*Review of the single-player campaign only.
Call of Duty, love it or hate it, is a sales juggernaut the likes of which the videogame industry has seldom seen. Your kids want it, you play it, and competing game companies wish Activision's money-maker had been their idea. Over the years Activision has emblazoned a financial strategy that Call of Duty quickly became the catalyst for: a game a year until sales no longer warrant it, quality be damned. No matter how good a game may be, it's intrinsically hard to rally behind a publisher that utilizes its most popular franchise purely for financial gain in the laziest, most rudimentary ways fathomable. 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare painted a very different picture, a picture wherein the cinematic trappings of its 5-hour campaign and accessible multiplayer were considered good things.
Once the hype of 2009's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 faded, leaving nothing but empty wallets and discarded pre-order receipts in its wake, fans made up their minds that Call of Duty was no longer "good." Everything that goes up must come down as they say and the Call of Duty franchise came down like a meteor. Critical reviews remained favorable for the most part, but the fan response had only gotten more and more negative as the years progressed. Score aggregator Metacritic offers a visual representation of the disparity between professional opinion and public opinion. User reviews do nothing but decry the series, the people behind its creation, and the people that enjoy it. Are the Call of Duty games really that bad, and if so, what exactly makes them so reviled? Simplistic, casual-friendly first-person shooters are nothing new and certainly didn't start with this franchise, and the series' continual lack of innovation isn't exclusive to it either. I would argue that the original Doom and its endless barrage of sequels during the '90s had perfected the copying-and-pasting of assets long before it was hip.
Call of Duty: Ghosts was the first next-generation CoD title and had the utter misfortune of being released a mere week after EA's ambitious (not to mention visually stunning) Battlefield 4. Let that sink in. While Activision would have liked you to believe that the Infinity Ward-developed Ghosts was going to deliver on the promise of next-gen graphics, AI, and playability, it surprised absolutely no one to discover that Ghosts was the same CoD they had been playing for years, just a touch prettier. Standing next to a game as gorgeous as Battlefield 4 showed just how behind the curve Ghosts really was. Despite the samey-ness of the game and the disappointing graphics accompanying it, that's not what lets it down. Developer Infinity Ward were faced with the task of getting the game running & available on six (yes, six) different platforms and, as a result, suffers from a great many technical issues. Perhaps the most technical issues of any Call of Duty game to date. But even that isn't what makes Ghosts so lackluster.
Its biggest problem is very simple: the campaign. "But Call of Duty isn't about the campaign," I hear you say. Bullshit. It's true that they've never been 15-hour masterpieces but that doesn't mean the developers' only focus is multiplayer as one would likely argue. First-person shooters have been popular online battlegrounds since the days of Doom and Quake, and no one ever accused id Software of relegating the bulk of its concerns to the multiplayer side of things. The CoD campaigns are unusually polished experiences replete with fantastic voice acting, well-written (if eventually incoherent) stories, and a smorgasbord of exciting, Hollywood-inspired action sequences & shootouts. They displayed a level of quality and technical expertise unique to the genre at the time, that being when the original Modern Warfare single-handedly popularized summer blockbuster-esque military shooters. Nothing else delivered the nonstop intensity that the CoD franchise has been providing players for over 12 years now. In the series' defense its short but oh-so-enjoyable single-player offerings have been the core of this franchise from the beginning.
First things first, you can't fault Ghosts' cast. Brandon Routh, Brian Bloom, Kevin Gage, and Stephen Lang head up an impressive voice cast that is unfortunately sorely underutilized. Unlike other CoD titles, Ghosts' campaign doesn't have you body jumping from one character to another, experiencing the unfolding events from a myriad of different POVs. Throughout almost the entire campaign you play solely as Logan Walker, excepting a couple of flashback missions that serve as back-story on the titular Ghosts, a squad of elite soldiers. Logan is the typical voiceless, faceless protagonist but that's just something you come to expect from contemporary FPS's. Logan is the younger brother of David "Hesh" Walker (Brandon Routh) and second son of Elias Waker (Stephen Lang). The family element is a nice touch and the writers at Infinity Ward wring a good amount of emotional weight from it. Without giving away too much, Hesh, Logan, and Elias spend much of Ghosts hunting a man named Rorke (Kevin Gage). Rorke is systematically hunting Ghosts and as the campaign progresses you learn more about his connection to the Walker family and the Ghosts themselves.
