We sit at a crucial period in gaming when Call of Duty, as a series, needs to not only rise above its fierce and aggressive competition, but also prove that it is still worthy of leading the online first-person shooter into the next-generation of gaming. 2013, going into 2014, is the year that the franchise needs to shake things up or risk boring dedicated and long-time fans with more of the same.
Is Call of Duty: Ghosts the shepherd that will drive the series to bigger and better places?
Despite introducing an entirely new universe completely unrelated to the Modern Warfare sub-series that brought the franchise to the level of stardom that it currently enjoys, Call of Duty: Ghosts looks and feels a little too much like its predecessors. I could be rather lazy and simply call Ghosts a re-skinned Modern Warfare 3 with a revamped user interface, but it goes a little deeper than that. Still, I feel developers Infinity Ward, along with the help of Neversoft and Raven, played things a little too safe this year and relied too heavily on the name “Call of Duty” that carries with it unprecedented levels of popularity.
That said, it really is Call of Duty, a buttery smooth, highly responsive first-person shooter that focuses on high-action, fast-paced gameplay running at 60 frames per second. To this day, it remains the formula to beat that countless studios have attempted to recreate, but have never truly succeeded in doing so. The only problem is that the chefs that cooked up this formula in the first place mastered it several years ago and have since then been able to alter it slightly here and there, but have yet to truly reformulate another innovative masterpiece. That is the struggle that developers Infinity Ward face, much like shaving company Gillette faces: How do you improve upon the perfection of a product like the single-edged razor blade that cuts cleanly and effectively with the right technique without inventing an entirely new way to shave all together? Add more blades? Eventually, it gets kind of ridiculous. Call of Duty is stuck in its ways and really has nowhere to go without becoming a completly different game. Personally, it’s a position I wouldn’t want to be in.
So, let’s take a look at what the guys and gals behind Call of Duty: Ghosts did manage to bring to the table this year.
First and foremost, Ghosts multiplayer clearly goes a different direction than what developers Treyarch followed with Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 last year. Visually, Ghosts drops the brightly-lit, uplifting color scheme for a more gritty and earthy palette of greens, tans, and browns. It gives it a much more sombre tone that falls in line with the game’s post-apocalyptic setting. Multiplayer battles take place in city ruins, flooded streets, disfigured landscapes, and even crumbling skyscrapers. Some may find Ghosts takes itself a little too seriously, in this regard, while others might appreciate the more realistic atmosphere. Though I haven’t noticed any improvements in the weapon models, the game boasts some very detailed environments, improved lighting, and some neat reflections. Clearly, more visual improvements will become apparent with the arrival of Ghosts on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One later this month. Sadly, the PC version of Ghosts appears to suffer from some poor optimization issues and lacks a number of options that were available in previous titles. One technical advancement that I’m happy to see make it into the current-generation versions of Ghosts is the ability to dual-render backgrounds. Aiming down magnified optics will now only magnify what is actually in the frame of the sight, keeping the background at a distance. It might sound silly, but it’s something I’ve yet to see many first-person shooters do.
Infinity Ward has shown a greater attention to sound design in Ghosts, which makes it very easy to understand what’s going on around you at any given moment. This is especially noticeable when explosions rattle objects both in front and behind you and when soldiers call out enemy positions at varying distances. With a good headset or sound system, it’s very easy to pinpoint the locations of your teammates without even looking at your mini-map, while those with attentive ears will also want to take advantage of enemy footsteps. I also really like how the properties of different sounds shift depending on their surrounding environment. Though, I feel Ghosts has some improvements to make when it comes to player immersion. A lot of the sound effects lack the same sort of depth that Black Ops 2 was able to achieve last year. Gun shots and explosions feel very two dimensional and fake while it seems like their volume has been increased to compensate. Sound assets from previous Modern Warfare titles also appear to be reused quite often, which I really did not expect from an entirely new sub-series of Call of Duty. Without a doubt, Ghosts sounds a little too much like Modern Warfare 3.
The user interface and heads-up-display in Call of Duty has always been top notch, and it’s no different here. Menus are responsive and you can tell time has been taken to revamp the HUD while keeping it very clean and easy to understand. In-game, the new mini-map does a fantastic job of keeping you informed while the score board now appears on the top right-hand corner of the screen so you can play and check your kill/death ratio at the same time. It’s funny, but I feel like the HUD is one of the bigger differentiating factors that separates Ghosts from previous Call of Duty titles. I only wish this level of hard work extended to other departments of the game.
