If Call of Duty: Ghosts existed in a vacuum where it wasn’t the 10th game in as many years, it would be fine example of tight gameplay, thrilling set pieces and an average story, akin to a summer blockbuster. Add in a fantastic and deep multiplayer experience and you would have one the stand out titles on consoles. Unfortunately, it’s hard for me to reconcile that it is the 10th game in as many years and as such, it pales compared to what came before. While never a bad game, it winds up being merely good where the franchise has soared to great heights prior and it ultimately feels like a step back from the impressive and interesting Black Ops II just a year ago.
Out with the new
In Call of Duty: Ghosts, after the nuclear devastation of the Middle East, the South American oil-production nations for The Federation space jack the Odin satellite weapons system and completely decimate the United States. From there it’s up to brothers Logan and David “Hesh” Walker and the legendary Ghosts squad of U.S. Specials Ops soldiers to foil their plans. If it all sounds very G.I. Joe, it kind of is, only without the fun or interesting characters/personalities.
Instead players lace up the boots of Logan, who is apparently mute, and follows everyone around as they tell him what to do and very rarely ask him any questions. I understand the purpose of this is to immerse the player as if they were playing this role, but a walking, thinking turret isn’t much of a character to begin with so it never really resonates.
The narrative of Ghosts is a steady stream of clichés from games and movies but has no real emotional weight. Even Armageddon managed to tug at some heartstrings. Ghosts, on the other hand, just kind of happens without any real character development and not a single standout character. Instead the player is pulled from one set piece to another without any real anchor to make them care about what is going on or why they want to stop it.
Completely eschewing Black Ops II‘s branching narrative for a more linear, traditional campaign narrative is a glaring oversight made all the more apparent by a complete lack of compelling or interesting characters or villains. Playing a voiceless character isn’t new to the Call of Duty franchise, but after the fantastic story in Black Ops II, such a linear, unaffecting plot is very disappointing. Especially coming from the brain of Stephen Gaghan who wrote the brilliant 2000 Oscar Winner, Traffic. Even without comparing it to the Call of Duty games that came before and the pedigree of the writer, the story just isn’t very good. Twists are apparent from miles away, character deaths mean very little, if anything, and the villain’s motivation is flimsy at best, clichéd and absurd at worst.
In with the old
For veterans of the franchise (no pun intended), Call of Duty: Ghosts controls and plays exactly like the games that came before it so anyone returning to the franchise will be able to pick up and play. For better or worse, no console shooter controls better and more smoothly than Call of Duty. Say what you will about the “sameness” of the series, but the controls are flawless and should never be changed, no matter how loud those complaints should become.
Here is where it becomes tough to critique the game. Objectively, the game plays incredibly well and new players will find a lot to enjoy. The action is always intense, the spectacle is always spectacular and the game always breaks up the monotony of the shooting gallery by injecting new, fun set pieces into the gameplay.
Subjectively, however, it’s becoming a bit stale. It pains me to say it, as a long-time fan of the series, but with the cool gadgets and narrative splintering provided in Black Ops II stripped out, it’s apparent that new ideas are what this series needs and Ghosts doesn’t really offer any in any meaningful way. There are quite a few fun sequences that I honestly won’t spoil here because they were pleasant surprises when I experienced them for the first time. Sadly, they are incredibly brief and once they are over, I was thrust back into the solid – if uninspired – standard shooter sequences Call of Duty is known for. Oh, and playing as Riley the dog, while fun at first, really doesn’t add up to much and seems like an odd inclusion into the game overall.
If I sound like I didn’t like the campaign, please let me stress that this is not true. While I am disappointed in aspects of it, it still plays like a dream and is fun to play for the most part; it’s just not as exciting or fresh as it has been in the past and it’s merely good rather than great.
Solid training ground
After (or before for a lot of people) the single player campaign’s incredibly long credits roll, players can either jump into multiplayer, or they can attempt the new “Squads” mode. Much has been talked about what Squads is, so I will focus on how well it does what it’s trying to do. To that end I will say it does it well.
