Review: Call of Duty: Ghosts (Sony PlayStation 4)

Call of Duty: Ghosts
Genre: First-person Shooter
Developer: Infinity Ward/Raven Soft/Neversoft
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: 11/15/2013

Another year has passed us by, and we are once again graced by another Call of Duty release, this time by the Infinity Ward team, more or less. The team has gone through some significant restructuring in the past couple years, and this was fairly apparent when Modern Warfare 3 hit the market, as it listed several teams as part of the development process, focusing on different aspects of the game. With Black Ops 2 having stabilized the brand somewhat, largely due to a solid effort from Treyarch, the stage was set for the newly rebuilt Infinity Ward to show their stuff, completely removed from the Modern Warfare franchise, to show us what they could really do. Well, what they could do was apparently Ghosts, a game which features a brand new storyline, a modified multiplayer component, and two new multiplayer modes, so if nothing else, it’s certainly its own thing. It also adds in some very interesting mechanical changes that significantly alter how players will approach the game in the multiplayer, making it an experience that will certainly be interesting to players, if nothing else. A lot of what’s here is certainly carried over from the prior games, to be sure, but there’s no point in completely reinventing the wheel if a lot of said wheel is perfectly functional from jump. The question is, is what’s changed here for the better, and are the differences enough to keep it interesting for those who’ve been on board with the franchise for years now?

The plot of the game this time around takes place in an alternate reality where the Middle East has been turned to glass via nuclear war and the US is now at war with “The Federation,” a collection of South American oil producing countries who hate everyone for some reason. The story mostly revolves around the Ghost squad, a squad of soldiers who are implied to be a sort of covert ops group. The introductory sequence tells a story of the first group of Ghosts hiding amongst dead soldiers and using stealth and guerrilla tactics to kill a much more powerful group of soldiers, and the current Ghost squad is implied to be cut from the same cloth. You (mostly) take on the role of Logan, who, along with his brother Hesh (David, technically), watch their home get ripped apart by an orbital satellite weapon, the ODIN, and end up joining the US armed forces to stop the Federation. This, in turn, leads to them joining the Ghosts in an assault against Rorke, a former Ghost who has been brainwashed into turning on his teammates, and uses their own tactics against them. On a base level, the plot is fine enough; bad guy used to be leader of the good guys until he pulled a heel turn for some reason, and now the good guys are between a rock and a hard place because he knows their tactics until they somehow turn the tide and win the day, albeit at a great cost, so on and so forth. The problem here is that the plot, aside from being notably whitewashed (the white guy leads the army of Hispanic forces against a team of specially trained white guys, except for the black guy who dies in the third mission), is also set up for an obvious sequel in ham-fisted fashion. The Modern Warfare games generally tended to end in a way that could be considered an actual ending, even if the greater threat was still out there in the world, but this ending just screams “SEQUEL” instead of giving us a compelling reason to want one in the first place. It also doesn’t help that the setup of the plot is a bit silly, IE, there’s not really a strong reason for the war to be ongoing in the first place given the circumstances and we’re not made to care much about it during the course of the game. It’s not like there are that many people who care about the plot over the multiplayer components, mind you, but when this is the part that Infinity Ward spent most of their time on as a developer, it’s not a good sign that it’s not very strong, honestly.

As you’d expect, Ghosts looks fantastic, as the Call of Duty titles generally get the most out of the technical capabilities of the systems they appear on, though as a PS4 title one can’t help but expect a little more than what we’re getting here. The character models are as detailed and well animated as ever, even when you’re lighting them up like Christmas, as they move believably and respond appropriately in cinematics and when getting obliterated. The game environments look appropriate, whether you’re hunkered down in the jungle, racing through a modern or older city, or racing through the desert on horseback, and the game makes great efforts to vary up the locals so as not to fall into the trap of having everything be “brown and gray”, as the argument goes. The visual effects of weapons and explosions are also convincing and well done, and make tense firefights feel more satisfying than they would without. The game does look better than its current-gen counterparts in some respects, as environmental elements look cleaner and higher resolution, especially in multiplayer, but it’s not a huge difference, honestly. The games that come out over the next two years will likely do a lot more with the visuals as the developers spend more time with the development kits, and those games will likely make good use of the PS4’s processing power, but what’s here is more of a tease for what could be than an amazing achievement in its own right. The game music is your standard “impressive orchestral score”, and it’s fine for what it is, fitting the theme of the various setpieces as needed without being anything you’d want to listen to in your free time, as is the norm for the series. The voice acting is pretty fantastic all around, between the large amount of voiced dialogue that carries the storyline and the little snippets of dialogue that pop up in battle which help to bring the battlefields to life. The sound effects are generally fine as well, from gunfire to explosions to the barking of your dog Riley, and for the most part you’ll find that battle sounds as convincing as it ever did across the game.

