It’s another fall season, which means another Call of Duty. For those unfamiliar, the franchise switches its primary developer from Infinity Ward and Treyarch to put out a new game each year, and this year we’re back in Infinity Ward’s hands. Both of the talented teams have their merits, Treyarch tends to take more risks, some of which really pan out like Nazi Zombies, while Infinity Ward has an undeniable passion for crafting its marquee series. We’ve seen plenty of other titles trying to mimic and ape the feeling of Call of Duty, but no one handles the tightly crafted spectacle better.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is set in the not too distant future, and it actually divorces itself from the existing Modern Warfare storyline, with perhaps the only conceit to familiarity in the story being the Ghosts adopting a similar style to the fan-favorite character from the series. It’s a necessary fresh start, but unfortunately everyone gets upstaged by Riley, the dog, who ends up being the most interesting addition.
To its credit, at least the enemy isn’t the dastardly Russians again. Ghosts is a little disjointed in some of its set-up, but through the various cut scenes and flashback missions you’ll get the big picture together – I understand wanting to get into the action but the setup could have been handled a little more smoothly. The Middle East is decimated, leaving many of the world’s superpowers starved for the oil they need to operate. During this rapid geopolitical shift, radical military elements consolidate South America as “The Federation”. Then several years later the Federation stages a raid that puts them into control of the US’s Orbital Defense Intuitive, or ODIN, space based weapon satellite, and they use it to hammer the southern portion of the US in order to soften it up for invasion.
The whole basic premise has a few key grains of important believability to it: several South American countries’ primary export is already oil, so it’s not outside of the realm of possibility they could emerge as a new superpower. And kinetic space-based weapons have already been theorized, something big enough dropped from space imparts a massive amount of force even without a nuclear warhead. The only problem the story has is that it can’t quite seem to decide on a tone. The game starts out in the almost post-apocalyptic devastation of southern California, and framing the entire story as the scrappy holdovers of the American military complex could have been an interesting angle, but by the end, despite being told that we’re putting everything on the line, it hardly feels like you’re keeping everything together with spit and duct tape when you’re taking part in a massive fleet battle.
The characters themselves are mostly throw-away military badasses, hence why Riley the dog steals the show. Ghosts tries to set up some interesting characters interactions by having three of the primary characters be a father and his sons, but the bond just doesn’t quite follow very well. It’s almost laughable that one of the brothers seems to care more about the dog than his own brother. Granted, Riley is pretty badass himself, the sections where you control him and maul through soldiers is quite satisfying, not to mention when he takes down a helicopter. Yes, that actually happens.
The gameplay follows much of the same style for Call of Duty campaigns. You follow team mates to objectives, watch a set piece unfold and then rinse and repeat. It sometimes hard to tell how much in control of the action you are until the game sometimes comes to a grinding halt. What happens is that nothing advances until that last enemy soldier is killed, which can seem doubly damning when the soldier in question is just cowering behind cover not doing anything with you 2 feet away. The one avenue that Infinity Ward continues to excel at is constantly shifting your perspective of the action. These brief moments of controlling a drone strike or a remote control sniper rifle give just enough variety to break up the normal gameplay without dragging you through the morass of “here’s the vehicle level” – though Ghosts has those too.
As a pure 5 to 6 hour thrill ride, you’re probably not going to be disappointed. Cities are flooded, buildings collapse, oil rigs explode and the whole time you’re trapped in the middle of that chaos. There are even a few extended shifts in the gameplay that are well developed. One section is sort of the bog-standard stealth mission, but it takes place underwater – complete with enemy divers and sharks. Little details like shooting out ballast balloons to sink a piece of cover shows that just a little bit of extra effort was put into them.
While the singleplayer is painting by the numbers for the series, the multiplayer has seen the greater bulk of changes and refinements with plenty of new modes and gameplay mechanics. Ghosts is a trim and fast paced experience, which has honed its particular brand of action. One of the simplest improvements has been an overhaul of the animations and movement. Characters will more fluidly vault over cover, the “dolphin dive” has been replaced with a slide and there’s contextual leaning for when you aim down sights while near the edge of cover.
