Note: Portions of this review appeared in our Xbox 360 Review of Call of Duty: Ghosts.
After moving over a billion dollars worth of Call of Duty: Ghosts copies, Activision is at it again with the Xbox One incarnation of the game. With the PS4 version already available in stores and playable a week earlier, the Xbox One version has its work cut out for it to be the definitive way to experience the multiplayer-centric game. We’ve been able to comfortably experience the game on Microsoft’s next-gen console for tens of hours, trying out all of the modes, getting destroyed and destroying others in multiplayer and comparing it with both the PS4 version and its Xbox 360 second cousin. But first, we begin with some backstory:
As always, the single player campaign takes a backseat to the multiplayer, but remains for fans who want some online warfare context. In Ghosts, sixty men from tier one teams were sent to face five hundred enemy fighters. Their objective was to save an enemy hospital and keep the occupants alive. For three days, they held their ground, but the enemy numbers were too great, whittling the men down to just fifteen. Facing certain death, they evacuated the hospital under the cover of darkness and then lay in wait under fallen bodies of their comrades as blood poured over them and sand clung to their skin, changing and anointing them. When the enemy drew near, they rose out of the sand and decimated the enemy force. Only one enemy survived, telling the world of a supernatural force known only as “Ghosts.”
Yes, that’s honestly the backstory and yes, it’s absolutely ridiculous. How did combatant blood turn them into super-soldiers? How could they kill four hundred and ninety-nine enemy fighters after being decimated just hours ago? It’s nonsensical and presents the Ghosts as a supernatural force, when later in the game we learn that they’re just highly trained and experienced soldiers. Nevertheless, after leaving the realm of lunacy, the story shifts to cliches. You play as Logan, who lives a peaceful life with his dad, brother and dog until one day a space laser destroys most of the world, turning it into a post-apocalyptic war-zone. “The Federation” is responsible and quickly rises to powers as they unite South America under one banner and move relentlessly towards the north, standing on the doorstep of America poised to take them over. Luckily, however, they hung tough and were able to fend off the invasion for ten years.
The story picks up again at this point in the “Brave New World” of Los Angeles, California, with Logan and his family (even the dog!) becoming soldiers, with his dad a commander in the conflict. Although the first few missions and the story itself have tones of a post-apocalyptic game (with a decimated California and things like giant walls surround cities), it morphs into more of a standard warfare game. Basically, don’t expect to see Mad Max doing battle with Lord Humongous. The plot of the game boils down to a fairly standard revenge tale, with plenty of plot twists and double crossing to make sure things are as convoluted as possible. Surprisingly, it was written by Stephan Gaghan, who is the Academy Award winning writer of Traffic. His work could easily be mistaken for a bunch of Infinity Ward developers who watched war movies, smashed all of their cliches together and slapped an Eminem song at the end.
Of course, as single player is already irrelevant in the eyes of many Call of Duty fans, the story is even moreso, so it doesn’t come at a detriment to the overall package. The gameplay in the single player is a blast, acting as a tour of all of the components and environments one can expect to see in multiplayer, while featuring unique ones of its own. The most touted new feature is that of dogs, which has turned out to be unfairly maligned, as it actually adds an interesting new dynamic. Riley is the only controllable dog and can be sicked on enemies by highlighting them and hitting LB. More importantly, he can be fully controlled by syncing with him. The game shifts into stealth when synced with Riley, allowing enemies to be snuck up on and destroyed without altering their nearby comrades. There’s a few extended sequences where cover and grass must be utilized and enemy patterns must be watched to be successful, which makes for a nice break from the standard action. Plus, pouncing on an enemy as Riley is an awesome thing to experience. Unfortunately, Riley basically disappears around halfway through the game and these dynamics are abandoned. It’s regrettable as besides one other sequence, these are the only source of stealth mechanics.
There’s some other cool gameplay elements featured like helicopter piloting, tank driving, remote sniping and more. The game’s eighteen missions are spread out over environments including places like Las Vegas, Antarctica, a satellite field, an oil rig and, of course, outer space. There’s two space missions and they’re simultaneously awesome and absurdly out of place. It’s cool simply being in orbit, maneuvering around with a jet pack in space in a Call of Duty game of all things, but their inclusion seems a bit forced as they don’t add much to the game story-wise (no, this isn’t “Call of Duty in Space!”). If there was a multiplayer map included in space, their purpose would become clear, but one doesn’t exist — well, yet, at least. The biggest thing the single player has going for it besides tight gameplay, however, is simply how epic the whole thing feels. Blowing up an oil rig, leaping between speeding train cars and repelling down a skyscraper are just some of the things experienced during the campaign. It’s one of those games that feels like a Hollywood blockbuster in terms of sheer scope.
All things considered, those who for some reason pick up Ghosts just for the single player will have a fine time, but multiplayer is where things truly shine. There’s over twenty thousand possible character combinations, new tactical player movements, thirty new weapons, the new “Marksman Rifle” weapon class (great for protecting an objective point from range) and twenty new Killstreaks for starters. In Ghosts’ Create-A-Soldier system, various weapon loadouts plus physical soldier appearance can be customized with heads, body types, equipment and, for the first time ever, gender. Loadouts are customized by earning tokens through gaining XP, allocating a budget for your primary and secondary weapon and lethal and tactical equipment — plus all your Perks. The Perks system is more robust than ever before, assigning a set point value to each Perk with a total cap of eight points. This allows players to tailor their Perks to their playstyle, by focusing on speed, handling, stealth, awareness and resistance. New weapons include the Honey Badger, SC-2010, Vector CRB and IA-2. The Honey Badger is an especially wonderful addition and has become my personal go-to weapon. New equipment includes Thermobaric Grenades, Canister Bombs and the 9-Bang.
