Call of Duty: Ghosts Review (PS4 / Xbox One / PS3 / Xbox 360 / Wii U / PC): “Not Giving Up the Ghost Yet”

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Call of Duty: Ghosts marks the second generation leap in the series’ history, making expectations for the newest iteration even higher than usual. Ghosts was released for the 7th generation consoles ahead of the next-gen versions, with the PS4 version now out and the Xbox One version serving as a launch title. Ghosts takes a trip back to Infinity Ward’s more current-day time period seen in the Modern Warfare series, but with a major twist: playing the losing side. Being a Call of Duty title, a high-budget campaign experience, riveting and addictive competitive multiplayer, and a co-op mode are assumed to be the standard fare. But is Call of Duty: Ghosts an exceptional entry in the series, or just a ghost of its former self?

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Story: 3/5 

The first step to answering that question would be to tackle the game’s single-player campaign mode. Despite its title, Call of Duty: Ghosts has nothing to do with Modern Warfare 2’s Simon “Ghost” Riley or its storyline; instead, Ghosts takes place in an alternate timeline in a similar time period as the Modern Warfare series. The campaign starts out with the Walker family, consisting of Logan (you), his brother David “Hesh” Walker, and their father Elias taking some R&R on the San Diego coast. A series of tremors cause the Walker family to head back home; however, to their horror, they find the streets and homes along the way being torn apart, with the pavement being shifted into rough crags and homes being tossed about like toys. A quick flashback to 15 minutes prior shows that an earthquake wasn’t the cause of the destruction, but rather a hostile takeover of the U.S.’s ODIN Satellite, loaded with deadly tungsten rods designed to level any threat on the ground on a massive scale. A couple of NASA-trained American soldiers are able to call off the attack and destroy the ODIN, but not before several major American cities are utterly destroyed. Back on the ground, Logan and Hesh link back up with Elias and evacuate the town on a truck, but not before seeing the results of the ODIN strike below, leaving several gigantic craters in the ground.

From here, the game skips forward 10 years and involves America’s war with the South American Federation, a coalition of countries responsible for the ODIN attack. American is battered and broken, but not beaten, as you and Hesh work with Elias to commence surgical strikes against the Federation forces occupying the U.S. You’re joined by your Army-trained German Shepard, Riley (likely a homage to Ghost himself), and through a series of circumstances and missions gone sideways, meet up with the titular Ghosts themselves; a cadre of elite, special-forces-trained soldiers, and work to take your place amongst them.

While Ghosts’ story certainly sets a good enough stage within the first 30 minutes of play, there really isn’t the personal connection that was present in previous titles, like Black Ops 2. Raul Menendez is a constant thorn in your side, and makes it clear he has a personal vendetta with the Masons and Frank Woods. His followers play mostly a supporting role; the whole time, your mission is to take Menendez down. That sort of connection is lacking in Ghosts. For the majority of the game, you’ll find yourself facing a faceless enemy in the Federation, pulling off surgical strikes that seemingly lack any sort of overarching goal or reason; it’s just taking what you can, where you can. While this certainly fits the scenario of the game – placing players in the losing position from the get-go – it really has a negative impact on the game’s story and makes it hard to care about the missions you’re carrying out. It’s also jarring that the story simply skips forward 10 years after the first level, with you and Hesh suddenly committing surgical strikes against the Federation occupation forces, along with your dog Riley in tow; it’s all very sudden. When did Logan and Hesh join up? Where did Riley come from? These are simply questions you’ll have to leave on the back burner.

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Call of Duty finally makes its way to space.

