With all of the noise made in the wake of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's success — everything from sky-high sales figures to unfortunate ad campaigns, or the rise, fall and subsequent embalming of developer Infinity Ward — it's easy to lose sight of just how phenomenal and innovative that game really was. Genres evolve and iterate over time with mechanics intermingling along the way, but Modern Warfare, for better or worse, changed the game overnight. There is nary a military shooter since then that isn't informed in some fashion by the campaign's shoot-bang spectacle, the persistent multiplayer, or that callous, detached mission piloting an AC-130 gunship.
Call of Duty has been outnumbered but never outgunned in its particular military-shooter niche since then, and year after year manages to pull off consistent escalation and just enough evolution to stand out from the crowd of me-too shooters. But something strange is happening this year. It's a new game where everything feels expected, and its attempts at diversity go so far and wide as to break through the ceiling into the realm of the absurd. Efforts to recapture the spirit of the franchise seem to merely mimic its better moments. With Call of Duty: Ghosts, the franchise is eating itself.
The new sub-series brings a new world, and the world of Ghosts is one changed. The Middle East has suffered nuclear destruction, leading oil-rich South America to unite and form the Federation, which quickly rises as a global superpower. The Federation pushes north with swift invasions of Central America and the Caribbean, and a hijacking of the United States' orbital superweapon called ODIN — capable of raining down a really bad case of the Monday's — takes out several major cities in the southwestern U.S. A ten-year conflict ends in a standstill along the front of these ruins.
Ghosts takes a page from Call of Duty: Black Ops by trying to create an emotional anchor among over-the-top scenarios, but fails on all fronts. Silent-but-deadly player character Logan and brother Hesh are dull, uninteresting protagonists with zero charm and personalities intentionally left blank. The story follows them as they go from members of the military to "uber-elite" Ghosts, but they seem to have the easiest transition in the world — their father, Elias, happens to be the leader of the squad. Their gaining a spot on the team isn't hard-fought, it's delivered (hooray nepotism!) without so much as a fart of care by anyone on screen. An awful lot of weight is put on Hesh and Logan's relationship with their cookie-cutter Tough Love Military Guy (TM) father as the story's emotional arc, yet no character has any sort of development whatsoever — Logan never once says a word, not even in situations where incredible screaming at people would be expected, and were dog companion Riley human he would simply waft out of memory. Ghosts' attempt to tell a story of familial destruction — in both a home and military sense — falls so completely flat as to beg the question of why such a story was even told when seemingly no attempt to humanize anyone involved was made at all.
The titular Ghosts are set up to be some great Spartan-like force, and over the course of the campaign prove themselves able to carry out all sorts of missions impossible as they storm bases and scale buildings. Just like literally every post-Modern Warfare squad, who could (and in many cases have) come up against these same odds and achieved the same results. The Ghosts' constant build-up as the squad to end all squads amounts to squat when put up against the bigger picture — substantively ending up as little more than shadowy hand-waving and a cool mask, and incredibly flat characterization leaves little to cheer them on for other than that they are cast as the "good" guys. We wouldn't expect much from the bad guys in this department either, but the Federation is a completely faceless enemy with a paper-thin presentation that makes them little but pointless fodder — because hey, you've gotta shoot somebody. The story's main foe whose personal vendetta against the Ghosts amounts to little more than being able to check off the "Personal Vendetta" box in the motivation field of whatever Create-a-Meanie template he sprung from.
Along with a new world comes new settings for combat, bringing more diversity than before seemingly just for the sake of it. Call of Duty has been around the block a few times, which is pushing its constant need to one-up itself into collapse. Where do you go after cratering the Eiffel Tower during a near-future World War 3? Up, apparently — into space, for zero-gravity astronaut shootouts. It was inevitable that one day Call of Duty would leave Earth, yes, but — like James Bond in Moonraker — it turns out that silly things can happen up there. The handful of space fights are sound — if sludgy — and certainly novel, but they quickly devolve into absurdity as faintly mobile, bulky figures with assault weapons float around the void in near-silence. It turns out that a little zero gravity goes a really long way, and halfway through the opening mission defending ODIN we found ourselves wishing that things would just blow up already.
