(Xbox 360 Review) Call of Duty: Ghosts

Developer: Infinity Ward
Publisher: Activision
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Players: 1-12
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 8 = Excellent

Call of Duty: Ghosts continues Infinity Ward’s trend of pushing their brand of the popular series further into what-if territory with cinematic, over-the-top set-piece encounters in a near-future scenario that finds the world on the brink of collapse. As with Modern Warfare 3, players find themselves embroiled in a war that will take them around the globe, and slightly above it. As they continue to supplement the series’ fast-paced combat with exciting encounters, more fluid movement mechanics, as well as a new multiplayer component and survival mode, Infinity Ward has provided another solid entry.

Things aren’t going well for the United States. After the destruction of the Middle East’s oil-producing countries, a group of South American nations decided to back their increasing influence with a show of force by forming the Federation. Through this new union, they were able to not only leverage their sizable oil reserves and energy-producing capabilities into greater political and military power but also expand their reach by pushing north through Central America. In an exciting opening sequence set on an orbiting satellite high above the Earth, the Federation manages to wrestle control of a powerful weapon away from the United States and wipe out several major cities, which culminates in a decade-long war that ends in the present-day standoff that players find themselves mired in. Reduced too long to a defensive war, players will come to play a significant role in the military’s new push to take the fight to the Federation as Logan, a soldier who spent the last several years manning California’s last line of defense. Fighting alongside the fabled Ghosts, a Special Operations force that ventures in the surrounding charred no man’s land, they will battle both the armies of the Federation and one of their own.

As with most of the Call of Duty games, the story, for all of its melodrama, serves as little more than a means to put players in chaotic encounters with futuristic weaponry and let them have at it. This is actually for the best, as the game frequently falls flat when it tries to carry that sense of gravity beyond the cutscenes, especially as it relies strongly on a tiresome villain that is the quintessential “knows everything and is always prepared” trope.

Fortunately, the overarching story of two great powers duking it out is enough to provide an excuse to have players engage in shootouts in outer space, defend the beaches of California from an amphibious assault (a nice mirror to the invasion scenario in Modern Warfare 3), outrun tidal waves in Caracas, and assault an oil platform as both helicopter pilot and assaulting infantryman. One of the few elements that the personal storyline contributes, aside from a few conversations with a squadmate brother and commander father, is the inclusion of the much-ballyhooed (and lampooned) German Shepard, Riley. In truth, Riley is only around for a few sequences, both as a playable character—not entirely sure how ‘synching’ allows Logan control, but dog corralling was never my forte—and as a weapon. His absence is actually surprising, given his marketing prominence up to the game’s launch and especially after finding out how handy he is after he’s been sicced on a few enemies. Watching him emerge from a building with his teeth lodged in the arm of a gunman amidst an explosion of wood and glass might be ridiculous—arguably in a pretty awesome way—but I actually came to like the little guy.

Ghosts might not win any awards for storytelling, but the plot was enough to get me blowing stuff up at point A, blowing stuff up at point B, and blowing up stuff in every area in-between, all while offering some of the best action in the genre. The campaign doesn’t go for the branching paths introduced by Treyarch, which is disappointing, but it does utilize the series’ conventions to full effect. However, the game remains as heavily scripted as ever and is very much in line with the franchise’s formula, so those who have become weary of that style over the years won’t find themselves drawn in by Ghosts’ pyrotechnic wiles.

As with every Call of Duty since Black Ops, the story is only one pillar of the experience. The Campaign is just one part of a four-component pack, along with Extinction, Multiplayer, and Squads. The most significant is, unsurprisingly, Multiplayer. In fact, Squads is a layered feature that has a significant presence in Multiplayer as well. Now, players take on the role of a soldier, and it is this soldier that they level up and equip as they take part in one of the 11 multiplayer game types. The player’s gamertag is still displayed on the scoreboard to other players, but the player will see the character they are playing displayed at the top-right corner of the screen. Each character has their own level of experience and loadouts, which are obtained by drawing from the same pool of Squad Points. These points are earned throughout play as players rank up by earning experience in multiplayer games by winning and finishing matches, killing enemies, and fulfilling objectives, which are given on the spot by grabbing briefcases carrying Field Orders left by deceased players, and as part of a series of bimonthly Operations.

