“Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss”

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Game Info
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Infinity Ward
Genre: First Person Shooter
Release Date: : 11/5/2013

 

Sometimes franchises get old and start to feel familiar or weathered. That feeling sinks in throughout Call of Duty: Ghosts. Ghosts has a single-player campaign that feels like a love-child of a James Bond and Michael Bay movie, and its multiplayer, while competitive as ever, still feels so rehashed that it could easily be a Modern Warfare match with some minor tweaks to aesthetics and mechanics. This InFocus Review will tackle the good and the bad of Call of Duty: Ghosts, from the campaign to the thousands of players competing in online matches.

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STORY: Branching away from the storylines of the previous Modern Warfare and Black Ops games, Ghosts begins a new epic, kicked off with the destruction of San Diego, Los Angeles, and several other Southwestern communities by kinetic rods fired from an orbiting military satellite. The Federation, a USSR-like dictatorship formed from the oil-rich nations of South America has taken over the US Military’s Odin space-weapon and used it to decimate the west coast before it was eventually shut down. Now, an entire city gone, the military stretched thin, and the Federation’s massive arming sweeping up from the south, America is the underdog in the newest World War.

A giant wall is constructed along the border and without the resources to man a huge standing army like the good ol’ days, Uncle Sam goes the opposite route, relying on small, highly trained special forces teams known as Ghosts to get the dirty work done.

When the game starts, you play Logan Walker, a young man living with his brother Hesh and father Elias somewhere near San Diego. When the rods touch down and everything goes all topsy-turvy, you fast forward and find yourself in the military with your brother, your father the commanding officer of the military on the west coast. Harried defenses of the Santa Monica beachfront and an assault on Greenway Park in San Diego to rescue a captured Ghost are just the first forays into this nightmarish war-fueled world.

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Aesthetically speaking, everything is reminiscent of the apocalypse. Neighborhoods are shattered, massive canyons split avenues and boulevards, and wildlife runs amok in once thriving urban centers. Eventually joining the titular spec-ops team, Logan and Hesh (with their squadmates Merrick and Keegan) become the primary force driving the Federation back and hoping to end the war.

To make matters worse (or more cliché depending on your perspective), the leader of a devastating Federation team is Rorke, a former Ghost and ally of Elias, Logan and Hesh’s father. A hard call (playable through a flashback mission) separated Rorke and Elias and the former was captured by the Federation, and somehow was turned against his former nation and comrades. Now he hunts Ghosts with a pathological obsession, though the exact reasoning behind why or how he was turned against his fellow Americans is never brought to light.

Infinity Ward wants this to the be the first part in a new Call of Duty series, evidenced by the lack of concrete information regarding Rorke’s betrayal and certain twists near the game’s ending. I have no direct problem with setting up future installments, in fact I’d say as gamers we’re all far too aware of this happening more and more often with AAA titles, but in this case, the campaign suffers for it.

Certain plot points are sacrificed to keep options open for future sequels, and entire storylines dead-end or just go into holding patterns, waiting for the next installment to finish, which makes for poor storytelling, all the more disappointing because it was penned by Stephen Gaghan, the writer behind Traffic and Syriana. The entire plot basically boils down to an unexplained insane revenge plot befitting any James Bond villain from the Roger Moore era.

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That being said, the game’s campaign has many massive set-pieces that make for fun gameplay if poor story development. As in previous Call of Duty’s, you will be shot, have broken bones and fall from impossible heights and somehow not only survive but continue to be a one-man Federation killing machine.

Level variety in the campaign will take you from Los Angeles, to San Diego, to attacking a massive Oil Platform in the Drake Passages off Antarctica, and storming a huge facility in the Atacama Desert of Peru. Some locations are attacked from underwater and there are even a handful of missions set in space against breath-taking vistas that will give anyone who’s seen Gravity a firsthand look of chaos in zero-G.