Ghosts' constant trying to top itself as a Call of Duty game is borderline self-parodic, throwing as many potential “whoa man” moments as it can at the wall in the hope of something, anything sticking. At times it feels as though there are more vehicle- or equipment-based gimmicky set pieces than there is chaotic battlefield combat on foot, where the series is at its best. Half of Ghosts' campaign appears to be set firmly in the shadow of Modern Warfare's AC-130 stage and a dangerous place to be stuck creatively, causing ridiculous moments like remote-controlling Riley through tall grass, or fighting underwater and trying to not get eaten by sharks. Some absurdity would be fine had Ghosts a sense of humor but feels out of place in a game with such a serious tone. Only one or two truly impressive campaign moments spring to mind favorably with a few days between finishing the campaign and the time of writing. Once a mission's tricks are exposed, they seldom create a desire for repeated play.
Minor tweaks to the interface and player mobility offer subtle improvements. For the most part the brain-dead “follow” system of frustratingly hand-holding guidance in the campaign is gone, which cleans up the interface a tad. Not that it was ever needed, as there are only ever so many places you can actually go in any given strictly linear Call of Duty stage. A new contextual lean mechanic allows you to rustle up to a corner and peak out by aiming down the sights, which ends up being a neat if hardly critical way to open up movement a scooch.
Those who exclusively play Call of Duty's competitive modes won't give many hoots about the dull thud of a campaign, even if the package this year isn't radically different from what came before. "More" seems to be the M.O. here — not qualitatively improved, simply more of it.
Maps are far larger and more open here than Call of Duty: Black Ops II's channeled arenas, and the empty feel at times is likely because they were designed for a count greater than Wii U's 12-player limit. Staples like UAVs are no longer, and in their place are portable satcom receivers that you can place anywhere on the map. The more satcoms that are planted, the greater the “reception” is for your team’s minimap. For instance, with only one satcom out, enemies will only appear on the minimap if they have been spotted by someone on your team, but if somebody places a second one then enemies will appear even if they are not in sight — essentially taking twice as long to get the same functionality as a standard UAV in previous games.
Requisite new killstreaks mix it up — like attack dogs that will wreck you in one bite (which, when eliminated, prompts an unnerving "Killed Dog! +200" message to splash on the screen) and a bomb that radically changes the structure of the map. A new Marksman Rifle class of weapons joins the fold for a halfway take on sniper rifles, and the new modes — like Blitz and Search & Rescue — offer tweaks on old favourites Capture the Flag and Search & Destroy, respectively. They're just different enough from their predecessors, but still largely within the same ballpark — although not all modes have made the cut. Headquarters, Hardpoint, Theater Mode and the pleasingly diverse Ground War have been snipped and leave behind mostly character-less competitive options. None of the creative juices of the Black Ops sub-series are flowing around here, lending a very safe feeling to what's available.
Greater flexibility in character creation allows accounts to have up to ten squad characters each with their own progression and saved load-outs, and female soldiers can join the fray for the first time. Completing challenges and levelling up earns Squad Points that are then used to purchase weapons and gear. Unlocking items is not much different from how it's done in Black Ops II, although Ghosts' load-outs do away with that game's weighted ten-slot system. Load-outs are structured much like in Modern Warfare 3, where each piece of equipment has its own dedicated slot — this may appear to be a step back but in truth makes little material difference unless you want to equip yourself for combat like only a crazy person would. The spirit of the ten-slot system lives on in how Perks are equipped. Now, each Perk has a certain block size to it, and you can carry as many Perks into battle as you can fit in the Perks bar. This gives players the choice to load up on a half-dozen minor perks or go in guns blazing with three hefty ones. This allows more granular control over your load-out while still retaining some semblance of competitive balance.
This would be all well and good were it not for what seems to be a dodgy respawn system. Instead of spawning players in a location that would make sense, Ghosts' maps favour re-entering players in team-specific spots: this means these areas are easily camped and prone to somebody suddenly spawning around the corner and dying immediately, or getting shot in the back by someone who wasn't there two seconds ago. It can be incredibly frustrating to die, spawn, take four steps and then die again; because of this, some game types feel downright broken on certain maps.
Black Ops II suffered from a low player count on Wii U — it was always easy to get a staple like Team Deathmatch going, but less popular modes were often dead in the water — and at press time Ghosts seems to have a similar issue with its less popular modes.
