Call of Duty: Ghosts
So here we are again. The latest installment in a series that’s shipped more copies than the Bible, Call of Duty: Ghosts is the first title in the franchise to release on both current and next generation consoles. It’s fair to say that this is a rather eagerly anticipated release amongst the legion of fans slavishly anticipating their next dose of military mayhem. If you’re looking for straightforward, fast-paced shooting and a robust multiplayer suite, you’ll find it here. Those expecting Ghosts to add anything that feels essential and new to the recipe, or experiment with it as Treyarch did with Black Ops II, will come away disappointed. Despite containing all the explosive action you would expect Ghosts is a strangely subdued experience, one polished and professional in execution but lacking the confident swagger of the series in its heyday.
It took around ten seconds for me to get a sense of how Ghosts‘ singleplayer was going to play out. As I sprinted home with my family under heavy artillery fire, I stopped to admire a nearby garden for just a moment. Suddenly a game over screen popped up, informing me that I’d failed to follow my brother successfully, and I had to restart from the last checkpoint. Rats. This is the single player campaign. Move where we tell you and shoot when we say.
Ghosts casts you as Logan, a mute floating head that, along with his brother and father, finds himself in the middle of a full-blown invasion. This time, hilariously, the enemy isn’t Russia or China, but the entire continent of South America. Naming themselves The Federation, this new superpower launches an all out assault on the United States. Only one family and a super-powered German Shepherd named Riley stand in their way. This is the plucky dog that featured so noticeably in the pre-release marketing. At one point he takes down a helicopter single-pawed, in one of the game’s more grounded and believable moments. Riley features prominently early on, but disappointingly the developers can’t seem to work out how to feature him in a lot of the later missions. Shame, because the image of your faithful hound puttering alongside you in a miniature submarine would have made the underwater mission at least ten times more memorable.
The campaign mode continues in much the same high-octane vein as you would expect for the rest of its eight to ten-hour run time. Initially there’s hints that Ghosts might strip back the over-the-top bombast of previous entries for a more measured approach, in which you’re no longer fighting for the omnipotent superpower with the cutting edge gadgets. So much for that. By the end of the campaign you’re wiping out entire legions of infantry with a space cannon, and zipping around in tanks that handle like something out of Mario Kart. Any sense of camaraderie with the principal characters is stymied not only by their resolute dullness, but also by their continuous and gleeful execution of surrendered enemy personnel. Barely a minute goes by without one of them gruffly blasting a helpless captive’s head off, or without the game prompting you to ‘press X to cut off the light behind this young man’s eyes forever’. Call of Duty has always been violent and ruthless, but as Ghosts spends so much time glamourising its titular band of special ops killers, it excuses their frequent and distasteful war crimes. We’re meant to like these people, but they come across as vicious thugs. The fact that they have an adorable dog is not enough to make them engaging.
Infinity Ward have been vocal in their insistence that Ghosts‘ campaign is their most personal and complex story yet. That’s not the case. In fact, it’s probably the weakest effort the studio has ever produced, a big dumb firework display of a story that can’t decide whether it wants to tell a stripped down tale about a family trying to survive in a desolate, post-cataclysm America, or throw caution to the winds and go full Moonraker. This wildly varying tone does manage to create several laugh out loud moments, but otherwise fails to provide anything more than the familiar and perfunctory experience we’ve played half a dozen times before. There are individual sections that are dumb fun, in particular the bizarre space station assault missions, but in general its the familiar mix of extended shooting punctuated by variation on fixed turret sections.
Which won’t matter a jot to the majority of the target audience, who ultimately crave the sweet sugary release of their latest multi-player fix. Here, at least, they won’t be disappointed. Along with the familiar deathmatch and search and destroy modes, there’s a veritable feast of new options for gaming with friends. Some work better than others. Cranked, a new mode that gives you only thirty seconds to find your next kill before blowing you up, seems to forget the fact that the relentless pace of CoD rarely gives you that much time in between kills anyway, and as a result seems somewhat superfluous. Hunted, meanwhile, restricts you to a pistol and forces you to scavenge weapon crates for new guns, providing a tense alternative to the usual free for all. Each of the various game modes scratches a different itch, providing enough variations on the basic formula to keep your interest.
One of the more interesting new features is Squads. Squads allows you to create a team of AI controlled soldiers to take with you into combat online, outfitting them with weapons and equipment and then fighting alongside them. Touted as a kind of introduction to the more hardcore online multiplayer, Squads lets you battle against your friends computer-controlled team even if they’re offline, earning you points with which you can further upgrade your squad. It’s hardly a revolutionary feature, but actually the AI is pretty solid, and I can see those intimidated or put off by competitive play enjoying the opportunity for a less stressful online experience.
The third major cog in the multiplayer axis is Extinction, a class based objective mode that tasks your four man team with eliminating a nest of vicious aliens who’ve invaded Earth via a meteorite storm. Essentially a refinement of the popular zombie modes that CoD seems to feature now as a matter of course, Extinction ditches the round based survival model for a mission based structure in which you must advance through enemy territory, completing various tasks as you go. You can choose from four different classes with their own skills, and invest points in various abilities to customise your soldier. It’s fast and furious fun, ‘borrowing’ the best elements of co-op games like Left 4 Dead to create a challenging and satisfying experience. There’s a couple of caveats – there’s only one map included at launch, and there’s no checkpoint system, so if you die you have to start right from the beginning – but fans of the previous zombie modes will love it. It’s the best thing in the game.
Those expecting the next-gen version of Ghosts to be a radical visual experience will be disappointed. There’s been plenty of discussion about the Xbox One version’s visuals, and unfortunately it’s immediately apparent upon loading the game that these concerns were valid. Quite simply, it’s hard to tell much difference between this and the 360 version. Textures are muddy, lines are jagged and it lacks the smooth anti-aliasing of the PS4 edition. It’s hard to tell exactly what this version provides that justifies labeling it as a next generation game. Whether this is the fault of the developers, Microsoft, or some other factor entirely, somewhere along the line the ball has most certainly been dropped. Despite the often underwhelming technical performance, Ghosts on Xbox One does at least maintain the silky smooth 60 FPS that is Call of Duty’s trademark. Lighting is as pretty as you’d expect, and there’s plenty of spectacle in the various set pieces. There’s nothing to really jump out and grab you, though, and the updated engine is functional rather than spectacular.
In many ways, Ghosts feels like a step back for the series. It’s slick and polished, but it offers little more than a refinement of an already pretty solid core product. Fans of the multiplayer will find all the gung ho action they could want, but there’s little else here that feels truly fresh and exciting. Even the online component adds little that really feels essential, despite the variety of enjoyable new modes. It’s a game that seems afraid to try anything new, and thus potentially alienate the colossal audience the series has built over the last console generation. Should you have to provide innovation when your basic formula is so wildly popular already? Perhaps not, but Ghosts feels like a very safe entry to a series that ultimately risks more by resting on its laurels than it would have by trying something new. It’s not terrible, it’s not memorable. It’s just more Call of Duty. With rival heavy hitters on the horizon, you wonder how long Infinity Ward can continue to rely on the same old tricks.