Another year, another iteration from the Call of Duty franchise rears its head; this time, in the form of Call of Duty: Ghosts. The series is renowned for dividing the gaming community, with new variants of the game spilling from the programming masterminds, staffed at the development studios of Treyarch and Infinity Ward, on an annual basis.
The big-budget military shooter is much maligned by certain cynical factions, who proclaim each new game to be a lazy rehash of its predecessors. Meanwhile, on the flip-side, millions of expectant Call of Duty fanatics are quick to defend their beloved past-time, replete with its high-octane action (I promise not to use that term again) and a dizzying array of dramatic set-pieces.
From a personal perspective, I find myself straddling the fence, somewhat. Common sources of grievance within the community tend to center around stagnant gameplay, ambiguous plotlines and excessive use of set-pieces and quick time events.
Whist there is no denying that many of these issues are becoming increasingly relevant, with each passing year, I always find myself picking up the next Call of Duty game and enjoying what it has to offer. Sure, many of the afore-mentioned factors are credible bugbears and the series may not be the most cerebral, but it has never pretended to be anything else. Likewise, there is no denying the appeal and following that the franchise has garnered.
When a gamer procures a Call of Duty game, in many ways, they know exactly what to expect. This seems to be one of the series’ greatest strengths and one of its greatest flaws. With astronomical sales figures, year after year, the developers face a difficult predicament; do they try and fix something that, on the surface of things, does not appear to be broken? Or, despite their repeated success, should they listen to the criticism that they face from their many detractors?
Call of Duty games have always felt like solid, well-rounded experiences, and the development teams are often not credited enough for just how polished their games truly are; this becomes all-the-more apparent when considering the fleeting development cycles that Infinity Ward and Treyarch are subjected to. From a technical standpoint, they might not currently revolutionize the first-person shooter genre, but they have a knack for consistently delivering an entertaining experience with fluid controls and responsive, satisfying feedback.
But, the reality of the situation is clear; the franchise has endured for over a decade, with releases interminably piling in, thick and fast, each year. Without some new change in direction, and with ever-mounting criticism revolving around the game’s stagnation, the developers run the risk of “Call of Duty fatigue.”
The question is: have the developers leeched off the back of previous titles with Ghosts, remaining firmly stuck in their ways, or have they served up something genuinely new and improved, in terms of the single-player campaign?
Release Date: Nov. 5, 2013
Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC, Wii U
Reviewed Platform: PC
Developer: Infinity Ward
Retail Price: $60
Call of Duty: Ghosts, just like its forerunners, doesn’t shy away from the big, bold set-pieces and theatricalities; a brief synopsis of the plot substantiates this point. Ghosts is set during a period when the Middle East has been laid to waste, following the launch of a nuclear weapon. An assembly of South American nations unite under a single banner, called the Federation, and an unfortunate cascade of events is subsequently set in motion.
The storyline suffers from several problems. Firstly, it is severely lacking in terms of density, with relatively sparse explanatory sequences, interspersing sections of the campaign’s core gameplay. Another issue is that Ghosts drop-kicks the main protagonist into the action, before being able to collect their bearings, in an attempt to artificially drive the action onward. For most of the game, this is really a non-issue, but it would have been far more effective if the developers had introduced a slower buildup to crisis point. Allowing some of the action to ebb and flow would have gone a long way to preventing the player from becoming saturated with overwhelming blockbuster action and explosions. This issue is partly mitigated by some clever level design, however, presenting stealthier gameplay options at much-needed junctures.
Ultimately, the Federation seizes the opportunity to launch large-scale attacks across key areas of Central and North America, crippling these unsuspecting regions and leaving untold destruction in their wake. Alas, what is not abundantly clear is precisely why the Federation has merged to form a villainous super-power, hell-bent on creating carnage and propagating mayhem across the country. Initially, I imaged I had purely missed something during my playthrough, and I began furiously hunting down the information from other newspaper outlets, reviewers and bloggers; unfortunately, the same level of confusion was evident across the board.
Regardless, you fill the military boots of the voice box-less Logan Walker, tasked with commanding a defense force that safeguards the local area, before marching onward to become an elite ghost operative under your father’s instruction, with brother Hesh in tow.
From the perspective of character development, Call of Duty has never particularly shone in this often-neglected area. However, in a welcome change, Infinity Ward has ditched the incessant switch-up between playable characters, something that further complicated prior plotlines and had a knack of depersonalizing the experience. Logan and Hesh’s brotherly relations could be regarded as a hit and miss affair, but it does represent a more character-driven focus for the series and certainly shows promise for the future.
