Call of Duty: Ghosts is the best evidence in years of a franchise going through the motions.
The long-running joke about Call of Duty — generally espoused by non-fans — goes like this: Each year’s installment of Call of Duty is only slightly different from the previous year’s entry. It’s not one of those ha-ha jokes, and similar bon mots have been lobbed at games like Madden for years.
But Call of Duty: Ghosts demonstrates an unwillingness to change much and presents a real shortage of new ideas. Ghosts is a step backwards from 2012’s Black Ops 2 — and the weakest game in the series since 2009’s Modern Warfare 2.
Multiplayer has long been Call of Duty’s linchpin. Black Ops 2 took some innovative steps to reinvent the formula, especially on the character creation front. Call of Duty: Ghosts appears at first glance to take similar strides. It introduces the ability to fully customize the look of your multiplayer avatar, letting players pick from dozens of head and uniform options. It even introduces the ability to play as a female character for the first time in the franchise. But these customization options have zero impact on the gameplay. Instead, Call of Duty: Ghosts relies on a modified version of Black Ops 2‘s Pick 10 create-a-class system.
With Pick 10, players could spend up to 10 points, each point allocated to a gun, attachment or perk. Pick 10 was incredibly easy to understand, but it also allowed for a remarkable amount of customization. This has been replaced by an unnecessarily complex Perk Points system, where certain perks are given certain values. For example, you can either select five perks worth one point each or one perk worth five points each. You can also earn additional points by leaving secondary weapons or grenades behind.
It’s a functional system, but it’s a step down from the simplicity of Pick 10, which made character creation more digestible and enjoyable. This new system doesn’t have any obvious upsides, and I can see it overwhelming newcomers.
Primary testing for this review was on a PlayStation 4, though I was able to test the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions. Xbox One impressions are embargoed until Nov. 12. The difference between current- and next-gen should be noticeable to anyone who has played a Call of Duty game before. There’s an added sharpness on PS4, and the textures are of a higher resolution, but the most obvious improvements were on the lighting side.
On current-gen, certain scenes, like an underwater level and a nighttime skyscraper assault, felt drab and flat. The improved lighting effects on PS4 brought these same scenes to life. It should also be noted that I’ve never much enjoyed playing a first-person shooter on a PS3 controller, but the PS4 controller was a vast improvement, putting it easily on par with the Xbox 360 controller.
Much has been said about the fact that the PlayStation 4 version of the game runs at a native 1080p, and while that may be true, the game did struggle to maintain a steady frame rate, especially in hectic multiplayer matches. The PS3 version of the game ran into similar problems, whereas the Xbox 360 version maintained a steady 60 frames per second.
Call of Duty: Ghosts makes more positive contributions to the series with a shift to ground-based kill streaks. Since the original Modern Warfare, players have needed to keep their eyes on the skies. UAVs and deadly helicopters, called in by successive kills, were often a frustrating nuisance, distracting players from the task at hand.
In Ghosts, the vast majority of kill streaks have migrated to the ground. UAVs are now SatComs that are more effective when placed in multiple locations. Players can also earn an attack dog to protect them at close range. In both cases, these kill streaks can be negated by standard weapons fire, without the need for special equipment like a ground-to-air launcher. There are still a few high-level, air-based kill streaks, but they lack the overpowering effectiveness of past years and are easily avoided or taken down with machine-gun fire.
Call of Duty: Ghosts introduces a handful of new multiplayer modes (joining classics like Kill Confirmed and Domination), with varying degrees of success. None of them feel dramatically different — instead, they feel more like modified versions of existing modes.
Search and Rescue: A modification of Search and Destroy. Players are still given just one life per round, but if their teammate collects their dog tag before the enemy does, they’ll be revived. A great way to encourage teams to work together more while punishing lone-wolf sniping.
Infected: A shameless lift from the Halo franchise, Infected has a team of survivors with shotguns who are turned into melee-only zombies as each one is picked off. Enjoyable, but far from original.
Hunted: This deathmatch equips two opposing teams with pistols, but every few minutes crates with better weapons will drop around the map. Silly fun, but not especially competitive or strategic.
Grind: A modification of Kill Confirmed where collected dog tags need to be deposited at two “banks” around the map. This game type encourages more teamwork than standard Kill Confirmed.
Blitz: Like Capture the Flag without the need to return the flag. Run into your enemy’s base to score, and instantly teleport you back to your own base. A strange, frustrating mode that could use some tweaking.
Cranked: A modified version of Team Deathmatch where a kill gives the killer a 30-second speed boost. But if those 30 seconds run out before getting another kill, the player explodes. Jason Statham, call your lawyer.
This change takes the most frustrating moments of Call of Duty multiplayer — when you’re being constantly obliterated by an unseen force — out of the equation. It’s a smart decision that I hope carries through to future games.
The ability to unlock just about anything you want at just about any level is sure to be more controversial. Leveling up earns Squad Points, which can be spent to unlock guns, equipment, attachments and perks. None of the guns or equipment have level requirements, so they can be unlocked in any order so long as you have enough points to spend. Perks, on the other hand, do have level requirements, but you can pay a tariff of Squad Points to unlock perks early if you’re so inclined.
