Available on Xbox 360, PS3 (reviewed), PC (reviewed), coming soon to Xbox One and PS4
For all that hipsters and cynics love to mock it, we owe a lot to Call of Duty. It was Call of Duty 2 that set the benchmark for how shooters looked and played in the HD era. It was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare that redefined the FPS as all-action blockbuster, while transforming console multiplayer. So it’s a shame to report that Call of Duty: Ghosts doesn’t set any new benchmarks or redefine anything. When Infinity Ward dropped Modern Warfare to kick off a new series it could have given the franchise a brand new start. Instead we have something that’s less a reboot than a remake, giving us everything we expect from a Call of Duty turned up to eleven, but nothing more.
The premise is interesting, albeit faintly ridiculous. In the near future a new power – The Federation – rises in South America and its influence begins to spread across the world. Federation forces attack a US orbital weapon and turn its weapons of mass destruction against the US, blasting half of the states back into the stone age and putting an end to North American dominance of the region. For ten years the remaining US forces defend what remains of the nation against enemy invasion, aided by an elite group of special forces operatives: the titular ghosts. The single-player campaign charts the story of two brothers as they battle the Federation and team up with the ghosts.
In theory – and in Activision’s PR campaign – this sounds brilliant. You’re not fighting as a member of a well-supported strike team from the world’s largest superpower, but as a guerrilla fighter working behind enemy lines. In practice, though, it’s all still business as usual, with access to the best weapons, air support and high-tech gadgets, and missions covering all the usual infiltrate this, blow-up that, run here and defend this spot tomfoolery.
Oscar-winner Stephen Gaghan might have had a hand in the script, but it’s still the normal mix of sub-Tom Clancy nonsense, and halfway through it seems to drift off target, losing any interest in the personal struggle at the heart of the tale. Once you’re on mission, it’s hard to tell that this isn’t Modern Warfare 4, while the innovations of Black Ops 2 – more open maps, any tactical control – appear to have fallen by the wayside, at least until the next Treyarch game.
Of course, there are some new features. Sadly, the importance of Riley the dog has been overplayed, with the mighty mutt only turning up in certain missions and even then only becoming controllable at a few specific points. Still, the sections with him are fun while they last, giving you a chance to sneak through the grass, creep up on enemies and rip their throats out. On top of this we get a helicopter sequence which is more than just a turret section, and we even get a brief, playable jaunt in space and a whole mission set underwater.
Yet the majority of the game still involved following someone along a linear route from one objective to the next, doing whatever it is you’re being damn well told to do. Federation troops make the odd attempt to outflank you, but otherwise settle on the classic “hide for a minute then pop my head up and fire” routine that’s proved oh so successful for cannon fodder across every Call of Duty game. You’d have to be an utter miseryguts not to find most of it highly entertaining, in a dumb, bombastic kind of way, but if you feel a creeping sense of déjà vu, you’re not alone. In fact, Ghosts might give you double déjà vu, because the sensation is that you had this déjà vu before while playing Modern Warfare 3.
What saves the game is its spectacle. Infinity Ward and Activision seem to have invested heavily in engine tech to make the scenery ripple, tear, shatter, crumble and explode, and no level is complete without something big doing all of these things, often all at once when you’re running-and-gunning through it. When things aren’t getting wrecked, we get sudden floods, dives from waterfalls and myriad other wonders to marvel at. This makes each mission like the climax of a blockbuster action movie, and while the effect is wearying spread out over the running time, it’s a great game to play one mission at a time. You know you’ve seen it all before, but you’ve never seen it quite this big.
The setting has also given Infinity Ward license to create some more interesting locations. Sure, we’ve seen the snowy mountain installation, the jungle and the war-torn city before, but Californian towns crumbling into craters and shark-infested tropical waters are something new. Battlefield 4 might have its share of dazzling sights and big moments, but Ghosts leaves it looking rather grey and bland.
The spectacle only gets better if you’re playing it on PC. Infinity Ward hasn’t rebuilt its engine, but it has layered an awful lot of graphical wizardry on top, with high-resolution textures, more realistic texture-mapping techniques, enhanced lighting, more realistic water effects and a range of cinematic particle, depth of field, motion blur and distortion effects.
With everything dialled up it looks pretty awesome, though you will need a hefty rig to run it. A Core i5/GeForce GTX 560Ti setup that’s been coping fine with Crysis 3 and Battlefield 4 on High settings struggled to cope with Ghosts without a few compromises here and there. On the PS3 version you lose a lot of detail and a sizable proportion of the dazzling effects, leaving you with a game that looks much like Black Ops 2 and much like Modern Warfare 3 before that. It’s hardly ugly, but once you’ve seen the PC version the current-generation version will look dated, and more so than Battlefield 4.