Ghosts plays similarly to the last several games in the Call of Duty series, so if you’re a fan of the series, you can jump right in and figure everything out inside of about ten seconds. For those who like the genre but not this specific series, some of the control mapping may require a little relearning, however. The left stick and right stick work as expected, controlling moving and looking around respectively, and the left trigger aims your weapon while the right trigger fires it. The bumpers toss out whatever grenades or other portable explosives/equipment you’re equipped with at that moment, the X button jumps and allows you to vault onto stuff, and the Square button reloads. None of the above should be too confusing for FPS fans, but the rest of the controls might take a mission or two to adjust to. You press in the left stick to make your character dash and the right stick to melee attack enemies, for instance, neither of which is the “default” location for such actions, hence the assessment of taking time to learn the ropes a bit. The Circle button controls whether you stand, crouch or lay prone, while the Triangle button switches between the two weapons you’re allowed at one time. Finally, the D-Pad is laid out with whatever odd accessories you might have on your gun or person that don’t fall into the above categories. So, for example, if you have Claymores, they’ll be mapped to the D-Pad. If you have an underbarrel attachment of some kind, it’ll be mapped to the D-Pad. You can arm whatever item you need by pressing the appropriate direction, allowing you to switch to what you need on the fly. This will all come as second nature after a couple missions with it, honestly, but it might feel a little odd to newcomers at first.

Ghosts, as with prior games in the series, makes a pretty good effort to add more elements to the campaign mechanics beyond what’s listed above, however. The most notable addition is that of a dog, Riley, who follows the brothers around for a few of the missions and can be used in a couple different ways. When you’re playing as Logan, Riley can be used as a tactical weapon, and by pressing L1, you can have him charge in and attack an opponent you have targeted to take down an enemy in cover or someone who’s just annoying the crap out of you. In some cases you have to play as Riley directly, by using a back-mounted rig that allows Logan to dictate how Riley should move and act. In these cases, you’ll find yourself sneaking around in the brush, silently scoping out important events and stealth-killing enemies until you accomplish your assigned task, whatever it may be at the moment. There are a few other sequences that see you flying around in space, taking control of a drone gunner and a remote sniper and so on, which also help to break up the monotony, as in the prior games. There’s nothing really new to the experience to the extent of the Strike Force missions in Black Ops 2, however, though whether that’s a positive or a negative will depend on your opinion of those as a player.

As is often the case, the main campaign is as much a tutorial of the basic game mechanics as it is a single-player mode, and while you’ll certainly have fun with it to one extent or another, eventually you’ll want to move on to something else. Where Ghosts stands out, as you’d expect, is in its multiplayer, and unless you’re specifically opposed to the concept, this is where you’ll spend the majority of your time in the game. The basic concept is that you’ll play online in various different matches against other people, and as you kill your enemies and assist your allies, you’ll earn experience points which level up your online ranking. As you level up, you unlock new options, such as match types you can play, weapons you can use, enhancements you can add to your weapons, clan tags, pieces of equipment, Perks that improve your overall performance in various ways, and other fun and useful things. That said, however, everything else you’re used to in the game, between Prestige, Killstreaks and so on are almost completely different this time around, so let’s break down the changes a bit now.

