Depending on who you talk to, Call of Duty: Ghosts is either a banal sequel or a fulfilling one. It’s the series at its worst, or it’s the series changing just enough to keep it fresh.
Which is it, really? Both.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is not a reinvention of the first-person shooter. It’s not even a full reinvention of the Call of Duty 4 formula, but Infinity Ward has played around at the margins just enough to give Ghosts an identity of its own. That’s no small feat, given the every-year COD release schedule, plus how other shooters have borrowed from its bag of tricks.
Before we delve into what makes Ghosts different, let’s talk about what keeps it grounded firmly as Call Of Duty. There’s no way to get around it, the single-player campaign here is an uninspiring mess, nearly a pastiche bastardization of Modern Warfare’s globe-trotting exploits and Black Ops more personal tales. There are some stealth sections, and a few environments are more open than others, but for the most part? Been there, shot that. It’s not overly long; I finished it in two sittings, neither of which went much over three hours. Up the difficulty, and you’ll be in for an eight-hour long slog (perhaps longer, depending on your skill level).
In that time, Infinity Ward managed to rip off Bane’s escape from The Dark Knight Rises, borrowed heavily from SkyFall’s Shanghai skyscraper scene, seemingly go Palpatine (hey, let’s just rebuild the Death St- er, Odin), and made a sniper scene that damn near plagiarized GoldenEye. The skyscraper scene is a real standout, it must be said, but the seams in this blockbuster story are not very well hidden. This COD borrows liberally from a wide variety of source material. However, there are some original moments. I somehow managed to get eaten by a shark, and a dog takes down a helicopter…which, all things considered, might have been the most realistic part of the game.
The most maddening thing is that there is real potential in the plot. This near-future is bleak, and although the prologue isn’t exactly well formed (they’ve put America as an underdog against a united South American bloc of countries, because…nevermind, it’s Call Of Duty), there’s at least room to stretch a new universe populated with new characters. This is a story of fathers and sons, soldiers and brothers, choices made and not made. With a little more care (and much better voice acting), this tale could have been touching. Remember the nuke scene from Call Of Duty 4? It was very nearly poignant. Ghosts never reaches that height, even when you’re watching important characters die right in front of you.
Lastly, for a game that had a multiplayer reveal so focused on the inclusion of female soldiers, would it have killed Infinity Ward to actually include one in their offline story? Ghosts may take place in an apocalyptic near-future, but it could just as easily have been in the era of Mad Men. In this respect, Ghosts is just another in a long line of Call of Sausage-Fests.
So where does it differentiate itself? When you stop playing offline, and connect online.
Size and parity are the orders of the day. You’ve never played a bigger Call of Duty, and you’ve never played one quite so well balanced. You don’t see many people sporting a 2:1 kill/death ratio, and those who do usually aren’t running and gunning ninjas. Patience and strategy are rewarded in Ghosts.
It starts with the maps and weapons; as we’ve discussed, finding the right balance between them can be a tricky thing. Thankfully, this is one area that has been completely nailed. The gigantic maps are still dense (Swiss cheese dies hard), but they feature plenty of open sight lines and structural verticality. Whereas Black Ops 2 was a playground for submachine guns and shotguns, you have to use them much more carefully in Ghosts, since their damage range drops off a cliff after a few feet. Assault rifles are back to their rightful “do-it-all” place, and light machine guns offer you greater range at the expense of mobility. Meanwhile, sniper rifles can’t be quick-scoped quite so handily, leaving them to abide by their long-range niche – the maps encourage sniping from high places, not camping in the weeds. Finally, there’s a new weapon category this time around: marskman rifles have the range to defeat assault rifles plus the mobility to flank sniper rifles, enabling a patient-but-decisive play-style not very well fulfilled by previous game’s single-shot assault rifles, such as Modern Warfare’s G3 and M14.
This balance makes for precious few dominant weapons on maps that aren’t easily dominated. Infinity Ward has found multiplayer parity, where there are fewer cheap deaths in a game that values teamwork above all else. Want a UAV? You’re going to have to work with your teammates to set up SAT COMs (two SAT COMs equal one UAV, three show a faster map sweep, four make an advanced UAV). One-man armies are fairly useless when faced with a team working together. Bravo, Infinity Ward. You’ve brought balance to Call Of Duty.
