Call of Duty is an institution. With its annual release strategy landing every November without fail for the last nine years, it has built up a following virtually unmatched in the world of entertainment. A series built on a single-player campaign with explosive cinematic set-pieces and perhaps more importantly a hectic multiplayer experience that pumps the body with adrenaline, constantly alert, constantly on the hunt for that miraculous sniping shot or insane kill-streak reward. Call of Duty: Ghosts does not tamper with this formula. Fans will receive what they expect, yet, with the world moving on to the next generation of consoles, many could perhaps be wanting more and Call of Duty: Ghosts is too formulaic to offer this. It is a victim of its own institution in a world that is quickly moving forwards.
A clear example of this is the single-player campaign. Of course many players pay little to no attention to this section moving swiftly on to the fiendishly addictive multiplayer, which is perfectly viable, but this puts into question the value of the retail copy. Similarly there is a feeling while lolloping through the missions, diving from cover to cover, piercing the heads of lazy enemies that Infinity Ward have paid rather less attention to this section as well. Sure, it is spectacular without a doubt, throughout the eight or so hours of gameplay the player is barraged with an amazing array of insane set pieces each more grand than the last. Usually in charge of the main protagonist Logan Walker, you will find yourself rappelling down the sides of collapsing skyscrapers, avoiding the floods of a breaking dam, swimming the seas with sharks, sprinting across a sinking aircraft carrier with fighter jets flung across your vision and even battling in zero-gravity. At these times it is magnificent and a tribute to the inroads developers have made with technology since the series’ inception.
However, so many other sections completely miss the mark, failing not only to impress but also dragging the entire campaign down with it. At one point your hands fall at the controls of an assault helicopter unleashing wave after wave of guided missiles on enemies below. In an attempt to move away from a common complaint that such sections in the series are always on-rails with very little player input, the developers have instead let the player have a degree of control over the direction and flight of the helicopter. This was a mistake. Not only are the controls sticky and unresponsive but there is a feeling that the machine is fighting against you, driving you towards an invisible goal. The freedom is fleeting, an illusion quickly dissipated, leaving behind a dull overextended section that outstays its welcome.
Then there’s the dog. Riley, bless him, who follows our heroes faithfully through a chunk of the campaign, as the world collapses around him. He’s a vicious killer. A click of a button orders a charge into the fray to rip out the throat of a target. Here the game lurches dangerously close to that fearful word “babysitting” as if Riley unfortunately dies, admittedly only after rather suicidal orders, the mission is over. At certain points you “synchronize” with Riley, bizarrely merging your own mind with the canine, taking full control, stalking through the weeds, somehow silently taking down enemies with your savage fangs. The result is an underwhelming and unnecessary stealth section that is vastly inferior to the stealth missions in previous Modern Warfare games, an area that Ghosts sadly lacks despite it’s title. Riley is a strange addition, and while there’s obvious reasons for his inclusion, it often feels particularly gimmicky compared to any previous release.
The story of Call of Duty: Ghosts was presented as being more personal and affecting than any previous release. I mean, it was written by award-winning Hollywood director Stephen Gaghan, writer of Syriana and for the excellent Traffic, it seemed like it had definite potential. Not that anyone will notice: sadly it fails to draw any real emotion and presents a completely underdeveloped, unrealized and at times a non-sensical world. It is also hilariously predictable, even for a Call of Duty game, with the only unexpected twist in the entire game disappearing off into the credits.
This plot, which is completely separate to any other release in the series, follows two brothers as they join the titular mysterious team code-named Ghosts who must attempt to save the United States from the clutches of an evil South American agency known as the Federation. Sadly much of America already lies destroyed, flattened by bombs of their own creation launched from a space station meant to protect them from such fate. Intertwined with this rather generic military story is the hunt for Rorke, a man with a surprising knowledge of the Ghost team determined to painfully eliminate every member.
We can assume that the story is meant to feel more personal because the protagonists involved are a family, yet the game never gives the player a chance to really embrace this: the characters barely developed before the bombs drop. Simply calling one of the team your brother or father does not drive the player to have a personal connection to them and having a silent main protagonist only serves to dry the river of emotions further. Meanwhile, the rest of the team are forgettable and interchangeable with barely a single distinguishing feature between them. The story lacks strong characters that have been present in previous releases such as Captain Price or ‘Soap’ Mactavish from the Modern Warfare series. In the end it is hard to feel anything for a team that unilaterally slaughters their hostages and cuts through hordes of enemies, even as the game tries to shovel emotions down your parched throat.
Similarly, the potentially intriguing post-apocalyptic world of the future falls completely flat. You may see glimpses of what has become of the great American superpower following the bombings, often filled with heavy symbolism such as a derelict church sliding into off into the sea below or the old decadence of ruined Las Vegas casino halls, but it is never developed. There is virtually no downtime to appreciate the degradation and at no point is there an indication of what has become of civilian life. Sure, it would never quite reach the desolation of Fallout, but at times Call of Duty: Ghosts feels as if it is deliberately avoiding any depiction of American suffering or hardship, despite it being the premise for the entire plot.
In the end, Call of Duty: Ghosts is not the next-gen game that I was hoping for. Sure it looks pretty on the XBox One, but it is not a game changer. But with the excessive marketing available, people will still buy it and the strangest thing is that they probably should. For a certain type of gamer, Call of Duty is always an essential purchase and having access to the latest round of multi-player provides hundreds of hours of entertainment. Ultimately the institution of Call of Duty will not collapse with this release, it will barely be dented. But unless there is real progress away from its lackluster approach to single-player and real change in the way it tries to draw in new players, as we move onto the next generation we may well have already passed the series’ heyday.