Although brief, the uniquely visualized exposition dumps are admittedly used to remarkably great effect, with some pretty solid writing. These moments are only occasionally dogged by the odd one or two über-clichéd sentiments and scripting faux pas, but are reasonably competently voice-acted.
Gameplay doesn’t shift too dramatically and adheres to the typical Call of Duty format that we have all come to expect. The game mostly involves bounding across various war-torn locales, tailing your commanding superiors and gunning down waves of enemy hostiles. It’s still the same old frenzied “shooting gallery” level design, deliberately complemented by addictive gameplay and positive feedback mechanisms. The weapons feel great, the action is frenzied and enemies inanely bob around the landscape, providing you with plenty of opportunity to get those viscerally appealing headshots. As on past CoD outings, you remain the equivalent of Rambo on steroids, with the weight of a baby elephant in ammunition stocks strapped to your body, soaking up spitzer projectiles like an unstoppable bullet-sponge.
A number of reviewers have punitively critiqued Call of Duty: Ghosts for not pushing the envelope, stating it to be bland and boring. I would like to categorically state that Ghosts, in the main, is far from boring and introduced some rather novel touches, the likes of which we haven’t witnessed from the franchise before. A prime example is a mission involving covert infiltration of a Federation base, situated around the snow-swept landscapes of the Andes. Masquerading in the uniforms of Federation grunts, the Ghosts casually enter the facility. This leads to one of the game’s most refreshing and enthralling gameplay moments, with the developers showing great command over level design.
Another standout level sees the player hit the rubble-strewn streets of the Venezuelan capitol of Caracas; shattered buildings, half-dilapidated parking lots and make-shift military tents funnel the player along an action-packed journey to capture the leader of the Federation. This type of inflated anarchy is standard fodder for the Call of Duty series; however, the gameplay is pumped up a notch, once you begin trudging through the half-flooded hallways of regional office buildings and clamber over falling rooftops.
One of the most unfortunate, unintended consequences of hurling this veritable Smörgåsbord of enemy units into the player’s firing line is that the action is so furious, and so protracted, that it can often distract from both the ongoing dialogue – often drowned out by gunfire and ricocheting projectiles – as well as some of the gorgeous locations. Call of Duty: Ghosts, as has been heavily touted, has undergone some noteworthy changes in terms of its engine. Lovingly crafted for PCs and next generation consoles, the engine boasts tessellation, sub-division surfaces and markedly improved lighting and physics. Many of the levels are beautifully imagined, from the ethereal lights dancing in the Andean skies, to the visually striking underwater gameplay sections.
Again, the primary issue with the gameplay revolves around Infinity Ward’s insistence on maintaining the same intensity of action, for the duration of the game. There are few points throughout Ghosts where the player is able to catch a breath, eventually leading to fatigue. Very little story is drip-fed throughout the single player campaign’s gameplay segments, making the whole experience feel like a series of levels, with cutscene storyboards calving up the action.
Inevitably, this sometimes makes you feel like you’re merely running through the motions, moving from point A to point B, and so on, until everything just blends together.
Meanwhile, many reviewers discuss the obvious fact that Call of Duty: Ghosts is incredibly linear and is, more often than not, an exercise in “follow the leader.” Whilst this is undeniably true and, at times, has a tendency to grate, I firmly believe there is a place for linear, cinematic shooters like Ghosts, where the action is brought to the player. As a halfway compromise, however, future iterations might want to lose some of the more prolific handholding sections and at least try to make the illusion of choice more convincing.
Space Shoot-Outs and Fishy Friends
It’s also important to briefly touch upon the addition of space and underwater levels, which add aesthetic variety to the single-player campaign. The space level takes place onboard a militarized space station, called ODIN, with zero-G battles playing out in a surprisingly entertaining way, if not cut a little short.
The aquatic level, on the other hand, was a mixed bag. This part of the game is, without question, visually arresting and showcases the new engine in all its glory. With all the settings cranked up to maximum, these scenes are an aesthetic pleasure.
The underwater gameplay starts out quite nicely, and provides one of the rare moments in the game where the action is put on the backburner, reminiscent of the exceptional Pripyat mission from the original Modern Warfare. The shooting areas do little justice to the visuals, however, and the lack of cover has a tendency to frustrate.