In line with the better balance found in maps and weapons is the new system for unlocking weapons, perks, and killstreaks in Ghosts. In earlier Call of Duty games, newcomers were stuck with decidedly weak weapons for a good part of the game, with some of the more dominant weapons and perk combinations only being unlocked after dozens of hours of play, at higher rank. In Ghosts, every single weapon, weapon attachment, perk, and killstreak is unlocked by spending a new form of currency called “squad points,” allowing players to form a complete and comfortable loadout much earlier than in previous games. These squad points must be earned, however, with both skill and patience: you can earn some by fulfilling difficult field orders in a match, by completing classic challenges (“kill 100 enemies with red dot sight”), by ranking up, and by simply performing a number of headshots, bomb plants, longshots, and other such feats within a match. This system certainly makes it easier to unlock your preferred loadout if you already have one in mind, but if you are looking to experiment with every weapon, attachment, perk, and killstreak available, perhaps the grind will be even tougher than before. As always with this series, new, godsend features can still bring novel aches.
However, like the campaign, the multiplayer isn’t wholly original. The points system used to customize your character (you have a finite amount to spend on weapon attachments, secondary weapons, and perks) was first seen in last year’s Black Ops 2. There are exceptionally large maps that wouldn’t feel out of place in Battlefield (Stonehaven might as well be called “suck it, Dice”), aesthetic choices that could’ve been yanked from The Last of Us (one almost expects to see an Ellen Page lookalike in Siege) and the bullet damage can sometimes reek of SOCOM. But unlike the campaign, the multiplayer fits together seamlessly. Ghosts doesn’t look or play like Black Ops 2; while it has a strong family resemblance to the Modern Warfare trilogy, this is obviously a sister, not a twin.
There’s even some genuinely good art direction. Infinity Ward is famed for desaturated brown/grey worlds, but there’s some wonderful touches throughout Ghosts. Fuchsia is a theme – it colors everything from blood splatter to tractors.
One final point – all of the balance we’ve discussed has thankfully transferred to the controls. For that, we can thank the studio that ported Ghosts to the Wii U, Treyarch. You can play this game just as effectively with dual analog sticks as you can with the Wii remote’s pointer. Whereas BO2 shipped with pointer controls that were fairly gimped, hipfire finally feels right in Ghosts. We offer a hearty thanks to Treyarch for listening to the criticism, and for crafting pointer controls that rival the very best any Nintendo system has ever seen (including first-party efforts). Kudos also on a faithful port, that despite some rough texture work here or there, shows some real technical wizardry (especially the online visuals). The next-gen lighting system may not have made its way to the Wii U (yet), but what is here is dazzling.
Call of Duty will no doubt continue to be denounced with calls of “stagnation” and “rehashing,” as it has since Modern Warfare 2, but what merit is there to this criticism? Call of Duty: Ghosts is a variation of a widely accepted, well-established, and beloved formula (in spite of contrarians), yet one that manages to be more sophisticated and balanced. Despite the sheep arguing against “sheep buying the same game every year,” the sales and popularity of Call of Duty show that Ghosts never needed to reinvent the wheel – it just needed to make one sexy piece of rubber.
- Good grief, the online multiplayer is good. This is the most balanced, strategic COD we've ever seen, wrapped in the best art Infinity Ward has ever created, and topped by the best controls Treyarch has yet devised. There's tons of content, plus new modes and co-op Extinction, which deserve their own write-up. You can easily spend 200 hours in Ghosts without breaking a sweat, making this one of the best values you can buy this holiday.
- The single-player campaign may be par for the course for recent CODs, but that isn't an excuse. The material is here to make something far greater than a trite dudebro shooter, but the potential is not realized. The lame non-ending is a kick in the face.
- As of this review's publication, the spawn system is somewhat glitched. While it favoring spawning near your teammates is a great thing, its current implementation can cause frustrating and hilarious situations, such as spawning in front of a teammate's guard dog.
- As of the first patch, and this review's publication, the framerate is distractingly uneven. Like with Black Ops 2, it's possible that it will be sorted out soon enough with a patch - in our opinion, it would do best to remain locked even at 30fps than to shift uncontrollably between 30 and 60 frames per second.