Platforms: PC, Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Infinity Ward
Let’s clear the air: I enjoy the Call of Duty games. I’ve played them all to date, and had fun with each and every one. Call of Duty 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Call of Duty: Black Ops stand as my favorites. I’ve even defended them to an extent: while I agree that they’ve become stale, I don’t think they deserve most of the criticism they get. Like it or not describing a Call of Duty game as bad is just idiotic. The core shooting is first class and the multiplayer is sublime. Familiarity should never be confused with actual quality as they’re two very different things. Last years Black Ops II made some important steps toward ensuring the series future, introducing a branching narrative, secondary objectives and RTS gameplay, which while poorly done is an intriguing concept that needs to be built on. In contrast, though, Call of Duty: Ghosts is a step backwards.
For starters the branching storyline which I praised so much in Black Ops II last year for being an interesting move on Treyarch’s behalf has vanished, leaving in its wake yet another mediocre tale too caught up in its own breakneck speed . Ghosts takes place in an alternate timeline where two superpowers are battling for control of the world. Following the nuclear destruction of the Middle East, the oil-producing nations of South America form the Federation in response to the economic crisis, quickly growing to become a global superpower. After a brief intro in which their hometown gets annihilated you’ll take control of Logan, one of two brothers now fighting for the United States whose dad is one of the men running the show. The game’s namesake springs from a squad of legendary soldiers named the Ghosts, who are feared by the enemy and highly respected by their allies. The plot revolves around the Federation having gained control of a powerful orbital weapon named Odin, and an ex-Ghost turned Federation soldier called Rorke who is now hunting down his former allies. Before long you find yourself in the company of the mythical Ghost squad, battling Rorke and the Federation.
While the other Call of Duty’s made only half-hearted attempts at getting players to form emotional connections with the burly on-screen soldiers before just accepting that they were explosion filled blockbusters, Call of Duty: Ghosts actually feels like it’s genuinely trying to make you feel something. There’s two brothers, their father and a dog called Riley for crying out loud, as well as an ex-friend turned enemy – surely that must make you feel something? Nope. To be fair it’s hard not to become somewhat attached to Riley for the very simple that he’s a god, although Infinity Ward miss a massive opportunity by never allowing you a single moment to simply play with Riley or even pet him. Meanwhile the brothers end up being the same personality lacking goons that every other CoD has featured, all because the game refuses to take a breath and slow down, never allowing for even a solitary quiet moment amidst the constant barrage of action within which genuine personalities could be forged. The two brothers barely seem to have any sort of sibling relationship, although that could be because you remain mute for the entire game, and their connection with their father is equally unconvincing. This and their lack of character renders any moments where a member of the family is in jeopardy as completely hollow.
The Ghosts are a bunch of unlikable idiots whose apparently legendary status is never cemented due to the fact that they seem just like any other soldier on the battlefield. Meanwhile the Federation is a faceless foe who is never explored, their reason for attacking you amounting to nothing more than because reasons. Rorke is of course supposed to act as the face of the enemy, somebody we can focus our hatred on, but he’s such a weak villain that I honestly had no feelings toward him whatsoever, nor did I feel any dislike of the Federation because they didn’t seem to be any different from the United States.
We’ve got all the building blocks for a rather intriguing tale, here: two brothers fighting a desperate war led by their own father, a bloody awesome dog, a mysterious group of deadly soldiers called Ghosts and a futuristic world in which two opposing forces are facing each other down. There’s so much potential for drama and intrigue and excitement there: just who are The Federation? What’s their story? How did the Ghosts become so feared? And then there’s the family relationship between father and sons which could give rise to so many powerful moments. Yet all of this is flushed down the drain. None of it’s ever used because Infinity Ward refuse to slow down the pace and let personalities develop. If there’s no explosions, they don’t care, and so what we’re left with is a mundane plot which leaps around so much that after a while I began to idly wonder if anybody actually knew what they were doing.
Perhaps most annoying is that between all of the painfully predictable ways the story goes and the bloody awful dialogue you can see the glimmers of a script which could have turned the entire Call of Duty formula on its head. The United States is supposed to have been decimated at the hands of the Federation, and Rorke is intent on hunting down the very group of which he was once a member of, having been captured and broken by the Federation. We could have been treated to a more focused story, one in which the Ghosts are having to fight a guerilla war against a far more powerful adversary, forced to remain on the run from Rorke and the Federation as the United States gamely tries to continue its resistance. But no, instead the supposedly ruined United States is able to go toe to toe with the Federation at nearly ever turn. You yourself burst into military installations and mow down hundreds of troops, and for most of the time you’re the one that’s on the offensive, hunting Rorke, not the other way around. It’s just one more story in which America is portrayed as the underdog, when in reality it’s an angry gorilla holding a nuclear switch.
