Call of Duty: Ghosts Review
With the launch of two new consoles midway through the holiday wave of new game releases, I find myself reviewing a number of games twice - first as part of the initial release and second when that game is later released for the new consoles. I know, first world problems, right? Anyway, next up on my next-gen d�j� vu tour is Call of Duty: Ghosts. Having played through the single player campaign twice now and logging a number of multiplayer hours on both Xbox 360 and Xbox One, I can tell you that the experience between the current-gen and next-gen versions of the game is about 99.9% the same. This has a few consequences. First, I will not attempt to sit down and completely rewrite my first review of the game. It's an extensive review that's still applicable, and it's a rather silly waste of energy to spend hours trying to say the same thing with different words. Next, there's the question of Activision's upgrade offer for owners of the Xbox 360 version of the game. Do you take the offer to move up to next-gen for $10 or so? If you enjoyed the game on the Xbox 360 and you've tossed your old console to make room for the new one, then, well, duh. If you're playing on both consoles right now, then the upgrade is more of a lateral move. You get a graphical improvement that's noticeable but not jaw-dropping at the expense of a multiplayer game that doesn't have the same volume of players (although there are some advantages to that, as Penny Arcade has pointed out). The transition is smooth, though, as the game brought over all of my Xbox 360 stats and customized load-outs the first time I jumped into the Xbox One multiplayer game without requiring me to do anything. There's also the advantage of a whole set of achievements to double up on.
In short, the Xbox One version gives you an incremental upgrade over the Xbox 360 version of a game that's an incremental upgrade for the series. If you haven't played the game on another system, then it's easy enough to recommend for the multiplayer aspect of the game. It's what everyone else who also bought an Xbox One will be playing right now. And with that, let's move on to the full review...
With Infinity Ward's half of the franchise closing out its last storyline in Modern Warfare 3, Call of Duty: Ghosts opens a new chapter for the franchise. On the single play side, Ghosts introduces a new storyline set in the near future and featuring an all-new cast of heroes and villains. The multiplayer game has been retooled with a new method of player progression, new modes and maps, the introduction of Squads, and an answer to Treyarch's zombie mode, Extinction. So, yes, Ghosts is more than an incremental update to Modern Warfare 3 and, just as importantly, it still delivers the fast, smooth, and intense multiplayer gameplay the franchise is known for.
Although a large proportion of gamers who pick up Ghosts will undoubtedly jump straight into multiplayer, I'm going to start my look at the game with the single player campaign. As I mentioned earlier, there's an all new storyline this time out. The Middle East has "collapsed" and in its wake South America has united under a dictatorship known as the Federation. The Federation has conquered Central America and Mexico, and an uneasy truce with the US is broken when the Federation takes over the US' space-based weapons system known as Odin and unleashes it against the major cities of the US. The US is able to stem the invasion thanks to the strength of its military, and in particular the mysterious Ghosts, and the war has settled into a stalemate. You play as Logan Walker who joins the Ghosts along with his brother Hesh when they learn that their father is in fact the commander of the Ghosts. The war soon turns very personal for you as you learn that a former Ghost, Rorke, is working for the enemy and he has a personal vendetta against the Ghosts...
Well, that's about the best I can do to explain a plot that varies from incomprehensible to ridiculous and back again. The plot is so full of holes that after playing through the campaign more than once, I'm still not really sure just what the Ghosts are, what Rorke does for the Federation beyond threatening the Walker clan, and just what the deal is with the Federation in the first place. The story is weak, even for what is basically an explosion-filled action movie, and it doesn't really serve its purpose of connecting the missions together into a cohesive whole. Bringing in screenwriter Stephen Gaghan of Traffic and Syriana fame was in hindsight a big mistake because he either had no idea how to write a videogame narrative or didn't think a game deserved his best effort. Whatever the reason, the missions should just be taken as isolated, random episodes and enjoyed on their own, because trying to make any sense of the whole thing is a losing battle.
As for the individual missions, the game does provide for some exciting moments. The battles that you'll fight, and I'm not spoiling anything here because the game's commercials pretty much give everything away already, range from under the sea to outer space. Particularly memorable are the battles that take place while rappelling down the side of a skyscraper (Federation Day) and a tank assault on a Federation base (Severed Ties). On the flipside, there are a few "been there, done that" missions as well, including the ubiquitous base assault missions, and the "signature moment" battles that are the hallmark of the series seem to be missing from this campaign.
