Note: this review was completed after attending an Activision sponsored event that covered room and board and provided access to a final build of the game.
The single player portion of Call of Duty: Ghosts is kind of what you'd expect from the past few games from Infinity Ward, a modern setting with ultra modern weaponry that I'm sure is but a twinkle in some despot's eye. But rather than just call this Modern Warfare 4, they went with the subtitle of Ghosts, focusing on the seemingly supernatural soldiers (say that three times fast) and the story of the latest two additions to the team. This time around you take up the mantle of Logan Walker, who unfortunately suffers from SPS, 'Silent Protagonist Syndrome.' Instead the big talent of this game is reserved for Logan's brother David, a.k.a Hesh, who is voiced by Brandon Routh. He'll be guiding you along the roughly six hour campaign, giving you orders alongside your father, Elias, as you combat The Federation. The Federation is a reborn South America that has united under one banner after the oil producing companies of the Middle East run dry, and as they move north toward American soil, they have another target, an American weapons satellite called Odin. After a coup in space, The Federation levels a number of major cities in America, and this is where Logan and Hesh are committed to following in their father's footsteps, fighting a bloody war for nearly a decade, where the story truly begins. Fighting alongside the Ghosts, with their trusty dog Riley, Logan and Hesh will go through eighteen levels of gameplay that almost feel like they were marked off a checklist. Jungle level? Check. Space level? Check. Underwater level? Check. Even the oil rig level feels like the guys at Infinity Ward are treading on familiar ground here. And their primary villain of Ghosts feels like a rehash of sorts. I won't really reveal anything, but it becomes fairly obvious that there will be a Ghosts 2 from a story telling standpoint.
Oddly enough I find that point to be compelling and am hopeful for the sequel. Despite all that I would be remiss if I didn't admit to having a certain fondness for the rappelling mission. While the weaponry hasn't evolved all that much, there are a few new wrinkles to make things interesting. Case in point, Riley, your faithful German Shepard, who can act as a 'fire and forget' missile that will take down enemy combatants. Though you've got to be careful because he will become a target when he's sent out and if he dies, you'll be seeing the failure screen. For all that he has been touted in Activision's promotional materials, the amount of time he'll be present on the battlefield is disappointingly short. Though I suppose it makes sense since you'll be globe-trotting and it's kind of impractical to have a dog around. What's also disappointing is that his most impressive feats are relegated to scripted events, and once he exits the game he's demoted to being the token dog model for use in multiplayer modes.
Ah the multiplayer, the real meat and potatoes of the CoD experience. Really, this is what we're all here for, and really this is where the franchise is at its best. But this year, something feels a bit off. Part of the problem is the exhaustive amount of menus you'll need to traverse to get anything done. Now if you're just looking to get in and play, sure it's a simple matter, and will possibly be even easier with the companion app that should be available now. But if you're sticking strictly to the game to get everything done, get ready to do a lot of prep work, as that one minute between rounds barely feels like it is enough time to get a load-out ready for the next round. Thanks to the new player editor, you'll be spending a great deal of time customizing your personal soldier, which now also includes female combatants, who are oddly missing from the single player campaign, aside from two instances. Squad points are your tokens that allow you to unlock items in multiplayer, and you'll earn them just by leveling up, and by completing 'Field Orders' which can randomly be dropped by other players when they day. But a lot of things are still gated by your rank.
So you'll still be doing a lot of grinding to get some of the better stuff in the game, like perks and killstreaks. I just want to get this out the way and say I hate the new perks screen. It is information overload, and initially I didn't understand the layout at all. Fortunately the game has a number of ways to test builds before you invest your points so it's possible to plan out your growth accordingly. The killstreaks have also received a bit of an update and have had some older ones swapped for some new toys, like the dog companion who can one-shot your opponents, or the IMS system that acts like a bouncing betty, but with multiple charges, perfect for hiding near objective points in modes like Search and Destroy. Even the mighty Odin can be called down with enough kills, and the results can be devastating. And now, those who feel like using support killstreaks can get in on the action, even if they aren't racking up the kills, as progress toward those killstreaks remains even after death.
To try and quantify how good the maps in Call of Duty: Ghosts has proven to be difficult for me in the past, since I felt like the series peaked at Modern Warfare 2. It was kind of refreshing to find that I enjoyed a lot of the maps and I feel like I have a new favorite in Stonehaven which is a large open field littered with broken down stone buildings and a large castle in one of the corners. I am a player that enjoys a lot of long range combat so this map greatly satisfied my desire to have a sniper load-out. There were also a great number of tight quarters maps that seem to have a bit of difficulty in managing spawn points, as I found a number of times in games on the map, Strikezone I would spawn in right in the face of enemy combatants. That map in particular has an interesting mechanic, sometimes during the middle of a fight, and orbital strike from the Odin system would come down and level the whole playing field, changing the battlefield drastically. Of the fifteen maps there are certainly a few duds, but overall this collection seems to be one of the most well balanced in terms of how players can switch up their playstyle and aren't just pigeonholed into a general archetype.