Compare all of this to Black Ops II which at least attempted, in an admittedly over-the-top-manner, to address the idea of America having a powerful drone army and present us with a villain whose motivations and reasoning actually made sense. Sure, he was a bit of a dick, but when you think about it Raul Menendez had some damn good points. More importantly you could sympathise with him: his sister was horribly burned when he was younger in an American insurance scam, and his father was killed by the CIA. And then later his sister is killed as well, again at the hands of Americans. He advocates economic equality while seeking revenge. All of these things make him an interesting villain, and for an enjoyable story. Compare that to Ghosts where we have a bland villain, a superpower that you never know anything about and a mega-weapon owned by America which never seems to get questioned. A step backwards, indeed.
But hey, Call of Duty is supposed to be the summer blockbuster of games, right? The plot doesn’t matter as much as the action. And damn what action it is! Nobody does epic set-pieces like the Call of Duty series. Nobody does frantic and manic like Call of Duty does. Both of these things still stand true. You’ll witness a submarine rising from ice, rappel down buildings while in a firefight, hide from soldiers in long grass, sneak your way through a jungle, fight in space, avoid sharks and so much more. As always each moment is handled with a deft touch, and yet they’re simply not exciting any more. Those famous Call of Duty moments have lost their oomph. I could predict when a set-piece was coming, and even predict what it was going to be because I’ve done it so many times before and Ghosts feels like it was made with a checklist: obligatory “tense” stealth section, check; mad car chase where you have to shoot at stuff, check; being knocked out for a few seconds about once every minute, check. There’s just far too many set-pieces vying for your attention, a consequence of Infinity Ward cranking the intensity meter up to 11 from the start and leaving themselves nowhere to go.
And even more that normal in Ghosts I seethed in rage at having my hand constantly held like the developers were worried that without their guidance my idiotic mind simply wouldn’t be able to fathom the complexity of shooting stuff. There’s always an AI partner with you, telling you what to do and when do it, a fact that even the game seems to knowingly acknowledges when a Ghost tells you to follow him and do as your told. Epic moments have lost their excitement because you know you’ll never die during them. Stealth sections are near pointless because you’re not actually doing anything stealthy, you’re just acting at the beck and call of your AI partner who tells you when to move and who to shoot. He goes through doors before you to ensure that you always follow him and don’t stray, even though there’s nowhere to go. The best example of this strange desire on Infinity Ward’s behalf to herd you through the levels came during an underwater section when my partner blithely told me to swim through the hatch that was right fucking in front of me. Perhaps more than ever you have no freedom in Ghosts, and it’s starting to frustrate. I’ve defeated empires, explored entire planets, captained star ships, hunted monsters, driven F1 cars and sneaked through enemy lines under a cardboard box – I’m pretty sure I can handle shooting some stuff in the face and opening doors.
This sense that you’re really doing very little carries on to the enemies where the AI still has not been improved, so they simply stand around, poking their heads out and waiting to be shot. They rarely move from their position, attempt to flank you, push aggressively or even fall back in order to take up a better firing position. They spend most of the first half of the game shooting just enough to let you know where they are, and the second half-half throwing grenades with terrifying accuracy. The actual core gunplay is as slick, smooth and brilliant as it has ever been. Those who attempt to claim that Call of Duty is a bad FPS in this regard are, quite honestly, wrong: the moment to moment gunplay is sublime, and that’s exactly why the franchise is so enjoyable in multiplayer the singleplayer. Usually. It’s everything around the gunplay that’s starting to crack. It’s hard to enjoy the lovely way the weapons handle and respond when enemies don’t put up a fight and you’re so tightly controlled. The shadow of Black Ops II looms once again here, as well: while it had a pleasing mission variety and introduced interesting secondary objectives Ghosts has none of that. The RTS sections of Black Ops II, which weren’t very good but deserved another attempt, are also gone. This is about as straightforward a Call of Duty campaign as you get.
To give Ghosts credit, however, where credit is due, there are some cool moments, although again they quickly get spoiled by the game’s nature. There’s an entire underwater section where you gun down other divers using a special weapon. You can rise and descend to grab cover, and naturally bullets travel a little slower. While the water doesn’t really effect you as much as one would imagine, battling the Federation beneath the waves is great, and is a firm reminder that Call of Duty can still pull things like this off where others can’t. There’s a tense moment where you have to evade a powerful sonar that can literally kill you with its shockwave, and another where you have to swim through a section of ship infested with sharks. Yet this is again compromised by the game’s unwillingness to let you experience any of this for yourself. My AI controlled brother continuously telling me where to go, when to shoot and how to evade the sharks.
