News, Views, and Reviews
Being THE game on top is a double-edged sword. Sure, the Call of Duty franchise is super popular, sells millions of copies, and breaks records every year. There is an expectation of quality, a loyalty that drives millions of fans to pre-order every year without question. But, those expectations demand the impossible: fans want something that is new and interesting, but it can’t be changed TOO much, or it will ruin what made it so popular in the first place. Any flaw or shortcoming is going to be scrutinized and critiqued more than any other game. With Call of Duty: Ghosts, Activision has delivered an even bigger and bolder sequel than ever, and it is perfectly fresh and familiar.
Before I get into the single-player review, I want to explain why I just said “Activision has delivered…” instead of crediting the development studio, Infinity Ward. Since 2005, Activision has maintained an annual release schedule for Call of Duty by using two studios, Infinity Ward and Treyarch. That allows each studio a two-year development cycle, and they each release a new title every other year. Between 2009 and 2011, some drama at Infinity Ward resulted in the studio leaders getting fired, suing Activision, and being counter-sued themselves, and then most of the rest of the studio quit. That meant Activision had to scramble to make their November 2011 release date (for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3), so they got two other studios, Raven Software and Sledgehammer Games, to finish the game. For Call of Duty: Ghosts, Activision created a “new” Infinity Ward studio, but Raven Software is also credited, as is Neversoft Entertainment. I consider this a collaborative effort, hence me crediting Activision for producing Ghosts.
Graphics: Speaking of graphics, I’ll just get this out of the way: they do look dated. It is hard not to notice after playing a next-gen-quality experience like Battlefield 4, and then playing the current-gen version of Ghosts. To be fair, though, people need to remember to compare like-to-like and wait for the definitive next-gen versions of Ghosts to come out in a few weeks. The animations and movements of the characters look like…the animations from previous Call of Duty games. That isn’t a bad thing, as the animations are fluid and life-like, they just don’t match the quality of newer games. Blame it on exaggerated scrutiny, but the textures and fidelity of the environments are a little lacking, too. That said, Ghosts does some AMAZING things with the overall scale of what is happening on screen at any given time. The ground tears apart under feet, cars and buildings are tossed around, satellites burn up in re-entry, and helicopters crash into suspended-rail trains. These and many other dramatic events kept my jaw on the floor throughout my play through of the single-player campaign. As long as I am making the comparison, BF4 maintained it’s details and fidelity by appearing in two or three environments throughout it’s campaign, but Ghosts constantly goes to new locations, including space! Avoiding sinking cars underwater as an entire city is flooded, for example, was such a thrilling experience that I found it easy to overlook the lower quality of details. I can’t wait to get the Xbox One version, and perhaps I’ll do an updated comparison at that time. At any rate, the variety of settings and sheer scale of what is happening helps contribute to Ghosts’ success as being both familiar and fresh. We may have engaged the enemy in an urban setting, or fought our way through a villain’s lair in many different shooters, but Ghosts takes those familiar settings and then rips them apart in exciting new ways. Using coral reefs underwater or floating debris in space as cover felt pretty fresh to me! I also want to mention the spectacular animated sequences between missions that progressed the narrative. I believe the Call of Duty series has always used some sort of animation sequence between missions, but I really liked the style in Ghosts!
Controls: One of the qualities expected, no, demanded from the Call of Duty series is it’s exceptional controls. They are so tight, smooth, and responsive, that they set the standard that every other game is compared to. Ghosts delivers that high quality as expected, and then actually adds a few new things to create a shooter experience that never gets boring. A lot of attention was given to the dog companion, Riley, but controlling him in the game isn’t the only new experience. Fighting underwater and in space felt innovative and intuitive, as did attacking through windows while rappelling down a skyscraper, or driving an attack helicopter or tank. These different experiences helped break up the “regular” action in the campaign, as they are introduced at a decent pace, and then they all come together in an unbelievable climactic final level that, well, I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say it was quite the thrill ride. These newer experiences may be layered on a solid foundation of responsive controls, but even the “regular” actions have been tweaked for more perfection. Running and jumping over obstacles, for example, is more fluid and natural than ever, and an intuitive “lean” out of cover has been added. It’s sort of a graphics improvement and a game play improvement, but the manner in which “aiming down sights” is presented has also been tweaked to look and feel more natural and realistic. In short, other games may have pulled ahead of Call of Duty with their graphics, but the quality of its controls still have no equal.