Previous Call of Duty titles have featured offline bots for multiplayer practice, and Ghosts' Squads fleshes out that concept into an online and offline team mode. Those same ten squad members from the competitive game carry over into Squads, and you can take them into battle against other bots where they will behave according to how they're outfitted. Want a sniper on your team? Outfit a squad member with a sniper rifle. Friends can join your team too for cooperative or competitive modes, and you can challenge a friends' squad when they are offline (or they yours). All of the XP earned here ties in to the standard competitive multiplayer, so if you want to practice before going online or are temporarily without Internet you can still make character progress. The bots are a poor substitute for human opposition, leaving Squads best as a training ground for new players and not a serious alternative for seasoned vets.
Ghosts' cooperative mode takes greater creative risks than its staple competitive modes. Taking the place of Zombies is Extinction, a four-player cooperative mode spent fighting off an invasion of bug-like aliens who look to have taken a page from the Conduit book of design. Instead of holing up in mostly one location and reinforcing a barricade to see how long you can survive, Extinction's stages push players to scavenge, defend and constantly move forward to eradicate alien hives with a portable drill. Killing aliens scores cash to spend on guns, ammo, gear and activating environmental hazards to protect the drill. Extinction is cooperative play done right, requiring actual strategy and communication between team members to have any chance in repelling the invasion. With its own persistent progression, perks and unlocks separate from the competitive modes — not to mention its plethora of stages — this mode has enough substance to keep players going for a while. However, Extinction isn't as goofy (and thus as charming) as Zombies, taking itself far too seriously. Zombies pulls off its bizarre world because it knowingly subverts the grounded, "realistic" Call of Duty formula with its surreal hi-jinx. As Extinction is neither goofy nor charming, thematically it feels a little weird and out of place. Fortunately, it's a strong enough mode to withstand feeling out of place and Ghosts is all the better for its inclusion.
Treyarch is behind bringing the game over to Wii U and they've again done a pretty good job of it, even if it does appear to be Activision's least supported version of the game. While the framerate isn't the steady 60fps the franchise is known for, the dip below is negligible and doesn't notably impact performance either online or off. All controllers are supported, be it the GamePad, Pro Controller, Classic Controller Pro or Wii Remote + Nunchuck, with the latter the most responsive way to play. The pointer controls feel tighter than in Black Ops II and are pretty great, offering arguably the most compelling way to play.
The GamePad screen isn't used for much other than displaying objectives during the campaign, which don't ever need referencing, and in multiplayer displays the full minimap in addition to a few buttons for quickly diving into load-out customization and the like. Off-screen play on the GamePad is available, and playing local multiplayer with one person on the GamePad and the other on the TV is still pretty cool. However, we don't recommended off-screen play for Serious Multiplayer Gaming, as the video compression needed to beam the game out to the GamePad can blur a lot of detail. With enough issues related to spawning, getting killed from out of nowhere, and the inherent decreased visibility on a small screen because of the huge maps, there's little need to add Vaseline smear to the mix. On the downside, it's clear that Wii U support is not a developer priority: we would advise against holding breath for downloadable map packs to hit the platform, and as of writing the official iOS and Android app doesn’t support Nintendo Network IDs, either.
Call of Duty: Ghosts will be remembered for many things, but few in the ways that it had hoped. It's a rare stumble for one of gaming's most consistently entertaining franchises, showing a lack of focus and confidence in itself. The campaign is a shallow Frankengame, hollow-hearted and unsure of its footing as it tries to keep up with Call of Duty's own self-escalation of incredulous scenarios, with ludicrously stupid set pieces and a story built around relationships that nobody will care about come the end of the credits.
The franchise's genre-defining multiplayer suite returns without rocking the boat too much, bringing greater control over customization and a larger approach to maps, but its good ideas are largely drowned out by the spawning and map problems currently plaguing the game. Playing online can occasionally be hugely frustrating in certain modes but an absolute joy in others. As usual, though, the robust suite offers plenty more options to play with friends. Squads gives substance to playing against bots, and Extinction's strategic survival mode is engaging enough for a group of friends to dig into for a good while.
Despite Ghosts' best efforts to prove otherwise, there is still plenty of life left in Call of Duty's fun formula. Hopefully the inevitable Ghosts 2 will show greater restraint and focus to allow it to shine through.