The story certainly has potential. There's a really good script buried somewhere in that concept, it's just a shame Infinity Ward weren't up to the task of unearthing it. Voice acting is, for the most part, pretty standard stuff. Given the level of talent on-hand it's disheartening that I'm having to write that. Routh is wooden, Lang has nothing to do, and Gage is asked to play such a ham-fisted lead villain in Rorke that you've got nothing worth remembering outside of his solid performance. I have no idea how Infinity Ward dropped the ball so badly here. Their campaigns have never suffered from a shortage of memorable characters so I'm left wondering how Ghosts ends up so devoid of them. The base premise of several South American countries uniting and becoming a global superpower, eventually attacking & crippling the United States is nothing short of awesome. It's almost mind-blowing how much could have been accomplished from a conceptual standpoint alone. What we end up getting is a refreshing take on the one-country-versus-another motif which eventually devolves into yet another mundane manhunt mission akin to the Modern Warfare franchise. And for the love of everything that is holy, how many times can you definitively kill the bad guy before he's unable to make his "surprise" return at the end of the game? It's downright insulting!
So the general story structure is lackluster, the villain forgettable, and the characters rather generic; what about the action? Thankfully for Ghosts, it does have the distinction of being the most set piece-laden of the Infinity Ward titles. I'd wager that Ghosts holds the franchise record for most distinctive batch of locales visited in a single campaign. Over the span of five or so hours players will sneak their way through a Yucatan jungle, destroy an enemy submarine in a mission that takes place entirely underwater, invade a Federation facility disguised as an enemy soldier, gun their way through a desolate recreation of Las Vegas, scuttle a space station, and dash their way across an explosive set piece at the very start of the game that sees California literally falling to pieces around them. And that's just scratching the surface. One scenario has Logan, Hesh, and Ghost team member Keegan having to jump from a skyscraper as it's falling toward the streets below. This is really exciting stuff and the level design remains uniformly excellent throughout. Every mission has at least one exciting sequence like this, if not more, and I doubt you'll find yourself bored. Lots of variety in mission objectives and locations in which they're based means Infinity Ward aren't giving you much time to notice how inconsequential the story is.
Infinity Ward also cooked up the idea of the Walker family having a dog, Riley, that accompanies them during combat. This combat-ready German Sheppard was a big part of the pre-release blitz as Ghosts made its rounds from one major publication to the other. Knowing this you'd probably assume Riley to be an integral part of the story. No, not really. He acts as both a playable & non-playable character throughout, although Riley is only present for a small collection of missions. He simply follows Hesh and Logan through levels, attacking enemies that are closest to him or attacking enemies that the player orders him to. The ability to issue attack commands to Riley does indeed add a slight strategic element to the mix. As he lunges at enemies, using his teeth to latch onto their wrist or neck, it grants the player additional opportunities to flank or line up easier kill shots. Unfortunately, it doesn't amount to much more than that. The game would have played the same with or without Riley in tow. And maybe this is nitpicking but it bothers me to no end that Infinity Ward couldn't give me so much as a passing explanation as to how the Walker's managed to train their dog to do the things he does. How exactly is Logan able to take direct control of Riley through a satellite uplink? Is he some kind of genetically altered Skynet Termadog? I understand that Ghosts takes place in a near-future setting, but would it have killed them to preface this technology a bit?
