I’m swimming through a shipwreck on the bottom of the ocean as Logan, the main character in Call of Duty: Ghosts, when – bam! – a great white pops up from around the corner and proceeds to have me for lunch. I jump out of my seat in surprise. Just when you think you’ve seen it all from Call of Duty, it goes and throws sharks at you. This encounter is, in fact, emblematic of Ghosts as a whole – I can’t remember enjoying the single-player campaign in a Call of Duty game this much in a while (more on that in a moment). Having learned my lesson with the required restart, I make Logan approach more cautiously. This time, I have him wait till the killer fish swims by before gingerly continuing along. Success! Sorry Jaws, you’re not getting me again.
But the sharks aren’t done with me. My guide through the sequence – in Call of Duty’s single-player missions, there’s always a guide – leads Logan to a cavernous room of the ship that has not one, but three fearsome predators, and they just happen to be blocking the corridor we need to get to.
“If you go slowly, they won’t notice you,” he says over his radio just before skillfully navigating between them. Gulping down a deep breath, I have Logan follow.
It’s a moment of tense nervousness that takes me back to an earlier CoD game – I can’t remember which exactly – where I was crawling through tall grass while enemy tanks clanked by. In both situations, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck from the fear of being discovered.
I haven’t felt this kind of dread from the series, now in its 10th core installment, for a long time. And yes, it’s a welcome feeling.
Yes, there’s still a lot that’s familiar from the earlier games. The action is still as linear as it comes – in another sequence, I purposely try to crash the vehicle I’m piloting, but I’m not able to deviate beyond the invisible rails I appear to be on. There are still cartoonish bad guys to overcome and there are still huge set pieces, including the requisite toppling skyscrapers, which have by now had much of their epic grandeur diminished through sheer repetition. But hating on Call of Duty for being linear and delivering more of the same is, by this point, like complaining about the sun for rising in the same place every morning. It’s time to accept it and move on.
Fortunately, Ghosts does try a few new things in both its single-player and multiplayer modes – like swimming with sharks – that mostly work, which makes it feel a little fresher and newer than the past few entries in the series.
We’ll get back to multiplayer shortly, but first there’s the solo campaign to talk about. Having completed its Modern Warfare trilogy two years ago, Infinity Ward now takes its turn in the annual Call of Duty rotation – which it shares with Black Ops developer Treyarch – with a new storyline. Penned by Stephen Gaghan, who won the Academy Award for writing Traffic, Ghosts starts on a quiet, familial note. Military father Elias is telling his two sons Logan and Hesh about the legend of the eponymous soldiers.
The Ghosts, as the legend goes, are a modernized re-imagining of the Battle of Thermopylae, the skirmish in 480 BC where a small group of Greek soldiers held out against impossible odds to repel a much larger invading Persian army. In Ghosts’ updated telling, it’s an array of international soldiers that succeeded thanks to a few individuals who hid in the ashes of battle to surprise their enemies. The lone bad guy who escaped described his apparently unkillable opponents, with their ashen white faces, as supernatural. Surely they must have been ghosts, he gasped.
No sooner does Elias conclude his tale then the earth starts to shake. There’s an attack under way, with fire and chaos raining down from the skies. Now we’re into familiar Call of Duty territory. It seems that someone has hijacked Odin, a military satellite that is raining kinetic rods down from space onto the good ol’ U-S-of-A.