Riley the dog is initially a pleasing addition to the formula. You can take direct control of him through a camera attached to his harness, and via this you can sneak through grass and tear the throats out of enemies. It’s gloriously vicious. And when not in direct control you can tab RB to direct him toward an enemy during a firefight, and which point he’ll act as sort of a fire and forget missile, tackling the soldier to the ground and tearing him a new one. Sadly, though, Riley sort of gets forgotten about after the first couple of missions, and only appears sporadically throughout, missing, as I mentioned earlier, so many chances to allow the player to actually form a connection with him. On the other hand I suppose this at least ensures that Riley-based gameplay sections don’t feel overused, but I would have welcomed his cruise-missile ability a few more times.
In a blatant attempt to capture some of the popularity of Treyarch’s zombie mode, Infinity Ward have cobbled together Extinction Mode in which you and up to three other players have to battle hordes of aliens, your ultimate goal being to destroy the nests from which they presumably intend on taking over the world. While it makes about as much sense as Zombie’s, truth be told there’s actually some genuine enjoyment to be derived here, largely because the alien baddies are able to clamber over walls and move far faster that humans, changing up the combat dynamic’s enough to give the game a fresh feel. Many of them simply charge directly at either you or the drill that you must lug around which is used to destroy each nest, but other enemy types like the vicious Scorpions who sit on rooftops and shoot acid at you serve to add some spice to the battles. With these faster foes and the responsive gunplay of Call of Duty battling the alien menace has a frantic, fun run ‘n’ gun feel to it. Slaying the otherworldly beings somehow grants you money, which can in turn be used to either purchase the weapons found throughout the map or to acquire one of four items accessed via the D-pad, these being a deployable machine gun, an ammo crate, a missile defense system and claymores/mines. Meanwhile piles of rubble and other such things strewn around the environment can be searched for weapon upgrades. Finally points gained from levelling up in Extinction Mode can be spent to improve your soldier, making you a better fighting machine in he process. The novelty factor will wear off quickly, as it does with the shuffling undead, really, but it provides a welcome palette cleanser between the singleplayer and frantic competitive multiplayer modes.
Much like Extinction the newly introduced Squads Mode also feels like Infinity Ward’s way of copying something Treyarch do while still being able to just about claim that it’s different, introducing a small selection of games in which AI controlled bots take the place of real people. In Squads you and a team of AI go up against someone else and their team of AI soldiers in a few different selectable game modes. You can outfit your little squad as you please, giving you a degree of customisation. And that’s it, really. It’s inclusion is pleasing because like Treyarch’s Combat Training mode it provides a way for newcomers and even veterans to get to grips with the new maps, weapons and pace of the game, allowing you to at least prepare yourself a little for the transition into fully competitive games, but the idea of having one real player per team (sometimes more, depending on the mode) feels daft and pointless. Within Squads you’ll also find a mode which is essentially just Horde, with you and a few buddies fending off waves of AI goons intent on introducing a multitude of metal things into your body.
Notable in its complete and utter absence is the Theatre suite of video and streaming features that Treyarch so proudly put into Black Ops II, a range of handy tools which let gamers quickly create videos of their gameplay as well as commentate on live games. These were a step toward creating a stronger community and the growing concept of eSports, and thus the departure of these praised features from Ghosts is both baffling and disappointing. Likewise the much admired League Play, a wonderful competitive system which matched up players of equal skill for intense matches, has also vanished. Maybe the aliens stole it or something.
Finally the we arrive the meat of the game: competitive multiplayer, the very thing for which the Call of Duty series has become so damn popular over the years, and once again Infinity Ward feel like they’re taken a step backwards from Black Ops II in some ways. At the core the gameplay is still fun: it’s fast, frantic twitch shooting at its best, providing instant gratification through its slick controls and meaty weapons. But once you start delving into the game a little more, the flaws begin to show, the first of which is that the action is down to just 6v6 on current generation consoles, a significant drop and one that makes certain modes on larger maps feel completely awkward. One of the new modes, for example, requires you to kill an enemy every 30-seconds or you’ll explode, showering the immediate area with the remnants of your corpse. It’s a fun mode on smaller maps, but in a larger area with the decreased player count actually finding a foe becomes a challenge, and it’s entirely possible to go 30-seconds without ever seeing anyone. On the next-gen consoles and PC this problem doesn’t exist as the game supports the full 9v9 that we’ve grown accustomed to.
