One of the most memorable moments from 2013’s E3 press conferences, at least for me, was the unveiling of Riley the dog, being played by an actual, mocapped dog in the upcoming Call of Duty: Ghosts. Based solely on that video, I wanted to like Call of Duty: Ghosts. I love dogs and the sight of that German shepherd in its little mocap suit was one of the most adorable things ever. Sure, it seems a bit odd to fixate on something like that as the sole reason for wanting something to be good, but for some reason, I thought this represented a deviation from the standard Call of Duty formula that had grown so stale over the years. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Call of Duty: Ghosts is every bit the shallow, token experience the series has come to embody that never goes above and beyond the call of duty.
Call of Duty: Ghosts begins with an origin story, detailing the creation of the Ghosts, a mythic squad of elite Tier 1 operators and switches to the perspective of a couple of astronauts, tending to the United States’ orbital missile weapon, ODIN. One of the astronauts gives the whole “I can’t wait to go home” speech, which seals her fate. So she and the other astronaut die as they fight in vain to defend and ultimately scuttle the satellite when it falls into enemy hands.
There’s an info dump at the beginning that establishes the creation of the Federation, the group that hijacked the ODIN satellite and used it against the United States, after the Middle East was allegedly incinerated and the global economy collapsed. The Federation arose as all of South America (yes, all of it) united under one flag and hate the United States because reasons. It’s all very poorly explained but really doesn’t matter. The plot jumps forward ten years, the US is good and the Federation is comprised of bloodthirsty, amoral, genocidal monsters who execute unarmed civilians in the street and probably kick puppies and shove doting grandmothers down flights of stairs.
Seriously. The distinction between the two warring nations couldn’t be any more black and white if they’d tried. Perhaps this was intentional in order to remove any semblance of guilt from players’ minds as they indiscriminately mow down Federation troops and stab them in the throat but it’s rather unsettling just how xenophobic this is. Even when the US hijacks the Federation’s copy of the US’s orbital missile weapon, they target nothing but military targets, while the Federation aimed missiles at major US cities, all filled with millions of innocent civilians.
And then there’s Rorke, the primary antagonist and a former Ghost himself, captured, tortured and turned to the Federation’s side. I’ll come out and say that writing a good villain is difficult. A good villain has to a number of things, but above all else, he has to be believable. Rorke, on the other hand, is not a believable antagonist in the slightest.
Maybe I can believe that some charismatic leader was able to unite all of South America (yes, all of it) under a single flag. Maybe I can believe that this force was somehow able to not only hijack the United States’ orbital missile weapon and use it against them but to immediately force them into a defensive posture. But I do not believe for a second that this Federation would be giving Rorke so many resources to settle what amounts to a personal grudge. No. That’s complete nonsense. Without wishing to outright spoil (this is a hint that some spoilers are coming up) Elias made the only choice he could, given the situation.
I brought up Riley the dog earlier, not only because he’s adorable, but because he’s probably the only likeable character in the game. Aside from Riley, none of the characters, be they the Ghosts, who are so dedicated to the cause that it’s positively nauseating or the villains, who are one dimensional to an equally nauseating degree, are interesting. Riley also plays a part in gameplay and during firefights, he can be directed to take out enemies for you and there are certain gameplay sections where you take control of him, sneaking through the tall grass, marking targets and picking out unsuspecting troops to pounce on.
It’s unfortunate then, that Riley is relegated to only a small handful of missions before he’s sent away, only to show up near the end and promptly get shot by a sniper. He survives the attack and there’s a sequence directly following in which you carry him in your arms to the extraction point, occasionally putting him back down to cap enemy soldiers. Riley’s pained whines and whimpers were devastating and made me feel for him more than any human character in the game. I still wonder whether or not I should be worried about that.
Gameplay is…well, it’s Call of Duty. If you’ve played one, you’ve played them all. Controls are fairly tight and refined and gunplay is…okay. It works though and I can see why Call of Duty has been so popular over the years (I don’t get it, but I understand it). Ultimately, it’s just kinda…boring and it’s boring for a number of reasons. A big problem is the game’s AI. Perhaps I’m imagining things but in my experience, when you scale the difficulty upward, the AI usually gets smarter and makes better tactical decisions. In Ghosts, the AI doesn’t seem to get any smarter, bullets just do more damage.
So the AI is pretty dumb and because it’s so dumb, Ghosts lacks heavily in the way of real challenge. As long as your strategy is more involved than seeing how many bullets you can catch with your face, it’s pretty easy to breeze through the campaign, even on Veteran difficulty.
My biggest complaint with Call of Duty: Ghosts and the entire series as a whole is the fact that it’s so heavily scripted. The Call of Duty franchise has practically written the book on scripted set pieces but after writing basically the same book over so many iterations with minor changes, it’s little more than the same old story. Ghosts being so heavily scripted means there’s little room for experimentation, so many conflicts devolve into little more than pop-up shooting galleries. Encounters rarely resemble something genuinely organic.
There are a couple of standard deviations from the traditional shooting galleries by way of the standard Call of Duty vehicle sections but none of them stand out as particularly memorable or exciting. In one, you’ll be “piloting” an attack chopper, raining death on little yellow blips. I use “piloting” in quotation marks because it may as well have been on rails given how little leeway you’re given. In another, you’ll be running with a tank battalion. Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation fame mentioned that the tanks control like turbo-boosted magic carpets and I can’t think of a more apt description. They practically glide across the battlefield, turning on a dime and accelerating at speeds that would probably embarrass a Ferrari. It was all so wildly unrealistic that I was completely removed from the experience.
If you’ve played Call of Duty 4 or beyond, you’ll feel right at home with Call of Duty: Ghosts’ multiplayer. It’s decent. Not a whole lot has changed since the days of Call of Duty 4 ruling the multiplayer charts and not all of the changes are for the better. First off, Ghosts introduces an upgrade system centered on squad points, which you get by playing the Squads mode or merely by leveling up and completing certain challenges in multiplayer. The interface is terribly confusing and cluttered, which will likely be very intimidating for new players.
One of the few noteworthy additions to Call of Duty: Ghosts is the Extinction mode. Framed as an alien invasion taking place shortly after the initial ODIN attack, this mode is a four player cooperative mode with a structure reminiscent of Valve’s Left 4 Dead games. Playing this was probably the most enjoyable time I’ve spent with the game in multiplayer and is a fun diversion to get buddies together to blast some aliens.
Call of Duty: Ghosts smacks of a game that’s been designed by committee and seems to be going through the motions to check all of the boxes it needs to. Five hour campaign? Check. Some sort of co-op? Check. Multiplayer with all the standard modes, perks and killstreak rewards? Check. A bunch of pricey DLC in the works for said multiplayer? Check.
This is a case study in mediocrity, settling for the familiar instead of attempting something more. Yes, in this triple-A dominated space, there’s little room for innovation and creativity when your budget’s so large and you’re expected to sell X million units to recoup the cost. I wasn’t expecting this to go back to the drawing board but I would like to think that they would want to end one generation and usher in a new one with a bang, so to speak, and that’s simply not the case. Aside from the entertaining Extinction mode, that’s about all I can say Ghosts does well. The adversarial multiplayer is fine, Squads mode is decent but the campaign is just dull.
I remember now why I had a falling out with the Call of Duty series. It’s been stagnant for far too long and Ghosts didn’t do anything of note to instill any confidence that the series is going to do anything more than continue going through the motions. Perhaps my tastes have just ventured outside of the Call of Duty comfort zone but I can’t imagine many will be impressed by this rather insipid latest entry. If this is any indication of where the series is headed, maybe it needs to take a cue from its namesake and disappear for a while.