When it comes to gameplay, I’m honestly rather confused by Ghosts. By introducing larger maps and slower movement speed, which is somewhat made up for by the ability to slide on the ground and vault over objects quicker, I get the understanding that Infinity Ward wanted to slow down gameplay to a degree, which is something I can certainly appreciate. But why, then, is the time-to-kill still lightning fast – as fast, if not faster than Modern Warfare 3? Only a few hours in and already I’m easily frustrated by the amount of time I spend looking for a gunfight, only to meet my swift demise from a short and blazing fast burst of bullets in a matter of milliseconds from an enemy that is near impossible to see thanks to the new lean-and-peak feature.
The problem is that gunfights in Ghosts aren’t really gunfights. It’s more a game of who-sees-who-first where it’s extremely rare to be able maneuver out of a sticky situation in time to grasp what’s going on and put up a real fight. As a result, it severely disrupts the game’s balance and it becomes discouraging for players who can’t keep anything higher than a 1 to 1 kill/death ratio. They’ve made it clear that Ghosts is no longer a rusher’s or run-and-gunner’s game and that gone are the days of multi-kills and “quad-feeds”. Slow movement speed, sniper perches with clear lines of sight, and long corridors with little cover make it near impossible for sub-machine gun users to get within range of their enemy. In Ghosts, assault rifles, marksman rifles, a new class of weapon made up of semi-automatic sniper rifles, and, if your aim is true, sniper rifles, clearly reign supreme. It also doesn’t help that being shot and killed with triple-burst weapons like the MSBS feels no different than being sniped by a one-shot-one-kill sniper rifle with the maneuverability and fire rate of an assault rifle. That, and being able to add a three-round burst attachment to any of the marksman rifles is a bit overkill.
Another issue that arises out of high bullet damage is that any sort of “lag” or discrepancies between the player and the host become that much more noticeable. I occasionally find a drastic disconnect between what I see and what the killcam (host) sees. That includes being shot by enemies before they even turn the corner from which they are hiding, or being killed by players who appear to have their back turned to me.
Other than this seemingly odd focus on ranged gunfights, larger maps, and a contradicting balance between slower-paced action and fast time-to-kill, Ghosts gameplay remains largely as it did in Modern Warfare 3, but with a few positive additions. Field Orders can be picked up randomly from slain enemies which task you with simple challenges like killing your next enemy with a headshot or getting two kills while crouched. Doing so will allow you to call in a care package that will grant you a random killstreak, including the powerful ODIN strike that will not only kill every enemy on the opposing team and disrupt their electronics, it also drastically alter the play space by destroying buildings, blocking off lanes and creating new pathways. Though this particular event is not all-inclusive to every map in Ghosts, most maps do offer a greater level of interaction in some form or another. The only issue I take with these new dynamic events is that it isn’t clear when or where they might take place. As a result, I feel like I’m missing out on some of the game’s new features. Thankfully, it’s easy enough to perform some of the game’s new animations like sliding, vaulting, and peaking around corners. Other than vaulting, I don’t often think to use movements like the slide or lean and tend fall back on more traditional Call of Duty tactics, but that’s why some of the weapons’ camo unlocks task you with performing kills while sliding or peaking.
While I’m a little disappointed that Ghosts’ killstreaks system reverted back to Modern Warfare 3’s Strike Packages (not in the sense that I disliked that system, but in that they didn’t try out something new or different), I am thankful that many of the killstreaks have been tweaked to become more interactive and ground-based, rather than air-based. It keeps things more emphasized on the on the gun vs. gun gameplay and keeps you focused on what’s in front of you, rather than above you.