Character development is another mixed bag with Ghosts. The Walker brothers – yourself and Hesh – have a constant and unbreakable bond throughout the game, and this really does come through a lot of the time. Whatever happens, you can count on Hesh being there to support you. The father, Elias, is another story – while he talks about his pride in his sons and how much he cares about their training and development, he comes off as a rather cold character in spite of what he tells his sons. It feels odd to have Hesh refer to Elias by rank one minute, then segue immediately to calling him “Dad” when there isn’t any warmth to warrant it. Then there are the Ghosts themselves, Merrick and Keegan being your most constant companions. Early on in the story, they come off as condescending and superior, basically telling you that you can tag along if you do “what I say, when I say it”. Over time, however, they learn to respect you and Hesh, until an eventual camaraderie builds. Other than their titles, however, I didn’t feel particularly moved or awed by their skills or behavior. Ghosts are near-legendary in the game’s universe, but to me, they felt like just any other soldier you’d find in a Call of Duty game. Perhaps that speaks to the strengths of the series’ characters, but I expected a little bit more from them.

The linchpin that brings the squad together is, without a doubt, your dog Riley. You learn to work with him very early on, and he proves an invaluable ally throughout the campaign. More than just an extra soldier in the squad though, it’s clear that he shares an extremely personal bond with you and Hesh. Logan is there with a quick pat on the head for a job well done, and Riley returns this affection by remaining faithful and loyal to you and your squad, ready to attack anyone who poses a threat. Riley’s welfare was constantly in the back of my mind, even when we were separated between missions, and when Riley was in danger, I found myself getting increasingly anxious, even being pushed to anger against his attackers whenever he got wounded. I even found myself emptying entire magazines into his attackers, more than enough to put them down, after Riley was attacked. It really speaks volumes about Riley’s design and integration into the story when you can say that he has a profound emotional reaction on you, and without him, Ghosts would have been a vastly different and shallower experience.

Of course, no modern Call of Duty game would be complete without a face for your enemy, and Ghosts has one in Gabriel Rorke. A former Ghost himself, he now finds himself working with the Federation, and a big part of the story involves you trying to find out why. I know I mentioned before that the Federation is a faceless enemy, and that still holds true – while it’s clear Rorke is meant to be the big bad of the story, he’s not really around enough to reinforce this fact. After encountering him early in the story, you spend a good half of it trying to track him down, and he really doesn’t take a personal stake in the campaign until later, towards the end. Most of the time before this is fighting hordes of nameless, uninteresting Federation soldiers. When he does appear, though, he makes for a stellar antagonist. He’s voiced extremely well, has all the snide confidence of an enemy who always thinks he has one over you, and knows exactly where to hurt his victims the most. If the story had involved him more, it would have made for a more accurate depiction of the situation you find yourself in, with the Federation working for him, not the other way around.

Overall, the game’s story comes up a bit short compared to games of Call of Duty’s past. It starts off sufficiently, and ramps up towards the end, but there’s a large swath of the middle of the campaign that will be an absolute drag, making missions feel hollow and pointless without a gripping story to motivate you. There’s also just too many questions left unanswered.  The campaign should take around 5-6 hours to complete on normal difficulty, making the story small enough to digest while still having some depth to it, but those of us used to the blockbuster thrill rides of Black Ops I & II and Modern Warfare 3 may feel a bit cheated this time around.

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Underwater too.

Gameplay: 4/5 

At this stage of the game – no pun intended – most of us know what to expect from a Call of Duty game. The mechanics have remained largely the same from year to year, and most could say that the series is afraid to take risks, but the mantra Infinity Ward and Treyarch seem to embrace is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Yet again, this stance seems to have been mostly successful in Call of Duty: Ghosts.

