Also On: Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii U
Developer: Infinity Ward
Medium: Blu-ray Disc
For those of you on the fence about Activision’s Call of Duty: Ghosts, here’s the ten second rundown: the campaign script is awful, the multiplayer is amazing, and the new game modes are worth looking into.
For those of you who aren’t, I’m confused as to why you’re reading this writeup–because by the time this is posted you’ll have already come back from the Midnight Launch at your local games retailer with copy of game in tow. Maybe an attempt to validate your purchase? A love of the context that goes into a fine Metacritic aggregate score?
Whatever the case may be, Call of Duty: Ghosts serves as the closing chapter to gaming’s first generation of consoles with ubiquitous online gameplay. Of course, the same franchise also kickstarted the whole trend.
Going back to the fall of 2007, the console first-person shooter genre found its niche with two titles: Halo 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. With an increased emphasis on community and better-developed online game modes, both franchises leapt not only ahead of contemporaries but their preceding chapters as well. For the next six years, both franchises moved on.
Halo developed in several different directions, trying to be several different things. Bungie, and later 343 decided to reinvent the game several times in an effort to move on from the Master Chief Trilogy. Refining the game to a niche, critical and commercial success started to dwindle.
On the other hand, Call of Duty is pretty well a metaphorical Comfort Food Of Gaming. Every game pushes a middling single player campaign, solidly designed multiplayer, and regular DLC expansions that everyone inevitably buys. For better or worse, the franchise really hasn’t changed a huge amount in the six years since Modern Warfare. Even past the early growing pains of developer Treyarch’s chapters in the shadow of Modern Warfare’s Infinity Ward, the standard was born.
So it should be no surprise that the newest rendition follows the same rules.
Starting in a nebulous timeframe of Probably 2003 because most people have flip phones, the nearly-silent protagonist sits in the woods with his brother and father. With foreshadowing so thick the game refuses to acknowledge you can see past, the father tells the gruesome origin of the Ghosts unit–which only barely plays out more optimistically than the storied Battle of Thermopylae. Thankfully, an earthquake begins to interrupt his soliloquy.
Only, it’s not an earthquake. Based on a Cold War concept from Boeing called “Project Thor,” Call of Duty: Ghosts’ Big Gun is “Odin.” Simple in design, “Odin” does one thing. It shoves telephone poles made of tungsten into the atmosphere from orbit. Given density, terminal velocity, and the air-friction-reducing shape, the weapon creates a nuclear-level swath of destruction the player character barely ever sees the impact of.
In fact, the story jumps a full ten years at this point (to current day!) into a hideaway wherein the same protagonist is still hanging out with his brother and father and a dog (!) named Riley. This is in the shadow of a wall built to keep the now-villainous South American Federation out of what may be America’s Last Great Hope in Southern California. Things shift gear here, starting to feel like a strange melange of THQ’s Homefront and GI Joe.
You’re supposed to support this scrappy team of American soldiers, but at no point do things really feel as desperate as the script would lead you to believe. Every single soldier is well-equipped, well armored, and a handful of vehicle segments belie the oil crisis which gave the Federation world power status. At one point, the Ghosts work with the USAF to send a team of soldiers into space to take down a kinetic bombardment platform spinoff by the name of Loki.
It all feels like an excuse for the Call of Duty team to play homage to their favorite movies. A weapons system seen in GI Joe: Retaliation, space battles from Moonraker, a Death Star style trench run, even the crumbling building from Transformers 3 and the airplane scene from The Dark Knight Rises–they’re all here, and they’re all obvious. At no point is the Academy Award winning pedigree of writer Stephen Gaghan obvious, as pretty well every character is flat in the wake of the scenery they should be chewing through.
On the other hand, Ghosts’ real breakout star is canine friend Riley. Even though the German Shepherd’s inclusion has been the topic of playful derision amongst gamers since his reveal, the dog is probably the most sympathetic character in the franchise since Modern Warfare’s Sgt. Paul Jackson. When he gets hurt, the game finds its sole moments of gravitas in a world where people can shrug off being shot seven times in the torso.
In the realm of multiplayer, Call of Duty: Ghosts feels somewhat like a Greatest Hits album. Bits and pieces are taken from the best parts of both Treyarch and Infinity Ward’s contributions to the franchise, with a mixture of Infinity Ward’s pacing and map design and Treyarch’s weapon choices and character development.