Much like Combat Training from Black Ops, Squads allows the player to practice multiplayer, with either friends or AI. Unlike Combat Training, leveling up carries over to proper multiplayer. So after learning the subtle intricacies of each perk, weapon and created class combination, all of that work is carried over. Thus, players who jumped straight into multiplayer are no longer given a clear advantage by forcing the player who leveled up in Squads to level up and unlock their weapons over again from level one. Instead there is a more balanced entry point for newcomers to multiplayer.
Players begin by selecting a soldier to create. At first they’ll get a premade template and over time they can customize and change everything from gender, head, face and so on, to the standard customization options like weapons and perks. As the player completes objectives and levels up, they will get “Squad Points” which they will use to unlock gear, perks, weapons, appearance items and so on. They can also use these points to unlock more squad members to level up or use in multiplayer.
All of the game modes are available, albeit with caveats. Instead of choosing which game type to play, for example Domination, players will select “Wargame” which has all of the game types randomly selected between matches. It’s a good way for players to get a feel for how each game mode plays out, while going up against either a friend and their Squad or AI.
It’s a neat feature for new players or for players who just want to take a break from the highly competitive multiplayer suite and try out new perks, weapons and streaks. How much mileage this mode will ultimately get will vary upon the player. Speaking from my personal experience, I have only played Squads a handful of times since I would rather rank up the old fashioned way by playing mutiplayer proper.
If it ain’t broke….
For many, the main attraction of Call of Duty is the multiplayer and this year’s model makes the most strides to bring changes to the formula. From the map sizes and layout, to how Streaks are handled, there is very little here that isn’t changed from the previous game in one way or another.
How one feels about those changes may depend on how one feels about multiplayer in the past. For fans of aggressive, kill hording Killstreaks, it will be a major disappointment since most of the Killstreaks are ground based. Harriers and the flying tank knows as the Hind from Modern Warfare 2 and 3 are all but gone. Instead there is an attack Hind that is relatively ineffective and will only get you a few kills. In fact, after playing enough games to level up to 20 on Xbox 360, I’ve only seen a few of the higher level Streak rewards.
Much like the previous two Call of Duty titles, Streak rewards can be earned for completing objectives as well as kills which goes a long way for players like myself, who tend to throw themselves on flags in Domination or into the score zone for a new game mode called Blitz. Support rewards won’t boost your kill count, but they can offer invaluable information and support for your team, which is fantastic for folks like myself who like the idea of playing as a team, rather than a lone wolf.
Maps are a bit hit and miss for me. I much preferred the level ground of the Call of Duty 4 maps, but found that the maps in Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops offered a nice balance of verticality and ground based combat on the maps. In Ghosts I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten killed by someone camping high up in window or on a ledge while I was shooting an opponent in front of me. This makes the games much more of a back and forth affair rather than the game of one team decimating another based on skill. Call me old fashioned, but I like winning based on skill and teamwork rather than being fair to both teams. If your team is good and controls the map well, you should win. Instead it seems that Infinity Ward has taken the “everyone gets a trophy” approach to map design, making it a slightly less fun experience than ever before.
A few new game modes have been created to combat this, making it much more important for players to keep moving and creating a much more exciting, fast paced, less frustrating experience. The best of these modes is Cranked which is Team Deathmatch, with a twisted twist. Getting a kill begins a timer of 30 seconds. If the player doesn’t get another kill by the end of the countdown, they explode. Getting consecutive kills not only resets the timer, but also makes the player faster. Getting up to 5 or 6 kills in a row will make the player dart across the screen and reload at superhuman speed. Campers will no longer be able to hole up in one place waiting for hapless players to cross their path while they rack up kills. Instead, everyone has to keep moving if they want their team to win or do well.
Search and Rescue is another new mode that takes an old familiar gametype and adds a new wrinkle to the formula. Think Search and Destroy mashed up with Kill Confirmed and you have the general idea. Each player still starts with one life, but can be saved if a teammate grabs their dropped dogtags. If the enemy team member collects the tags, the fallen player is out for the round. This keeps the games a bit more fast paced than traditional Search and Destroy and means there will be less camping for defenders while trying to whittle down the offensive team trying to plant the bomb.
