Evolution happens slowly, imperceptibly, over many years. Call of Duty, though, has evolved over the course of the last seven years like a science experiment out of control, twisting and shifting shapes, sprouting and losing limbs, changing color. Now, Call of Duty is trying to jump to the next stage of its evolution: the upcoming generation of consoles releasing this week and next.
The biggest challenge for Call of Duty is that it can't just leap blindly; it has the weight of billions of dollars forcing it to keep one foot in the past as it tries to move to the future. This, along with the series' well-known alternating-studio release structure, puts Call of Duty: Ghosts in a strange place. All at once, it has to fulfill the promises of the next generation while living up to the expectations of fans that have gotten used to the series and know its minute details.
It seems like the only part of the game not adversely affected by the generational stretch, for better or worse, is the campaign. It's still the same fun ride it's always been, and ride is definitely the right word for the experience.
Roller Coaster Ride
Ghosts is the start of a new Call of Duty storyline. It puts you in the body of a man named Logan. In the aftermath of a devastating orbital strike by the South American Federation, you and your brother, Hesh, are part of the scattered but apparently still effective United States military.
The over-the-top but somehow still-boring plot takes you from outerspace to the bottom of the ocean and in between, putting you at the controls of a variety of different war machines just long enough to get a taste before moving on.
The parts of the game that took place in orbit were novel and a refreshing change from the brown-and-green palette that makes up most of the story, even if adding an extra hemisphere of danger to keep track of didn't work quite as well as I would have liked.
The story that supports these adventures manages to be even tougher to follow than Black Ops II. The introduction gives you a justification for shooting a bunch of dudes wearing different uniforms, but the justification is never given any back story. The characters you interact with aren't at all fleshed-out, either. Even worse than the mute main character is the villain, whose motivations, beyond being a really crazy guy, are flimsy at best.
After being made infamous in the original Ghosts unveiling, the dog, Riley, ends up being a bright spot that adds variety to the campaign. Sadly, he's one of the more interesting characters, too. He isn't in the game for but a few missions, but as both an attack dog and a stealth character, he adds some positive variety to the game that doesn't involve pulling a metaphorical trigger
The biggest thing missing, though, is the surprisingly elegant branching structure from Black Ops II. The game managed to give you options without presenting them as such. It was a small but effective way to personalize the story a just a bit. Ghosts is, unfortunately, strictly on rails.
The other problem I had with single player—and I think this was more of a problem in Ghosts than in past entries in the series—was discerning allies from enemies. Everyone is wearing Secret Army Guy armor with drab camouflage. I found myself firing at someone only to realize it was one of my buddies that had taken the initiative and ran up ahead.
The campaign is still a fun, if unnecessary, ride meant for the same audience as White House Down and silly action flicks like that.
The real core of Call of Duty: Ghosts is still the multiplayer, and that's still the best part of the game even if it's not the best it's ever been.
The most immediately obvious changes are to how the game handles loadouts and customization. One of the best parts of Black Ops II was Pick 10. Pick 10 made it easy to create a loadout and feel like you would get something playable. Infinity Ward's take on that is Perk Points which changes out deep simplicity for complexity.
While the big modes are still present, some well-liked modes like Ground War and Hardpoint are missing. Some of the new modes on the other hand seem directed at more skilled players and decidedly unfriendly to newer players. Cranked is similar to Team Deathmatch, but it rewards you for being able to kill quickly and in succession. Blitz is sort of like capture the flag, except it's more "get to the flag." It's fun, but didn't have the lasting power of the classics.
Also missing are many of the aspects that more competitive and dedicated players would use. Theater mode—different than the simple DVR functions inherent to the upcoming consoles—is strangely absent. Connection bars for picking the nearest, fastest server have been hidden, as have audio controls to disable music in multiplayer.
One contribution from Infinity Ward I have enjoyed, though, is a focus on killstreak bonuses that stay on the ground. The basic satellite bonus comes in the form of a destroyable piece of hardware you set down and doesn't require a counter-streak. Attack dogs are another popular killstreak. My single favorite feature of Ghosts is the absence of the Hunter Killer killstreak reward in Black Ops II that was just a death sentence to a random outdoor character.
Botnets & Replacement Zombies
For those who want something like multiplayer without all the stress that comes with it, Squads and Extinction both offer interesting alternatives.
Squads is basically multiplayer matches with bots. The interesting twist is that you design and level up your squad by playing as them in Squad mode or multiplayer. This gives you three loadouts across as many characters as you can handle in case you really need three sniper loadouts, three assault loadouts, and whatever else.
The frustrating aspect of Squads is that, while you can set your squad out against other squads while you're not playing—this is Ghosts' cloud feature—you have to level your squad members independently and unlock their equipment independently. It's like having five separate multiplayer characters.
Squads mode has a few appealing aspects. It's a great way to get used to multiplayer maps and find some of their best firing angles without the additional stress of being dropped by headshots every 5 seconds. It's also a fun way to simulate multiplayer without the risk of hearing children spouting racial epithets.
Finally, Extinction is a nice replacement for the past games' zombie modes. It's less mysterious and abstract, and at least provides a thematic change for anyone who has invested time into those alternate modes in past releases.
An unfortunately lacking game.
When it comes down to it, the alternate modes are distractions from the main events of multiplayer and single player. Both are lacking this year and it's immediately clear why. When inevitably comparing Ghosts to past iterations, it looks like someone took Call of Duty into the shop, stripped it clean and put it back together, only to end up with a bunch of extra parts.
I can only imagine the amount of stress the teams were under to put Ghosts out on not two or three platforms, but six, nearly simultaneously, with two being next generation consoles that the teams surely didn't have as much time with as they needed. It makes for an unfortunately lacking game.
For now, I suspect Call of Duty: Black Ops II will hold onto its multiplayer audience better than Ghosts. With Battlefield catching up and Titanfall poised to make a lot of noise, the next Call of Duty (from Treyarch rather than Infinity Ward) has a big challenge ahead of it.
We purchased Call of Duty: Ghosts for Xbox 360 with company funds. We completed the single player mode once, as well as exploring multiple multiplayer modes and alternative before starting this review.