I recently caught up with Call of Duty: Ghosts.
That’s an apt way to put it, since playing catch-up is all you do in that game. During my playthrough, I went through jungles and oil platforms. I rode atop trains and stalked across obliterated cities. I saw space.
Well, that’s not true. I saw someone’s back. But that person was in space at least. That’s because Call of Duty: Ghosts tends to cast you as a supporting character. You’re a follower, not a leader. Logan serves as muscle for the characters that matter – little more than a camera on legs. It’s a frustrating design choice that limits the player’s investment in the game and misunderstands one of the basic tenets of the U.S. military.
Critics have long knocked Call of Duty campaigns on their tendency to funnel players into scripted events. The series earned that criticism fair and square, but in previous titles those sections were interspersed into a greater variety of maps and were camouflaged by craftsmanship. For example, while “All Ghillied Up” from Call of Duty 4 is little more than a quicktime event where you walk rather than push buttons, the narrative tension disguised that fact. Plus, the more open maps in the rest of the game made up for the heavily structured mission, letting players feel like they had some input. Later titles also mixed up the combat by adding more weapons and gadgets, and Black Ops II experimented with branching storylines to give the player an illusion of agency. Ghosts doesn’t have that variety or freedom of choice. It doesn’t feel like an interactive world, it feels like choreography.
In Ghosts the hand-holding is so extreme that a player has little input other than who to shoot first – and with snap-aiming, you don’t even get that. It’s fitting that Ghosts tells the story of sons following in the footsteps of their father, since you spend most of the game in the footsteps of other characters, shadowing them like a henpecked intern. You step where they step, shoot when they tell you, and go where, and when, they tell you to go. Even in the infinite expanse of space and the depths of the sea, you tag along like a dog on a leash – and the game isn’t afraid to give that leash a corrective jerk should you stray off course. Between limited cover and spawning enemies, going more than a few steps from your squad mate during the SCUBA and astronaut missions means choking on blood. This isn’t for any narrative or gameplay reason, but to ensure you stay in a narrow corridor the game prescribes, even if veering from the path makes tactical sense. In the odd instances when the game allows you to crack a safe or knife a guard, you’re doing so under orders – put this here, kill him now, breach this door – and each time the player character Logan silently complies. This is what it must feel like, I thought about halfway through the campaign, to be one of the squad mates in Rainbow Six: Vegas or X-COM: Enemy Unknown. Obeying orders on where to move, shoot and use gadgets. No, that’s not right – those guys get to take point on occasion, they don’t languish as tail end Charlie just so they can see their leader knife enemies to death in a “cool” animation.
Infinity Ward created a game where the player is an NPC. Logan has no personality, no motivation and no place in the story except as an observer. His brother Hesh, on the other hand, actually has a character arc and all the important story beats belong to his character. Hesh begins as a civilian teenager, proves himself a competent operative and eventually goes from rookie to leading the Ghosts’ most crucial mission. At the end of the game, it’s Hesh that makes the pivotal decision to sacrifice the brothers’ lives. And ultimately, Hesh is the one left standing after Logan – cementing the player’s status as a secondary character – gets dragged off for brainwashing to presumably become the villain in the sequel. But story structure aside, the player isn’t allowed to show any initiative in gameplay either. In fact, the first few times the player can scout ahead and devise their own tactics, they’re playing as Riley.
Let me repeat that: in this game the squad’s dog has more initiative and responsibility than the player character.
Those times when Ghosts does let you off the leash, play improves significantly and the game actually becomes fun. Stalking patrols in the jungle with a silenced pistol felt good, and setting up a defense grid with mines and turret guns allowed me to put a personal stamp on the proceedings, but immediately afterward the game yanks the leash again and you’re back to nipping at the squad leader’s heels.
What’s particularly offensive about this enforced drudgery is that it’s antithetical to much of the U.S. military ethos. While it’s true that the military puts a great emphasis on following orders, the military’s real obsession is leadership – and that’s something Ghosts largely withholds from the player.
The principal of leadership, in a military context, goes beyond giving and carrying out orders, and instead becomes a values system that permeates military life. Leadership is a catchall term that can cover leading by example, communicating, being competent, innovating, keeping good character and even creating a positive attitude with peers. It transcends the chain of command, with privates and sergeants showing leadership as often as officers (some would argue more often). Leadership, in other words, means taking an active role in your duty, taking ownership over it rather than just doing it by the numbers. For soldiers in combat – particularly special operations units like the fictional Ghosts – this often means taking initiative and adapting on the fly to changing conditions. In Ghosts, there’s little opportunity for that. Want to call helicopter support? Too bad, it’s not the plot-appointed time. Maybe go around those SCUBA divers and hit them from the flank? No chance – the ocean is too narrow. And don’t even think about taking cover and firing back when the rest of the team runs from enemy gunmen, or God forbid, run fast enough from a helicopter gunship that you overtake your team, because unlike them you don’t instinctively know which cliff to jump off. If that happens it’s better to lag behind and let them run ahead.
The side effect of all this is it makes Logan look incompetent and unable to take any initiative. The joke, of course, is that the other Ghosts are terrible leaders too. Micromanaging Logan isn’t the half of it either, the real issue is their poor communication skills. Usually in a Call of Duty game, there’s at least a cursory mission briefing, even if it’s just the team leader turning to the camera and summarizing how the mission’s supposed to go. That doesn’t happen in Ghosts, at least not effectively, and it creates a strange feeling of not being part of the team. Case in point: take the mission where you infiltrate the research station. At one point the team leader told to stand at a gate and wait for a jeep full of enemies to pull up, but only after it arrived did he tell me that I was supposed to knife the passenger – difficult, since I was standing on the driver’s side. Later, I crouched guarding a hallway, ready to defend the team as they hacked into a computer. I sat there twenty seconds waiting for enemies only to turn around and find that my comrades had wrapped up and moved on without a single word. Every mission was like that, and most of the time I had no sense of the plan, our objectives, or even what equipment we carried until two seconds before we were supposed to use it. There’s an old military joke about officers that treat their men like mushrooms, feeding them shit and keeping them in the dark – that’s pretty much how I felt playing Call of Duty: Ghosts. Even at the end when Hesh tells his comrades to fire artillery at the train you’re both riding, he gives the order over the radio before telling you about the plan.
Hey Hesh – I’m right here buddy. Maybe want to run that by me and see if I have any concerns about, you know, you ordering our deaths. Kinda a breach of etiquette, considering I’m your brother.
But what’s really tragic about Call of Duty: Ghosts is how this follower mentality exemplifies the game as a whole. Rather than taking the lead and showing initiative, the campaign instead sticks close behind previous games in the series, creating a messy collage made up from better games and movies. There’s expanded space and underwater sequences ripped from MW3 and Black Ops II by way of Moonraker and Thunderball. There’s plane hijacking that’s itself hijacked from The Dark Knight Rises. And, ironically enough, a mission that takes place in a sandblasted Las Vegas that looks suspiciously like Dubai in Spec Ops: The Line. It’s all rehash, and apart from the brief dog sequences, it tastes like microwaved leftovers.
For Call of Duty, a successful transition to next-gen will probably mean a shakeup in their formula. With the processing power new systems can call down, there’s no excuse for sequential follow-the-leader gameplay or maps that funnel you into tight corridors even when you’re outdoors. (Something’s amiss when a game makes floating in space feel claustrophobic.) Perhaps the series is showing its age and the same tricks don’t work. Or maybe Ghosts came out half-baked due to the next-gen console launch. Odds are we’ll never know exactly what went wrong.
But whatever happened, I hope the next Call of Duty strikes a new path and chooses to lead, not follow.