Ghosts brings back fan-favorite modes including Team Deathmatch, Free for All, Domination, Kill Confirmed, Search & Destroy and Infected, while adding several more. Cranked is likely the centerpiece of these new modes, which grants new abilities as kills are made — the twist? A countdown clock starts after a kill and will explode the player if it reaches zero. Not only is this inherently grand, but adds a twist on the game that promotes non-stop action and makes camping near-impossible. Darting around frantically as your timer is about to reach zero looking for someone to kill is a hoot and will make many players rethink their strategies. Search & Rescue is a slight revision of Search & Destroy, allowing players to be revived if their dog tags are picked up by a teammate, instead of simply being out for the round once killed. It adds a little bit of spice for those who get frustrated sitting on the sidelines because of one dumb mistake. Similar to Kill Confirmed, Grind is a game mode that challenges players to recover enemy dog tags and score them at objective markers via three areas called “banks” strewn throughout the map. This adds a bit of strategy to the proceedings as you have to be more protective after racking up kills.
Hunted is an interesting mode where players are separated into two teams and have to defeat the opposing team with limited weaponry. Players begin with just a low-ammo pistol upon spawning and must grab other weapons from either slain enemies or incoming air drops that dole out five random weapons. This means that players have no control over what weapon they use, sometimes having a sniper rifle and sometimes a rocket launcher. This is a nice twist for those who normally use the same weapon every match. A take on Capture the Flag, Blitz is one of my favorite new modes. In this mode, players start on opposite sides of the map and have to reach the opposing goal to score a point. As opposing players are trying to do the same, your goal must be defended against. The first team to reach sixteen points wins the game and sides switch at halftime. It’s basically a violent take on football and is one of those modes that is especially fun to play with dedicated teams as effective football-like strategy must be used to be successful.
There are fourteen maps to start with including Strikezone, Sovereign, Overlord, Tremor, Octane, Chasm, Whiteout and more. There’s really not a turkey in the bunch with some expertly designed maps that prove both challenging and fun to properly learn. The majority of maps are bombed-out cityscapes or military installations, which works for the series, but there are some unique ones as well. Whiteout is an Alaskan fishing outpost with rough terrain, Flooded features the aftermath of a destroyed dam and Stonehaven is a ruined castle in the Scottish highlands. There’s also dynamically designed maps such as Strikezone, which gets literally blown up, and Octane (a personal favorite) that features a gas station that explodes, altering the layout of the map. Although none of them are particuarlly huge in nature, they all fit the modes well and are a blast to, well, blast through.
A not-so-secret mode named Extinction is also included, which was supposedly meant to be a surprise for players at launch before being leaked. Sort of a “Horde” mode, Extinction allows one to four players to take to action cooperatively as they stop an alien invasion. That’s right, aliens are now a part of Call of Duty and boy are they a nuisance. Set in a small town, the mode has players strategically placing drills to kill the enemy menace as they pop out and try to destroy it. The game continues until either a drill or a player is killed. Once a player’s health drops to zero, they fall to the ground and must be revived in thirty seconds or die and end the mode. It’s fairly easy to get through at first, but gets insanely harder as it goes on. Extinction is not the kind of mode that you can play online with randoms, as it takes precise cooperation to be effective. I played the mode locally with three other experienced players for nearly four hours and we were unable to reach the end (and the mode does eventually end). It’s incredibly additicve, however, and even though it’s the same scenario every time, it’s hard to walk away when you’re making slightly more progress every round.
Ghosts already looked great on current-gen consoles, but it shines on Xbox One. Everything looks basically the same, expect the Xbox One version is highly defined, rich and runs like a beast. There’s been rumblings lately, seemingly confirmed by Activision, that the One version is rendered at 720p while the PS4 version is rendered at 1080p. While this is disappointing at first glance, make no mistake: Ghosts looks beautiful on Xbox One. I’ve played the game for around forty hours on the console and rarely had a problem with slowdown, never had freezing issues and the Xbox One simply handled it like a champ. I’ll need more time with the PS4 version to make a definitive statement on which plays better, but regardless of who ultimately gets the edge, it’s completely unfair to malign the Xbox One version for not measuring up to the PS4. The game simply looks and feels right on the Xbox One, no thanks in part to its controller which proves superior playing the game.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is a stunner on Xbox One. It may not be the flagship title to demo in hopes of proving how superior next-gen gaming is to current-gen, but it’s one of the finer looking launch titles on the console. The differences in quality will be instantly apparent to devoted players of the franchise and the Xbox One controller feels like it was built for the game. I haven’t had enough time with the PS4 version to declare this the definitive version, but at this point it’s my version of choice. While Ghosts is superb on the Xbox 360, future Xbox One owners would do themselves a great disservice for not investing (or upgrading to) this version.