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Call of Duty: Ghosts is a major departure in the gameplay and feel of the fastest-selling game franchise on the planet. As such, publisher Activision Blizzard is taking a major risk. It is balancing the need to give fans what they have always liked against the need to provide them with something new, so they won’t get bored. We’ve seen enough of the game to offer our first impression.

From what Activision Publishing and Infinity Ward have shown so far at the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Ghosts will provide both. You can still play intense multiplayer battles and enjoy all-out combat. But the emphasis in this title is on stealth, as with Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell series from Ubisoft. In this release, the United States is no longer a superpower. A catastrophic event has devastated the southern half of the country, and the American military is in tatters. Survivors are putting up a guerrilla resistance, and they’re known as Ghosts.

This game couldn’t be more different from what Electronic Arts has shown so far with its Battlefield 4 game, which promises epic combat scenes where firepower rules. In that offering, as many as 64 players can fight in a multiplayer arena at the same time, and a single commander can give orders to the troops. With Call of Duty: Ghosts, Activision has only showed off a couple of single-player scenes. The company unveiled an underwater level (pictured at top) at the Xbox reveal on May 21. And they showed another sequence in advance of E3 last week. That new level featured a military-trained dog that accompanied U.S. Special Forces on secret missions.


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Ghosts isn’t a letdown. But I’d like to see more of the old Call of Duty: the fast-paced action that made the series great and the intense, emotional scenes that showed you exactly what combat could be like in the midst of a harrowing mission. Call of Duty is all about an epic, cinematic experience, and I fear that this title might swing too far in the direction of stealth. After all, the U.S. no longer has the upper hand in weapons superiority and greater numbers, so stealth is the most logical game plan.

Call of Duty: Ghosts 2

A soldier’s best friend

In the first mission, we saw divers secretly navigate through a coral reef and attach a bomb to a nuclear submarine. The divers had to stealthily navigate past enemy swimmers and engage them in open combat using underwater guns. Those guns are actually based on real weapons that the Soviet Union developed in the 1970s. The undersea combat moved in slow motion, but it was still intense.

At E3, we learned even more about the playable main character, Simon “Ghost” Riley, a soldier who, along with his brother and fellow combatant, grew up in America after a calamity had nearly wiped it out. The developers haven’t revealed the cause of the disaster yet, but it happened 10 years ago in the game’s chronology, which will not match the chronology of any other Call of Duty entry. The story is a brand new one set in the franchise’s universe. It has no other narrative connection to the Black Ops or Modern Warfare arcs.

The Russians aren’t the threat anymore. Instead, the U.S. is facing off against “resource rich” entities that include the oil states of South America. One of the battles takes place in a no-man’s-land about 10 miles north of San Diego, Calif. — now a wasteland full of wreckage and collapsed interstates. The Americans and an unnamed faction contest the region.

During the mission, players come upon a mile-wide crater and have to send scouts with hazmat suits and gas masks into the area. The dog participates in this mission as a remote recon scout. Players can track where it is through a tablet-screen viewfinder. The canine is not just a companion character. It’s a real participant in the action.

The dog carries a periscope-like camera and an earpiece. The team can tell it what to do through the earpiece. Squad members can also give nonverbal vibration commands to the dog to send it in the right direction. You steer the dog as you would a soldier. When the dog comes upon an enemy, the player taps a shoulder button that sends the dog to attack the enemy’s throat. It can also bark to distract an enemy and lure him into view. A soldier with a silencer rifle can then dispatch the enemy.

The dog is pretty fierce, but the animations of its kills all look the same for now. It seems like the dog always gets the drop on the human enemies and rips out their jugulars in an instant. I hope that will change by the time the game ships because it feels unrealistic. I mean, a dog just isn’t that good, right? It’s a breathing animal, not a real drone that you can operate with a laptop on a battlefield.

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As with Activision’s Destiny, I want to see more. The publisher wants to migrate 40 million gamers who are playing Call of Duty: Black Ops II and other titles over to Ghosts.

Is this the stuff of billion-dollar games? From what I’ve seen, I don’t know. Last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II generated $1 billion in sales within 16 days of its launch. But Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell series sells at much lower levels than the Call of Duty games. And will the multiplayer be more like Splinter Cell’s, a stealth combat version that is not nearly as fun, or will it be more like traditional Call of Duty releases?

Activision officials assure me that we’ll see a lot of the action later on. The underwater level shows that all hell can break loose. I say, bring it on.

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