Speaking of modes nobody could ever criticize the series for having a lack of of them, and Ghosts is no different, offering up a range of game types. Brace yourself, though, because fan-favorites Headquarters, Hardpoint and Demolition have disappeared from the roster, and in their stead several less impressive modes have introduced themselves. The first is Blitz which places a scoring zone in each teams base. To score a point for your team you must make it into the enemies scoring zone, which pretty much means committing suicide. It’s as stupid as it sounds and while it’s sort of amusing for the first few games that’s about it. Most players simply refuse to move from their base in order to garner a few free kills, while those who bother trying to score a point simply have to run hell for leather, which isn’t exactly enjoyable. On occasion you’ll find a game with slightly more sensible teams who leave 2 or 3 players at home to guard the base whilst the others form an attack squad. When this happens the action is better, but still far from good.
Infected also returns, and like the Halo mode it’s based upon is actually quite good fun, tasking one team to defend against the “infected”, while the unlucky player needs to simply kill one of the enemy in order to infect them as well. Still, considering Infected seems to have replaced Headquarters and Demolition the trade doesn’t, in my own view, feel worthwhile. Should I have to choose between having the new Blitz/Infected combination or being able to enjoy the fine, focused gameplay of Headquarters and Demolition, I’d choose the latter with nary a look back. But let’s face it, I’d rather just have them all.
Search and Rescue provides an interesting twist to the Killer Confirmed formula. Whenever you die you’ll drop a dog-tag, and should your enemy manage to grab that tag you’ll be eliminated from the round, but if one of your teammates grabs your tag then you’ll be immediately revived. It’s a clever idea, and one that leads to some enjoyable battles.
Veterans of the series will notice that the speed of the game has changed, combining with the new map design to alter the flow of Call of Duty formula, creating a slightly more tactical pace. Generally speaking movement is a touch slower than it was, while the annoyingly powerful SMGs of the Black Ops II are now outclassed by assault rifles, especially on some of the larger maps which sport longer lines of sight than we’re used to seeing. Those who favored rushing around with an SMG or shotgun can still be successful, but also serve as surprisingly easy prey to a more calm and brutally calculating player armed with an assault rifle and a touch of patience. This creates a relatively more strategic Call of Duty which naturally some will like and others will not. Personally I favor style more as it gives the impression that skill matters, albeit still not very much. Even with its slower pace, Ghosts still remains a fast shooter where reflexes tend to win the day.
Map design is something of a mixed bag, here. I heavily criticized Black Ops II for featuring so many over-designed maps with ludicrous amounts of sight lines and routes which equated to death coming not from a lack of skill on your behalf but from simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ghosts also seems to favor this with several of the maps feeling so dense and over-complicated that almost all of my kills and my deaths came from behind. There are so many sight lines, routes, vantage points and hidey-holes that it’s impossible to keep track of it all, and thus the vestiges of skill which the slower pace felt like it was trying to bring back are brutally murdered on the smaller maps where you around a corner, shoot someone in the back and then are shot in the back yourself. However, it’s not all bad as other maps offer some great gameplay. For example a map entitled Stonehaven, to which I admit a bias since it’s based on an area beside my home town, is set around and in the ruins of an ancient castle and is rather sizable, offering up pleasant rolling hills and masonry which provides the opportunity for gunfights at medium distance, finally giving snipers a chance to shine as well. The map layout flows nicely with 6 people on each team, and it’s good to get in a gunfight across the entire map while the undulating hills still allow players to get up close and personal. Be warned that snipers are bloody lethal on this map. However, I do wonder if on the next-gen versions of the game the increased player amount will change from map from pleasingly open warfare to again having too much going on. This desire to design maps that will work with two separate player counts simply doesn’t work, but only time will tell if I’m right or not.
Spawning remains a frustrating issue with the series, and it’s frankly a little depressing that the developers still have not managed to fix it, assuming they’re actually even trying. You’ll find yourself spawning directly in front of enemies far too often and vice versa, and as various online videos already show the system can be completely abused, allowing you to kill the same guy over and over as he spawns. This needed fixing several games ago, so why hasn’t it been?
