Think he's regretting that second mortgage?
Well, it finally happened. After eight years of annualized releases, the Call of Duty franchise under Infinity Ward’s guidance has reached a point of entropy – a point of stagnation where its marginal improvements no longer set the series apart from shooters that rode Modern Warfare’s coattails. In fact, Call of Duty: Ghosts proves that, by removing a branching narrative and confounding the Pick 10 multiplayer system of Black Ops II, you can't teach an old dog new tricks.
In this alternate timeline, because Russia and the Middle East had too much character, South America’s countries united under one banner, The Federation, to … umm … why did they attack U.S. soil? The tutorial insists The Federation broke some peace treaty before initiating orbital strikes on its northern neighbor. For what cause exactly? It appears Infinity Ward cares less about its enemies than the protagonists.
The campaign can’t decide whether it wants to showcase a war on all fronts or examine its effects on a single family. The space bombings interrupt Elias Walker’s bonding time with his sons Hesh and Logan, who you control, as he recounts the savage birth of the Ghosts – how, outnumbered ten to one, a dozen soldiers hid among the sand and corpses of their comrades and cut down an opposing force with their bare hands.
Ten years and less than a third of the story later, however, The Feds shift from America’s oppressors to witless drones you bury bullets in. In a war the U.S. lost before it even began, the developers squander the Homefront vibes (the good ones). You never fight on the defensive or beat a hasty retreat. Instead, Rorke – a Ghost that dear old dad sacrificed (allegedly) for the rest of his squad – pursues a personal vendetta against his former specters while Hesh and Logan play catch-up.
While the story could have taken place in the future, we're likely to be stuck in the present for Ghosts 2.
Inarguably, the campaign refrains from making a lick of a sense, setting the bar so low that genre competitors might trip over it. The Ghosts’ bloody backstory held my attention, but Rorke’s paper-thin ambitions lack more detail than some of the PS3 version’s textures. At least half the missions left me wondering, “Why are we here again?” And most emotional seeds never take root. Betting on the sentimentality of an elite military family doesn’t pay when 1) your hero’s mute and 2) when they murder hundreds of people in cold blood.
“B-b-but they do it with such style!” I can hear some cry. True, Infinity Ward propels its set pieces into overdrive. Shootouts explore foreign frontiers underwater and in space, and driving a tank that could set lap records around the Nürburgring ratchets up the adrenaline. I also parkoured across a sinking aircraft carrier, leapt from an oil rig gone nuclear, outran the torrential flood of a burst dam, and dove over a waterfall after assassinating soldiers Predator-style. Call me slack-jawed. After the plot squandered its setup, the action's minute-to-minute insanity mitigated my disappointment. (My favorite mission ends as a massive skyscraper topples sideways, launching Logan and company towards the streets below, mid-firefight.)
I could list another dozen awe-fueled moments – the canine Riley fighting a helicopter, for one. I could list a dozen mistakes as well, which includes Riley’s limited role. You control man’s best friend for one mission; otherwise he waits at Hesh’s beck and call. So does Logan apparently. “Take the shot, Logan.” “Set the charges, Logan.” “Start the hack, Logan.” Can Logan tie his shoes or cook breakfast without a For Dummies book? Whereas Black Ops II altered narrative events according to your actions, Ghosts reverts to a strict game of follow the leader, even if the stealth sections ooze with phobic unease. Sharks patrol open waters and wolves roam ashen forests. Man is not the most dangerous animal here.
Number one rule: never look down.
The only sign that Infinity Ward ventured outside its wheelhouse is the cooperative Extinction mode. Four players confront an alien infestation taking over a small farming town, with a batch of abilities unavailable in Treyarch’s Zombies. The class system lets exterminators lay down ammo, build turrets, and pay for air support as they push towards the town center one alien hive at a time. The fidgety animations of the extraterrestrial insects also make them an exciting mobile threat, climbing up walls and spitting acid from rooftops while a drill weeds out their nests.
The abilities alter how conservative or aggressive players must be. Aliens swarm en masse, but accomplishing objectives – getting 25 shotgun kills, keeping accuracy about 50 percent, etc. – hands out skill points for ability upgrades, allowing you to refill everyone’s firearms fully, place turrets that deal explosive damage, and so on. Though upgrades do not persist from lobby to lobby, I felt like an alien-slaying badass by each match’s end. With multiple automated sentry guns, my friends and I simply kicked back and watched the bugs fry.
