Ghosts in the Crowd
The motto of Wisconsin, my home state, is “Forward,” and there may be no better way to sum up the essence of this year’s adrenaline-driven military frag-fest Call of Duty: Ghosts. Every single moment I’ve spent playing the game so far, regardless of which mode, has encouraged, nay, begged me to keep the gas pedal on the floor and not look back. The only way “Forward” doesn’t apply, unfortunately, is to the overall innovation and evolution Ghosts brings to the series. It brings the same solid experience gamers are used to, but unfortunately cuts a few great things its predecessors have added to the mix while failing to replace the missing features with anything substantially meaningful. Call of Duty: Ghosts isn’t by any means a bad game, it just isn’t nearly as good as it should be.
While it used to be the focus, or at least a large part of the experience, the campaigns in the Call of Duty franchise have been pushed so far to the sideline in a majority of fans’ eyes that a large portion of the community probably wouldn’t bat an eye if they were removed completely. Perhaps I’m underestimating people’s interests, or perhaps I’m just odd, but I’ve always had a blast playing through every campaign since Call of Duty 2. Sure they might be mindless and a little confusing at points, but sometimes I just want to sit back, shoot everything that moves, and feel like I’m in my very own action hero movie. While I still enjoyed playing through the six and a half hours or so the campaign took me on Hard, I couldn’t help but be underwhelmed with Ghosts’ story offering this year. While it’s just as loud, crazy, and busy as ever, it lacks the improvements and ingenuity that last year’s story delivered.
I’m happy that with this outing developer Infinity Ward has moved on from its three title run with the Modern Warfare story. While the series-within-a-series started off with one of the most influential shooters of the last decade, by the third entry the campaign’s story had become so over-the-top and convoluted that starting with a clean slate was definitely a smart decision. In its purest form (and its purest form is all that really matters, as it’s basically an excuse to shoot something somewhere else) Ghosts is about a world where South American forces expand their reach north and into the U.S.A. The baddies, and frontrunners for the coveted “most generic bad guy name” award, are The Federation, and they decided they really needed to invade the land of opportunity because, you know, reasons and stuff. Luckily for us, brothers Logan and Hesh, their dad Elias, and their trusty canine companion Reilly join a few other combatants to take the fight to the Federation through land, air, sea, and space.
In an ideal world Infinity Ward would have learned from what has worked best and worst in the last few Call of Duty campaigns and used their fresh start to weave a narrative that, if not emotionally investing, could at least try enough new things to justify its annual release schedule. Unfortunately it does neither. If I’d played Ghosts’ campaign a few years ago, I probably would have enjoyed it a lot. The problem is it’s a regression from what we’ve seen before. After a few years of generally poor critical reception and cries of familiarity from fans regarding the Call of Duty stories, Black Ops II delivered a branching narrative with limited choices that let players at least partially control how the story unfolded. The choices weren’t enormous or ground breaking, but they were enough to prove there were exciting places the games could go. The near-future setting was also cool in that it was familiar enough to still feel very much like a part of the franchise while different enough to feel like more than a re-skin. I, perhaps naively, assumed that these attempts at innovation would be expanded and improved upon in this year’s game, but sadly they’re nowhere to be found. Instead, Ghosts’ campaign plays like a highlight reel of things players have already done. The campaign is incredibly linear, giving gamers, with very few exceptions, tools they’re used to using, and fails to create any characters that I care about seeing again.
As many missed opportunities for innovation as there are in Ghosts’ campaign, there are also a few really cool elements there that make it worth a playthrough, even if that playthrough doesn’t rock your world like it could have. From the very first trailer revealed of the game, I was convinced that the dogs would be a gimmick used to pull some heart strings. I’m still not entirely convinced that they’re not at least partially a marketing gimmick to point at and say “see, we added something new!,” but Reilly, the campaign’s canine companion, is actually pretty fun. He’s given a few times to shine, and during those times I was more connected to him than any of my human comrades. There are also a few set pieces that gave me the same senses of awe franchise classics like the Call of Duty 2 D-day invasion or Modern Warfare mission All Ghillied Up. Most notable of these is a segment very early on in the game where the player controls an astronaut in space. For those that have seen the movie Gravity, it’s a lot like that, only with guns. It’s everything that I’ve come to believe Call of Duty isn’t; it’s got fantastic pacing, a fantastic atmosphere of tension, and is absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately your time spent there won't be long, but even after finishing my battle with the Federation it was that brief segment I was left remembering and wanting more of.
Gameplay is still as slick and responsive as it’s ever been, there are some legitimately cool campaign moments, and player customization is deeper than ever.
Missing multiplayer and campaign features make it feel like a step back in some ways, the campaign lacks a memorable story or characters, and coop modes are less impressive than they have been in the past.