My disappointment that the missions weren't as consistently exciting in this Call of Duty game as they have been in the past was compounded by the enemy AI, which seems to have gotten a bit dumber this time around. Enemies will leave limbs or the tops of their heads sticking out of cover, making them easy to find and shoot. When they do manage to keep themselves hidden, they'll pop up in the same place each time they fire a shot which makes them pretty easy to pick off. Enemies also have a tendency to inexplicably leave cover during a firefight and make a dash for some other covered position for no apparent reason beyond providing you with a shooting gallery experience. I can't remember a Call of Duty single player campaign ever being this easy to play through - the challenge in Ghosts is negligible and you'll find that you can tear through the campaign's eighteen missions in relatively short order. If you play Call of Duty for the single player campaign only, it's hard to imagine that you won't be at least somewhat disappointed with Ghosts. And if you usually skip it, you may as well dedicate a few hours to it and clean up on the achievements on offer know that you won't have to pay much attention to the whole thing.
Luckily the multiplayer game fares significantly better than the single player. First of all, the technical details the series is known for are still spot on in Ghosts. You get the smooth 60 fps frame rate and tight, responsive controls that you expect from a Call of Duty game. Secondly, while there are a number of changes to the multiplayer game along with new maps and modes, the core gameplay remains pretty much unchanged. Extensive loadout customization, perks, kill streaks, ... it all returns again in Ghosts. So, basically, if you love Call of Duty multiplayer, you'll more than likely be perfectly happy with the multiplayer in Ghosts.
Ghosts includes fourteen multiplayer maps, and if there's a trend in the map design this time out it's "bigger is better". There's only one map, Strikezone which is set under the stands of a baseball stadium, that can really considered to be small or intimate. Even the one entirely interior-based map, Sovereign which is set in a tank factory, is quite large, with open assembly areas, small control rooms, and a network of labs which make for a diversity of situations. Siege is a massive network of industrial buildings and plazas, and Stonehaven features castle ruins and a village separated by a large open area. Whiteout includes a small Alaskan town, a frozen shoreline, and forest trails, all on one map. Some of the maps are even dynamic, changing as the battle drags on. Strikezone is vulnerable to an orbital strike from Odin that turns a lot of the map to rubble and opens and closes some of the map's routes. Octane, set along a war torn off-strip boulevard in Las Vegas, has a gas station in the middle of it that's quite combustible.
The multiplayer game modes include traditional modes such as Team Deathmatch and Domination as well as the return of recent newly added modes like Kill Confirmed. There are a few new modes as well, several of which are variations of Kill Confirmed. Search & Rescue is a Search & Destroy variant in which collected dog tags earn your fallen teammate a respawn or deny a respawn to an enemy soldier. Grind requires you to collect enemy dog tags and take them to an enemy goal to score (there's a Grind variant without dog tags called Blitz in which you just have to enter an enemy's goal to score). A new Team Deathmatch variant, Cranked, gives you perks with each kill, but also starts a countdown timer as well. If you don't get your next kill before the timer expires you explode. Not a good mode for campers. Infected puts one random player in the role of a knife-wielding maniac. If a player is killed by an infected player, that player becomes infected as well. The match ends when all players are infected or the match timer expires. Of the new modes, I enjoyed Blitz and Cranked the most, probably because they are both fast-paced and force players to continually push forward.
All modes include a new challenge feature called Field Orders. First blood causes the first Field Orders to be dropped, which resemble a floating blue briefcase. Pick up the Field Orders and you'll be issued a random challenge such as getting a headshot while crouched or killing an enemy with your secondary weapon. Complete the challenge and you get a care package and your ammo is refilled. Fail and you'll drop the orders for another player to pick up. It's a fun little way to introduce dynamic challenges into each match.
Your soldier loadouts and progression have undergone an overhaul since Modern Warfare 3. First, the look of your soldier is more customizable than ever before. You can combine different faces, headgear, uniforms, and even select your gender to create a soldier that doesn't look like everyone else in the match. The developers claim that there are 20,000 possible combinations, but a lot of the options are locked at the get-go and only become available as you advance in rank so it will take some time to reach that 20K possibility plateau.
The create-a-class system is as flexible as before, you just need to keep your loadout within the budget allotted to you by the game. Perks are given set costs that range from one to five points, and you can select up to eight total points of perks. Forgo your secondary weapon or equipment, and you can increase that budget cap. In Ghosts, perks have been divided into seven categories to make it easier to find the perks that fit your play style or desired role for the loadout. For example, Awareness perks improve your ability to detect the enemy while conversely Stealth perks make it harder for you to be detected.