First off, the Pointstreak system returns from Modern Warfare 3, so instead of getting points from killing people, you get points for doing various things on the field, including shooting down enemy craft and achieving objectives in specific game types. You have three basic choices available: Assault, which punishes enemies but resets on death, Support, which aids your team and only resets when you max out, and Specialist, which adds more Perks to your character and resets on death. There’s also a hidden streak that, when you kill the top player on the opposing team and perform additional challenges in sequence, lets you call down an ODIN strike, which basically lets you nuke the playfield, though this is contextual and isn’t available all the time. Perks are also different this time around, as the “Pick Ten” system from Black Ops 2 has been carried over, essentially. You can pick up to ten points of Perks (or more if you unequip your non-Primary gear) divided up between seven categories. How you load those out is up to you, obviously, as you can swap those around more or less as you see fit. Prestige has also changed a bit; instead of wiping out your level and giving you more custom slots, you now simply hit Prestige with the chosen character at level 60, get an emblem, and that’s pretty much it. In order to keep leveling and earning more experience at that point, you need to swap over to a new Squad member to keep going.

Which brings us to the other major change of the game, in Squad members. Basically, in Ghosts you can have up to ten squad members available at any given time, each with their own loadouts, customizations and so on. You can completely customize these squad members, including their gender (THANK YOU RAVEN SOFT IT’S ABOUT TIME) and outfit, and while the customization options are limited, it’s better than nothing. In order to upgrade your Squad members, you earn Squad points from playing online, which can be used to unlock weapons, Perks and so on for each member of the team. Now, part of the appeal here is the ability to have multiple personas to play with as you see fit, so instead of having only so many loadouts you can pick from with one player, you have up to ten players that can be built as you see fit, giving you far more customization options. The other benefit is how this ties into Squad mode, which allows you to jump into group matches with friends or bots against human players or bots in various group challenges, making it something of a cross-breed Team Deathmatch/Horde mode experience. Any experience earned in Squad play also helps your multiplayer experience, so you can play either mode and make progress, and you can even challenge the squads of other players when they’re not around (and vice versa), meaning that you can even earn stuff if you’re not playing at the moment. It could still use some fleshing out, as there are only a couple of modes here and most of them are just variations of Horde mode concepts, but it’s a neat idea and it gives you more incentive to level up multiple squad members outside of just switching over when you’ve hit Prestige.

Outside of the Squad mode, there are a few more additions to the game worth noting. For one thing, the game employs a second set of Streaks known as Field Orders; in this case, you can find a suitcase on the ground that, when picked up, gives you instructions, such as “kill X enemies while crouched” or “kill X enemies with a picked up weapon.” When completed, these give you an ammo boost, a Squad Point and a Care Package that contains a random Streak, which can also include crazy things like a chemical strike, mortar fire and so on, making them appropriately worthwhile (though potentially risky) to complete. Maps can also be destroyed in battle as you play, which can change how you set yourself up if a particularly defensible location gets totaled for instance, though this is as much for aesthetic purposes as anything else. The game also adds in some old and new multiplayer modes to the mix, so you’ll see options like Infected, Ground War (on PS4 anyway), and Cranked tossed in with the normal Team Deathmatch and Free For All modes you’ve come to expect. There’s also a Zombies-style mode included, called Extinction, where you place drill devices to destroy alien hives and wipe out waves of alien enemies in the process. It basically feels like the Zombies mode got infested by the Zerg, to be honest, but it’s fun enough to be worth playing around with and it adds some variety to the experience. It also adds in some elements Zombies mode doesn’t have, such as clearly defined objectives and the ability to tweak your loadout as you level up, which makes it more worthwhile to come back to in the long run since you can clearly define roles for multiple players and aim to achieve specific objectives.

The single player campaign can be completed in about four to six hours, give or take, though you’ve got multiple difficulty modes to play with if you want to plow through the game on a higher level, though the multiple endings from Black Ops 2 aren’t present this time around. The online, between the level up system, the many different play modes, and the Squad options, is where most of your replay of the game will come from, as it’s addictive and in-depth, and offers a lot to do from start to finish. The expanded customization mechanics, as well as regular play options should offer a good amount of variety to players, and the new Squad mode options and Extinction play mode should also give fans a lot to do on and offline, depending on what they’re looking for. There will also be DLC for the game, because of course there will, that should add new maps and such to the game beyond what’s here, and you can tie your performance into COD Elite for activity tracking and such if you’re a competitive player. Obviously, the game is going to have a lot to offer to the sort of person who buys new releases in the series year after year, but there’s a lot here to work with for the more casual fan or newcomer as well, as the retuned online options, expanded mechanics in single player, and expanded options to play against the AI in Squad mode and Extinction offers a lot of new options for play. As such, you could find yourself spending a good amount of time with the game just seeing what’s been changed alone, and the game makes a compelling argument to devote a large amount of time to it if you’re any kind of fan.