The number of points awarded depends on the act that was completed. Field Orders are worth one point, while Operations scale, with one point awarded for the first goal completed and further bonuses awarded based on the number of additional goals completed, up to five during the two-week period. Each new rank comes with two Squad Points. Given that there are 10 characters in total, and each with their own independent unlocks, it will take a lot of points to fully outfit a strong squad. The most dependable source of points is leveling. As part of a Standard, Hardcore, or Clan vs. Clan game, players can take part in traditional match types—Team Deathmatch, Infected, Kill Confirmed, Domination, etc.—as well as new additions Blitz and Cranked to climb the ranks. Blitz is a fast-paced mode where teams attempt to reach their rival’s portal in order to score a point, which teleports the player back to their portal and engages a countdown timer on the accessed portal. Cranked is another fast-paced mode that gives successful players 30 seconds to score another kill before they die, but in the meantime, they get a speed and strength boost. The two modes offer some decent alternatives to the standard modes with very high-energy matches, but they won’t replace the traditional standbys, nor make up for those old favorites dropped, such as Capture the Flag and Headquarters.

Each character’s loadout consists of two weapon types—primary and secondary—along with lethal and tactical gear plus numerous Perks and Strike Packages. The weapons also have several attachments that can be unlocked and equipped (three for primary, two for secondary). Three loadouts are available for each character from the start, and additional loadouts can be unlocked. All of these cost Squad Points. A rank requirement to unlock access to new weapons, weapon mods, and other gear helps with pacing by ensuring that points aren’t hoarded for the best items but spent across all levels for more well-rounded loadouts. The interface is quite good here, with the differences between weapons easily and visually distinguished through the use of several bars, which makes comparison easy and the benefits of add-ons readily apparent; this might sound like a minor point, but it’s a significant plus given the myriad loadouts Squad junkies need to work with. Strike Packages are largely the same as their Kill Streak predecessor, with three categories (Assault, Specialist, and Support) consisting of specific aides that become available once a set of consecutive kills has been reached. One unlock is an AI-controlled German Shepherd–Riley’s squadmate, no doubt–that hurls itself at nearby enemies and handily remains to attack even after the player’s been killed. Specialists forego aides in favor of additional Perks which are granted for as long as the player remains alive. The Perk system itself is slightly different this time around, with the adoption of a new weighted allotment system across seven categories (Awareness, Elite, Equipment, Handling, Resistance, Speed, and Stealth). Instead of choosing a set number, players will be able to equip as many Perks as they can for up to eight points’ worth; for example, faster reloading is worth one point while scavenging is worth three, with the highest point value being five. I like how the system is implemented and how it plays out during combat, though it’s more of a slight but novel reworking of a tried system than a series-altering shift—as with much else about the game.

Multiplayer has had a few changes, with new abilities for characters and greater interactivity with the environment. New to the series is a slide and a contextual lean. Ideally, this would work in combination with the vault mechanic to allow players to leap over or slide up to and behind an object to fire from cover. It doesn’t always work out that way, but the additions do help to make combat more fluid. The primary hitch to a seamless transition is that not every object can be used for cover fire, with some solid objects not bringing up the arrow indicator to denote the ability to lean, which is itself done simply by aiming down the iron sights or scope. I found myself able to use it more often than not, however, which was not the case with the increased number of destructible objects. Adding a touch of Battlefield to the Call of Duty formula, certain items in an environment can be destroyed, from walls to vehicles to structures. These are exciting at first, as they appear to open up all sorts of tactical possibilities, but they are relatively few in number and end up simply becoming par for the course. I like the direction this indicates, and I look forward to its evolution; as it stands now, however, it’s a decent if not entirely fleshed-out addition.

