Protect the United States in a world where it’s no longer on top.
PC Release: November 5, 2013
By Ian Coppock
The mere sight of that title card probably has Call of Duty fans rolling their eyes in disgust, but yes, Call of Duty: Ghosts is getting a turn in the hot seat this month. Ghosts means a lot of things to a lot of different gamers. To some, the title represents an abject failure to understand the name Call of Duty; to others, the game signifies an attempt to break away from convention. Call of Duty: Ghosts has a complicated legacy, one that’ll get dissected this evening.
Call of Duty: Ghosts was developed by longtime CoD studio Infinity Ward, and was its first project without the involvement of founders Jason West and Vince Zampella. For a variety of reasons, the title is generally regarded by both fans and critics as the worst Call of Duty ever made (which isn’t exactly a high bar to clear). Ghosts failed to live up to the sales of its 2012 predecessor, Black Ops II, and was all but disavowed by CoD publisher Activision. So, what the hell happened?
For a start, Ghosts’ multiplayer was a bust. In addition to all of the usual deathmatch and team match modes, Ghosts‘ idea of multiplayer innovation was to introduce a few flimsy spinoffs of those modes. Some of these game types were just plain weird; Cranked, a mode that gave players mutant powers if they scored a kill (but would blow them up if they couldn’t get a second kill fast enough), was one of many… “interesting” additions that Ghosts‘ multiplayer made to the CoD roster.
In spite of its multiplayer woes, Ghosts did manage to win some critics’ hearts with its Extinction mode. Extinction is virtually identical to the series’ famous zombies mode, except that the shambling undead are swapped out for aliens. Like other CoDs’ zombies modes, Extinction features a few base defense maps with just a light bit of story. The entire setup is virtually identical to zombies but, to be fair, is pretty fun. Just don’t shoot anything that looks like it’s pulsating.
Another factor that Ghosts has in its corner is stellar system performance. The game runs well on PC; its system performance requirements are pretty reasonable and its options menu is in-depth. Players might get the occasional crash, but the game otherwise runs sans bugs (especially on machines built these days). There’s a ghost-in-the-machine joke in this paragraph somewhere.
As for the single-player campaign, Ghosts takes place in a timeline in which the Middle East nukes itself into oblivion, forcing the nations of South America to step up and meet the world’s oil demands. These countries band together into a new superpower, the Federation of the Americas, and attack the United States in a surprise nuclear assault. Years later, in 2027, the two powers are duking it out in the post-apocalyptic ruins of the southwestern U.S. Though America has managed to hold the Federation off, it’s clear at this point that the enemy is slowly winning.
For anything else that can (and will) be said about Ghosts‘ narrative, that premise is perhaps the most original story that the series has ever produced. For once, players can expect to fight someone besides Russians, Muslims, or Nazis, and that change alone is a good thing. The concept of a war with South America is also not that far-fetched, especially when considering how poor the United States’ relations are with some of the countries there.
Players experience this tale of American decline through the eyes of Logan Walker, an American soldier who fights in the Tex-Mex no man’s land alongside his brother, Hesh. Both of these gents are eventually recruited into the titular Ghosts, an elite stealth ops unit that draws its recruits from what’s left of America’s special forces. The Ghosts are headed up by the boys’ father, Elias, and their newest mission is to hunt down and kill a former Ghost who’s been spotted commanding enemy soldiers.
It’s worth pointing out that none of these characters (even the ones who bother taking off their spooky ghost balaclavas) are particularly memorable. All of them are one-dimensional patriots who spout off about restoring America and little else. Additionally, Logan is a silent protagonist, which is a little weird considering that the protagonists of the previous CoD, Black Ops II, were fully voiced. Even if Black Ops II was developed by a different studio, details like that matter.
Come to think of it, Ghosts‘ main narrative feels pretty tired, too. It turns out that the Federation is close to completing a doomsday satellite that can launch more nukes at the United States, so most of the game is a desperate race to find and destroy that satellite. Ghosts also wastes its time shoehorning in a trite bad guy origin story that cool black-and-white CGI only does so much to make exciting. The written dialogue is noticeably worse than that of the Modern Warfare games.
