Call of Duty: Ghosts
When you sell as many units each year as Call of Duty you can make the argument that change isn’t needed. After the branching, futuristic narrative and occasional shift to a multi-approach combat model in Black Ops II, however, it wouldn’t be foolish to expect this sudden series progression to continue or at least maintain parity, especially with a new generation of consoles ripe for the taking. Instead, Call of Duty: Ghosts is made to look the fool, squandering its chance to evolve and sticking with a safe formula, even despite the looming threat of the Titanfall’s and Destiny’s of this world. It’s still as polished as ever but you can’t help feel disappointed as it reverts back to type, offering a Call of Duty experience we’ve seen countless times before.
Even the story feels like a rehash of Modern Warfare 2 with American soil perilously under attack. It’s not Middle Eastern insurgents, the Russians or even the Chinese this time, though, but a unified South America (dubbed The Federation); newly oil-rich and intent on wiping out their northern cousins because they feel like it. Oh, and they commandeer the US’ own weaponised space station to begin the onslaught, annihilating a host of major cities from orbit. Space terrorism! It’s as ludicrous as you can imagine but there’s some fun to be had with its bombastic premise. And at least it’s mostly coherent after the convoluted babble that was Modern Warfare 3.
“It tries ever so diligently to get you emotionally invested in its one-note characters but it’s difficult to care when each one fulfils their conventional role as gruff military guy”With that trilogy wrapped up Ghosts starts afresh with new characters, a new storyline and a new setting. You play as Logan Walker, a silent protagonist who fights alongside his brother Hesh in this near-future battleground, reporting to their father in an attempt rustle up some contrived family drama. It tries ever so diligently to get you emotionally invested in its one-note characters but it’s difficult to care when each one fulfils their conventional role as gruff military guy, delivering the same corny dialogue we’ve come to expect. With Hollywood screenwriter Stephen Gaghan at the helm – who penned such intelligent political thrillers as Syriana and Traffic – it’s disappointing that Ghosts boils down to the same dim-witted tropes we’ve seen before. The villain of the piece is so ill-defined he’s barely worth mentioning.
Eventually you join up with the titular Ghosts, an elite force who like wearing skull-clad balaclavas and snapping necks with their unique brand of guerrilla warfare, but Ghosts isn’t the underdog story you might pine for. It would have been interesting to see this crippled United States knocked down a peg or two from the superpower that they are, fighting against the odds as their homeland is left in tatters. The Ghosts are even painted as such, touted as a small group of highly trained soldiers able to overcome insurmountable odds. Yet you still have the full might of the US military behind you, equipped with an array of explosive weaponry and gadgets, air and sea units, and tanks that control like supercars. It doesn’t exactly lend credence to the enemy’s threat.
Nonetheless, all that firepower does provide plenty of opportunities to blow stuff up, which Ghosts does handily. From the opening destruction of San Diego, to the bursting of a gigantic dam and an attack on an enemy battleship from the depths of the ocean, Ghosts is certainly a spectacle for the senses. Yet this is what we’ve come to expect from this series; ridiculous action set pieces amidst all the discernible shooting, regularly exciting without too much player input. To Ghosts’ credit it does a better job of involving you in the action than previous games in the series, making the set pieces feel like they complement the action rather than dominate centre stage.
It’s at its best when it takes a more considered and subdued approach, like in the aforementioned battleship destruction, as you hide beneath the waves, avoiding enemies both human and shark alike. An infiltration mission on a skyscraper is another highlight, expertly paced and suitably tense, while sections in orbit have you contending with a lack of gravity, altering the banal corridor shooter limitations elsewhere. But moments like these are far outweighed by standard Call of Duty mission design as you sweep through the triefecta, moving from cover to cover and quickly snapping your aim from target to target as you pull off headshots left right and centre.
It’s solid, polished and fairly enjoyable at times, but you always get the feeling you’re just going through the motions. Rattle off a few moments from past games in the series and they probably reappear in Ghosts. Stuff like slow-motion breaches, plenty of turret sections, a part where you call in airstrikes to decimate those below, dying whilst in control of a temporary player character and a few moments that try to replicate COD4’s famous All Ghillied Up, amongst others. It’s quintessentially COD, slapping a new lick of paint on the obligatory moments. There’s an overwhelming sense of familiarity, lacking the mission variety and optional objectives found in Black Ops II in what is a fairly by-the-numbers affair. It’s a step backwards in every sense of the word.
At least Riley offers something new. He’s the much celebrated Call of Duty dog, able to gnaw on enemy throats and bring down helicopters in one hilariously fantastic moment. For the most part you’ll order him to attack specific enemies as he joins the fight as another indestructible ally. Other scripted instances allow you to take control, sneaking through long grass to stealthily pick off your foes. His impressively lifelike animations and general cuddle-quality (you know you want to) actually make him the most likeable character in the game. It’s just a shame he’s so underutilised, only appearing in a small handful of early levels. It probably would have been a bit farfetched to have him scuba diving or going to space later on…
“It’s quintessentially COD, slapping a new lick of paint on the obligatory moments”Of course, multiplayer will still be the main draw for a lot of people, and as is commonplace in this series, changes have been made to the way unlocks and loadouts work. The latter works similarly to Black Ops II’s Pick-10 system where you were given up to 10 points to spend on guns, attachments and perks, perhaps sacrificing one to have more of another. It was intuitive and allowed an incredible amount of customisation. In Ghosts this has been replaced by a Perk Points system, with certain perks given certain values. So you could equip one perk worth five points, five perks worth one point and many other variations on this concept. It’s a functional system but an odd decision to replace an accomplished alternative in the Pick-10 with one that works slightly less well.