If you know exactly what you want, you can have everything unlocked by level 20. This amount of freedom is good, though it does take some of the satisfaction and drive from leveling up, with only new badges and prestige icons to keep you moving through the levels.
Despite these changes to the multiplayer, Call of Duty: Ghosts too often feels like a me-too product, never breaking entirely new ground. Meanwhile, Infinity Ward has stripped out some much-loved features from Black Ops 2, including League Play, replay recording and player-created emblems. These elements were extremely popular with the Call of Duty and eSports communities, and it’s hard to see their removal as anything but an overall step in the wrong direction.
As players progress through multiplayer, they’ll be able to create up to 10 different soldiers (each with their own ranks and loadouts). They can then bring these soldiers into a mode called Squads, where they can be used in bot matches that pit you and your AI-controlled team against a friend and his or her AI-controlled team. Or you can take on AI-controlled squads from around the world, if you so choose.
Unfortunately, the bulk of Squads ends up feeling like glorified bot matches (previously called Combat Training). The lone bright spot: a modified version of Spec Ops Survival from Modern Warfare 3, where you take on waves of enemies with three other players while upgrading your weapons and kill streaks.
Call of Duty: Ghosts multiplayer feels undercooked, but the campaign feels like it’s frozen.
With the end of the Modern Warfare series in 2011 and the dawn of a new console generation on the horizon, Ghosts could start from scratch, with no backstory to hold it back. A new storyline and new characters in a new setting seemed like a great opportunity.
That freedom nonetheless results in one of the sloppiest storylines in Call of Duty history. In the near future, South America has unified as “The Federation” and become a major military player on the world stage. After some unseen conflict between The Federation and the United States, the two sign a peace treaty. This is quickly broken as The Feds invade a U.S.-controlled weaponized space station and use it to wipe every major U.S. city off the map.
This all happens in the first level.
Riley, made famous in Ghosts‘ first reveal, is a surprising boon. He’ll join you on a few of the campaign missions and you can essentially order him to attack enemies with the touch of a button. He can make short work of enemies behind cover, and his incredibly lifelike animations actually make him the most likable character in the game. But Riley is massively underutilized, appearing in just a small handful of levels.
The bulk of Call of Duty: Ghosts is set several years after the attack, with remaining U.S. forces attempting to hold off an all-out Federation invasion. The nation’s only hope for survival rests with The Ghosts, a small group of highly trained soldiers that use guerrilla tactics against overwhelming odds. You play as Logan, who, paired with his brother Hesh, seeks to join the Ghosts and fight off the Federation menace.
Logan is mercifully mute, but Hesh… well, Hesh talks a lot. He’s voiced by Brandon Routh of Superman Returns fame, and I couldn’t help but pity him for having to read the lines he was given. Ghosts also introduces an antagonist so underdeveloped and uninteresting that I hoped that both he and Hesh would bite it by the end — all so we wouldn’t be stuck with this pair for more games.
Ignoring the story, there are a few bright spots throughout the campaign. A nighttime infiltration mission on a skyscraper was well-paced and tense, as was an undercover mission set in a snowy mountain region. But these bits were far outnumbered by standard Call of Duty levels involving battleships being attacked by waves of enemies and dull assaults on research facilities.
Ghosts flails as it tries to find new and interesting ways for missions to play out. Throughout the game’s climax, I often asked myself, “Why am I here? What is this even accomplishing?” By the end of the campaign, I was still scratching my head.
If there’s one area that Call of Duty: Ghosts really nails, it’s the brand-new Extinction mode. Extinction is a four-player cooperative mode — akin to Zombies in previous games but with new mechanics that make the experience far more rewarding. Unlike Zombies, which revels in its opaque, mysterious nature, Extinction provides a very clear objective: You and your squad must annihilate an alien horde scattered throughout a small Midwestern town. To do this, one of you must carry a drill to several alien hives and use it to destroy these hives as waves of aliens pour in. This all takes place in one giant map, and you can often choose which hives to destroy first, slowly making your way to the central hive in the middle of downtown.
Extinction is so enjoyable because of its focus on actual cooperation. Before starting an Extinction map, players can select skill loadouts, choosing from options like Medic to Assault to Body Armor to Exploding Ammo. As you progress through a match of Extinction, you’ll earn skill points to spend in that session to increase these skills even further.
Ideally you’ll have four players specced out with completely different abilities, and that variety will be what wins the day. Within two matches of Extinction, my squad and I were planning tactics and shouting for ammo refills. It’s an obvious shift in intent, and Zombies fans may be discouraged by the lack of mystery. But for players just looking to have fun with friends, Extinction is the highlight of Call of Duty: Ghosts.
Ghosts never goes beyond the barest requirements for a sequel
Call of Duty: Ghosts is mired in a distinct lack of ambition. Outside of the stellar Extinction mode, Ghosts follows more often than it leads, bringing with it familiar missions, modes and experiences. Ghosts feels like an accountant’s sequel, with just enough content to justify a new installment. It just never goes beyond that.
Call of Duty: Ghosts was reviewed at an event held in Southern California in late October by Activision and Infinity Ward. Ghosts was played on debug PS3s and Xbox 360s; time was also provided on PS4 and Xbox One development hardware. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.