Call of Duty is an institution. With its annual release strategy landing every November without fail for the last nine years, it has built up a following virtually unmatched in the world of entertainment. A series built on a single-player campaign with explosive cinematic set-pieces and perhaps more importantly a hectic multiplayer experience that pumps the body with adrenaline, constantly alert, constantly on the hunt for that miraculous sniping shot or insane kill-streak reward. Call of Duty: Ghosts does not tamper with the formula, fans will receive what they expect yet, with the world moving on to the next generation of consoles, many could perhaps be wanting more and Call of Duty: Ghosts is too formulaic to offer this. It is a victim of its own institution in a world that is quickly moving forwards.
A clear example of this is the single-player campaign. Of course many players pay little to no attention to this section moving swiftly on to the fiendishly addictive multiplayer, which is perfectly viable, but this puts into question the value of the retail copy. Similarly there is a feeling while lolloping through the missions, diving from cover to cover, piercing the heads of lazy enemies that Infinity Ward have paid rather less attention to this section as well.
Sure, it is spectacular without a doubt, throughout the eight or so hours of gameplay the player is barraged with an amazing array of insane setpieces each more grandiose than the last. Usually in charge of the main protagonist Logan Walker, you will find yourself rappelling down the sides of collapsing skyscrapers, avoiding the floods of a breaking dam, swimming the seas with sharks, sprinting across a sinking aircraft carrier with fighter jets flung across your vision and even battling in zero-gravity. At these times it is magnificent and a tribute to the inroads developers have made with technology since the series’ inception.
However so many other sections completely miss the mark, failing not only to impress but also dragging the entire campaign down with it. At one point your hands fall at the controls of an assault helicopter unleashing wave after wave of guided missiles on enemies below. In an attempt to move away from a common complaint that such sections in the series are always on-rails with very little player input, the developers have instead let the player have a degree of control over the direction and flight of the helicopter. This was a mistake. Not only are the controls sticky and unresponsive but there is a feeling that the machine is fighting against you, driving you towards an invisible goal. The freedom is fleeting, an illusion quickly dissipated, leaving behind a dull overextended section that outstays its welcome.
Then there’s the dog. Riley, bless him, who follows our heroes faithfully through a chunk of the campaign, as the world collapses around him. He’s a vicious killer. A click of a button orders a charge into the fray to rip out the throat of a target. Here the game lurches dangerously close to that fearful word ‘babysitting’ as if Riley unfortunately dies, admittedly only after rather suicidal orders, the mission is over. At certain points you ‘synchronise’ with Riley, bizarrely merging your own mind with the canine, taking full control, stalking through the undergrowth, somehow silently taking down enemies with your savage fangs. The result is an underwhelming and unnecessary stealth section that is vastly inferior to the stealth missions in previous Modern Warfare games, an area that Ghosts sadly lacks despite its ethereal name. Riley is a strange addition, and while there’s obvious reasons for his inclusion, it often feels particularly gimmicky compared to any previous release.
The story of Call of Duty: Ghosts was touted as being more personal and affecting than any previous release. Penned by award-winning Hollywood director Stephen Gaghan, writer of Syriana and screenwriter for the excellent Traffic, it seemed like it had potential. Not that anyone will notice: sadly it fails to draw any real emotion and presents a completely underdeveloped, unrealised and at times nonsensical world. It is also hilariously predictable, even for a Call of Duty game, with the only unexpected twist in the entire game disappearing off into the credits.
This plot, which is completely separate to any other release in the series, follows two brothers as they join the titular mysterious team codenamed Ghosts who must attempt to save the United States of America from the clutches of an evil South American agency known as the Federation. Sadly much of America already lies destroyed, flattened by bombs of their own creation launched from a space station meant to protect them from such fate. Intertwined with this rather generic military story is the hunt for Rorke, a man with a surprising knowledge of the Ghost team determined to painfully eliminate every member.