Character creation, moreso than development, is the most visible of the changes to multiplayer in Ghosts. More specifically, the spotlight shines directly on Ghosts’ debut of more diverse multiplayer character options, including women. Though a small detail, opening the field up to looks outside the 1960s’ GI Joe line builds on Call of Duty’s sense of ownership and community that began with superficial badges and clan tags.
Of course, developing a character from the ground up is a bit harder now than before. Not because the system is difficult, no, but because there are so many options to pursue. Ghosts’ perk system allows for a boggling amount of character skills and traits that go beyond typical weapon loadouts. Want to stay off the radar? You got it. Enemy deaths send out a ping that shows their allies? Done. Faster reloading? It’s a Call of Duty game, of course,
Taking that OCD creation obsession to the extreme, Ghosts helpfully includes the new Squads mode wherein teams of created AI characters can play against AI and human alike. While no replacement for the joy of Shooting People Online, the AI in Squads is fairly intelligent in the way it contextualizes weapons with the playable map. If nothing else, the mode serves as decent practice if you find your situational skills among certain weapons lacking.
As another diversion aside from typical multiplayer, Ghosts features Extinction. Mixing equal parts tower defense concepts with a myriad variety of xenomorphs in a more-desperate-by-the-moment cityscape, Extinction a standout by the grace of being a totally out of place experience in an otherwise conservative game. Sadly, the game only currently has one map for the game type. While I’m certain DLC expansions will inevitably add more scenarios, having only one map on-disc felt a little disappointing.
In the same vein lie the new “destruction” gimmick evident in a handful of maps. While significant in Strikezone (the entire map falls to rubble, completely changing the dynamic), other maps feature trivial things such as a closing gate or a gas station awning caving in. Day-one DLC map Free Fall seems as if it will do more with the concept, but was not playable at the time of publication.
New to the mainstream multiplayer sessions are Cranked, Hunted, Infected, Blitz, and Kill Confirmed (and variants thereof). Cranked, cheekily, draws from the film Crank with a power boost and suicide timer which resets on successful kills. Inspiration from The Hunger Games (or Battle Royale) finds its way into Hunted, a mode whose weapons come entirely from random crate drops. Infected and Blitz wander in from Halo, as somewhat unusual copies of Infection and Griffball.
Kill Confirmed (gameplay gimmick: picking up dogtags after kills to get points) serves as the progenitor for a pair of sub-gametypes. Search and Rescue takes the concept, then adds permadeath and defined capture points in the form of armable bombs. Grind, which takes the cake for most confusing gametype name, only allows players to score upon dropping off dogtags at bases.
Although I can’t comment on the Xbox One edition until next week, I can say that the leap from this-gen to PS4 is significant. Seeing both in the same context, the difference in texture and detail work between the 360/PS3 edition and the PS4 is jarring–the best example of such is an early scene with Riley in an APC. This-gen, Riley nearly looks like a shorthaired beagle, with splotchy coloration. Next-gen, the same dog has the long haired appearance of a German Shepherd.
Even more esoterically, I found myself staring at Earth for a few minutes during Ghosts’ intro. Fascinated by its scale and detail, I got lost in trying to take it all in. Even when the Odin fired, my intent wasn’t on stopping it–it turned to watching the rod as it sped through the atmosphere. There are very few games that have caught my attention like that, and to that I give the artists credit.
11/14 ADDENDUM – XBOX ONE
While a topic of pre-release derision, the Xbox One port of Ghosts is the definitive Call of Duty experience on a console. Resolution aside, the PS4 and Xbox One editions look virtually identical with one big difference: the game just plain runs at a steadier framerate on the Xbox One. Even small bits, such as the responsiveness of controls and voice chat, all worked far better on the Xbox One than the PS4.
As per Activision PR, the framerate issues with the PS4 game will be resolved in a day-one patch.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is burdened by a few things: being a cross-generational title, the legacy of Call of Duty, a handful of attempts to try new things that don’t go far enough… The list can go on. It’s a conservative release that will expand at the right time due to DLC. It’s what you expected from Call of Duty. Nothing more, nothing less, and the world’s going to be fine with that.