The catch: Once beaten, Extinction’s single map lacks a level of replay on par with multiplayer. Matches still rely on map control and peak reflexes. Except, Infinity Ward retooled the loadout customization, and I can’t name a feature that justifies it for the better. Players outfit ten soldiers with separate heads, gear, and title cards, yet none of the cosmetics matter. You never see the visual changes in-game.
"Sick duds, bro! Those shotgun shells will totes come in handy with that SMG."
I care for the perks system even less. Every ability has a separate point value, from one to five. In Black Ops II, every attachment, weapon, and skill cost a point – a quick, clean system for modifying loadouts in seconds. In Ghosts, removing guns and grenades lets you equip extra perks, though the staggering amount (35 all told) will scare off those looking to experiment. The developers eliminate the thrill of progression, too. Ranking up is arbitrary, since players purchase unlocks once they have enough points. Ghosts is the first Call of Duty I quit at level 15, so congratulations there.
Infinity Ward pruned its air-based killstreaks by the way. With the exception of a predator missile or remote drone, most kill rewards concentrate fire on the ground. The Sat Com (UAV) pings enemies in your team's line of sight, ammo crates let friendlies resupply or grab a random weapon, and a guard dog avenges you upon death. Frankly, it was freeing no longer worrying whether I’d be target practice for a harrier or chopper gunner hovering overhead.
Spawn-killing has not been eradicated completely, of course. It never is. I cannot finish a match without materializing in some opponent’s scope at least three or four times. The developers removed Ground War, my most frequented playlist, from current-gen consoles, too. Large maps like Stonehaven need that increased player count, be it to watch teammates’ backs or cut down on the minutes they spend aimlessly searching for signs of human life.
Maps will never looks this chaotic on the Xbox 360 or PS3.
Several gametypes already find themselves on their deathbeds. A mash-up of Search & Destroy and Kill Confirmed, Search & Rescue encourages cooperation, reviving anyone whose allies collect their dog tags. Infected pits humans against knife-wielding zombies, but once human numbers dwindle, the final minutes turn into a manhunt as the last person standing blatantly prolongs their end. Halo fixed the issue by marking survivors. Would it really have been so hard for Infinity Ward to do the same?
Moving on, Cranked increases run and reload speeds after every kill. Fail to get a kill every 30 seconds and you implode. Cranked cripples the idea of working together, since players fight to keep their own timers ticking. And right now, the mode favors shotguns (pro tip). Still, I gravitated towards Hunted. Everybody starts with a pistol, and random care packages drop custom weapons. Hunted keeps friend and foe mobile, and that same randomness balances out the skill gaps for newcomers, ensuring mish-mashed individuals stand a chance against high-ranked groups. If only more people actually played it.
If only more people were enjoying Squads, too. Players take their customized soldiers into bot matches against others, earning experience asynchronously. The bots even mimic player behavior, like dropshotting opponents, though they rarely miss when they have you scoped.
Mercifully, underwater combat is a single-player only deal.
While not revolutionary, Ghosts gains a proper Horde mode, called Safeguard, in the absence of the abysmal Spec Ops. Federation lackeys assail teams of four, with random weapons, killstreaks, and perks supplied intermittently (Hunted against bots, basically). Players level their guns with each kill, earning greater damage boosts to combat infantry, dogs, and juggernauts across multiple waves. After two matches, my allies and I were looking for the best vantage points, funneling enemies into kill zones, and spreading out during supply drops to maximize our rewards. Alluring as Nazi Zombies may be, Safeguard is Call of Duty co-op at its finest.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is a king without a crown, a fish without a hook, a dog without its bite. After Black Ops II’s daring refinements to nudge single-player and multiplayer in new directions, playing Ghosts is not unlike the year following Modern Warfare, where World at War returned to the much-abhorred World War II. Now, the tables have turned, and Ghosts is the one stuck in the past. The developers meet that fluid, 60 frames-per-second benchmark. But at what cost? Ignoring Treyarch’s improvements? Diehard Call of Duty fans will pour their lives into everything Ghosts; for the rest of us, the appeal is ephemeral.
Developer: Infinity Ward
Release Date: November 5, 2013
Number of Players 1 (Campaign), 2-4 (Cooperative), 2-12 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: PlayStation 3 (Reviewed), Xbox 360, PC, Wii U, Xbox One, PlayStation 4