Solid, fast-paced gunplay is at the center of the Ghosts experience, as it has been in all Call of Duty games. Aiming down your sights and taking shots at enemies downrange is extremely fast-paced and responsive. Infinity Ward have replaced the “dolphin dive” mechanic – sprinting to prone – with a new sliding maneuver, where your character will slide for a few meters into a crouched position if you go prone while sprinting, or straight to prone if you hold the button down. This feels like a nice change, and makes dashing into cover much easier than in games past. It’s also now possible to lean around corners when aiming down your sights. A yellow arrow will show up on your crosshairs when this is possible. Infinity Ward have expanded our options a bit in terms of weapon variety, now introducing a new weapon category, Marksman Rifles. These weapons aren’t totally new to the series, as many long-range single-shot assault rifles and semi-automatic sniper rifles (such as the M23 EBR) have been present in games before. However, they now get their own category, and perform largely similar to each other, bridging the gap between the balanced performance of Assault Rifles and the long-range per-shot killing power of Sniper Rifles. Each come fitted with a scope and usually fire semi-auto, but other options exist. Players will also find that many weapons feature unique qualities built into the gun, like the Honey Badger’s integrated silencer or the bolt-action Sniper Rifles’ recoil compensators, which reduce kick after each kill.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes to the Multiplayer formula this year is Infinity Ward’s take on the Pick-10 system. However, rather than letting you spend points on every piece of gear and perk in your loadout, players have access to a primary weapon with two attachments, a secondary with a single attachment, a lethal grenade, and a tactical device for free, along with 8 “perk points” by default. This makes sense, as the game is extremely perk-focused this time around – there are 35 to choose from in all, from 7 unique categories. Some are returning favorites, others are weapon attachments seen in Black Ops 2 in perk form, while yet others provide completely new benefits, such as providing extra lethal or tactical grenades or providing a random extra perk at spawn. Each of these perks has a point cost in line with their power, and players can earn extra perk points by removing a secondary weapon, lethal, and/or tactical grenades from their loadout. This new system is an interesting take on the now tried-and-true Pick-10, but it can’t help but feel a little overwhelming at first. 35 perks in all is a lot to choose from, and using squad points – the new unlocking currency present in Ghosts – can feel risky when you’re not sure where to go first. Luckily, the game gives you a strong head-start by letting you pick a pre-set package when you first create a soldier. Whether it’s a weapon-focused Assault or Rush build, a stealthy silencer build, or a long-range Marksman Rifle package that you pick, the game will start you off with a weapon, two attachments, a secondary, lethals and tactical devices, and a selection of perks to compliment the playstyle you choose.

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The game’s new-found complexity really comes through when considering that weapons are no longer unlocked as you rank up anymore; squad points need to be spent to unlock them, but on the plus side, you can unlock them in any order you like, with some weapons costing more than others. You can also elect to use squad points to unlock perks early, otherwise a new one will be unlocked every other level or so. Finally, these squad points can be used to unlock additional members of your Squad – more on this below.  It’s definitely a less accessible system than Pick-10 was, but with some practice, players can come up with interesting loadout choices that make use of a variety of perks and equipment choices. Squad Points are also awarded at a more rapid clip than Black Ops 2’s unlock tokens, given that there are a variety of ways to earn them, including ranking up, completing assignments, and achieving field orders. In this way, it doesn’t hurt so much to drop 6 points into unlocking a new weapon to try when you can easily earn them back in just a couple of games.

Ghosts brings back the “Strike Package” feature present in Modern Warfare 3, allowing players to choose from an Assault or Support strike chain of killstreaks, or the Specialist package to earn more perks as they achieve more kills. Thankfully, taking an objective counts towards earning killstreak rewards, as with Modern Warfare 3’s Hardline Pro perk, but now available to everyone in the baseline. This was a huge plus for me in Black Ops 2; making killstreaks based on score, not number of kills, encouraged more objective play, and bringing this sort of reward system into what was already present in Modern Warfare 3 helped to keep this team-based feel intact. As in Infinity Ward’s last game, Assault streaks are designed to kill or hamper your enemies, while Support streaks are meant to support and strengthen your own team. Newer players who don’t feel confident in their skills may want to stick to the Support streaks at first, since your progress up the strike chain doesn’t reset on death. There are fewer lethal options in Support this time around, though, so players will want to commit to a team-player mindset when choosing this strike chain.