Unfortunately, the bad news for diehard Search and Destroy fans is that traditional mode is nowhere to be found. I admit that I wasn’t a fan of the game mode in the original Modern Warfare, but really grew to love it in Modern Warfare 2. The pulse pounding suspense of knowing you only have one life per round was immeasurably satisfying when I would win the game, often times by myself. I’m sure it will be patched into the game in a future update, but as it stands now, Infinity Ward omitted a very popular game mode.
The other game modes – traditional Team Deathmatch, Domination, Kill Confirmed – all return from previous iterations and new game modes are present, like Blitz, which is very much like football and hockey in that the player must reach the score zone and enter to score a point. Scoring starts you again at your zone and you have to do it again. It was OK when I played it but hardly something I wish to revisit as it allows for camping pretty much the whole game.
There is also Hunted and Infected. In Hunted, players all begin with the same handgun and must fight to capture dropzone crates which have randomly generated weapons inside. Infected is your standards Zombies type game in which one player is Infected and every player they kill also becomes infected until the whole team has been wiped out. Both modes provide a fun diversion from the meat of multiplayer but I don’t see either mode lasting very long outside of this game.
Kind of Next-gen
I played the multiplayer on Xbox 360 and the campaign on PS4. In regards to multiplayer, there is relatively little difference. Particle effects are a little better and there is slightly more detail but I wouldn’t say there are any major differences between the two besides the afore-mentioned exceptions.
As for the campaign, it looks much better on PS4 than it does on 360. Facial details like follicles and stubble show much more detail, and rocky surfaces look like actual rocks as opposed to cardboard paintings of rocks on geometry. Guns and explosions all look significantly better than on the last gen consoles as well. If anyone says there is little difference, they are either lying or being straight up stubborn. That said, Call of Duty: Ghosts is hardly the game one would use to show off the hardware and speak to the benefits of the $400-$500 upgrade. It looks better than last generation’s games, but hardly amazing compared to other similar launch titles.
The game runs at fairly steady 60fps, but on a few occasions there were some brief, but still noticeable slowdown and frame drops. It happened only a handful of times and nothing every broke or interfered with the game, so for me it didn’t affect my enjoyment overall.
Soundwise Call of Duty: Ghosts has some of the best sounding guns I have ever heard in a game. The thudding bass of the slower fire rate assault rifles and light machine guns really make me glad I purchased my surround sound system and the score is equally pleasing.
If there is one place that falls short of audio bliss, it would be the voice acting. Not a single person is bad–we’re not talking Resident Evil here–but no one is particularly interesting or charismatic either. Not that what they have to say is very interesting or inviting of charisma, but after Michael Rooker’s scene stealing performance in Black Ops II, this is a step backwards.
One step forward, two steps back
In fact, much of what can be said about Call of Duty: Ghosts is that it’s all a step backwards. Does that make it a bad game? Not at all. However the campaign, most of the multiplayer and the overall feel of the game are all just slightly underwhelming. This is disappointing compared to the expectations set forth by Treyarch and Infinity Ward prior to West and Zampella’s departure after Modern Warfare 2. It feels like the team left at Infinity Ward 2013 lacks the passion of Infinity Ward 2010 and especially Treyarch, which had something to prove by being considered the B team for so long. They took chances and it paid off in spades. Hopefully Treyarch doesn’t get complacent and returns next year bringing their A game because as of right now, they are the A team. Call of Duty: Ghosts is a good game, when it should have been great. It’s the first Call of Duty game on Next gen consoles and what should have been a declaration of a reigning king, but instead seams like a placeholder for next year’s version. My, what a difference a year makes.
Sean completed the campaign for the PS4 version of the game in approximately 7 hours on Veteran difficulty and played multiplayer on Xbox 360, ranking up to level 20. No review copies were supplied for this review.
+ Improved graphics
+ Same tight, refined controls
+ Fun, robust multiplayer
+ Tons of customization options
+ Some epic and fun gameplay sections in the campaign…
-…that are too few and far between
-Corridors getting stale
-Lack of compelling characters
-Multiplayer maps are often too vertical
Available on: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4