The way in which you rank up and Prestige in Ghosts differs drastically from previous titles. Create-a-Class is now Create-a-Solder where you can invest in up to 10 characters at the same time or individually. To Prestige is equivalent to fully ranking up a soldier, only this time, you have the freedom to rank up one soldier at a time, or a number of soldiers all at once, as long as you have enough resources to unlock them all. Each soldier can be customized with their own set of loadouts, own appearance, and even own name. This, of course, ties in directly to Ghosts’ new Squads mode where you can enlist your squad in various game modes like Squad Assault; a 1-6 player vs. AI mode where you face off against other players’ squads, Squad vs. Squad; a 1 vs. 1 with AI game mode, Safeguard; a 1-4 player wave defense/horde mode, and Wargame; a 1-6 player vs. bots practice mode. In Squad HQ, you can edit your Squad name, set your base map and alter your default game mode for Squad vs. Squad. In all, it’s a nice distraction from the more competitive multiplayer modes that allows you to play with others in a more cooperative setting, but nothing I think the hardcore Call of Duty audience will take too seriously.
To anyone who’s played the original Black Ops, Ghosts’ unlock system will feel familiar in that weapons, attachments, and killstreaks can be bought using what are called Squad Points and can be unlocked in any order you please. Just like Black Ops, however, it leads to a rather dull grind in which unlocks following your preferred set up are unexciting and don’t inspire you to keep on playing. Those familiar with Black Ops 2 will notice that the Create-a-Soldier system is, in fact, a slight variation of what Treyarch did with their Pick-10 system previously. It gives you more or less the same amount of freedom to mix and match allocation points so you can customize your soldier to run with more perks and less weaponry or equipment, or vice versa. You’ll also notice that there are a lot more perks this time around; five spread across seven different tiers, equalling to 35 total. Each perk costs a certain amount of points with the more powerful ones costing more than the weaker ones, which keep things relatively balanced. Exactly how balanced is something we’ll most likely find out later in the game’s life cycle.
Sadly, gone are the weapon Prestige levels that I really enjoyed in Black Ops 2. But what’s worse is that, because you can purchase any and all of your weapon attachments, there’s no longer an incentive to reach high kill counts with any particular weapon because there’s nothing to unlock other than camos, which aren’t all that exciting. I also don’t find any of the weapons featured in Ghosts particularly likeable, but that’s more to do with my personal tastes. Though, interestingly, you’ll find a number of weapons that come pre-equipped with built in attachments like silencers, tungsten rounds, laser sights or foregrips. There is also a number of pretty cool optics to choose from that can assist you with different vision modes. On a related note, feel free to check out the full list of weapons, perks and killstreaks you’ll find in Ghosts in this post right here.
The multiplayer maps in Ghosts are a real mixed bag. One one hand, you have some really large maps like Overlord, Stonehaven and Chasm (due to its multi-storied, vertical layout) that feel like they have no place in a Call of Duty game, while on the other, you have some really solid, ideally-sized maps like Octane, Flooded, and Strikezone which can be a blast to play on. Some standouts I recall are Prison Break for its visually appealing forest setting, Octane for nostalgia purposes (it reminds me of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare), and Warhawk for its lively background surroundings that really make you feel like you are in a war zone. What I feel Ghosts’ maps are missing in particular are more of the competitive three-lane layouts that a lot of Black Ops 2’s maps adopted and that also happened to be a lot of fun. A number of maps in Ghosts almost appear random in layout, though I’m sure there is a method to the madness.
Then you have Free Fall, which is basically Ghosts’ version of Black Ops 1 and Black Ops 2’s fan-favorite Nuketown/Nuketown 2025. It’s small, chaotic and very exciting. In Free Fall, the battle takes place on a falling chunk of skyscraper trapped in between two buildings. As the match ensues, the play space falls closer and closer to the streets below, though I don’t believe you ever actually hit rock bottom. With each slip, it shakes up the battlefield and makes for a neat visual spectacle as you’re juggled around between two towers. In essence, Call of Duty: Ghosts plays perfect on Free Fall, and yet it’s only a bonus downloadable map not included in the regular version. Like Nuketown 2025, I hope it eventually becomes a mandatory but free download because those without it are seriously missing out.
That leads me to game modes, as Free Fall is only available in the Ghosts Moshpit playlist, which is only available to those with the Free Fall bonus map. The issue is that, in current-generation versions of the game, the Ghosts Moshpit playlist is the go-to playlist that not only includes Free Fall, but most of Ghosts’ more appropriately-sized maps in an assortment of exciting game modes like Domination, Blitz and Cranked. What’s also disappointing is that the current-generation versions of Ghosts are missing the Ground War game mode, which allowed up to 18 players in 9 vs. 9 battles, something that would have made the game’s larger maps much more enjoyable, especially in non-objective game modes. Thankfully, that isn’t an issue on the PC, nor will it be on the next-generation versions of Ghosts.