Ultimately the campaign is a giant James Bond homage complete with raging homicidal villain, vast underground lairs and oodles upon oodles of bad guys leaping out in coordinated jumpsuit-like armor to gun you down. It makes for some good breathtaking visuals and action-packed spectacles, but it only clocks in at about 4-5 hours and ultimately will leave you rolling your eyes and the trite ending. A post-credit “teaser” doesn’t even accomplish what teasers are supposed to, providing a few seconds-worth of obstructed view at a location we’ve never seen before nor has been mentioned up to that point in the game, meaning we have no reference or context to appreciate it. It just happens. Kind of like the campaign itself.

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GAMEPLAY: For the most part, this Call of Duty will play like every other Call of Duty you’ve played. Infinity Ward hit their winning formula long ago and have been careful when it comes to major design changes so as not to break it. A few notable improvements are a new contextual lean that will allow you hide behind a pillar or vehicle, and peek around the corner by simply looking down the sights. This frees up more buttons and makes for a more natural use of the environment which will also make cover in multiplayer matches far more dynamic.

Grenades can be cooked as in previous entries, but now a visual reticule will let you see just how long until it explodes, so you can aptly judge how long you want to hold down that trigger before you let loose.

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Some of the clumsier additions and experiments come from the newer elements, like the space battles and underwater segments. Two extra buttons now let you ascend and descend so you can move more freely in three dimensional space, but you can still raise or lower your positioning by simply moving forward and looking down or up. On paper it’s all well and good except it can get tricky in the tighter underwater sequences where the controls seem to fight against one another and get you stuck on the some of the labyrinthine corridors.

Of course, after all the build-up, there would have to be sections where you take control of Riley, the infamous Call of Duty Dog. You can slink him around in the grass to get the jump on some soldiers, literally, in the case of using stealth take-downs which are vicious and quick. In a way, these segments take the place of the stealth sniper missions from the Modern Warfare series.

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GRAPHICS: The copy used in this review was played on a PC with all the settings on the Extra/Ultra variety, giving me an early pseudo-glimpse at what people can expect from their next-gen Call of Duty experiences. For the most part, it looks good. Some sharp and angled textures still abound, especially in the natural environments like jungles and forests, but water effects and lighting and the overall visual continuity was impressive.

There were some aesthetical improvements made to increase the immersion factor as well. Scoping in with a sniper-rifle doesn’t black out your peripheral vision, allowing you a full, albeit out-of-focus, view of the surrounding area while the targets in your sights are crystal clear.

For the most part environments have mass and feel vibrant, though some of the darker night levels and the underwater sections diminish the color variety, naturally. The facial animations and character models are thick and transition without flaw from cinematic moments and scripted sequences to firefights without so much as a hiccup.

Unfortunately it’s hard to really appreciate the detail and effort going into the environments because the game hardly lets up on throwing wave after wave of faceless baddies your way once you’re out of the opening levels. They all start to blend together and the environments just become a blur of gray and green, steel and grass and by the time the level designs switches up enough for you to take notice, you’re at the end of the campaign. Online level designs follow a similar aesthetic but in a more organic open-ended way, obviously, to cater to multiple styles of deathmatch and objective based games.

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SOUND: Following the tradition of the Call of Duty series’ relying on Hollywood-level voice talent, Ghosts stars Brandon Routh, Steven Lang, and Brian Bloom as some of its lead actors, and as is the norm in a post Gordon Freeman gaming community, Logan, like the other heroes of the series, is voiceless.

The level of the voice acting is on par with the insanity of the set pieces, which is to say, that a lot of these actors are yelling a lot of things much of the time over gunfire and huge explosions. It’s an orgy of sound 90% of the time, and while that may drown out some of the members of your team, it does go to show the quality of the foley work the new Infinity Ward is bringing to the table.

The soundtrack is done by a fully scored orchestra, providing the traditional somber/exciting balance of action-movie music fare. The score was composed by Michael Giacchino of Lost and Up fame. It follows his traditional nigh-surrealist approach, reminiscent in the slower times of the scores of some of Michael Mann’s darker films, though the majority of it is unforgettable, blasé action movie melodies and rhythms.

