Do you believe in Ghosts? The problem is, whether you do or don’t, they don’t believe in themselves.
When delivered at the turn of a generation, franchises often have to be memorable, so that they’re not lost in the transition. But Ghosts, albeit a good shooter on its own, doesn’t achieve that. When the gimmick named Riley the German shepherd dog is what I found most memorable during the campaign, you understand that it hits a new low.
For me, the lowest point for the series was Modern Warfare 3. Bland, unimaginative campaign, with no gimmicks to keep you going. I’m not even going into Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2; the first reinvented the FPS formula, and the second was more than memorable and stood on its own legs. World at War introduced gibbing and the last hurrah for the WWII setting, while Black Ops was fresh with its offerings and unique (for Call of Duty standards) story premise. Black Ops II introduced branching paths and different endings to the series. Modern Warfare 3 did nothing new, and Ghosts follows suit. As much as I know the hate around the franchise, I love it — countless hours poured into Call of Duty 2 to boot — and I mostly look forward to each game’s campaign more than the champion-level multiplayer. But Ghosts disappointed me so bad, even if it was a bit better than Modern Warfare 3.
In the 8-9 hours you’ll need to finish the story (maybe the longest in recent Call of Duty games), you can expect all the over-the-top silliness of the franchise — underwater shooting, space shooting, ultra-powered organization that levels whole cities at will with a super-weapon, treachery, hotel break-ins through rappelling. It’s all there; but the player is a ghost in the whole affair. What irritated me the most was that every single piece of the campaign’s rollercoaster ride through corridors is so scripted that it takes the whole spectacle away. So what if you shot through 30 nameless grunts in a few seconds and reached the point you have to before your comrades? They will move only when the scripting kicks in, and at such a pace that you could go take a shower to clean the blood of your enemies off of you and they’ll still be on their way. Your super-effective soldier is no match for a door; your teammates must come and open it, because, somehow, you can’t. This is not much different from the countless complaints of invisible walls artificially limiting people in other shooters. It’s just that, in this case, they’re not invisible, they’re just walls or doors. Any attempts at feeling anything for the characters are quickly washed away, due to the constant changing of setting and the amount of interaction between said characters… which is tiny, if not non-existent. After finishing the campaign, I can say I felt nothing for the Ghosts as a faction, nor the evil Federation; the former had cool masks, but that’s where “memorable” ends. There’s a plot twist I wouldn’t want to spoil, but even that could be seen coming from five planets away, and it’s still not delivered in any jaw-dropping fashion. The voice actors try their best, but I’m split between two thoughts: either they’re not good enough, or the script is bad. I’m leaning towards the second.
You’re so passive for the whole campaign’s length that your job is to strictly shoot baddies. To spice it up, you will sometimes be asked to open a hole in a reinforced window with a torch or hack a computer, but even then, the action’s scripted! You have to press the buttons and the player character will simply make the hole, with no further input whatsoever to make you feel like you’re doing something else than shooting dummies, even if for a second. Dummies is a good choice of a word to describe the enemy AI: it will go for the nearest cover, and pop out at regular intervals to shoot. That’s a letdown, considering how smart the Squads’ AI is (more on it later). And what’s worse is that some of the mission gimmicks are under-developed to the point I wish they weren’t there at all. Flying a helicopter simply by tilting the left analog stick, and having it automatically jump over buildings turned me off big time. It’s at this point where I’ll say what I haven’t thought I would say before: I think I enjoyed Battlefield 4′s campaign more. And if the day that Battlefield, the game that started as a multiplayer-centric title and only recently included campaigns in its games, trumped Call of Duty’s campaigns, the series that started as a historical shooter with fantastic and awe-inspiring storylines, has come then I feel bad for what’s to come. Granted, Call of Duty is far from giving up its throne yet. But I think Activision should take a page from EA’s book; a page named “Titanfall”. Yes, it has been in development for long, but that’s the point! Give Call of Duty a rest, and come back in 2-3 years with an overhauled game and philosophy that will ruin your opponents. As things stand, Titanfall’s Spring 2014 release in the middle of Ghosts’ life (we all know a new Call of Duty will come in November 2014) could steal lots of sales come November 2014, provided it’s content-heavy and fine-tuned enough to go head-to-head with the colossus.
All that said, there’s still hope for Ghosts, even after Infinity Ward killed the campaign, and one of Call of Duty’s finest offerings, for me. Multiplayer is where it’s at for most of the franchise’s fans nowadays, and that’s thankfully refined and as good as you would expect. One thing we all have to give credit to Infinity Ward for is the elimination of quick-scoping: forget sniper users abusing the game mechanics to take you down easily and trash talk you through messages afterwards. Okay, just forget about the first part, gamers will always be an obnoxious bunch. Tweaks to the scoping action window make it impossible to perform such a feat, and where in Black Ops II the name of the game was SMG’s, now it’s “everything”. Given, it’s still very early in its life to judge, but from what I’ve seen and played, I’m pretty confident balance will not be an issue, whether it means in perks or weapons. Speaking of which, the Pick 10 system from Black Ops II returns, and the already deep customization is further expanded upon. For the first time, you get to Create a Soldier (sort of a loadout, apparently), and personalize them however you want: from heads, headgear, uniforms and sex, soldier customization is a feature we all welcome, and wonder why it took them so long to get it inside, since you can’t really deviate very much from the team colors/setup, so identifying your teammates and enemies wouldn’t be an issue. Nontheless, while present customization options are good, surely more will be added through DLC (such a pack is also given upon purchase for Season Pass holders).