All of Ghosts new modes are, however, available in their own playlists and are really worth a visit as they are some of the more creative game modes I’ve yet to come across in a first-person shooter. In particular, Blitz and Cranked are among my new favorites. Blitz is almost a simplified reversal of Capture-the-Flag, where everyone in the game has the flag and must bring it to the enemy’s base alive. What really gets this game going is that once you enter what is the enemy’s portal, you are then teleported back to your spawn point where you can either go on the offensive once more, or hang back and defend your portal. It forces you to think strategically once enemy players catch on to your tactics. It’s a game of smarts, rather than proficiency in shooting, which is something missing in a lot of shooters today. Cranked, on the other hand, is all about killing and killing quickly. Upon your first kill, you’re granted increased movement, reload and ADS speed. The catch is that you must kill another opponent within 30 seconds to avoid blowing up. It sounds like stupid fun and it is.
Search and Rescue is a fresh spin on Search and Destroy that introduces friendly and enemy dog tags that can be picked up to either revive teammates, or confirm kills. Originally a community-made game mode in Modern Warfare 3, Infected makes an official debut in Ghosts. Lastly, Hunted is an interesting idea of a game mode that starts players off with only a side arm, a 9-bang grenade, and two throwing knives. From here, you must make your way to any of the randomly dropped supply crates to salvage a new weapon before any enemies take advantage of it. Each crate yields up to five weapons. Other than these surprisingly crafty new game modes, Ghosts offers your standard Call of Duty classics like TDM, Kill Confirmed, Domination, Free-for-All, Team Tactical, and soon, Search and Destroy.
Before closing off this review, I should note the effort Beachhead Studios made with the brand new Call of Duty companion app. Not only does it serve as a neat way to manage your clan, edit your soldier or catch up on related news or events, it also allows you to use your mobile device as a second screen while playing Ghosts multiplayer. The feature has yet to roll out as a fully functional second screen, so expect an update shortly after its launch.
Ultimately, Call of Duty: Ghosts, save for its next-gen appeal, doesn’t seem to offer enough convincing reasons to leave a game like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 behind. In most regards, features, mechanics, balance, game modes, map design, etc. have simply been refreshed for the sake of change, rather than improved for the betterment of the game. As you can see, for every step forward Ghosts makes, it also takes a step back in another department, somewhere else. The result is a game that lacks a convincing direction for the series to follow, and one that stumbles around aimlessly, hoping to find that certain spice that will take its formula to a new and exciting level.
What Call of Duty does offer is more of what you already know and love, which isn’t a bad thing for some. But at a time when it needs to go above and beyond and really step out of it’s comfort zone, it remains stationary and safe. Where Ghosts will really shine is on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, on platforms that will showcase more of the technical advancements the studio has made and where a higher player count in modes like Ground War will increase its fun factor. If it weren’t for Activision’s streamlined and relatively cheap upgrade process, I’d recommend holding off on this purchase until replacing your current hardware with either of Sony or Microsoft’s next-generation platforms. Thankfully, you don’t have to. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be surprised if those sticking with current-gen technology eventually jumped ship back to the Black Ops 2 boat.
I give Call of Duty: Ghosts multiplayer a two and a half stars out of five, which I think fairly represents the sort of middle ground the series currently seems to be stuck in. Will I still play it and learn to adapt to a few of its unorthodox gameplay changes? Yes, and I’ll undoubtedly have some fun moments with it as well, especially on next-gen hardware. But I’m disappointed that it not only failed to instil confidence in myself and others that it knows how to lead the way into next-gen, but many of the features that made its predecessor one of the best Call of Duty games to date were removed or changed simply for the sake of change. That said, It’s still Call of Duty, and if you love Call of Duty, then you’ll still love Ghosts, especially some of the newer and more creative game modes. But I’d really like to see the next entry think outside the box and take some serious risks. Until then, cloudy, Call of Duty’s future is.
2.5 / 5
What do you think? Is Ghosts just what you were looking for in the next generation of Call of Duty multiplayer, or is it just more of the same?
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Call of Duty: Ghosts. Look for an upcoming review of the new Extinction game mode and expect a next-gen update should the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions differ drastically from their current-gen versions.