I'm the kind of Call of Duty player that pops open the game case, gathers up my buddies, and jumps right into the fantastic, addictive multiplayer with less than a glance at the single-player and co-op modes. And that's how I suggest you approach the latest entry in the Call of Duty series. Call of Duty: Ghosts hits all of the Call of Duty bulletpoints: precise controls, refined multiplayer gameplay, and a ton of content to keep you coming back again and again. But it doesn't take any chances or bring anything significant to the table, especially in the single-player and co-op modes. Never before has a game in the series felt so stagnant. While the shooter is a solid FPS experience all around, it's missing the creative passion that made its predecessors shine.
Call of Duty: Ghosts' story takes you to a new, near-future era. Modern Warfare’s Soap and Price are nowhere to be seen and have been replaced by the young brothers, Logan and Hesh, who are fighting against a fictional superpower called The Federation. Your faceless enemy remains faceless throughout the game, with the story's only antagonist being a uninspired Federation lackey. As a result of the enemy organization's ambiguity, you never really know the motivations behind it hijacking a weaponized space station and bombing the bejeezus out of the United States, so why care? The plot plays out so by-the-numbers that you know what to expect before it even happens, making every dramatic moment less impactful, every cliched plot twist fall flat, and every line of military jargon that much more cheesy.
But what about Riley? Fighting with a dog through war must be an emotional rollercoaster, right? Well, he has his moments of badassery and distress, but he is more Hesh's best friend than he is Logan's (you). So, all of the emotional attachment you experience is witnessed looking in on Hesh and Riley's relationship--you're just the third wheel. In the end, not having your own pet proved to be just another missed opportunity to suck me into Ghosts' story and world. But don't blame Riley, he's still a good boy.
The story's shortcomings could have been softened by memorable single-player missions, but these instead quickly become stale. Call of Duty has always relied on its super epic set-piece moments to create a memorable, action-packed experience. The frequency of these intense scenes has been upped a notch in Ghosts, but the action often fails to impress. Far too many of the levels break down like this: you play sneaky for the first third, go guns-blazing for the second third, and escape explosions, falling buildings, or overwhelming enemy forces in the last stretch. When used sparingly, these sequences build anticipation for the strenuous firefights of the coming battle, and give a satisfying "whew"-conclusion to the mission. But here, the formula is used so often that it becomes predictable, and thus leaves Ghosts without much dramatic impact.
That said, the campaign does have its strong moments. You'll shoot your way through new and interesting environments. Floating through an orbiting space station in zero gravity, swimming with the sharks in the ocean, and even manning a tank makes for a visually intriguing contrast to the been-there-done-that feeling of the repetitious and cover-centric on-foot battles. Infinity Ward has also abandoned the pre-mission map loadscreens from previous games and replaced them with stylish cutscenes that more clearly detail the next step in the story, a welcomed addition.
The next-gen difference
If you're a stickler for playing first-person shooters with as crisp and detailed visuals you can possibly get, you'll want to save up and go next-gen. Otherwise, the current-gen versions will do just fine.
Whereas the single-player campaign dipped below expectations, Ghosts' multiplayer is right on par with what you'd expect, but not much more. Yes, there are new elements like the ability to slide, peek out from corners, interact with certain doors, and blow up sections of the map, but the added features do little to freshen up the gameplay. Opening and closing doors in particular can be almost completely ignored if you aren't playing an objective-based team game, since there's no real need to restrict the enemy team from an area of a map in a deathmatch mode. The level destruction is limp, especially when you look at Battlefield 4's map-changing advancements with levolution. We've been blowing up walls in other shooters for years, so watching a designated section of a wall disappear in a C4 explosion is no big whoopdeedoo, and a map-altering chemical nuke only works in one map. That said, the competitive modes are still some of the best shooter experiences you are going to get online thanks to the smooth-as-butter controls, vast character customization, and map variety.
Ghosts' biggest multiplayer addition is the soldier customization. There are a ton of unlockable faces, uniforms, weapons, and streaks to choose from, which you could spend hours tinkering with. The breadth is staggering and a bit overwhelming at first. Perks, weapons, and streaks are no longer automatically unlocked when you reach a level threshold--you purchase them by earning squad points. Unless you're a veteran player and know exactly how you want to outfit your character, you'll be doing some guesswork and experimentation, which can slow down your progress. On the other hand, with the huge number of options, you can truly create a soldier that works exactly how you want him or her (you can choose to play as a female soldier!) to function. Want to make a demolition class with extra grenades, an underbarrel grenade launcher, and increased explosive damage? Go for it.
Multiplayer also includes new game modes: Most notably Cranked and Blitz. Cranked is team deathmatch with a twist. Every time you get a kill, you have 30 seconds to kill again before you self destruct. It sounds like a blast, in theory, but I rarely felt any pressing immediacy to score a kill--either I found an enemy right away (resetting the timer) or got killed myself with plenty of time to spare, negating the rush-to-avoid-exploding concept entirely. Blitz was the most entertaining new mode. It's like running a gauntlet as every player attempts to move through the opposing team's defenses to reach the goal on the other side of the map. Because any player on a team can score, it's like playing a game of cat and mouse where you're both the cat and the mouse all at once. Good times.
Outside the multiplayer, you can also play with your friends in co-op. Infinity Ward has broken the co-op into two different modes: Squads and Extinction. Squads allows you to create a group of AI soldiers and play alongside them in various team vs. team and cooperative modes. While the concept of building your squad to challenge your friends sounds intriguing, it really just boils down to: you're really just playing multiplayer matches with bots. Even Ghosts' Safeguard horde mode (another co-op mode in Squads), which pits players against waves of mindless, gun-toting enemies, is bland, especially compared to the thrill of fighting an army of enemies in the previous games' Spec Ops co-op.
Then there's Extinction, Infinity Ward's answer to Treyarch's Zombies. In it, you'll have to shoot your way through hordes of encroaching aliens as you attempt to destroy their nests, which are spread across the map. Blasting away at the aliens in Extinction doesn't hold the same novelty as shooting the undead, and the mode isn't as substantial an offering as Black Ops 2's Zombies mode simply because there's less to do. There's only a single Extinction mission to play through over and over as you grind your way up the ranks toward additional unlocks and class types. Until Infinity Ward releases new DLC Extinction missions, playing through the same alien-infested town will make that grind a long one.
All in all, Call of Duty: Ghosts takes the FPS formula established by its predecessors and doesn’t innovate. Instead, it just adds more. You’ll have more killstreaks and perks to choose from, more monsters to kill, and even more explosions to stagger away from. And while you’re running through a collapsing building for the hundredth time, the thrilling sensation and excitement you felt in the previous games is numbed. There are no memorable characters to hang on to, no jaw dropping twists--just more of what you've already seen before. The seller here is the multiplayer. The ability to completely customize your soldiers, the polished gameplay, and a few entertaining additions will keep you coming back to gun down your friends for hours on end. Just don't expect to be blown away.
This game was reviewed primarily on the PS4 at a review event.