More subtle changes include the addition of sliding instead of jumping to prone (present in Black Ops and Black Ops II), which is way more valuable and useful. Vaulting over low obstacles is also possible, and adds to the fluidity and twitch-fast gameplay the series is known for. Challenges and unlocks are there, giving you an incentive to push forward as you keep unlocking stuff, but I must say I was a little disappointed by the lack of Patches (replacing Emblems) — Backgrounds, though, are there and aplenty. A big addition is the hybrid of P2P and dedicated servers, as Activision says, which I must say, works. During my time with the game, I haven’t encountered a single “host migrating” case, nor severe lag — and I even tested the game in a strict NAT for this very reason, only to be positively surprised that one of the multiplayer’s woes are (at least seemingly) gone.
Modes include regulars like Team Deathmatch and Domination but Search and Destroy is absent, with Cranked and Blitz being the newcomers. What’s disappointing for almost every mode, though, is that player count can only go up to 12 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U (some allow up to 8). As a result, some of the bigger maps sometimes feel barren, something that will surely be battled on the PC and next-gen versions that allow 18 players per map. And since maps are brought up, the new “dynamic” element some of them feature is very under-developed. Much smaller in scope compared to Battlefield 4′s dam breaking and skyscraper razing features, some maps allow for minor landscape changing triggered through force (like missile firing) or playing with gates and traps. While fun in the very short term, they don’t seem to impact gameplay in meaningful ways, and I hope it is expanded in further maps/games — I generally need Call of Duty needs some additions to remain the king of the genre.
Squads is a new mode that replaces Ops, and in it, you can take your created Soldiers (from Create a Soldier) and go to war against the AI with them. This adds a tactical layer to the mix, as you can equip your different soldiers as if they were you, and thus, complement your strength and weaknesses with their perks and weapons. Players can occupy their spaces, but even if the seats don’t get filled, you can duke it out with AI inhabiting their heads. If anything, it’s a very good start before going online and against other players. Enemy AI is not cheating-difficult, but no shooting gallery either; it’s perfectly fine for a workout. Squads Modes include classics like Team Deathmatch, variants of Horde, and more. What’s good for the generation-shifting players is that progress can be carried over to your next-gen console from your current-gen one. Also, all your XP and progress is counted for in the unified XP system Call of Duty is known to use.
Then, we have Infinity Ward’s take on Zombies; the Extinction mode. Were you guys mocking Call of Duty in space? Well, Call of Duty delivers on two fronts: the space mission in the campaign, and the invaders from outer space that you are called to eliminate. Carrying a drill around to bust their hives and setting up on-the-go defences is constantly keeping you at the edge of your seat. The new alien enemies are fast, agile, and intimidating, plus they come in many variants that serve different purposes in battle. A variety of objectives through the course of the session, player upgrades and equipment found on the ground require tactical coordination to avoid overloading the same item and bleeding other items. Pretty fun and, while not necessarily original, it’s a nice break from the zombie craze of late years. And the alien race design is cool!
But, but, but. You still manage to disappoint, Ghosts. Inexplicably, the player count has been shrinked to 12, as noted higher up, whereas some modes allowed for 18 players and absolute chaos. I say “inexplicably”, because the graphical quality doesn’t look like it was something that needed sacrifices to happen. World and soldier textures often look muddy, the screen in general looks fuzzy, and gun textures are pretty bland and simple. Dynamic maps don’t justify the compromise either, so why this happened is beyond me. Stress-testing both the campaign and multiplayer with explosions and tons of movements on screen at once, I saw that some slight framerate drop (I predict around 4-5 fps) occured, but only momentarily, and only in the campaign (note: PlayStation 3 version tested). Save for a very few moments, the game ran at its standard 60fps rate we all know and expect.
Look, Ghosts isn’t a bad game. It’s a great entry point for the series, or a great point to start from if you’ve kept away from recent entries. Players that buy each year’s iteration, though, will not be amazed to say the least. Call of Duty’s biggest enemy is itself; the fear of moving forward and trying something new, and the fear of laying off the scene for a year or two, to allow for significant improvements to the engine and formula. I understand, you don’t play too much with the industry’s top-winning formula; but compare Ghosts to Modern Warfare, and you’ll see the lack of innovation, save for small (often ignored due to their nature) changes.
Should we blame Ghosts’ failure to impress to the generation shift? Was Activision too afraid to play with the franchise’s relevance at such a time? Whatever it was, Ghosts is a mixed bag. Multiplayer is as good as ever, there’s a ton of content to keep you and your friends occupied for months, but the recurring motif here is one: it’s like it was. What it “was” is still great, but when the quality stagnates or even dives, you start to question why you should stay faithful to the franchise, as I am. I have faith in Activision, and only a fool would think they would drive the industry’s (if not the world’s) most lucrative franchise to the ground so easily. But with the competition around evolving and adapting, Call of Duty is like that weird guy you had in the school days: you know he has a good heart, but he’ll never go out of his waters, even if it was for the sake of fun, while all his friends move forward and climb to victory.
Prestige Edition: Being the guy I am, I pre-ordered the Prestige Edition as soon as it was up. Even though the game ultimately let me down, I don’t regret my purchase. The Season Pass included is a great addition ($50 on its own), and the Ghosts paracord wrist strap is great and authentic — it’s like the one I made myself back in the army days. The big player, though, is the Tactical Camera. Based on a camera the Ghosts use in-game, it allows for 1080p and 720p recording, with various attachments that allow multiple positions to use it from. Good quality plastic, water-resistant and shock-proof, it’s a neat thing to use, if not just collect. Activision also threw in a 4GB micro SD card for it to get you started, which I found pretty handy. Lastly, it contained a collectable steelbook case for the game, a digital soundtrack (which I found pretty forgettable overall) and an intimidating box to place it all inside. All in all, money well spent on my side, and it’s sitting next to the night vision goggles of Modern Warfare 2′s Prestige Edition.