Game Play: It’s an interesting trade off: Ghosts’ single player campaign is five hours of very linear, heavily scripted action, but I was never bored. And, even though it was scripted, I rarely felt like control was taken away from me, or that I was just watching something happen instead of being a part of the experience. I honestly don’t know if the infamous “monster doors” or infinitely re-spawning enemies were completely gone, because I never ran into something like that. Instead, I felt continuously compelled to push forward, to complete an objective or chase someone, and the enemy soldiers were just obstacles in my way. I suppose that’s the very definition of a “corridor shooter” but I still felt like I had some freedom. I could pick my own weapons, and pick my own targets, and I could often find a side path to help my A.I. controlled teammates by flanking our adversaries. As I’ve already mentioned, Ghosts does a fantastic job of steadily introducing new things to control and new settings to experience, all while maintaining a brisk pace. Some players might not prefer Call of Duty’s tendency to almost always include A.I. teammates that you have to follow around, though I suppose that design choice is intended to maintain that brisk pace and make you feel like you’re part of a larger military movement instead of a lone soldier. Ironically, the few sections I got lost or stuck in were because I got separated from my team and didn’t know where to go. In other words, this just isn’t the type of adventure game that allows you to explore everything, like Tomb Raider or Bioshock, so again, people should compare like-to-like. When it comes to perfectly melding player action and scripted events, nobody does it better than Call of Duty, and Ghosts does it better than ever. I also appreciate that they found that delicate balance between fresh and familiar. As I engaged in intense firefights, fighting building to building, or tore through an enemy installation in a high-speed tank, obliterating anti-aircraft cannons, sure, it felt familiar. These are scenarios we’ve encountered in many shooters, set in World War 2, the Cold War, or otherwise. But the setting, the context, the weaponry, all these contributed to making it feel new and fresh. Oh, yeah, and then a dam would collapse and the streets would flood, or the area would start getting obliterated from orbit, so that probably contributed to it feeling new, too.
Sound: The graphics engine used for the Call of Duty series gets updated and tweaked with each iteration, and even if the graphics look dated, I have to give them credit for improving the sound quality for Ghosts. Like BF4, the relative position of the player to the sound, and the environments in which the sound occurs, all create subtle variations. The combat underwater especially felt fresh and authentic. Unlike BF4, Call of Duty seems more interested in creating an “action movie” experience, so there is a bigger emphasis on back ground music. The gunfire and explosions seem louder and more satisfying in Ghosts, though I don’t know if that is especially realistic or not. The voice acting is surprisingly subdued, which gives it an air of authenticity in an otherwise bombastic, over the top experience. Players might not recognize them, so I’ll give a shout out to the voice actors: Kevin Gage, Dan Glenn, Stephen Lang, and Brandon Routh. As with movies, I appreciate games that contain an appropriate musical score, with recognizable themes, and Ghosts is both. By “appropriate” I of course mean that it is intense and exciting or as melancholy and moody as it needs to be. After all, part of pacing, for game play experience and story telling, is to find a good blend of highs and lows, and that’s a good way to describe Ghosts’ soundtrack.
Narrative: Beyond the praise I can give Ghosts for having responsive controls, varied and exciting settings, and perfectly paced, fresh and familiar game play, I HAVE to praise it’s remarkable narrative. Millions of people buy new Call of Duty titles every year, and many of them pass on the single-player portion and jump right into playing multi-player online. To all of them, and anyone on the fence about picking up Ghosts, I have to strongly urge you to play the campaign. It is crazy, it is over the top, but it is truly unique and so, so much fun! Sure, it’s only five hours long, so I don’t know if I can recommend it to those that ONLY want a single player experience. Thankfully, Ghosts has such an enormous amount of other content – mostly multi-player – that I feel that it more than justifies the $60 price. But I digress, I’m talking about the incredible narrative here! Infinity Ward has removed themselves from the convoluted story of their Modern Warfare trilogy and started a completely new story, and honestly, it’s better than most narratives I’ve played this year. It might not be as deep or thought provoking as something like Bioshock Infinite or even Crysis 3, but it wins so many points for being so dang original, that I predict people will be talking about it for some time. I’ll try not to spoil anything, as this is the synopsis found on IMDb.com: “Ten years after a devastating mass event, the nation’s borders and the balance of global power have been redrawn forever. A superpower no more, its economy and government in ashes, the country’s once-mighty military struggles to stave off complete collapse. As what’s left of the nation’s Special Operations forces, a mysterious group known only as “Ghosts” leads the fight back against a newly emerged, technologically-superior global power.” Forget cliches of rogue Russian armies, or Chinese invasions, or (yawn) Middle East terrorists, Ghosts provides a new, unique adversary: the combined forces of “the Federation” of South America! Part of why Ghosts narrative gets so much praise from me is this unique setting, and all that happens throughout the campaign. Space stations will be assaulted, arctic bases will be invaded, giant ships will be destroyed from underwater, towns will be flooded, and so on, but it feels more story driven than usual. These aren’t just big set pieces, strung together with some weak excuse of a story, this IS a story. The other part of the praise comes from the main characters, both good and bad, that pull the fantastic down to more plausible levels. This isn’t just some generic U.S. Task Force fighting terrorists, this is a family. Heavily outnumbered and outgunned, they pull together and become the stuff of legend: Ghosts. Oh, and the main bad guy is pretty cool, too. If had to complain, I think the emotional attachments we feel to the characters aren’t quite as strong as they could be, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t use the dog more often than I thought.
Conclusion: It’s hard to believe that the campaign is just one of four components offered on the disc: I still have to play Multi-Player, Squads versus and Co-Op modes, and the Extinction Co-Op Mode. Ghosts campaign provides a thrilling experience, with top-quality controls, excellent sound, an inventive and eventful story, and a perfect blend of player action and scripted events. The graphics may seem dated, but they’ve enhanced them as best they can with a lot of action and unbelievable things happening. Most importantly, it feels both fresh and familiar.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is rated ‘M’ for Mature for Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language. COD: Ghosts appears November 5th for PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii U, on November 15th for PlayStation 4, and on November 22nd for Xbox One.