Speaking of strike chains, two very large changes have made their way into Ghosts. First, the fan-favorite  UAV has been replaced by a killstreak called the SAT COM. Rather than launching them in the sky, SAT COMS are placed on the ground, and function a bit differently from their last-gen cousins. SAT COMs provide stronger and better effects the more that are simultaneously deployed on the field at once. With one SAT COM up, enemies will only appear on your team’s mini-map when within line-of-sight of a teammate. With two, your team gets the traditional sweeping UAV scan. With three out at once, the sweeps occur more frequently. Finally, if you can manage to deploy four SAT COMs at once,  the sweeps will occur extremely quickly, and enemies’ directions will be displayed on the map as well. They still last for a limited time like UAVs, so it’s now extremely important to communicate with your team and ensure you’re getting the biggest benefit from your SAT COMs. Additionally, you’ll find that the Care Package is no longer a selectable killstreak; these are instead earned by a new gameplay mechanic called Field Orders. Enemies will sometimes drop light blue briefcases when they die; pick these Field Orders up, and you’ll be given a challenge to complete, such as getting a kill while prone or killing someone from behind, before dying. Achieve this, and you’ll be rewarded with a care package drop marker and a squad point. Fail, and your briefcase drops for anyone else to pick up. It’s an interesting mechanic that adds a new level of complexity to the meta-game.

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Squads mode puts up to 10 AI teammates at your command.

The traditional multiplayer modes – Deathmatch, Demolition, Capture the Flag, etc. – are all present here in Ghosts, along with a few new ones. Cranked is an exciting and fast-paced Deathmatch variant where killing the lead player will earn you multiple speed benefits, like moving and reloading faster, but also start a countdown timer. Keep getting kills to keep this clock alive, but if it hits zero, you explode. Search and Rescue is like Search and Destroy, but players drop dog tags on death. Pick up a teammate’s tags, and they respawn. Pick up an enemy’s tags, and they’re out for the round. Blitz takes the concept of American Football and adapts it for an FPS – a zone activates on each team’s side, and your team needs to reach these zones before the enemy do to score a point. There are many others, including Grind, Hunted, and Infected, and the sheer number of game modes available provides a large variety of game types to play. However, the biggest, and most interesting (in my opinion), addition to Multiplayer in Ghosts is the all-new Squads mode. Players can assemble a squad of up to 10 unique soldiers, customize their appearance and outfit them however they see fit, then go into battle alongside them against other players’ squads in all of the core game types. Each squadmate unlocks gear and ranks up separately, though unlocking and outfitting your squadmates takes from your shared pool of squad points, so it’ll take some time to unlock everything you’ll need for your entire squad. However, once you’ve loaded up your squad to your exact specifications and take them into battle, it’s extremely satisfying to watch them play intelligently with the gear you’ve given them. Assault Rifle characters will play the midfield; SMG and shotgun-toting squadmates will rush into the thick of battle; characters with silenced weapons will try to flank and out-maneuver the enemy; and squadmates wielding sniper and marksman rifles will set up in a good camping spot and pick off enemies in their field of fire. The AI is complete unprecedented in a Call of Duty title, and will provide a pretty stiff challenge. Squads will likely appeal to those players who get a lot of satisfaction out of designing a plan and watching it execute flawlessly; being able to outfit your squad to your specifications makes this possible and rewarding. Your squad will even earn experience while you’re away, fighting against players who challenge them in the mode’s Squad Assault gametype. Several other gametypes exist as well, including Safeguard, a take on Modern Warfare 3’s Survival mode.

Finally, for those of us looking for a different co-op challenge, there’s the new Extinction mode. Rather than fighting the living dead in games past’s Zombies mode, players will be staving off an alien invasion just two weeks after the first ODIN strikes in the story. Like Zombies, Extinction features four unique soldiers to play as, though this time around, players are given a series of objectives to complete, rather than just trying to stay alive; for instance, protecting a drill to destroy several alien hive sites, before staving off an alien attack on your evac chopper. Currency is earned by completing objectives and damaging or destroying enemies, and these can be used not only to buy new weapons, but to activate a pre-selected group of four power-ups, such as an ammo box or a deployable sentry gun. Teamwork and tactics are key in this mode, and having several objectives to complete provides a depth of focus not present in Zombies mode. It’s a fun, fresh-yet-familiar co-op mode that players are sure to love.