Vehicle levels are a marginal step forward for the series. Naturally, you’ll be tasked with the obligatory turret sequence, as you flee the bad guys in an armored vehicle. Similar turret sequences are dotted throughout the entire campaign and, after the umpteenth time of use, begin to lose their appeal.
One of the highlights of vehicle-specific combat involves blasting around an airfield in a overpowered tank, dispatching waves of hapless enemies. The tanks are hilariously fast and allow you to rotate rapidly on the spot, like you’re floating on ice. Irrespective, the level is great fun and doesn’t force the player to sit in a turret and watch events play out passively. These drivable areas are also much more expansive and provide some small semblance of freedom.
Meanwhile, earlier during the game, the player pilots a rather nimble helicopter around a bunch of oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico. Again, the craft’s maneuverability has an unrealistic arcade-like feel to it, but still remains entertaining to control. Unfortunately, this sequence does linger a tad too long and the straightforward mechanic of blowing up enemy vehicles does become tiresome.
The Riley Factor
Throughout the single-player campaign you will also get the opportunity to play a character of the canine variety – Riley. Riley is, of course, the German Shepherd that Activision and co. have been mercilessly droning on about, since the game’s first reveal.
I’m pleased to report, however, that Riley is an inspired addition to the Ghosts team. One of the issues that has always plagued the Call of Duty single-player campaign is the lack of deviation from its conventional run and gun style of gameplay. Increasing the difficulty did not seem to help elevate the level of tactical challenge required, but merely caused you to die at an accelerated rate. Riley goes a small way to ameliorating this issue, if ever so slightly.
Although one’s immediate conclusion is to dismiss Riley as a headline-grabbing PR ploy, this would be a disservice to the cuddly character and his architects. Riley adds a different dimension to the gameplay, allowing gamers to directly assume control of the four-legged companion and coordinate him on the battlefield.
During some of the heated combat exchanges, you can instruct Riley to attack sheltered enemies, cowering behind cover, whilst personally attending to a separate groups of enemies.
After throwing a series of hysterical fits throughout many of the previous Call of Duty titles, when having to deal with hordes of rabid dogs, baying for your blood, it’s finally nice to turn the tables on the enemy.
One of my personal favorite Riley moments, which was originally showcased at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, saw the two brothers dispatching the brutal beast into a building, occupied by enemy troops. Within seconds of throwing him into the fray, the wooden doors burst from their hinges, splinters flying in each direction, as a cluster of terrified guards tumble from the dark recesses of the structure; Riley’s jaws are clamped around one of the flailing guards, as you mop up the remaining contingent.
The primary issue with Call of Duty: Ghosts’ single-player campaign is that it repeats many of the same tried and tested tricks that we’ve experienced before. Many gamers, and reviewers alike, are beginning to rebel, on principal, and it’s partly understandable.
Some of the levels are ripped from previous games, and the occasional set-piece is lifted from contemporary film. The core mechanics remain rigidly stuck in their old ways, whereas the dev team behind Call of Duty: Black Ops II made more of a concerted effort to reinvigorate the franchise.
On the other hand, the team have had to content with programming for next-gen and current-gen platforms, on a tight development schedule. The engine has also undergone a noticeable improvement, whilst vehicle missions and level design have experienced some nice touches, albeit slight. Riley is a fantastic addition to the team, and the single player campaign is a fun romp through some pretty gorgeous settings.
Suffice to say, if you did not appreciate any of the former games, then you might want to give Ghosts a wide birth. For everyone else, who enjoy the over-the-top arcade shoot ’em up series, I would recommend giving the game a fair crack of the whip before condemning it to obscurity, even if you have to wait until it comes down in price.
The game also offers a great multiplayer component, which we plan to discuss very soon, in a separate review.
- Grandiose set-pieces and fast-pacing makes for an enjoyable and addictive experience
- Gunplay is as satisfying and addictive, as ever
- Technical improvements to the engine help showcase some truly beautiful vistas
- Space and underwater levels provide a refreshing change of pace, however transitory
- Riley offers a novel changeup in gameplay and tactics
- Plotline needs fleshing out and clarification
- Enemy AI still lacking in tactical prowess
- More slow-burn sequences would have been effective in breaking up the weighty action
- Some of the vehicle missions drag on for too long and have a tendency to, eventually, become tedious
- Strategy still remains an untapped facet of the series
By James Fenner