Call of Duty: Ghosts Multiplayer Preview: Familiarity, Perfected

Familiarity, be it in small or large doses, is something most of us crave in our day-to-day lives.

But what about familiarity in our video games?

In-between stretches of playing Call of Duty: Ghosts multiplayer, I was chatting with a non-press friend who was working at the event (he wasn’t an employee of Activision or its PR partners, rather a third party). Per usual, we were comparing Ghosts to other big multiplayer franchises, the Halo series, in particular. We both agreed that, when a new Halo game came out, the competitive scene was always pretty vocal, one way or another, about changes in the game. I made the point that many active and past “pro” Halo players always waxed poetic about Halo 2 multiplayer. He agreed, and then made the point that, paraphrasing “…everyone always says it’s changed too much, or it’s changed too little, and rarely a point in-between.”

In multiplayer franchises, striking a balance between the familiar and the dynamically new is a hard, fine point to strike. But if you do hit that groove, your fans will never go away.

This, in a nutshell, is why Call of Duty’s popularity won’t be waning anytime soon. Sure, we all predict its demise; every year is “the year,” where pre-orders and sales will be low enough to give Activision pause. In fact, part of that is true this year, as Ghosts does in fact have lower pre-order numbers than 2012′s Black Ops II. You can chalk it up to cold feet caused by the impending next-gen consoles, but don’t forget to factor in the lack of multiplayer and eSports information…a dearth of knowledge that definitely ended this afternoon during the livestreamed reveal.

The multiplayer component of Call of Duty: Ghosts is an absolutely familiar experience, but that’s not a knock by any means. Familiarity means you can pick up an Xbox One controller, jump into a game, and immediately know what to do. Familiarity means the point-based solider/squad customization system, while tweaked, is very close to the Black Ops II interface, so there are no noodle-scratchers while you customize your loadouts in the lobby. Familiarity means the gun types, the 30 new weapons included (like the overwhelming crowd favorite “Honey Badger” assault rifle), don’t require a field manual to understand. Familiarity means the seven new game modes breathe new life into the franchise without interrupting the flow of the experience. Search and Rescue takes one Call of Duty staple (Search and Destroy), marries it to a Black Ops II fan favorite (Kill Confirmed), and the offspring ends up being, potentially, the best game mode Ghosts has to offer.

Another amongst the seven new game modes is Cranked. A new twist on Team Deathmatch, it promises to do away with camping almost entirely, since there’s no time to chill in a corner with a SAW when you only have 30 seconds of life between kills. The pace of Cranked is similar to Gun Game and Gun Master, for the Counter-Strike and Battlefield 3 fans in the audience.

Another new game type, albeit one that I didn’t get to try, is Squads. A new take on character customization and Prestige leveling, Squads allows you to take all ten of your custom characters (with you controlling one of your choice), and drop them in a game against someone else’s ten squad members. You can go 10-on-10 (or…1-and-9 versus 1-and-9?) against another human player, and you can also challenge someone’s squad while they’re offline. Winning nets you some extra XP – whether you’re playing or letting the AI do all the work – while losing has no adverse effect.

The new modes are fantastic, but let’s not forget about the classics, either. Domination is still a favorite, assuming you have a decent team put together (two words: zone defense!), and the classic Deathmatch variants are still there, of course.

Other new game modes that I wasn’t able to try (or didn’t have a chance to try, thanks to the up- and -down-voting in the lobbies): Grind, Infected, and Hunted.

Another game-changer (and I mean that with as little hype behind it as possible) is the new Field Orders feature. The first solider to die in a round drops the Field Orders, which can be picked up by friend or foe. These orders are random, from the mundane “kill three enemies in a row,” to the more challenging “kill two soliders while jumping in the air,” and so on. Upon completion of the order, you’re rewarded with a care package, as well as ammo and gear refills. I wasn’t able to complete a set of Field Orders during my playtime, and it seems like more of a distraction that anything else while you’re capping points or grabbing dogtags.

Two of the bigger, unfamiliar standouts in my four-plus hours of gaming at the event? Map design and in-game communication. The maps, which were designed by Infinity Ward, Neversoft and Raven Software, have an element of verticality that previous Call of Duty offerings do not. Chasm, for example, goes from a subway station two stories underground, up to two stories above ground, all in or surrounding a massive crater. You still get a few of those important sniper lanes, and the destroyed city aesthetic is a familiar one in Call of Duty, but the shape and makeup of Chasm is just one example of how maps have evolved in Ghosts.

In-game communication has improved dramatically as well, although it’s a feature that the hardcore won’t pay much attention to. Having a player-controlled character automagically call out a position (“Enemy in the bus in front of the club!”) will be invaluable when you’re pubbing it up.

There are some soft spots as well, like the new “Contextual Leaning” system. Walk up to the corner on a wall, iron sight down, and you should automatically lean around the corner, exposing only part of your body. Leaning is – or rather, was – a staple in the PC FPS scene for years, but it’s a feature that’s largely gone by the wayside. This might change over time and experience, but I didn’t use leaning outside of the initial “let’s try it out” moment of curiosity. Then there’s the Riley perk, which I still have a love/hate relationship with (love to have it, hate to go against it). Riley watches your back and growls when enemies are near (the execution of this idea isn’t nearly as cheesy as it sounds on paper), but it takes some of the fun out of sneaking up on an unsuspecting sniper and shoving a knife in his back. All that hard work evaporates when Riley the Bulletproof Superdog spoils the fun.

Call of Duty: Ghosts is a familiar experience, but for all the right reasons. If you’re an established COD hater, Ghosts doesn’t give you much of a reason to see the light, but if you’re one of the millions who thoroughly enjoy the franchise, Ghosts is sure to please. The graphics? Better, if only marginally. The gameplay? Largely tweaked in all the right ways. Weapons? Old friends, new takes on modern armament, and the long-overdue return of scope-less bolt-action rifles (the new Marksman Rifle class). AI? Definitely better, to the point where it plays for you in Squads. Gameplay? Dynamic map events, new playable female characters and a revamped movement system (Knee Slides and Mantling obstacles…think Brink, but simplified) should lead to smiles all around.

Some minor leaning and canine annoyances aside, Ghosts is a near-perfect blend of the familiar and refined, with a proper dose of brand new.

You can catch up on Devin’s other Game Front contributions¬†here, and you can find him and Game Front on Twitter: @devinconnors and @gamefrontcom.

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