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Seriously. In space.

Graphics: 4/5 

We’re entering a new era of gaming with the release of the PS4 and Xbox One, so naturally a game’s graphics quality will be a top concern. Ghosts succeeds in most regards here, but it’s not perfect. Textures have taken a marked step up from the previous generation, with surfaces looking crystal-clear at a distance, while staying sharper up-close than before. Lighting, especially, has been greatly improved on the next-gen consoles, with lighting effects on surfaces and weapons having a more realistic sheen and shadow casting. In fact, there are going to be several times in the campaign where you might actually stop and just take an awe-filled look around. Sniper fans will be especially pleased, as zooming in with your scope no longer obscures your peripheral vision. Instead, the area around the scope will be blurred out, allowing you to barely see your peripheral vision zone while scoping in on a target. When you consider the amount of power this takes – the game essential has to render your view twice – it’s impressive. On the downside, however, there are many points during play where you’ll notice a marked decrease in framerate, especially during some of the game’s larger battles or outdoor areas. This is near-blasphemous for a Call of Duty title, a franchise known for constant 60-FPS performance. I wish I could say it didn’t take away from the experience, but when it happens, it’s not pleasant. There are also several graphical glitches that may creep in – a squadmate’s gun floating in mid-air during the campaign, for instance. These little cracks keep Ghosts from graphical perfection, but it’s still a game that doesn’t take the easy route on next-gen consoles, providing a noticeable step up from the previous generation.

Sound: 4/5 

Ghosts’ soundtrack suffers from the same issue as the story – it’s competent, and the tracks are appropriate to the situations they’re played in, but it’s not the kind of soundtrack you’ll find yourself humming when away from the game. Where Ghosts’ audio direction shines is in the voice acting and weapon sound effects. All of the actors in the campaign do a good job voicing their characters, but Kevin Gage steals the show as Gabriel Rorke. Rorke’s an old soldier with a fearsome reputation and all the snide confidence of a villain who knows he has the upper hand, and Gage delivers Rorke’s dialog like a knife sticking you in the side, bringing an extremely personal touch to your (admittedly few) encounters with the antagonist. This time around, Infinity Ward’s also put some extra effort into providing a more realistic audio experience with weapon design. Guns sound appropriate to their size and what they’re firing, but perhaps the most noticeable – and appreciated – improvement is when firing silenced weapons. Guns don’t let off wimpy pops when shot, but still boast a loud sound profile when suppressed, just like firing a real weapon. Along with louder footsteps in multiplayer, this really helps to break the uselessness of sound-enhancing headphones and perks in Black Ops II and present battles like they should be – loud, dangerous affairs.

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Overall Score: 15/20 = 7.5 out of 10 

Call of Duty: Ghosts may present the weakest showing for a game in its franchise in recent history – not counting Black Ops: Declassified – but Infinity Ward have shown that they’re still capable of producing a competent Call of Duty game. The campaign may be somewhat mediocre, but will draw you in to the game’s Multiplayer, Squad, and Extinction game-types, where most of Ghosts’ longevity will take place. If Black Ops II is staring to feel a bit old, Ghosts will give you the refresher you need.

PROs: 

+ New Create-a-Soldier system provides greater variety than Pick-10

+ Larger variety of multiplayer game types to choose from

+ Squads mode is fun and rewarding

+ Extinction is a fresh take on the tried-and-true Zombies formula

CONs: 

– Flawed, lackluster campaign

– Framerate drops more frequent than they should be

– Excellent antagonist isn’t present enough to be relevant

Call of Duty: Ghosts was purchased by the reviewer for the Playstation 4 system.

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