Ten years is a long time for any game franchise to be around. And with that achievement being reached for Call of Duty, I’m starting to feel old, having played each main entry in the series and noted its moments of evolution and nuance since its inception. And that term “evolution” is the sticking point for many detractors of the series as it remains the AAA-budget gaming equivalent of a money printer whilst its “best” promises the next iteration is able to sell for itself upon announcement were simple things like a dog squad mate and fish that move out of the way when swimming towards them. For someone like me who’s tended to show appreciation for the varied minutiae of the series in the past, to a very lenient degree some may suggest, there’s something about Call of Duty: Ghosts that makes me less enthusiastic to review it. What made Black Ops II display the rust accumulated all the more obvious was in the unrefined additions to the series; here, it’s the stark contrast with different components feeling well-polished by just staying par for the course across almost every avenue, making it marginally less enjoyable yet…not that bad either.
The storyline of Ghosts is a new continuity beginning in a war-ravaged America that’s been all but defeated after their orbital superweapon station (known as ODIN) has been momentarily hijacked from a newly-minted South American superpower known as ‘The Federation.’ Ten years later, the main playable character, Logan Walker, and the rest of ‘The Ghosts’ are tasked with spearheading a number of missions into enemy territory ranging from data extraction to good ‘ole fashioned sabotage in order to bring this stalemate to an end and win the war.
I suppose the first thing that flies out in the face of any passerby is the unbelievable notion that a conglomerate of South American countries would ever bother doing this, making the jingoistic qualities that come embedded within most modern military shooters all the more apparent in this special case. And when it comes to the stretched notions of foreign bad guys in games past, I’m all the more tempted to compare and contrast Homefront and Ghosts. Even though the idea of North Korea, a country so small with so many near-starving citizens, going on such a land-grab spree across parts of Asia and crippling the US’ forces by ~2030 in Homefront’s premise is very implausible, the amount of dedication the story has to present its darker cinematic moments (like the Half-Life 2-esque beginning) in such a straight-faced manner and putting a backstory about fictionalized geo-political events of the future through collectibles showed something Ghosts lacks: conviction. It’s easy to scoff at Homefront’s foundation, for sure, but there’s this strange appeal to it—as if Mulius had some fever dream and had to chalk up some excuse to purchase more sentry turrets around his property—that embraces that ludicrousness in such an earnest way without completely ignoring a touch of parody here and there, like that one Texan you followed around for most of the game you could identify due to that ginormous belt buckle and the quasi-lampooning found in some of the line deliveries. Within this Steven Gaghan-penned (Traffic, Syriana) Ghosts storyline, however, indifferently tossing in a South American-based enemy and then contextualizing a level that’s structurally akin to playing as a kill-on-sight border patrol agent makes the undertones a bit more frightening than usual due to the fact that I’m legitimately curious as to whether or not the designers actually thought this all through. Things get a bit testier when the antagonist is revealed to have defected from his American loyalties only after The Federation used advanced torture methods adopted from Amazonian tribes.
So, once again, we’re given a vaguely-defined American invasion plot and sought out to fight another vaguely-defined army of bad guys, with a smidgen of more questionable material impelling us to fight them. But the good about these kinds of unbelievable setups is actually due to the fact at how much easier it is to suspend your disbelief by something like this actually occurring, giving the plot a more fantastical dimension than its Modern Warfare counterparts. Another plus is the narrative focusing on your family with your brother, Hesh, acting as your usual squadmate and your father, Elias, as your commanding officer that always talks about The Ghosts. So, there’s distinct advantages in this new universe: it's easier to settle into what’s occurring, the family ties bolster narrative effect, and this group known as Ghosts adding a sense of wonder early on; the problem comes by the game exchanging those opportunities to craft distinctive character in favor of the series’ own expected, yet still exciting, clichés.
And now there’s a dog too. Even though it may be an extra that looks like it’s begging to be harmed during this campaign for obvious reasons, I still thought this Kevlar-cushioned German Sheperd, named Riley, had hopes to put a little pizzazz into the emotional part of the story. Dogs can be an effective way of eliciting some kind of reaction from an audience—cheap as some may consider them, but here the opportunities of even using him during gameplay are underutilized and the game seems content with brushing him aside quickly and just forgetting he exists altogether.