The Call of Duty titles haven't been visually impressive since Modern Warfare 2, opting instead to play it safe by offering incremental upgrades to the engine's code little by little every year. Where competing developers, like DICE for example, have been using their own Frostbite engine for an equal length of time, they get away with it because their Battlefield franchise sees noticeable visual gains from game to game. In sharp contrast, Call of Duty's in-house IW engine only looks more and more dated because of the developer's refusal to dramatically alter any of its fundamentals. Ghosts promised next-gen graphics and, unsurprisingly, absolutely failed in that regard. It's not all bad news, though. Some missions really do benefit from the full DirectX 11 implementation this particular title has been graced with, namely the underwater sections. Character animations and facial renders are subpar but the overall lighting, texture, and shading qualities make up for that. Lighting has always been an area the IW engine excels in and the content of the campaign is up to the task of showing it off. Big explosions, massive fires, dense jungles with sunlight cutting through snarled tree branches, glistening rapids, and a superb use of dynamic shadows - suitably pretty stuff, this. The PC version also has an option to, for those with rigs powerful enough to handle it, enable PhysX-enhanced fur for Riley, effectively replacing the static skin the other versions of the game are stuck with. Lighting aside, it's the only thing about this game's visual aesthetic that looks remotely next-gen.
Longtime CoD players won't be tasked with doing anything too different from the usual assortment of running into rooms, mowing down bad guys, lobbing some grenades now and again, and marveling at the ridiculously over-the-top action sequences. Gameplay remains as dependable - not to mention as fast & fluid - as ever. A smattering of different gun & caliber types are available throughout each mission, swappable at any time, and still require very little skill to shoot. These games aren't about real-world accuracy or authenticity, they're about throwing you into the middle of frantic firefights with nary a learning curve in sight, pulling off knife kills and headshots like a pro. CoD lives and dies by its pick-up-and-play mentality and Ghosts really nails it. Infinity Ward have also implemented a brand-new lean feature which players can use to shoot around corners without having to step directly into an enemy's line of fire to do so. It's a nifty addition that I'd like to see more FPS's incorporate, including this franchise. The obvious lifting of gun sound effects from previous titles utterly reeks of cheapness, but Ghosts is still the same highly playable experience it's always been.
Typically for this series the sound design is second to none. Perfectly crisp 5.1 audio, fantastic directional audio, and loud, bassy explosions are what you'd expect from this game and it delivers in spades. It sounds incredible from the first gunshot to the last musical cue. On the surface this seems like a perfectly serviceable sequel that gives fans exactly what they want in exactly the ways they want it. In many ways it is. It doesn't set itself apart at all, not that we really expect it to, but it doesn't set itself apart from its own series and that's a problem. The problem is Ghosts doesn't feel at all progressive. Activision could have scrapped the subtitle and named it Modern Warfare 4 with no consequence. It's got so much working in its favor; a concept that bleeds potential, a talented cast, marvelous set pieces, and satisfying gun combat, and its squandered. Infinity Ward do absolutely nothing to separate this from their own catalogue of CoD titles. Make no mistake, I'm not comparing Ghosts to anything other than the series of games it belongs to, and in nearly every way it disappoints.
Call of Duty loves to think itself a playable summer blockbuster, so my following assessment is even more appropriate. Ghosts reminds me of that big action franchise that keeps churning out sequels, starts diluting its own formula, and becomes something of an imitation of itself. Hard to describe, I know, but Ghosts ever-satisfying, ever-patented formula feels more like imitation than the genuine article. Infinity Ward have still crafted an exciting, well-paced, and genuinely fun shooter in spite of this. Ghosts isn't a bad game by any stretch and if it didn't belong to the CoD franchise it wouldn't come saddled with these expectations. Not bad, just overtly soulless. In the end, Ghosts feels blatantly phoned-in. Do Infinity Ward even care anymore? It's getting hard to tell. Premise? Never used to its fullest potential. Action? Perhaps the most intense and ambitious of the entire series, but never serves any real purpose. The dog? Another brainstorm that could have been expounded by Infinity Ward that just ends up being a clever marketing gimmick. Ghosts is moderately enjoyable for what it is, but Infinity Ward seem content just going through the motions at this point.
Specs played on:
Intel i7 4930k
16 GB of RAM
Nvidia GTX 980