We can assume that the story is meant to feel more personal because the protagonists involved are a family, yet the game never gives the player a chance to really embrace this: the characters barely developed before the bombs drop. Simply calling one of the team your brother or father does not drive the player to have a personal connection to them and having a silent main protagonist only serves to dry the river of emotions further. Meanwhile the rest of the team are forgettable and interchangeable with barely a single distinguishing feature between them. The story lacks strong characters that have been present in previous releases such as Captain Price or ‘Soap’ Mactavish from the Modern Warfare series. In the end it is hard to feel anything for a team that unilaterally slaughters their hostages and cuts through hordes of enemies, even as the game tries to shovel emotions down your parched throat.
Similarly, the potentially intriguing post-apocalyptic world of the future falls completely flat. You may see glimpses of what has become of the great American superpower following the bombings, often filled with heavy symbolism such as a derelict church sliding into off into the sea below or the old decadence of ruined Las Vegas casino halls, but it is never developed. There is virtually no downtime to appreciate the degradation and at no point is there an indication of what has become of civilian life. Sure, it would never quite reach the desolation of Fallout or Metro 2033, but at times Call of Duty: Ghosts feels as if it is deliberately avoiding any depiction of American suffering or hardship, despite it being the premise for the entire plot.
In the end, perhaps rather predictably, the single-player campaign of Call of Duty: Ghosts is an exhilarating cinematic experience filled with explosions and dynamic set-pieces but with no real meat to draw the player in. The gameplay underlying the missions remains virtually untouched compared to Modern Warfare 3 et al, with enemies still following predictable set routines and the only viable tactic on harder difficulties to simply pick off individual troops while crawling behind cover. It is not a complete failure by any means, there are moments within the campaign that reach awe-inspiring levels, but players who failed to complete or skipped this section entirely in the previous releases will find little reason to attempt it here.
If is of course the multiplayer area that the vast majority of hours will be spent, hunting down opponents and filling them with bulletholes. Here, fortunately, Call of Duty: Ghosts does not fail. Building on what is already one of the most refined experiences in online gaming, it tweaks and twiddles the formula to produce yet another exhilarating result. Fans of any of the more recent games of the series will feel instantly at home as they head out onto the battlefield. As before, each game played will provide experience points which can be used to unlock weapons, equipment, modifiers and perk. The insane amounts of variations and setups of these ensures the player can edit to their heart’s content, even to the extent of having several customisable characters each with an array of loadouts for each game.
It may seem like an unbalanced process in which the gamers who play more games receive potentially better equipment and thus are more likely to dominate, but a few systems ensures it never topples over. Firstly, the matchmaking system which has been developed over the years attempts to stop the lower ranks mixing with those who live their lives through the game. Secondly, there is always the chance that anyone with the best weapons and equipment can be felled by a brilliant / lucky bullet to the head and thirdly, even if the player consistently loses to those with the better setup, they can blame their failure upon this and vow to continue levelling up to reach the same level. It is a brilliantly addictive feedback loop and one that has been powering the Call of Duty Multiplayer section for some time.
As with each iteration of the Call of Duty series the game types that are available across the multiple playlists are altered and amended to provide some freshness to proceedings. The stalwarts obviously remain, the classic Team Deathmatch that the majority of the online population will end up participating in, Kill Confirmed: a spin on the deathmatch where players must collect dog tags from fallen players to score and Domination where players must hold key points of the map. Yet there are plenty more that are either completely new or have been resurrected from older releases. The popular Infected mode returns, seeing a random player starting as a zombie armed only with a knife charged with hunting down the rest. Each successive kill converts the fallen onto the zombie’s team resulting in a hilarious massacre until either all agents are converted or the timer hits zero.
Search and Rescue is an amendment to the excellent Counter-Strike style Search and Destroy, where players must destroy an objective but are only eliminated from play if the enemy collects the dog tags from their body. Indeed this theme of collecting dog tags continues into the Grind mode which sees players having to bank their dog tag kills by depositing them into a scoring zone. Of course, this scoring zone is the least safe area on the map resulting in brilliant dashes to score or a more cautious approach checking every window for a cunning sniper. The heavy concentration on dog tag collection may split the community unused to change, however my own personal opinion is that the game is generally improved by forcing campers out into the open to collect points and adding a greater level of risk and reward to proceedings.