Multiplayer character customization has always been at the center of the modern Call of Duty franchise, and Ghosts works off last year’s Pick 10 mechanic to even better effect, giving you greater freedom to craft a suite of soldiers to your liking. Rather than work off preexisting slots to equip weapons and perks to, you’re given much greater freedom to pick and choose. Want to have an extra perk? Simple forgo carrying except perhaps your secondary weapon into combat. The perk system itself has also been revamped and each perk is now worth a certain number of points in order to equip it and this has given the developers a lot greater freedom for creating and balancing perks. A 5 point perk can have a much more noticeable effect than say a 2 point one. This challenges you to decide between a small number of powerful perks or a more varied selection of smaller impact ones. Of course, you could always join the fight with just a knife and be able to have pretty much any suite of perks you want. Also it’s worth noting that you can finally play as a female soldier in multiplayer now, something that probably shouldn’t be that noteworthy but given how little it’s possible in multiplayer shooters, the devs still deserve some kudos for it.
Other improvements include the addition of new weapons and kill streaks. Marksmen rifles bridge the gap between assault rifle and sniper rifle for folks looking for that style. Riley even makes an appearance as a kill streak reward in the multiplayer, and once summoned he’ll follow you around – alerting you of enemies close by with a growl and attacking them, often triggering “Martyr-dog” for mauling the person that just killed you. Maps include much greater interactivity – certain sections of walls can be destroyed, gas station pumps can be toppled or a gate can be open or closed. The focus is more about how these smaller dynamics change the map and its cover – it’s not quite Battlefield levels of destruction though one of them does change the entire landscape. Some of these dynamic changes are only accessible through the new field orders system; enemies will occasionally drop little blue pickups which will challenge you in a specific way, like get two kills while prone or jumping. Completing the field order will give you a supply drop to call in. It’s not a huge impact but field orders are another clever way the game keeps the multiplayer action from feeling routine.
The developers stated that something like 75% of all matches are Team Death Match, but that didn’t stop them from coming up with a bunch of new game modes for everyone to enjoy. Not all of them are standouts, but they can still be fun as a diversion here and there. Grind plays a bit like Kill Confirmed, where you need to grab dog tags in order to score a kill, but now you actually have to take your accumulated tags to scoring zones. It messes with the interplay of being on the move and camping by requiring run and gun to get points, but it also funnels the action to specific points on the map. Infected is one of the modes that probably won’t stand the test of time, but it’s mildly amusing in that all the players start the game with the same shotgun loadout and one is randomly selected to be the first infected. The infected try to well, infect, the other players until there is no one left. You can either hide it out and hope to score your points by being the last one standing or more actively hunt the infected. The goofy game modes still play in important part in the rotation for giving you something to do that’s outside the norm of endless matches of TDM.
If you like a more run and gun style of game, the Cranked multiplayer mode is definitely for you. Killing an enemy causes you to get cranked, which makes you aim, run and reload faster but also starts a countdown timer for you. If the timer reaches zero before you’ve killed again then you explode. It’s a fast, frantic and quite fun mode to fire up, especially if you have disdain for all manners of camping. There’s also these great moments when your timer is almost expired and you’re desperately trying to find an enemy to kill. It’s no surprise that Cranked is at its best on smaller game maps.
In addition to the regular multiplayer offerings, Ghosts has been stuffed with additional features and gameplay. Extinction feels very much like Infinity Ward‘s response to the popularity of Nazi Zombies in the Treyarch Call of Duty games. Currently there is only one map, but a squad of players is challenged to work together to eradicate a monstrous infestation. There’s some light RPG elements as players are required to choose from a few classes and what upgrades they can purchase. It doesn’t have quite the charm or gameplay built up that Nazi Zombies has right now. It could use a bit more randomization, but it’s still fun to get a few friends together and try and hold off the horde.
Call of Duty: Ghosts throws a lot of stuff at the walls and attempts to see what sticks. In addition to the campaign and multiplayer there’s now Extinction, Squads, Clans Wars and more. There’s a little bit of everything to be found here and it’s all built on the foundation of a fast paced shooter. With so much customization over your character and routes of play there’s probably something for everyone in Ghosts.
Bottom line: While the singleplayer gets upstaged by a dog, the multiplayer comes at you from so many angles that you’ll inevitably find something to enjoy.
Recommendation: Infinity Ward expertly tweaks the dials to give an even more refined Call of Duty experience.[rating=4]
This review is based primarily on the PS4 version of the game and much of the play time was derived from a review event organized by Activision.
Game: Call of Duty: Ghosts
Developer: Infinity Ward
Platform(s): PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)