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REPLAY: The true (let’s be honest) reason the majority of people picking up Call of Duty: Ghosts won’t be looking for great movie scores or top-notch acting, or even a well-scripted campaign. They’ll be skipping all of that entirely and leaping straight online into the multiplayer matches that have catapulted the Call of Duty series from good games into a world-wide brand name. But is the multiplayer truly evolved or is it just the same old thing with new spit-shine? Unfortunately it seems like the game has more of a drought of innovation then a slew of new design choices.

The inclusion of female characters was a major selling point in the customization the game allows one to have, but it gets old hat real quick beyond the aesthetics of designing your character. The constant striving to unlock the next perk or weapon feels familiar and players who are on their game will get all they want by level 25 or so. It gets increasingly difficult to justify any noticeable differences from this version to previous entries as you go along, and if it weren’t for the fact that you had to put in Ghosts instead of Modern Warfare, and the levels are designed differently, it would be tough to distinguish the pair.

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But unlike previous entries, some of the 14 launch maps have dynamic areas or killstreaks that can alter the level design over the course of a match. For example, a handful of maps have a killstreak reward that activates after killing a leading player and completing a series of challenges that are announced after picking up a downed briefcase from said player. Doing so successfully launches an ODIN strike down on the level, dramatically altering its design and aesthetic, and so skillful players can have a direct way of changing the battlefield.

These kinds of level alterations aren’t as intense and constant as they would be in a Battlefield game, say where nearly any surface is destructible. The maps are mostly traditional in that the environments are static and if players want to destroy or thoroughly damage the environment they’ll need to do so in specific areas, or it’ll be a level-wide destruction as in the ODIN strike mentioned before.

Modes include the traditional types, Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Domination, etc. Some interesting new modes are Confirmed Kill (A Team Deathmatch mode where players must recover the dog tags of downed enemies to keep them from respawning) and Search & Rescue (a variant of Search & Destroy where instead of one life overall, teammates can revive each other unless the opposing team can take a downed players dog tags first. Combines Confirmed Kill and Search & Destroy). Infected makes a return and there is the Capture the Flag variant, Blitz.

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Players may also level up their online characters through the new Squads mode which lets you customize a team of AI allies and take your squad up against other people’s teams. In some ways, this is meant to help players test out different loadouts, or learn level layouts, and if you know what you’re doing, you can have a variety of characters and maxed out loadouts in no time, though ultimately the mode feels empty and seems rather wasted beyond the idea of letting people get their bearings online.

Neversoft, the team behind the Tony Hawk franchise and later Guitar Hero iterations, also helped develop a new Horde mode style game called Extinction which pits teams of Ghosts against, what else, aliens, in a post-apocalyptic world. Obviously, this is Infinity Ward’s response to the wildly popular Zombies mode from Treyarch’s Black Ops spin-off, and while entertaining in a novel kind of way, it hardly seems to capture the same kind of mindless fun that Black Ops managed to.

The biggest flaw in the level designs is the scale of them. Teams are still limited in size running only to a max of 18 players, but the levels seemed design like they want the full complement of 64 people running amok through them. Some levels are better than others, tighter and more claustrophobic, but the larger, wider levels feel impossibly empty or so cluttered that it seems nearly impossible to navigate without getting cut down from some unseen vantage point. That and the creeping feeling of having played all this before will turn off some players looking for the next big thing. Grinding through the ranks may not have the same appeal it once did.

Ghosts is a fresh start for the Call of Duty franchise so the old familiar feeling one gets while playing it is recognized as a death note. A cheesy, predictable story, weathered multiplayer (despite new modes), and an overall stench of apathy are the major things most will remember walking away from the franchise. The hardcore online players will find it just right, but everyone looking for a quality game experience, whether online or off, will find an over-the-top, familiar grind from years past, the franchise going through the motions, and it may be difficult to make up for it after all this time.

 

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Written By: R. Burke Kearney

This article was based off a retail copy of Call of Duty: Ghosts. The game was played on PC. Single player took 4 hours to complete on Normal. Multiplayer was played for 10 hours.