As for gameplay modes there have been a few shake-ups and ship-outs in trying to get players out of the standard team deathmatch. Now players have access to one of my least favorite modes, Cranked (based off the Jason Statham movie), where players are forced to chain kills within the given time limit or simply die in a team deathmatch setting. It's hectic and chaotic as all hell, but it's just not that fun. The Search and Destroy mode is present but now has a slightly tweaked brother in Search and Rescue. Where as in Search and Destroy you can't respawn after dying, Search and Rescue allows players to revive fallen comrades by picking up their dropped dog-tags, alternatively this prevents enemy players from being able to respawn, so there is an incentive to pick up the tags of a player on the opposing team. Another new game mode is Blitz, which appears to have taken the place of Capture the Flag. In Blitz, players simply need to reach the opposing team's goal to score. They are then returned back to their side, and must wait for the timer to expire before attempting to cross the goal again. This mode can get pretty messy, but can lead to some hilarious moments, like attempting to use the new sprint and slide to reach the goal only to come up just a bit short and wind up with a face full of shotgun shell.
There's a new variant to Kill Confirmed as well called Grind, where instead if simply picking up the enemy's dog tags, you need to turn them in to a goal point to score, which gives this mode a little bit of a nod to the now missing, Capture the Flag. Lastly there's the Hunted mode, which is all kinds of insanity. Players start with a very basic load-out that is very low on ammo, and ammo crates will occasionally drop down on to the field but they will only have a limited number of weapons inside of them, and what you get is totally random.
The other major new multiplayer gameplay mode is Squads. This mode allows players to build a squad of bots and train them to take on other players and their squads. The AI in this mode at the base level is pretty smart, and they'll continue to grow even when you aren't playing as you'll constantly be uploading their stats, provided you're playing online in the first place, and other players will be able to take on your squad, or you can play against a friend in the Squad Versus Squad mode. Though the amount of time I got to spend with this mode is minimal, it did have an interesting mode in it, Safeguard, which is similar to the horde mode of games past, defeat a wave of enemies, get a moment to catch your breath, and repeat until you either reach the end, or until you die. Or if you're feeling especially saucy, you can go for an infinite number of rounds, just to see how you stack up. Occasionally there is a bonus round that drops a bunch of killstreak rewards, which allows you to be a roving ball of destruction for the waves of enemies coming at you. You can also call upon a squad member in this mode which is perfect for when you need a late game revival as they are perfectly capable of fending off enemies and resurrecting fallen allies.
Lastly there is Wargames which is another Squad versus Squad variant. All in all though, Squads felt a little tacked on, and while I can see it being fun for some, I felt like in any of the matches I played online, the bots were more capable than me, and I wasn't really contributing anything to the battle, and I wasn't compelled to keep playing it when I could be playing Hardcore modes. The last new Multiplayer mode will be unlocked after you go through a few levels in the campaign. This new mode called Extinction could be looked at as the bigger brother to Black Ops 2's Zombies mode. This time though, aliens have been unearthed by the Odin strikes, and they've shown up topside and are wreaking havoc, so you'll be moving from point to point to destroy their hives. As you play, you'll earn skill points that can be slotted into one of the five abilities you can select at the outset. Each of these abilities will aid in your survival, and by ranking up you unlock more, so rather than start with a pistol like you initially do, you can opt to start with a magnum, or instead of being proficient with weaponry, you can opt to be a tank and get increased health bonuses by using skill points. You'll also earn cash during gameplay which can be used to purchase weaponry or turn on traps like electric fences. Playing this game solo is like a particular kind of hell because when you get overrun it is incredibly hard to turn the tables and take control of the map. If you're going to playing Extinction, play it with friends. Clan participation is present in Call of Duty: Ghosts, though it will be managed primarily outside of the game, this will allow players to join a clan with other players regardless of platform, which is a welcome attitude to take. The Clan Wars also allows players to earn rewards like bonus experience for specific multiplayer modes, and new skins to unlock to customize your characters.
I've ragged on the PS3 version for being ugly, and the Xbox 360 version is still a step down from the next-gen versions in terms of visuals, but surprisingly, it still manages to look very good. The actual visuals are still inconsistent, because for every fantastic looking set piece there seems to be an equally ugly texture that drags things back down, and you'll be getting a good look at a lot of textures as you duck and cover behind things for shelter. But when you're walking through the jungle level and you just watch the water roll down the rocks and see the effects of the mist through the sunlight, you still have hope that you won't have to invest in a next-gen console for at least another year or two when games can look this good.
Audio manages to be solid throughout the game, with a number of neat details which are best on display during the underwater level and the space levels. It's good to see developers recognizing that these kinds of situations will drastically change how things are heard. Music is kind of just there, and didn't really evoke anything from me other than giving me a sense of urgency when necessary. The voice acting work is solid and Brandon Routh's performance is probably why your character is a mute, because he steals the show. The rest of the cast is pretty spot on thankfully, and while they tried to keep them to a minimum, there are still a few of those 'Logan go do x' lines that get repeated when you decide to look for the games hidden collectibles that get to be a bit tiresome.
So there's no denying that Call of Duty: Ghosts is a quality product. But personally, I don't find it to be better than last year's Black Ops 2. This might be a compilation of Infinity Ward's best hits as it were, and while that's nothing to scoff at, it isn't doing the franchise a whole lot of favors in driving the brand forward. The story was good, but nothing groundbreaking for the series, and the new game modes for multiplayer seem like stuff that could have just been added in as a downloadable pack if they really wanted to. But if you're the type to move on to the newest iteration of Call of Duty on an annual basis then you don't need me to tell you that you can pick this up with little worry, because Ghosts will certainly satisfy, but for me, I'm hoping they can really do something new next year.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
In a past life I worked with Interplay, EA, Harmonix, Konami, and a number of other developers. Now I'm working for a record label, a small arm of casual games in a media company along with Gaming Nexus, and anywhere else that sees fit to employ me.