeles. Instead, we played three of the new multiplayer modes: Blitz, Search and Rescue, and Cranked.
The first is a variation on classic capture the flag gameplay, but instead of collecting the opposition’s flag and legging it back to a home spawn point, players must simply run into the enemy scoring zone to score, whereupon they’re returned to their own starting area. As the zones are fixed throughout the match and feature a 10 second cooldown after each point, a rhythm of attacking and defending soon establishes itself.
Cranked is a variation on Team Deathmatch wherein players gain a speed boost upon killing an enemy player, and have 30 seconds to kill again before they explode. Cranked plays excellently to Call of Duty’s strengths as a multiplayer shooter, incentivising more manic, less measured gameplay and fast turnover.
Neither of these two modes requires much strategy or teamwork. Both are fundamentally individual pursuits and the team with the most quality solo performances will win any round.
Search and Rescue is the opposite. Borrowing heavily from Counter-Strike, the mode tasks one team with planting a bomb at one of two locations, and another team with stopping them from detonating it. The mode also employs the Kill Confirmed modifier. When a player is killed, their dog tags will be dropped. If that player’s team collects them, he or she will be able to respawn, if not, that player is out until the end of the round.
Individual heroics have no place in this more measured and anxious mode, where running ahead and getting killed can have a real impact on the team’s chances of winning. Search and Rescue puts a heavy premium on teamwork and without much prompting, the sides quickly pair-up into fireteams of two.
The Kill Confirmed modifier makes it very difficult for snipers to be effective, news that many will no doubt welcome. In fact, sniping in general appears to be de-emphasised. A new weapon class, Marksman, adds long-range single-shot capability while scoped or iron-sighted, along with burst firing from the chest.
The three levels playable in Los Angeles also didn’t display too much verticality. The positions that did provide a clear view of the playing field were usually too exposed to allow players to settle in and set up camp for long.
Many levels also came with in-game events designed to change map dynamics and encourage a change of tactics. On the Octane level, the gas station forecourt can be brought down, for example, but the destruction here feels prescribed. Another level, Strike Zone, is completely demolished by a player-triggered K.E.M. Strike, and its subsequent aspect bears almost no comparison to its former self.
So far, the limited switch-flipping destruction here stands in stark relief to the more dynamic deterioration already on display in the Battlefield series.
Far more interesting is how the K.E.M. Strike is initiated. When players are killed on any level they can drop a briefcase of Field Orders. Collecting these charges the player with an arbitrary task such as killing the next target with a pistol, a knife or a headshot. In addition triggering map events such as the K.E.M. Strike, these events confer bonus points and reward players for random displays of skill, or moving outside of their regular playing patterns.
This is where Call of Duty: Ghosts's multiplayer shows the most promise. A huge burden of expectation sits heavily on every Call of Duty, and Ghosts arrives at what is typically a time of upheaval. It’s no secret that dynasties rise and fall as console generations shift. To successfully serve an audience of nearly 100 million current-gen gamers while also future proofing the series by providing next-gen early-adopters with the kinds of new experiences they expect as compensation for their investment in new hardware is a hugely difficult balancing act. But what we’ve seen so far suggests that the team at Infinity Ward are very well positioned to manage it.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is coming to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC, Xbox One, and PC in November.