One area where things didn’t improve as much is the level design. In what seems to be a response to the complaints of Black Ops II’s levels being too small, Infinity Ward went the other route and made levels that are too large. In fact, many are filled with debris that clutters up the screen, making it much tougher to distinguish enemies from rubbish and much easier to get hung up on something when running around. The levels are filled with half-destroyed buildings, abandoned vehicles, navigable structures with numerous hallways and catwalks, and side alleys. Maps now resemble spiderwebs, with the pathways connected at set points that then sprawl out in different directions. This approach isn’t necessarily the wrong one, as there are plenty of exciting moments to be had sneaking about piles of debris and peeking around the corner of a convenient store, but in a game that has a max player count of 12, that’s too much ground to cover for too few people. There were several times when I went for extended periods without ever spotting a soul, and that is the very antitheses of the series’ non-stop action approach. I actually found myself playing Domination much more this time around because the control points provided the gravity needed to draw players into hot spots, ensuring that there was going to be plenty of action in those areas. I was also surprised to find myself still spawning next to enemies, which is something I’ve come to find especially frustrating about the series. As before, there were times when I was unable to react to an attack simply because there wasn’t enough time to react given the close proximity of an enemy (or enemies). I’m at a loss as to why this hasn’t been better addressed.

It was because of those frustrations that I found myself drawn to Squads. This is the mode where the various characters that were leveled in Multiplayer can be put to the test. This also marks the debut of a robust bot-supported mode in the franchise, with players capable of playing and leveling their characters against the computer or other players. There are four modes in total: Squad Assault, Squad vs. Squad, Safeguard, and Wargame. The combination of modes allows players to lead their squad against an AI-controlled squad or a player-led squad; alternatively, they can also fight waves of enemies with other players against the AI, or team up against an AI-controlled squad with another player. Unlike the loadout interface, it can be tricky to navigate through Squads, as it’s not always readily apparent when a game is loading with AI allies and enemies or when it’s a multiplayer session with other players; the modes often offer multiple possibilities, and more obvious visual or textual cues would have been nice. It’s also not easy to switch between characters, restricted as it is to a menu in Squads rather than tied to a hotkey or other similar shortcut. Aside from those quibbles, the mode is a lot of fun. Wargame offers the chance to practice against bots at one of five levels, from Recruit to Veteran, and while bots will never replace real players, it was nice to be able to practice solo and get some experience with the maps and refresh my skills before jumping into public rounds with players who have already shot through the ranks.

Rounding out the modes is a new addition to the series, Extinction. This is a Horde-style mode where players must team up to drill and destroy aliens around a town. This doesn’t have the same nerve-wracking tension of Zombies, but it does offer a very fast and frenzied alternative that is fairly addictive in its own right. Players have skill trees that they can expand by leveling, and with each new skill, a new set of skill-specific upgrades become available that can be accessed with points earned during the match. These reset after the match, so the skill tree is more of a template that offers different possibilities rather than a set of permanent upgrades. The skills offer a wide range of abilities, with some having upgrades that benefit the player more than the team and vice versa; the options allow for a mix-and-match range of possibilities, which is far more compelling than a traditional player-or-team upgrade system. Money earned by killing aliens can be spent to purchase some of the guns lying around or to set up defenses, such as turning on an electric fence or activating a defense turret. There are also bags that can be searched for additional gear, but lagging behind too long to rummage through leftovers might lead to being overwhelmed as the aliens wait only so long before regrouping for their next assault, and any stragglers left behind will be in serious trouble. Being able to play this solo is also a boon, since players can not only unlock some skills, explore levels, and come up with different defense setups before joining others online, but it also offers some fast play sessions for those looking for a quick action fix.

Call of Duty: Ghosts is more conservative than Black Ops II, but what it lacks in boldness it makes up for with a bombastic campaign, an increased focus on fluidity, and enjoyable new modes. Despite the gravelly voiced narrative and know-it-all villain making the story too silly at times, the set-piece battles are as over-the-top as ever. And while multiplayer can be overly frustrating at times, with its nasty respawn points and gangly maps, the addition of Squads and its persistent characters and Extinction provide great alternatives for gamers wanting multiplayer action but less stress. Ghosts won’t make converts out of those opposed to heavily scripted shooters, but it will provide plenty of explosive action for those who have taken to the formula.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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