In terms of unlocks, changes here are likely to be divisive. As you play and level up you earn Squad Points that can be spent on the usual assortment of guns, equipment, attachments and perks. However, only perks are locked behind a level cap, everything else is free to purchase from the get-go so long as you have enough Squad Points. If you know what kind of player you want to be you can easily purchase everything you need fairly early on. It’s a refreshing amount of unprecedented freedom, although it does somewhat take away from the constant satisfaction of levelling up.
Once you’re in the thick of the action there are other positive moves. On the whole there’s less of a focus on the skies with a shift to more ground-based kill streaks. UAVs are gone and replaced by SatComs which you manually place on the ground, while attack helicopters, airstrikes and those of a similar ilk are less common and less of a frustrating nuisance as a result. It keeps the action grounded and allows you to focus all your effort on the shooting, placing an emphasis on pure skill without the need to constantly watch the skies lest you be eliminated by some unseen force. It’s a smart and welcome change.
Elsewhere it’s business as usual with a constant stream of wanton death on well designed maps. There are 14 in total (15 if you include the pre-order bonus), and they’re slick and tightly controlled, consistently offering plenty of options and diverging paths around almost every corner. Some seem a little too large for the maximum player count but they encourage constant movement (even when they’re smaller), creating exciting, fast-paced matches as the series is want to do.
Match types are a little more peculiar this time around with some fan favourites removed in favour of some that aren’t particularly inspired. In terms of new modes, Search and Rescue replaces Search and Destroy as a modification of that and Kill Confirmed. Players are still given one life per round to either destroy or defend an objective, but each person who dies drops a dog tag that can be collected to either permanently kill that player or give them an extra respawn, depending on which team grabs it. This is a great way to encourage teams to stick together and also discourages camping and long-distance sniping.
Grind is another modification of Kill Confirmed with dog tags needing to be deposited at two banks around the map. Cranked is clearly inspired by Jason Statham’s absurdly brilliant Crank, where a kill gives the killer a speed enhancement and a 30-second timer to get another kill or else they’ll explode. COD doesn’t really benefit from this extra speed and dollop of insanity. Infected is shamelessly pulled from Halo with a team of knife-wielding zombies recruiting humans to their team with each kill. Hunted equips two opposing teams with pistols and drops crates with better weapons around the map every few minutes. However, each weapon has limited ammo so you spend most of your time either with a dissatisfactory pistol or nothing at all as you dash from crate to crate. It’s not very fun. Blitz is better, essentially Capture the Flag but without the flag.
“Fighting the aliens is much more enjoyable than fighting zombies ever was, and while the setup is fairly simple it shakes things up with some optional challenges along the way to keep you on your toes”There’s a decent number of new additions but none of these modes feel dramatically different from what’s come before, either inspired by other games or modifications of previous modes. If you want to play Search and Destroy it’s only available in private matches, while both Headquarters and Hardpoint have been removed entirely. The new modes don’t give much justification for the absence of fan favourites, and Black Ops II’s popular League Play, replay recording and player-created emblems are also missing. It’s the lack of parity we’ve come to expect from this yearly release cycle, removing and adding features only to add them back in as the series jumps from Infinity Ward to Treyarch and back again.
Squads mode is another new addition, although it’s separate from the regular competitive multiplayer. It’s essentially a way to play against bots and earn more Squad Points, outfitting your own AI team that other players can challenge when you aren’t online. You can also take your AI-controlled squad and compete against one other player and his squad, so it pays to outfit your guys with better equipment than what they start with. It’s an interesting concept but really just feels like training for newcomers who aren’t quite ready to compete against real players.
Squads isn’t the obligatory third COD mode, however. That distinction is reserved for Extinction: less Spec Ops, more Zombies, only better. It’s a co-operative wave-based survival mode featuring aliens and a drill you must carry from one alien hive to the next. As the drill gets to work you need to protect it and yourselves against a variety of enemy types, earning cash from each kill that can be used to buy additional weapons, equipment and power-ups for one of four distinct character classes. Fighting the aliens is much more enjoyable than fighting zombies ever was, and while the setup is fairly simple (you get to the end of the level and then run all the way back for extraction), it shakes things up with some optional challenges along the way to keep you on your toes, while the variety of classes adds surprising depth and some essential teamwork. Once again, it’s a conventional premise, offering very little we haven’t already seen in myriad other horde modes, but it’s entertaining, especially if you can get a full team of friends.
For as familiar as Extinction is, it is at least something relatively new in a game content with treading water. Black Ops II wasn’t a revelation but it was a step in the right direction. It’s branching narrative and organic approach to player choice was refreshing, layering meaning atop the familiar COD formula and occasionally branching away from that, too. That Ghosts regresses away from all of Black Ops II‘s positive changes is a disappointment, particularly when you consider how stale the series has become with such small deviations from game to game. It’s still a solid, polished shooter (particularly in multiplayer, despite some nonsensical decisions), but it’s been seven years since Modern Warfare and more of the same just isn’t enough anymore. Call of Duty: Ghosts is a victim of the multi-developer, yearly release cycle and a lack of ambition. It will still please many but this is a series in desperate need of the kind of shake up that brought about the original Modern Warfare. There’s always next year.