All in all, the story just doesn’t have any kind of invigorating quality to it despite initially having the fleeting chance of being something fresh for the series. Instead, this rebranding isn’t really trying to mask its intentions of keeping to the series’ penchants; and that puts it at a disadvantage from its last iteration from both a story and storytelling perspective. Sure, there are probably more story-to-gameplay translational foibles within BOII because of added choices, but it and other nitpicky complaints I may have raised back then still showed it was legitimately trying to put those new possibilities at the forefront as much as possible. Here, this roller coaster of a ride simply can’t help but feel a bit lesser than COD’s previous because of how run-into-the-ground those tropes have become. As this franchise has been growing older, the release of a new continuity seemed like the best time to craft a campaign with a more relaxed pace that eases players into this new world and provides more time for flavorful, nuanced writing punctuated with more quiet, atmospheric moments in this post-apocalyptic America.
Graphics aren’t exactly going to wow anyone until the high-octane, Michael Bay moments rear their head at least once during every mission. Since it’s gravitating towards the post-apocalyptic flavor, across the campaign and multiplayer, there’s a consistency of that tired grayish tinge sapping into the color palette quite often (even the cut scenes consists of a black ink art style for the animations) and there's less fascinating artistic designs here compared to BOII’s futuristic locales; however, I’d certainly be remiss to forget just how wide-ranging the amount of settings are present. Land, air, sea, and space are all here to some degree, to the point of the locales feeling as varied as a music album. But if there’s one thing that seemed surprising to me was actually in seeing a small aspect such as facial animations looking noticeably worse than BOII. As what seems to be the case with each new one, though, there’s a bundle of subtle improvements—like some rather good animations for Riley, but it once again runs into that problem of having to polish up such an old engine. Even though it’s impossible for me to grapple onto the complaints of things like textures, anti-aliasing, and such due to understanding that sacrifice in order for a higher framerate to support the twitchy, instant gratification the gameplay identifies itself as, I can’t outright defend that when knowing just how seasoned that defense is getting. ‘Tis high time to change those innards.
As what seems to be a running theme across this review, sound doesn’t exactly reach the same level of quality compared to its predecessor. Despite Hollywood talent like Stephen Lang (Avatar) and Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) providing voice talent, the whole overly-gruff machismo that’s expected to be here actually sounds a bit more robotic this time around. For example, a huge plot reveal in the story shows your brother indifferently responding with something like “Oh, wow. I’m very surprised” (not verbatim). Even without the liberties that BOII took for its settings, the David Buckley-composed soundtrack is still an extensive and euphonious work that adequately captures the stealthy and all-out action set pieces. On technical design, there’s much evidence of play-testing cleaning up practically any sound-related bug issue and the roster of weapons sound a bit more convincing; however, with an elephant in the room, viz. the competition, it’s obviously rungs below what the ‘explode-y and shoot-y sound maestros’ at DICE have been able to craft.
Since I’ve noted similarities with the story and technical visual/audio aspects of this game to its precursors, it’s no surprise Ghosts is also very familiar when it comes to mechanics. You know what you’re getting by now: a game filled to the brim with various novelties that act to compliment the coined “stop-n-pop” shooting. Taking the most out of the high production values afforded to these campaigns, spectacle and polish are married with tight direction and solid pacing in order to counterbalance the linear design. As familiar as it is satisfying, this roller coaster ride has some fun moments while also showing off the weaknesses of this post-COD4 formula.
When looking back at this series’ tenth anniversary, it’s interesting to see just exactly where the strengths in the post-Modern Warfare set pieces lie in contrast to pre-Modern Warfare ones, despite the mechanics being similar. Illusion of adaptation is central to making worthwhile scripted events; they need to be able to adapt but also raise the stakes and contextualize this target shooting in order for the player to not feel as though the game's messing with them. For the pre-Modern Warfare titles, the open ranges littered with enemies felt dynamic yet subtly-directed. For whenever there was moments of infinitely spawning enemies, breaking through that invisible wall to stop it felt draining due to how protracted and demanding the fights were. Now, the large firefights are actually the flattest parts of the series due to how the means of progressing typically isn’t tied in with gunplay at all but rather shoe-horned vehicular-based gimmicks. Even beyond those big battles, a few other design elements don’t seem to have much effort put into them. There are a couple of fun turkey shoots set in space, which sounds cheesy to think about thanks to Moonraker but the science behind this is actually really neat. You can shoot guns in space but there are the hazards of flying backwards when firing and bullets/bullet casings whipping around Earth’s orbit and hitting you from behind. Instead of using the physics in a way to make it more exhilarating, i.e. “something like Gravity’s level of realism but with lots of shooting," these sections just feel like the underwater mission but in a different skin. And before you know it, those missions are over.
