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.
The story soon flashes forward a few years and we learn that the enemy is not – surprise, surprise! – Middle Eastern or Russian or even Chinese, but rather a South American military alliance known as the Federation, led by one General Almagro. It may be only a cosmetic change, but South Americans are at least an unusual change of pace in a game of this sort. Could it be that developers and possibly the public are getting tired of fighting the same old villains?
In any event, the U.S. is now on the defensive and is down to its last few hopes. Its troops are ragged and the enemies are moving in for the kill. It’s the Battle of Thermopylae all over again. Enter those mysterious Ghosts and, well, we know where things go from here.
The gameplay itself takes players into previously unexplored Call of Duty territory. There are the well-worn gunfights aboard oil rigs and in deep jungles, but there are also a few space battles that amazingly steer clear of cheesy Moonraker territory, plus some absolutely fantastic underwater sequences – sharks included.
One note worth mentioning are the graphics differences in console versions, with Ghosts being released on both current and next-generation systems. The differences are slight but noticeable – if you stop to take a look at the stone walls of a castle in one of the multiplayer maps on the PS4, for example, you can see that each individual brick has its own textures. The same stones on current-gen, meanwhile, are flatter and less detailed.
Put all of these tiny nuances together and the entire environment is much sharper, so much so that it took me a few minutes to adjust. I had to move my seat back from the TV to take in all the detail. Yet, with that said, current-gen gamers won’t exactly be short-changed as Ghosts is still one of the best-looking games on existing consoles.
The story also manages to produce something I’ve never experienced before – a memorable character, albeit it’s not one you’d expect. Riley the dog, sidekick to Hesh and Logan and the subject of many an Internet meme in the months leading up to the game’s launch, is indeed a veritable joy to watch.
While he’s intended to spice up the action – players remotely control him at times as a sort of organic UAV – it’s Riley’s realistic manner, er, dogerisms outside of the action that make him endearing. He pokes his head up out of your APC’s turret as you drive and paws at doors when he wants to get moving, reminding you that despite his own military training, he’s still a happy, fun-loving dog at heart.
That’s why, when Riley inevitably finds himself shot at, I couldn’t help but scream in horrified anger. It’s worth pointing out that I had no reaction at all to the many, many digital humans who were killed or maimed in the game.
Ghosts’ relatively short single-player campaign – about five hours – ends with the expected mega-explosions and subsequent happy ending… or does it? An excellent post-credits twist sets up the inevitable sequel.
But of course, no one buys Call of Duty games for the single-player mode, do they? Well, a lot of people do, but there’s no denying that multiplayer is the franchise’s cash cow.
After spending about 10 hours with multiplayer, I can firmly say that Ghosts is a step up from last year’s Black Ops 2, which I found to be slightly unbalanced and a little cartoonish in everything from graphics to audio. Much of this year’s entry seems more polished and refined.
First up is some further tinkering with perks that builds upon the total-point value system established in previous games. In Ghosts, players have a total of nine slots to fill, with each individual perk costing anywhere from one to five slots. The perks themselves are divided into seven categories: speed, handling, stealth, awareness, resistance, equipment and elite.
If you want to have an incredibly fast character, for example, you can equip three speed perks – say, lightweight, marathon and fast reloading, at a cost of three slots each. You could also conceivably choose nine lesser perks, such as one that marks spots where your teammates have been taken out, which cost only one slot apiece. Either way, I like the tweaks because they provide for endless customization, yet they don’t seem to unbalance the game.
Killstreaks have also been revamped, with many of the more unbalancing airborne ones either gone or significantly limited in ability. The radar/UAV, which highlighted where enemies were on the mini-map, is a good example. It’s been replaced with SatCom, a portable radar dish that highlights only a portion of the map. It’s much easier to blow these up since they are ground-based and it’s also only possible to get a full map read if teammates work together to deploy the dishes around the level.
Similarly, some of the new air-based perks are much harder to handle. The Trinity Rocket, for example, is a lot like the Predator drone strike in previous games, except that it launches three missiles. Each successive launch, however, is lower to the ground and therefore harder to control. The Helo Scout killstreak, meanwhile, puts you into a helicopter above the battlefield armed with a sniper rifle. While that’s potentially really nasty, it’s amazingly hard to frame sniper shots from a moving chopper.
Put it all together and it amounts to combat that is much more ground- and skill-based, as opposed to the sprint toward lethal killstreaks of previous games. Usually, the first team that could launch a helicopter would end up the winner; with air killstreaks now reined in, games tend to be more open-ended.
There are also a number of new game modes, with a few of the most notable ones including Cranked, Infected and Hunted. In Cranked, you gain a new random perk for every enemy you kill and you get a speed boost to movement. The downside is you also get a countdown clock – if you don’t score another kill before it runs out, you blow up. It’s a hyper-frantic mode that guarantees there will be no campers, or the players who inevitably prove themselves the bane of Call of Duty games by waiting for opponents to happen by while sitting in one spot.
Infected, meanwhile, has been seen in other shooter games, but it’s no less exciting here. One player starts out as a fast-moving zombie, armed with only the barest of weapons – knives and pistols. Every opponent he or she jumps on is converted to his side until there’s no one left. It’s a fun change-up from the usual team deathmatch and domination modes.
Hunted similarly starts players off with basic weapons and further hinders them with very limited ammo. The only way to keep going is to continually pick up new arms from crates that are randomly dropped around the map. It’s another great mode for players who like to depend on the equalizing force of chance, rather than planning and skill.
If there’s one big downside to this year’s multiplayer tweaks, it’s the relatively glacial pace at which new weapons, attachments, perks and killstreaks are unlocked. Players earn squad points while playing that are then spent on all these items, but they come much too slowly. In one session, I played for two hours and barely unlocked anything new. It’s a big problem that Activision will hopefully fix somehow, perhaps through downloadable patches or a ratcheting up of experience points earned.
Rounding out Ghosts is Extinction, an entirely new co-operative mode that takes the franchise into new territory. Like the popular zombies co-op mode in the Black Ops games, Extinction has up to four players take on escalating waves of aliens. Players choose from four specialized classes – engineer, medic, weapon specialist and tank – and take turns escorting a drill around, which they use to destroy the aliens’ hatching pods.
It’s more enjoyable than zombies since there is considerably more variety, both in terms of the types of enemies and the differentiation in character classes. It’s actually as well done a horde mode as I’ve seen in a game. It also makes you wonder if Call of Duty could some day do a full-on science-fiction horror single-player campaign.
All told, Call of Duty: Ghosts is a strong entry in a series that is now 10 years old. It delivers much of what made its previous incarnations great, yet at the same time adds new efforts that successfully freshen up what should be a relatively long-in-the-tooth formula by now. Ghosts may not reach the new heights that say, the first Modern Warfare did in 2007, but it’s a worthy continuation that’s enough to get one excited about the franchise again.
The only question now is, what’s next – how about Call of Duty: Shark Ops?