At this point in the review we normally sit down and discuss what’s wrong with the game, overall, but aside from the obvious “the story is not very good” point mentioned earlier, and the obvious “this is mostly still a Call of Duty game” complaint that will always exist, most of the major complaints about the game are subjective. The Pointstreak system, ten point Perk system and so on are basically similar enough to those from Black Ops 2 that anyone who did or didn’t like them there will know what they’re getting into here, but the Field Order, Squad and Prestige systems will either be awesome or awful depending on your personal preference. Field Orders could become unbalancing if players can do well with them and unleash enemy team killing effects onto the field, but the difficulty and randomization of them feels (so far) like it won’t become unbalancing in the long run. The new Prestige system may be annoying to players who want ten loadouts on one player, but being able to swap squad members at will feels like it should offset this enough that it shouldn’t upset players too much in the long run. Honestly, the changes that have been made seem like they work pretty well, overall, and there are enough changes here that one can honestly say, from a multiplayer perspective, that there’s actually enough difference to the mechanics of multiplayer so as to make it feel slightly fresh. It would have been nice to see some expansion to Squad mode, and Extinction is honestly a bit more annoying than it should be due to being constantly swarmed by aliens fairly early on, and a bit shorter than it should be, but overall, what’s here works surprisingly well.

In the end, Call of Duty: Ghosts is a solid release in the series, ends up being a big thumbs up for Raven Soft for the online play and a solid thumbs up for Neversoft for Extinction, but between the big thumbs down to Infinity Ward for the campaign and the fact that the changes to online will be subjective, it’s not for everyone. The game looks good throughout and shows some decent next-gen improvements (though not quite enough to really make it shine on the PS4) and it sounds as good as it ever did across the board. The core gameplay is basically unchanged from the prior games in the series, so fans should be able to jump into it with little effort, and you can learn everything you need to know from the campaign well enough. The multiplayer is where the game really shines, as the basics are still intact, but the modifications to Perks, Streaks and Prestige aren’t bad, the Squad system and character customization are neat, the Field Orders are interesting, and Extinction isn’t a bad attempt at the Zombies concept at all. That said, the campaign is meager and features a plot that’s weak at best and insulting at worst, a lot of the multiplayer changes may be annoying to long time fans depending on what you want from the game, Squads could use a little more depth, Extinction is a little annoying and short all told, and the game is still basically Call of Duty in most respects. Still, Ghosts is one of the better releases in the Call of Duty franchise in years given its efforts to change up the formula instead of relying on its fame to carry it, and even with the weak campaign, it’s still worth picking up if you’re a fan of the multiplayer, as it’s arguably the best it’s ever been.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Call of Duty: Ghosts is a damn good game if you’re in it for the multiplayer, as it makes a lot of interesting changes to the mechanics and adds in some engaging new modes, though the changes may be divisive to some players, and the campaign falls flat across the board. The game looks pretty good on the PS4 in solo and multiplayer, though it doesn’t quite hit the “next-gen” level of visual expectation, and it generally sounds excellent in all respects as always. Fans will appreciate the fact that the game plays the same as it ever did, and the campaign acts as a solid enough tutorial for those who don’t know how to play. The multiplayer shows the biggest overall changes, as the gameplay is basically identical, but sweeping changes have been made to Perks, Streaks and Prestige, and the addition of the Squad system and Field Orders in battle have expanded the overall experience well, and the addition of Extinction gives the game some fun outside of normal multiplayer. Sadly, the campaign is limited and features a plot that’s simply not very good at all, the changes to multiplayer may be polarizing depending on what you want from the game, Squads could use some expansion, Extinction is a little frustrating and short, and the game is still ultimately Call of Duty in thought and deed. Overall though, Ghosts makes some significant and interesting changes to the way the game is played from a multiplayer perspective, and while anyone looking to the single player to carry the experience may be disappointed, anyone who loves the multiplayer will likely love what’s here in most, if not all, respects.



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