Where the bread and butter of the post-Modern Warfare COD campaigns comes from is in the moments of tighter narrative control and the small, focused sections that bring out that adrenaline high like when you’d use to (or still do) pretend breaching and clearing rooms in your house. It’s strange to give those sections credit since the internet seems to aim a great measurement of vitriol towards those hand-holding segments; yet at the same time, everyone seems to like the “All Ghillied Up” mission. Ghosts’ campaign encapsulates a bunch of moments like that in this campaign: there’s a great stealth section where you play as Riley slinking through wreckage and tall grass to stealthily munch on some baddies’ throats, another in which rappelling down a skyscraper at night varies the angles of gunplay, one set in a jungle that’s open-ended design allows you to sneak through a woodland and kill anyone or no one while you’re all alone, a compound raid that has the same setup as a bank heist coupled with a base defense segment later on, and a couple of other treats. What stinks about all of these fun parts though is that they’re all over in between six to ten minutes. You’d think for a subtitle like “Ghosts,” the design would be more elaborate with its stealthy segments so players could hold onto that adrenaline high for much longer or even…smell the roses and take in the scenery for extended stretches of playing time.
Overall, if you still enjoy these macho trips equipped with some fun, ludicrous moments like I still enjoy here and there then Ghosts was probably on your wishlist already and it’s certainly not an offensive time-waster with what you’re getting. Since few developers seem to get spectacle for the FPS template down quite like Infinity Ward, it’s able to wow you often and quite a few missions are immensely satisfying. Even with my previous statements regarding the downgrade from BOII in choices or other gameplay subtleties, like a lack of customized loadouts in the campaign, it’s almost hard to peg the stuff it may be missing because it actually has a lot of elements in place that make it apparent that it genuinely wanted an opportunity to be something else instead of just bolstering what came before it—having “the COD teams” branch out their campaigns differently could actually be the best route to go too. Instead, the real problem for the gameplay here—just like the writing—seems to be more with Ghosts existing in service of the brand. Because of the setting, character, and opportunity present, you’d think Infinity Ward wouldn’t have made its best assets feel as if they’re in such a hurry to leave. If the design allowed me to take everything in at a more lethargic pace and simply relish in all of the better forays into alternative gameplay, this could’ve been another campaign I would’ve really wanted to replay again and again.
On the multiplayer side of Ghosts, there’s a variety of additions and subtractions since both Infinity Ward and co’s previous entry (Modern Warfare 3) and Black Ops II that doesn't quite maintain the same level of lasting appeal.
The first big inclusion to Ghosts is the all-new Extinction Mode. Similar to Zombies, but with less of a mysterious story or any humor behind it (discounting what DLC may contain), Extinction has you and up to three other players decimating a horde of four-legged aliens that have overrun a small Midwestern town. To complete it, someone in the squad will need to carry a drill over to all hives within the area, protect it from the ensuing alien assault, and repeat until getting closer and closer to the hive in the middle of town in order to set off a nuke. The best aspect to Extinction is the high demand for cooperation. Taking fundamentals from the competitive multiplayer, you have select skill loadouts that run the gambit of obvious trappings like giving out exploding ammo or body armor. The preset classes from these loadouts incorporate a good amount of variety for teammates to pick and choose which bonuses would help the squad most in surmounting your objective.
The only problem with this new mode is in just how bare-bones it is, based on content. When looking at new additions to co-op in the two previous iterations, it’s surprising to see this only released with one map, which also extenuates the grind in trying to level up your character to acquire better loadouts. I’m sure some fans didn’t like new additions to Zombies and Spec Ops in years past, but at least there were OPTIONS to pick and choose from. Here, your mileage with this one rests solely on the fact of it being another cooperative shooter emulous of several others out there, even of COD’s own Zombies mode, with scant contextualization of what’s going on during this alien invasion (although DLC is providing some kind of a story to this).