Sadly other modes included may well end up as playlist ghost towns, lacking either excitement or skill. Hunted, for example, sees players dropped into maps completely removed from all their painstakingly created loadouts and armed with just a pistol. They must then attempt to reach airdrops to arm themselves with more suitable weapons. These areas then obviously become death zones as players already armed lie in wait. It is a slow-paced game with little to offer other than the awkwardly entertaining prospect of a pistol showdown every few minutes. Similarly Blitz mode, where players must dart towards a single location in enemy territory to score, often ends up as a complete mess unless both teams are willing to communicate and form strategies. Even if this is the case, matches can fail because of the instantaneous nature of scoring which often makes it near impossible to stop players rushing the goal, particularly on more compact maps. That being said, it does offer some fast-paced fun for those who just want to dive in and have a goal that isn’t simply taking the head from the body of a foe.
Obviously the community will vote with their virtual feet and this may well undoubtedly result in changes to playlists and modes as it has done in the past. The maps, however, tend to remain more consistent with only DLC causing any real changes. Fortunately the maps in Call of Duty: Ghosts are expertly crafted and gloriously detailed, an art that has clearly been honed over the many iterations. Easy to defend camping spots, where players would hide waiting for simple kills, have been all but eliminated, with the designs now tending towards branches on each pathway ensuring that your back is never completely safe. They certainly drive the gameplay towards a faster and more aggressive approach than any previous release.
Highlights within the maps on offer include the fantastic Stonehaven castle that towers above a desolate highland village, instantaneously recognisable and a disturbingly wonderful sight to slaughter around. There’s even a portcullis that can be dropped to allow for more difficult entry into the fort, or even crush people beneath its spikes - an example of the new dynamic map system which alters the layout of the map depending on player actions. Also the map Prison Break with its disparity between jungle and industrial zones is a joy with risky sniping points that can reap rich rewards and tight forest pathways for reaction kills.
Meanwhile the killstreaks and perks follow this similar trend towards more aggressive gameplay. In general they are much less dominant than in previous releases. The assault dogs that used to savage every opponent on the battlefield have been replaced with a single canine who will attack anyone who ventures too close or relentlessly avenge your death if you happen to fall, but in general his use will result in far less kills. Similarly the deadly Hind helicopter is toned down and no longer seems to cause every player to flee for their lives for its duration. The overall result is that killstreaks, while still extremely satisfying and entertaining, tend to have less impact on the scoreline. Personally, as someone who tends to play hardcore modes to remove killstreaks because of their excessive impact, this is definitely an improvement. More interesting are some of the new Support streaks (these are not lost upon death) such as the Oracle GPS tracking system that highlights every enemy on the map for a few moments allowing teams to hunt far more successfully.
The depth, detail and balancing that goes into the multiplayer modes in all Call of Duty games is incredible and is a testament to how popular it now is. Call of Duty: Ghosts will not let the community down with this release. The small changes it has made are generally successful and the maps included more memorable. There is a reason why the series has one of the largest multiplayer followings in the gaming world and undoubtedly Ghosts will continue that trend. Yet, as with previous releases, the package of Call of Duty: Ghosts contains more than simply a single-player campaign and standard online multiplayer. Two further modes are thrown in for good measure.
Squads mode is a strange and perhaps rather unnecessary addition. Each player can build a team of six AI controlled soldiers, each member with their own loadout, the idea to form a well balanced force with short and long ranged weaponry. Once the squad is complete you can then challenge friends’ squads, either while they are offline or in 1 vs 1 battles, with you taking the place of one team member, or if you choose a team of six humans vs an AI squad. Matches are similar in nature and gameplay to the online multiplayer except that bots replace humans. Essentially it’s an offline mode, yet you have to be online to play…
The bots in general are reasonably intelligent, acting like humans, taking time to aim and respond to your tactics. They adjust to your skill level and make fearsome foes or worthy compatriots. However at times the cracks in their non-organic minds show: we witnessed such moronic ideas as placing proximity mines at the end of dead-end corridors where no one would ever wander past or attempting to use shotguns at ridiculous ranges. However the biggest issue with your squad is the lack of communication and control. Unlike the chatter of humans, these robots provide no feedback to their actions and cannot respond to any team tactics you suggest, they simply wander around the map on their own accord hunting for kills.