Strike packages - progressive rewards for kill streaks - again come in three categories, Assault, Support, and Specialist. New streak rewards include the Helo Scout, a chopper that provides sniper support, and the Guard Dog. You've probably seen dogs featured prominently in the game's advertising and trailers, and they provide a rather useful streak reward. They serve as an early warning of nearby enemies and will attack anyone who tries to sneak up on you. They also will avenge your death if your killer happens to be close by. If you're on the receiving end of a dog attack you'll probably find that they move a bit too quickly to give you much of a fair chance at stopping them before they take you out with what is essentially a one-hit kill.
Ghosts introduces a new class of weapons dubbed marksman rifles. These sit midway on the spectrum between assault rifles and sniper rifles, and make for a good weapon for defending objectives at a medium range. They can also be equipped with dual render sights, giving you a short-range site in addition to the normal telescopic one. I had a lot of fun playing with the marksman rifles, a lot more so when I was able to equip a dual site and make the weapon pretty versatile. A marksman rifle isn't a good choice for a small map like Strikezone, but the ability to switch between a medium and longer ranged weapon in maps that feature both interior and exterior areas make marksman rifles a welcome addition to the game.
Character progression has undergone some changes in Ghosts. While you still earn points during matches that translate into experience used to rank up, new weapons, attachments, equipment, and perks are unlocked using squad points. Basic attachments may go for a couple of squad points, but new weapons or loadout slots will cost you a lot more. Since you earn squad points through leveling up, you'll need to save your points for a number of levels to unlock the better weapons. This means that loadout progression moves more slowly than before, and you will have to play longer before you've unlocked the full loadout that you want; at times it can feel that the grind to get to that weapon you're drooling over moves painfully slowly. However, things can be sped up a bit without spending all of your time in multiplayer matches because of the Ghost's Squads mode.
In Ghosts, you can create a squad of soldiers and assign each a unique loadout. The squad members are controlled by AI bots whose tactics are adjusted to match their loadouts, e.g. a squad member with a sniper rifle will play as a sniper. Squads can be taken into online battles against other players and their squads, or pitted against another squad controlled entirely by the game's AI. You can even find your squad challenged while you're offline - you set your preferred map and game mode and any challenging players will have to face your squad on your own terms. Any experience earned in Squads mode counts the same as the experience earned in the regular multiplayer modes, so it's a good way for new players to hone their skills before jumping in the regular multiplayer modes, and when they do make that jump they won't have to do so as a level one soldier. The Squads mode's Wargame mode is a great way to learn the new maps because you can control how many enemy soldiers will appear in the enemy squad. Keep the numbers low and you'll have some time to find all of those nooks, crannies, and sight lines. Lastly, Squad mode's Safeguard mode serves as Ghost's horde mode, pitting one to four players against waves of ever stronger enemies.
I've spent some time playing the various Squad modes, and the AI is pretty impressive. Top-tier players may not find the bots to be as challenging as some of their peers, but I've played in matches against another player-controlled squad in which it was pretty difficult to tell which soldier was human-controlled.
The Treyarch developed Call of Duty games have featured a Zombie mode for several titles now, and now Infinity Ward has a similar mode to call its own, Extinction. Extinction is a four-player co-op mode in which players must face an alien invasion taking place in an isolated town. This mode is a story-driven survival mode, and it's possible for a team of players that work well together to reach the end. Similar to Zombie mode, killing aliens earns you cash that can be spent to unlock new weapons or refill your very limited supply of ammunition. Defending your positions from alien assault can be challenging, as the aliens move significantly faster than zombies and they always have multiple points of entry through your leaky, makeshift defenses. This is an enjoyable mode, and suffice it to say that if you enjoyed Zombie mode in Call of Duty games past, you'll have fun with Extinction as well.
Overall, Call of Duty: Ghosts provides you with a lot of gameplay for your money, as long as you are buying it primarily for multiplayer play. While the single player campaign does have some exciting missions, overall it's too easy and the story is simply a mess. As always for a Call of Duty game, Ghosts multiplayer really delivers, providing plenty of fast, smooth, and challenging online competition. The new multiplayer match types are enjoyable, and it will be interesting to see how the Squads feature plays out a few months down the road. If you've always enjoyed Call of Duty multiplayer gameplay, or are curious to see what all the hype is about, there's no reason to skip this iteration of the long-running franchise.
As a final note, I am giving the Xbox One version of the game the same score as I did the Xbox 360 version because there's no compelling reason not to do so. It's essentially the same game, I'm still the same guy who played through the Xbox 360 version of the game, and there's no real justification for modifying the score based on the fact that it's on another console now.
Final Rating: 84%. An incremental upgrade from the Xbox 360 version that delivers the best multiplayer game available on the Xbox One at launch.