The other option that has some co-op elements is Squads Mode. The setup for the multiplayer component gives you ten different soldiers that can have whatever loadouts you wish for them. These characters can be brought over to Squads where you play as one of them while the rest are AI-controlled bots and face someone else and his/her AI-controlled bots. You can also take on other online players and their AI-controlled squads, if you wish. An upgraded Spec Ops Survival mode returns in the form of “Safeguard” as well that pits you against waves of enemies with up to three other players while upgrading your weapons and killstreaks. Aside from Safeguard though, I don’t quite see the purpose of Squads mode for anyone other than newbies. Sure, you and bots versus your friend and bots sounds enjoyable for a few rounds, but there’s nothing that kept me excited in those bot-type modes for very long.
The competitive multiplayer, the classic FPS equivalent of a Skinner Box set with an innumerable amount of balances and counterbalances that so maddeningly keeps players coming back at all times of the day, is here once again with its own set of changes that are either due to receive a warm welcome or hostility from the community. What’s sure to be a welcome to most veterans is many more kill streaks being based on the ground, such as UAVs now being destroyable Sat Coms that can be placed around various parts of the map to improve radar effectiveness or having a Guard Dog follow you around. There still are still air-based kill streaks higher up the ladder but they don’t seem to be as effective as they used to and don’t demand a special weapon in order to take them down.
With the coming of the Xbox One and PS4 during 2013, there are a few differences between this-gen systems and last-gen systems that extend beyond just having more pixels on the screen and better lighting. Due to the multiplayer maps having varying levels of scripted destruction, it seems like the fluidity couldn’t be maintained with a maximum eighteen player count for the Xbox 360 version (so they say) and has been reduced to a maximum of twelve. This change is fairly substantial especially when considering how much more open certain maps now feel. On the one hand, some battles can feel rather relaxed with less players trotting around and a greater chance of slinking through strategic pathways without enemies spotting you; yet on the other hand, it decreases the manic tension often associated with the maximum level of players I’ve come to know in year’s past.
Adopting the “Pick 10” system from BOII has resulted in a more robust amount of customizations. As previously mentioned, the “create a soldier” option allows you to customize up to 10 unique characters, from their gender, armor, and loadouts. The one aspect that seems unnecessarily complex is the addition of Perk Points (PP), in which perks now have a value to them. You can select several perks worth one PP or a select one or two that are worth more PP. Additional PP can be acquired by foregoing grenades and a secondary weapon altogether. When looking at this extra complexity, it strikes me as a step down from the simplistic, more enjoyable setup Ghosts is taking from.
As the description continues and the review nears its end—finally, quite a lot of what I’m stating is certainly starting to sound like a broken record. Competitive multiplayer remains firmly on a reliable foundation adding more-than-expected maps that feel better-designed and a few new modes that retread a lot of old ground but are modified to be more objective-based. A modification to the Kill Confirmed mode, dubbed “Grind,” has the same concept of dog-tag collecting but also requiring players to deposit them into two “banks” on the map in order for the kills to count; “Cranked” is Team Deathmatch variant where your first kill grants a thirty-second speed boost but you’ll blow up if failing to kill someone else within that timeframe. And on and on it goes. Needless to say it’s still a very safe, bolstered, reliable system that doesn’t do a whole lot to move the series forward on the combative or non-combative side; in fact, it actually took away superfluous stuff such as player-created emblems, replay recording, and League Play.
Fascinating would be the term I’d use when thinking about this conclusion and the one I made last year for Black Ops II. Strange to think the “teach an old dog new tricks” line would actually be more fitting for the previous entry in the COD series rather than the one with an actual dog in it. And yet, it’s still pretty tough to actually call Ghosts a much, much lesser product than that one. The opportunity was there for both of them to disprove naysayers that fatigue was beginning to wear in, but only one of them decided to take steps forward in a plethora of directions while the other just traipsed wherever it felt comfortable. The former (Black Ops II) just stumbled in a few of those new steps to the point of frustration settling in while the latter’s fewer steps did no real offense to anyone. It’s not about gasping for air trying to manage the weight of past successes anymore; it’s now about embodying your past successes.
coolbeans’ *Fresh* Badge