You usually know what you're getting from a Call of Duty game. A multiplayer mode that attracts masses of the sweary "new hardcore", a single player mode that's fairly short and sweet, and the odd piece of military jargon barked at you by your commanding officers for good measure. Oh, and it's usually pretty brown, too. Lots and lots of brown. Call of Duty: Ghosts may have been promoted as something of a jump forward for the series - after all, as the first Call of Duty to launch on the "next gen" machines, the Xbox One and PS4, it has a brand new graphics engine in place, now delivering more shades of brown than ever before - but despite a notable bump in the environments, for the most part, this is a game that sticks to a tried and tested formula. Only this time, there's one big, furry (and wouldn't you know it - brown) difference. You get to have a dog. And, better yet, you actually get to play as it.
Fitting a dog into a military themed first person shooter like Call of Duty may not initially seem like the easiest thing to do. After all, he doesn't have opposable thumbs, yet alone the ability to fire a gun - but Riley's more than just an AI companion. Taking direct control of your canine friend at several points in the game - and not just to go around sniffing other dog's rear ends - it turns out Riley is a trained war machine, so when he's not riding shotgun in a tank, or crawling through long grass with his ears flattened in stealth mode, he's taking out enemies for you in the only way he knows how - by jumping on them and giving them a good gnashing. Wow. Such skill.
Providing some much needed variety to the Call of Duty missions, the sections where you get to take control of Riley are one of the game's highlights. Thanks to a handy camera strapped to his back, you get an almost-dog's-eye view of the action, as you run up ahead to scout the action, and sneak up behind some unsuspecting baddies. When you're not taking direct control of your Riley, (as you'll spend most of your time with the game playing as a much duller human, instead), Riley's never all that far away - at the touch of a button, you can usually send doggy chum in to do your dirty work for you, having him chase down enemies, or jump on a baddie while you take out the others - and better yet, he doesn't seem to take damage, either, so you don't have to worry about him getting hurt. Yay Riley!
But enough about the dogs. In Call of Duty: Ghosts, you'll mostly be playing as Logan Walker, a son-turned-soldier of veteran Elias Walker, as you follow a twisting and turning storyline that, brilliantly, takes on a more personal perspective than just some war between two faceless super powers. As you may have guessed from the title, the plot revolves around the "Ghosts", a mysterious special forces unit that's gained an almost mythical status due to their secrecy. Without wanting to spoil the story too much, needless to say, you end up joining forces with the Ghosts themselves, as they take on their biggest threat yet - and enemy that's hunting them down individually.
From here on in, you'll play through a campaign that, story notwithstanding, feels mostly like every other Call of Duty game that's been and gone, only with fewer truly memorable moments. While the game's opening, aboard a space station is something that sticks in the mind (and is rather well done), for the majority of missions, you'll find yourself navigating the same brown, interchangeable cityscapes, with only the odd genuinely fresh moment - like abseiling down a building, taking part in an underwater assault, or taking the controls of a helicopter.
While the story here may be miles ahead of Battlefield, the gameplay actually feels like it's starting to lag behind, with missions feeling repetitive and at times, even bland. With no variety in the enemies you're facing, and a relentless pace to the action, it all soon becomes a blur that melds into one. As much as we may joke about the palette, perhaps it doesn't help that no matter where you are, the scenery doesn't really seem to change all that much - everything is very much of brown-ness, whether you're inside a football stadium, being swept along in a river that's just burst through a dam, or even sneaking around a forest. It also irks that where Battlefield tends to let you make your own incredible moments, Ghosts repeatedly snatches control away from you during cutscenes, to make you watch certain spectacular scenes that are none of your doing.
It's a shame that, beyond the campaign, there's also very little in the way of replay value here, if you're not all that interested in the multiplayer side of things (like us). While there are a few trophies/achievements to be got for doing certain, tricky things in each mission, the lack of the co-op Spec Ops mode is a disappointment. Previously providing dozens of mini-missions for you and a friend to play through in split-screen in the earlier COD games, Spec Ops has been replaced by a mode called Squads, which the game assures you can be used to train for playing online, but which doesn't actually seem to have all that much to it. Starting a game in co-op with only a pistol to defend ourselves with and no instructions, after only a few seconds we found ourselves swamped and killed by a team of computer players, before being sent back to the menu. Some training.
And sadly, the multiplayer side of things is every bit as unwelcoming as usual, especially if you're a newcomer to the series. Seemingly designed to reward the most loyal fans (read: those who play every day, and rarely touch anything else) at the expense of everyone else, the game's matchmaking doesn't even seem to attempt to put you in a match with players of a similar level, instead choosing to put you up against better, more experienced players with better "perks" (abilities that modify your character and give you an advantage - like taking less damage from explosions) from the off. As you'd likely expect, it's nothing short of a bloodbath when you're just getting started, even if we do like the fact you can bring a friend along for the ride in split-screen. Still, with 27 deaths and 1 kill, we're not sure they'll be trying it again.
As you're probably getting the impression of here, Call of Duty: Ghosts is something of a mixed bag. While the missions may not be as varied as those found in Battlefield, it is a lot lengthier, and does have a better story, even if we are still miffed you can't play through either in co-op. Giving the story time to develop at just the right pace, it's the plot that'll see you playing this one to the end, and the companionship of Riley, your loyal hound, that you'll remember when the game's over. With the battle of the first person shooters now over, it seems 2013 has gone to Battlefield 4 - but only just.
Format Reviewed: Xbox One