Before Grand Theft Auto V kicked in the door and ended Activision’s stranglehold on sales records, Call of Duty was the end all, be all of cash kings. With Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and subsequent iterations of the game, trends were established that have changed first-person shooters, for better or for worse.
That status as one of the behemoths of the industry has allowed Activision to publish yearly sequels that do little to break away from the formula that made this franchise successful. Plenty of people have sworn off the series because they outright reject this Madden-ization. One question that lies at the center of Ghosts: should reliability supersede innovation?
Start with the campaign. The story is one you’ve all heard before: a silent protagonist is forced into duty by extreme circumstances, the events of his life altered by a series of strange twists and turns. Main character Logan Walker’s opponent is a shadowy organization known simply as The Federation, a name as vague as the motives that drive them. Walker and company have good reason to fight back after The Federation rains hell-fire on America in the early moments of the campaign, but the impetus for the initial attack is less clear.
As the campaign rolls along, there’s just enough character development to keep you invested. Concerns about the story are a little misguided – you don’t go to a Schwarzenegger movie for character development, and you don’t play Call of Duty expecting Bioshock Infinite. The hook has always been the over-the-top set pieces, the fluid gunplay, and the me-against the world mantra of your soldier. Ghosts has this in spades.
Unlike in the past, Veteran difficulty is tough but fair, eschewing grenade spam and flimsy teammates for a robust challenge that never feels cheap. Your squad mates are as good as they’ve ever been, setting up at different choke points and laying down suppressing fire to quell foes that have a tactical advantage over you. It doesn’t work perfectly, and there are several frustrating moments throughout the campaign, but ultimately everything is executed well.
Other than the dog, that is. Activision / Infinity Ward spent a significant amount of time promoting your canine friend since the public became conscious of Ghosts. People were led to believe he would be a key cog in the presentation. Despite the build-up, this section fell short. Riley is likable enough (who could dislike a helpful dog?), but with his abilities on display in just a few short bursts, it’s hard to develop the connection he was likely created to establish.
It’s a small nit to pick, however, and the variety throughout the campaign makes this excusable. Ghosts pushes you into a variety of roles, from tank gunner to helicopter pilot, and does so without feeling forced.
Most people are picking up Ghosts for the same reason they pick up any and every Call of Duty – the multiplayer. It’s the piece of the series that countless developers have tried to replicate, each met with different degrees of success (or failure, depending on your view). Even the iconic Halo series has begun to adopt segments of the COD formula, a testament to the power of the franchise.
Say what you will about the rigidness of the Call of Duty formula, from the gameplay engine to the weapon mechanics, but there’s something to be said for consistency. Ghosts relies on the same mechanics that got people addicted in the first place. Outside of the usual net-code issues that plague these games at launch, the series has picked up right where it left off. Pick your weapons, perks, and killstreaks and jump onto the battlefield.
Whether this is a negative is something left to the eye of the beholder. If you’re looking for a title that’s going to push the boundaries of the FPS genre, search elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a reliable, up-tempo arcade shooter, there’s not a better one on the market. Despite all the copycats in the industry, many if not all who have tried to do what Infinity Ward does have fallen by the wayside as Activision rakes in another billion dollars in sales.
It has reached the point where some of the criticism is unfair. Activision is in a no-win situation in the eyes of many gamers. If they encourage radical change from the developer and it doesn’t pan out, they risk angering a devoted fan base. But by keeping it simple and catering to their large audience, they take heat from critics who want them to do more. Finding the middle ground is a challenge, but Infinity Ward manages to do it well.
There are a fair amount of new and modified game modes that scratch that itch. Cranked stands out as a particularly interesting inclusion. After you get your first kill for a given life, you’re given a speed boost and a 30 second timer. Fail to get a kill during that time, and you’re blown to smithereens. This encouragement of seeking out enemies rather than relying on camping is a welcome push in the right direction.
Likewise for the changes to Search and Destroy, now known as Search and Rescue. While most of the mode has remained the same, players now have the chance to save their teammate’s life by recovering their dog tags a la Kill Confirmed. It adds another dimension to a series mainstay. That’s the type of work Infinity Ward should be focusing on to breathe new life into old reliable.
The modified unlock system is also well thought out. Players purchase all of their equipment and abilities with squad points, a currency earned for completing in-game tasks and field orders. Rather than the traditional method of waiting to reach a certain level to unlock specific items, your earned points can be cashed in for higher level equipment. It’s a blessing for players who know their play-style coming in, and the game still allows for less certain players to rely on the traditional system.
One negative of the robust perk system is that it just feels like there are too many to choose from. This seems like an odd complaint, but veterans of the series will recognize that many of the “new” perks are just derived from once-combined abilities. While the big board of perks gives the illusion of expanded choice, it feels like many only exist for the sake of having more perks. Less is more, as the old saying goes, and this is one spot where the over-the-top nature of the series does it a disservice.
And what’s with the exclusion of a couple series favorites in Hardpoint and Headquarters? Strong additions to the playlist offset this a tad, but getting rid of a classic like Headquarters is misguided. It’s especially curious considering the lack of changes to the Call of Duty engine from game to game. There’s simply no excuse for leaving out popular playlists that the developer has years of experience in coding.
One area where Infinity Ward stepped out of their comfort zone is with the new standalone game mode, Extinction. Looking to stay on even footing with their peers at Treyarch, Extinction is Infinity Ward’s attempt at a Zombies-esque mode geared more toward the co-op crowd.
Extinction is fun, but it’s an ultimately forgettable affair. You know the formula: start with basic weapons, earn cash for upgrades, try to outlive waves of opponents. Extinction switches it up a tad by implementing a drill that you must carry (and protect) from hive to hive, turning it into more of a tower-defense mode, but this is one area where Ghosts feels like it’s the one borrowing from someone else. Your opponents, which look like cheap knockoffs of the Prometheans from Halo 4, do nothing to shed this concern.
Sound and sight wise, Ghosts shows the age of the console it is played on but manages several moments of brilliance that show Infinity Ward did as much as they possibly could to push the dated hardware to its limit. Facial animations are top-notch during the campaign, and several effects, such as the wall of flames you meet during a tanker mission and exploding ice during a chase scene, are extremely well done. There are times when the age of the engine and console rear their ugly head (man the foliage gets ugly) but it’s not enough to detract from the experience.
So where does that leave Ghosts? That answer is fluid depending on your expectations going in. Because of its status as one of the torchbearers for video games in the public consciousness, many feel Activision is milking this cash cow ’til it goes dry, following in the footsteps of once beloved series like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Guitar Hero. That’s a fair criticism and one to monitor moving forward.
But right now, Call of Duty is still king of the arcade shooter market. Fans know what they’re getting from the series, whether it’s Infinity Ward or Treyarch at the helm. This hasn’t changed with Ghosts. There are a few cosmetic changes and a shortlist of pros and cons, but ultimately this is the game millions of people line up in droves to buy, year in and year out.
First-person shooter enthusiasts should look elsewhere if they want a title that’s going to challenge the norms of FPS. Titles like Titanfall and Destiny lurk on the horizon as potential candidates to shake up the industry.
For now, Ghosts and the Call of Duty franchise in general have earned their place on the top perch. This is a faithful sequel in a long line of fun games, and ultimately that’s all that matters.
*The Author was provided with a free copy of this game for the XBox 360 for review purposes