All in all, then, we have a decent Call of Duty, but not exactly one that breathes new life into the series. Still, the multiplayer changes that, right? Well, yes and no. Ghosts’ multiplayer is an evolution of what we saw in Modern Warfare 3, with a handful of new game modes and a squad system that gives you a slightly different take on online and offline play. There are some excellent maps, so good maps and a couple of forgettable efforts, but like the single-player campaign it’s quite conservative. Perhaps the CoD faithful wouldn’t have it any other way.
Of the new modes, Search and Rescue is really just a variation of Search and Destroy. Blitz is an odd and not particularly satisfying mix of CoD and American Football. Grind is Kill Confirmed, where you need to kill then collect the dog tags before the opposing team can get them, with the added complication that you need to bank your tags. Like Kill Confirmed it’s a great mode that discourages campers and snipers, but nothing exactly new.
Infected is an entertaining mode where survivors battle to avoid becoming zombies, but the highlight is Cranked: a new take on Team Deathmatch where a kill gives you a 30 second speed and damage boost, but you need to kill again before the time limit hits or you explode. We’re still not fully sold on this one - it can result in brilliant, manic matches where everyone is constantly out for blood, but it can also see one or two players dominating the map to the extent that nobody else is having any fun. Yet when it works, it really works.
The new Squad mode pushes CoD’s persistent character features even further, putting you in charge of a group of characters you can unlock, customise and then level up within Squad mode and the other game modes. Level up your characters, assign them perks, and you can take them online to fight with or against other players, or against other players’ squads under AI control. It’s hard to say how this will work out at first, but the robust AI makes this an accessible route in to what is one of the toughest multiplayer games around. In fact, the game even advises you to get some offline practice in on Squad mode before you go online.
Some of the background changes are a little bewildering. Black Ops 2’s Pick 10 system gave you customisable classes that allowed you to play to your strengths, but was well balanced to ensure no setup could dominate. Ghosts’ Perk Points system, where you can choose a set of perks for your characters, is poorly explained and makes Pick 10 seem like a model of clarity. Newbie players might not even know it’s there, giving more experienced players an advantage, and we’re still not sure that we quite understand it. We’re also not 100% sure about some of the kill streaks. Helicopter sweeps are fiendishly effective on some maps – and not in a good way – while the new attack dog is hard to defend against and hugely annoying.
If this all sounds a little downbeat, then rest assured that Ghosts multiplayer is still as compulsive and crowd-pleasing as CoD multiplayer has ever been. It’s faster-paced and more accessible than Battlefield 4, and it works better on the current generation consoles, as a smaller player cap (12 instead of the usual 16) is barely noticeable on the smaller, tighter maps. However, a handful of the maps are surprisingly hard to distinguish from others (is it the one in the WMD-ravaged shopping mall or the one in the WMD-ravaged small town?) and new features that were supposed to radically alter maps mid-match are virtually invisible. There’s nothing here to match Battlefield 4’s semi-destructible environments or levolution features.
The brand-new alien-fighting Extinction co-op mode also disappoints. In it, one of you carries a drill which must be activated and defended while it obliterates an alien hive, and for the first couple of waves it’s a fun variation on Gears of War’s Horde mode or Halo’s Firefight. Give it time, however, and it drags. There’s not enough variation or interest to keep it fresh, and it’s rarely a good sign when the main feeling we got when our team was knocked out was not annoyance, but relief.
Overall, CoD: Ghosts is more of the same on the current-gen consoles, and more of the same but prettier on the PC, so it all depends on how much you like ‘the same’. If you’re one of those for whom a new Call of Duty is an annual feast, then this is a solid entry in the series with some dazzling moments. If you’re bored of Call of Duty, then this one won’t rekindle your enthusiasm. Most of all, it leaves us feeling something we never expected to feel: more excited about where Treyarch takes the series than we are about where Infinity Ward is going. After the horrors of CoD3 and World at War, who would ever have anticipated that?
We wanted the next phase of Call of Duty, but Ghosts really brings us more of the same old, same old. The premise is interesting but there’s little sign of the promised guerrilla warfare feel, and while the changes to multiplayer are more convincing they don’t necessarily make for a superior game. Ghosts is too polished, too well-paced and too spectacular to be called a disappointment, but it’s stuck in the last generation when it should be helping to define a new one.
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