Another year, another Call of Duty game. At this point, they’re such a regular occurrence that farmers could set their almanacs by them. While fans of the series, which has more collective hours played than humanity has existed, period, are doubtlessly thrilled, others are beginning to show signs of battle fatigue. As with other perennial offerings like Madden or FIFA, the challenge inherent to the franchise is keeping it fresh, offering new content, and enough innovation to warrant consumers plunking down another $60 for a new game that isn’t just reheated leftovers with a glossy coat of paint. Does Call of Duty: Ghosts rise to the challenge? Not exactly.
Seeing as I always play through the campaign first, let’s start there. Call of Duty‘s meat and potatoes may lie in the multiplayer arena, but Infinity Ward made a name for itself with glitzy, high octane single-player stories that put the player in the starring role of their very own Mark Wahlberg action film (Boston accent optional). Unfortunately, Ghosts seems to be coasting on past successes rather than pushing the envelope, resulting in a hollow, stilted, and unenjoyably arcade-y experience.
Ignore the mooks saying the campaign only lasts for four hours; I finished it in about six to eight, which is still less content than I’d like in a campaign, but enough to feel like a complete experience, or at least a solid framework. Ghosts takes place ten years after an extinction-level event that devastates the United States and destroys the Middle East, forcing the United States into a brutal war against the oil-producing nations of South America who now call themselves The Federation. As Logan Walker, you wind up joining an elite black ops force known as the Ghosts, fighting alongside your brother Logan (Brandon Routh), father Elias (Stephen Lang), the game’s true star/attack dog Riley, and several other generically gruff soldiers, on a globetrotting mission to save the world from the onetime Ghost turned supervillain Rorke (Kevin Gage).
That all sounds well and good in the abstract, but it’s such well-worn territory at this point that it feels rather cookie-cutter. Despite being able to play as Riley (briefly) and use him on several missions, the characters and those crazy over-the-top plot moments that are supposed to leave you breathless and on the edge of your seat seem like a pale imitation of games past by comparison. The story does have its moments, like the opening sequence where you fight off enemy astronauts in zero gravity, but it is more predictable than a 22-year-old girl ordering a pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks.
Gameplay-wise, the campaign feels underwhelming, as its duck-and-cover map layout and shooting gallery enemy mechanics lack the randomness and excitement offered by the human element in the multiplayer. New additions like the ability to knee-slide and contextual leaning to peek around corners are nice, but ultimately unnecessary. They feel inessential, whereas you want gameplay changes to feel seamless and progressive like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2‘s addition of the manual. Similarly, the omission of certain mechanics, like Black Ops 2‘s multiple endings, seems baffling by comparison, giving the sense that Ghosts is more style than substance.
In terms of multiplayer, the fast-twitch shooter inside of you will be satisfied, as it’s essentially more of the same hugely successful formula. Addictive, run-and-gun fun and plenty of customization options are offset slightly by the head-scratching omission of certain game modes and the decidedly broken spawn points on some maps. No launch on this scale will be entirely smooth, but given that this is an annual event, you’d think they’d have it on lock by now.
New game modes like Cranked are a fun way to spice up the standard team deathmatch tedium, and co-op Extinction mode brings the all the fun of Horde mode and murdering scores of aliens to the world of Call of Duty at long last. There’s a location-based meta-game that integrates social networking with your endless attempts at humiliating your opponents via killcam, but I haven’t had much time to futz around with it outside the early press day I attended. In short, fans of the multiplayer will find plenty to like, but it’s a little disappointing when compared to the leaps and bounds between Battlefield 3 and Battlefield 4.
Graphically speaking, the game looks good, and is on par with other high-end, late-cycle offerings. I played it on the Xbox 360, and only noticed jaggies and pixelation when I got stupidly up close and personal to textures I had no business inspecting. I’m told that the PS3 and PS4 versions look better, but let’s be honest – you weren’t buying this for the immense graphical update, now, were you?
Call of Duty: Ghosts is pretty much exactly what you’d expect, for better or worse. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel because if your massively successful formula ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But, to mix metaphors, people will only eat plain hamburgers for so long before they start wanting cheese or bacon or a brioche bun as well. Riley may be their attempt at Animal Style, but this feels more like they were trying to turn around a quick title rather than take the series to the next level. And after Ghosts, I’m starting to get awfully tired of hamburgers.
Final thoughts: While there’s hours of fun to be had both on and offline, Call of Duty: Ghosts feels more like a lateral move rather than a step forward for the long-running series.