The levelling up system features a very slightly tweaked version of the Pick 10 system seen in Black Ops 2, and still allows for a very pleasing amount of choice. By murdering your way through every match you’ll earn points which can be spent to unlock any weapon, perk, Killstreak or attachment you want so there’s no waiting around to get your hands on a gun you actually enjoy using. While this can and sometimes does result in players sticking to the very first weapon they like to use, most of the time it offers up the freedom to try completely different loadouts.
Since Infinity Ward are at the helm different Killstreak packages have returned, so players can choose between going for the all out offensive set or the support or the specialist package. Generally speaking there’s been a reduction of airpower shifting the action firmly back to the ground where it belongs, and between this and the ability to choose more team orientated packages Killstreak rewards had far less of an impact in the games I played, a most welcome change given that lately both developers had put too much emphasis on them, resulting in many matches being one solely by Killstreaks.
At this stage of game the ageing engine is beginning to remind me of an older gentlemen getting around with a cane, still physically able but definitely struggling. While I cannot comment on the next-generation or PC versions of the game, the Xbox 360 edition of Ghosts is looking decidedly ragged around the edges with an abundance of poor textures. Riley especially has low-res textures and a lack of detail. Like before, though, Call of Duty does a good job of using its intense pace to hide all of the rough edges. When the game is in motion it still looks pretty good, and the level of mayhem presented is something other games still find hard to match.
By no stretch of the imagination is Call of Duty: Ghosts a bad game, nor has it been tossed lightly out of the developement cycle with minimal work. Like any title in the series there’s been a lot of time and attention put into crafting it, yet that doesn’t negate the fact that Ghosts feels both tired and a step backwards, proving in the process that Treyarch are the current masters of the franchise and Infinity Ward are playing catch-up. More importantly as we teeter on the brink of the next-generation, ready to welcome in bigger worlds and shinier stuff, Call of Duty feels like it needs another Modern Warfare event to revitalise the series, and so the question is do Activision, Treyarch and Infinity Ward have the balls to do it? Can Infinity Ward prove that they’re not just a one-trick pony? There’s plenty of ways for the series to go, perhaps adding in branching level designs, a story focused story telling the tale of a small squad, different ways or approaching a fight and even genuine moments where stealth can be used.
Perhaps I’ve simply reached a point that according to the Internet everyone else arrived at a few games ago, but Ghosts simply didn’t excite me. It’s over-reliance on set-piece moments that have become far too familiar and complete and utter failure to build toward its finale because of that left the story attempting to maintain a pace of 11 throughout the entire game, and that just can’t work. The dialogue is terrible, the plot which could have been great is nonsensical, and the action, while as smooth as ever, is starting to drag, as is the game’s continuous desire to hold your hand in case you fail to understand how to pull a trigger. I’ve seen this all before, and that includes the place scene ripped straight out of The Dark Knight Rises. Yeah, don’t think I didn’t notice that, Infinity Ward. I’ve played this all before. I’ve escaped using this jeep-mounted turret before, sniped these people before and definitely been blown off my feet by explosions every few minutes before.
I debated in my Batman: Arkham Origins review how harshly a game should be scored if it feels like a clone of its predecessor or is too familiar, and came to the conclusion that while such things must be addressed a game should never be too harshly scored for being merely similar, since that’s what a sequel is. A game is reviewed on its own merits, ultimately, but improvements or lack thereof must still play a part constructive criticism. A newcomer to the series should never read a review of the latest game and come away with the impression it’s terrible, because that simply wouldn’t be true. Should Ghosts be someones first foray into the franchise I have no doubt they’ll have a blast, far more than I did with my cynical attitude and experience of every game in the series. But for everyone else, it all comes down to how tired you are with the formula, because this is a drop in quality.
No, Call of Duty: Ghosts is not a bad game, and even though I honestly felt fatigued playing through it I’m not going to lie by claiming it is. It’s a good game. It’s a fun game. But it feels like a step backwards from Black Ops II which at least seemed to be trying to do something a little different in its introduction of so many neat features. Next year another Call of Duty will be on store shelves, and it’ll be Treyarch’s baby. Don’t let me down, Treyarch. Don’t let me down.
+ Super slick gunplay.
+ Riley is cool.
+ Fighting in space and underwater!
+ Multiplayer is still fun.
– Singleplayer is weak.
– A step backwards as a whole.
– Mixed map design.
– Very familiar gameplay.
The Verdict: 3/5 – Good.
It’s Call of Duty and no matter what I say you’ve either bought it or you haven’t. The series is in need of another revolutionary release, but for now Ghosts is a damn good shooter, one hampered with an over-reliance on set-pieces and the loss of so many interesting features from Black Ops II.