The idea behind Squads is clearly to provide a playground to experiment with various loadouts and setups as well as a suitable area for novices to hone their skills without having to witness the potentially gruelling online community. It also provides a way of gaining valuable experience for your character (to unlock weapons and equipment) while offline, since anyone choosing to battle your squad gives you points. Other than that it is not clear why anyone would spend much time on this. The games are simply less exciting and impressive than the actual online multiplayer component.
My personal hero and saviour of Call of Duty: Ghosts is the Extinction mode, yet even this has several flaws that outline the overall issues with this game. Think of it as a rather ingenious combination of Valve’s cooperative zombie survival FPS Left 4 Dead and the series’ own Zombie mode. For some unexplained reason, the world has been infested with Starship Troopers-esque aliens (think giant bugs) and your team of up to four heroes is tasked with wiping them out.
Before heading out on this mission you must select the build of your character as well as the equipment they can use, perhaps for example choosing to be a medic who can revive compatriots quickly. Each player has six slots to fill, each with four possible options, so there is a huge array of styles to experiment with. The key to a successful mission is to combine these skills in such a way that every player offers something invaluable to the team. For example you may have an engineer sprinting around setting traps, a tank holding the bugs at bay, a medic providing healing or armour support and a gunner ensuring everyone has enough ammo to survive.
In the disappointingly short single Extinction campaign that comes with Call of Duty: Ghosts (though more is promised through DLC), your team, starting with just pistols, place a drill at slightly randomised locations, holding off the flood of aliens and protecting the machine until it has destroyed the hive. For each hive destroyed or challenge completed (such as taking no damage in a time limit) the characters receive a skill point which is used to level up the build. Money is received for killing aliens and this can be spent on weapons that are lying around the area or preparing traps such as electrified fences (much like Zombie mode in Black Ops).
The key of course is communication and cooperation, informing the team when you are low on health, ammo or screaming when you have been downed. When you have the right group of players the gameplay is horrendously compelling, causing the player to break out in sweat and it feels like a hard workout by the time you are either victorious or have failed dismally. Sadly, just like Left 4 Dead the biggest issue will be finding an organised team of four to play with since, while you can play with less members (no bots here strangely) with the difficulty changing depending on numbers, the balance of the team seems to shatter with any less than the maximum. This is a shame since only two players can play split screen on any console meaning that to have a meaningful game you will have to head online to fill the team.
The single mission - which is split into four main sections, but must be started right back at the beginning every time - ensures that there is a lot of repetition but very little replayability. Once enough experience is gained the player can add relics to the game which ups the difficulty for higher score and rewards, yet it is still essentially the same encounter over and over. Without more missions or an infinite mode the potential of Extinction mode is extremely short-lived and ultimately may end up having less of an impact than the previous Zombie format, despite being the better idea.
The Extinction mode of Call of Duty: Ghosts shows that whilst the developers are keen to experiment and create something marginally unique, they are clearly unwilling to take any risks. The single mission suggests that it was an afterthought or just a money-grabbing approach through DLC. This flows through the rest of the product: The single-player campaign constantly feeling underdeveloped with lifeless characters and an inconsistent world and a Squad mode that will be ignored by most. The multiplayer component is, of course, superb but this has always been the case so it is not much of an achievement to reproduce the same gameplay from years of experience.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is not the next-gen game that people might have hoped for, sure it looks prettier on the PS4 but it is not a game changer, and even on this new console we experienced some slow down and frame rate issues. Not that reviews matter particularly, with the excessive marketing available people will still buy it. And the strangest thing is that they probably should. For a certain type of gamer Call of Duty is always an essential purchase and having access to the latest round of multiplayer provides hundreds of hours of entertainment. Ultimately the institution of Call of Duty will not collapse with this release, it will barely be dented, but unless there is real progress away from its lacklustre approach to single-player, real change in the way it tries to draw in new players or bleed us dry with DLC, as we move onto the next generation we may well have already passed the series’ heyday.