Ghosts also does a pretty laughable job of portraying a down-on-its-luck United States. Sure, the first few missions go to great pains to portray the ruins of cities like San Diego and Las Vegas, but before long the game cuts to the same endless tank columns and military brigades seen in any other CoD. These ham-fisted attempts at provoking sympathy reach their zenith when one soldier grimly states that the U.S. is sacrificing its last aircraft carrier. Only one aircraft carrier?! Oh, the horror! Here’s a fun fact for the folks at Infinity Ward: that’s still more aircraft carriers than most nations have at all.
So yeah, it turns out that all of Ghosts‘ talk about a revolutionary portrayal of a fallen America was one of 2013’s biggest clouds of ass-smoke (next to trailers of Watch Dogs and virtually everything about the Xbox One). Thankfully, players who are up for a spot of sight-seeing can expect the story to whisk them all over South America, from the frozen heights of the Andes to a glitzy rendition of Caracas, Venezuela. The levels look and sound pretty beautiful even if what the player does in them is barely memorable.
If Ghosts‘ narrative is any indication, Infinity Ward lost a lot of story-writing talent when the studio’s original team up and left. That said, the company still does a great job with sound design. Rockets explode with wincing force, and walking through crunchy piles of rubble never sounded so crisp. Ghosts‘ score contains music similar to that of Modern Warfare; quick strings, a few cutting guitars, and lots of deep disaster movie horns. The voice acting’s… decent. Certainly more so than the writing.
Ghosts‘ level design is also pretty congruous to Modern Warfare‘s, with a bunch of linear corridors separated by occasional breaks of open ground. Though the level design treads few new paths, Ghosts excels at portraying ruined environments and post-apocalyptic wastelands. These set pieces comprise some of the CoD series’ most interesting artwork, even if they are marred by occasional design mistakes like underwater waterfalls. Ghosts‘ aesthetic also benefits from strong use of volumetric lighting.
Even though most of Ghosts‘ levels are structurally identical to those of previous CoDs, they do allow the gameplay to come alive in interesting ways. One level sees Logan off to the bottom of a shark-infested sea, giving players much more space to roam around and Half-Life 2-style environmental cues. A black ops mission in Caracas, meanwhile, explores vertical space. Ghosts is less afraid than most CoDs to let players move around a bit (the key phrase being “a bit”).
Ghosts is bolder with its experiments in gameplay than level design. Players have a few opportunities to command a dog (by far the game’s most iconic feature), and send him scouting for foes or tearing the throats out of bad guys. The dog’s auto-commands are pretty fluid but the sections in which players literally assume the canine’s role require suspending a lot of disbelief. If this game is to be believed, war dogs are smart enough to critically analyze troop movements, attack isolated soldiers, and know when to stay hidden. Good boy?
Ghosts‘ gimmicks are CoD‘s coolest gameplay innovations, so it really sucks that this game is especially draconian at taking them away. It’s a given that CoD only lets players hang-glide or use special equipment in five-second, carefully choreographed bursts, and Ghosts is the most severe CoD of all in this regard. It also doesn’t help that the dog up and vanishes for the entire second half of the game, as if to say “playtime’s up, back to boots on the ground.” It’s a pity; the dog is easily Ghosts‘ most compelling character.
In the end, Call of Duty: Ghosts is indeed a mediocre title, but no more so than most of the other CoDs released this decade. The game’s uninspired storytelling, samey multiplayer, and repetitive gameplay aren’t especially offensive in comparison to its contemporaries. Indeed, in some regards, Ghosts is an alright title: it has a novel premise and a few fun (if brief) ideas about gameplay. Its tight shooting is also not dissimilar to that of the Modern Warfare games, so fans of that series might actually enjoy Ghosts. Everyone else, though, is probably best off letting this game steal into the night like the beings it’s named for.
You can buy Call of Duty: Ghosts here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at email@example.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.