With Call of Duty: Ghosts, Infinity Ward had an amazing opportunity to usher in video gaming’s next generation by maxing out the graphical capabilities of the PS3/Xbox 360 and passing the baton to the PS4/Xbox One with their heads held high. Unfortunately, by refusing to diversify the franchise’s now-tired formula, Ghosts becomes something of a wounded soldier limping into a foreign battlefield without many reinforcements to speak of, rather than a prepared squadron ready to outmaneuver hordes of rushing enemies. While the multiplayer features the same kind of addicting elements with towering production values that have kept the series a cash cow, the main campaign, and to an extent the entire package, feels like it’s in a holding pattern. There’s very little that makes Ghosts truly special; it’s a generally by-the-numbers excursion through big-budget wartime set pieces that, due to an unavoidable air of familiarity, wears out its welcome much quicker than it should.
Ghosts’s central narrative aspires to be an innovative take on the alternate-timeline blueprint, depicting an America that’s lost control due to a hijacking of a weaponized satellite. The game is set 10 years after the country’s initial fall, where a rogue coalition of militants based in South America attempts to hold on to power during a global crisis hinged on limited oil production and nuclear threats. The clandestine Ghosts, commanded by retired U.S. Army Captain Elias Walker, who’s later joined by his sons, Logan and David, along with their trusty German Shepard, Riley, conduct covert operations under the noses of invading forces with the hopes of putting a dent in the United Federation’s growing stockpile. There’s far too much focus on the family dynamic in Ghosts, with the theatrics laid on thick from the get-go, and with the strained relationship between Elias and his children acting as an unstable anchor for the remainder of the story. It’s clear that writer Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana) wants these characters to break free of genre stereotypes, but in focusing on what sparse amount of humanity they retain after countless disasters, the level of melodrama frequently borders on oppressive.
Thankfully, the missions themselves possess more character than the Walker clan, especially when requiring players to locate areas of cover during the most precarious of predicaments. The outer-space scenes, for example, which evoke the soaring perils of Gravity, are precisely the breed of ridiculous firefighting that’s made Call of Duty so popular. Using floating sections of cosmic debris as makeshift shields is a unique and well-designed strategem, and even when the majority of objectives are linear by design, the predetermined pathways are packed with enough explosive tonal shifts to maintain interest. There’s rarely an extended lapse in combat, but, as with past entries in the series, massive batches of foes spawn all at once in certain spots instead of gradually, which creates awkward choke points where sporadic lag lingers. Controlling canine companions seems to be a trend in recent games, and directing the obedient Riley around is a cool quirk, but isn’t as memorable as, say, the comical Chop segments from Grand Theft Auto V.
Multiplayer is and always will be the heart and soul of any Call of Duty chapter, and, with the exception of one particular option, Extinction, Ghosts often drops the ball. Replacing Zombies mode from former installments, Extinction is an alien invasion scenario that’s a good deal deeper than it needs to be. In fact, Extinction offers more hours of authentic fun than Ghosts’s main campaign. The creative tasks are infinitely more challenging, and the aliens themselves are an AI not to be misjudged: these butt-ugly creatures are erratic (not to be confused with glitchy) and lightning-quick; strategizing with compatriots to eliminate otherworldly foes is top-notch entertainment. Even though there’s only one map, it’s an extensively varied one, with numerous avenues to victory available at any given moment. Less successful is Squads, which places an increased emphasis on bot team customization. Outfitting your NPCs with godly attributes and pitting them against the armies your friends have created is uninviting and uninspired, eventually amounting to not much more than draggy spectator matches.
Ghosts evidently frowns upon multiplayer veterans with a penchant for going at it alone, as the new but not necessarily improved Search & Destroy, now called Search & Rescue, essentially punishes players who avoid working with teammates to fast-track specific goals. This time, when your dog tags are dropped, a teammate must grab them before an adversary does, otherwise you’ll be left staring at the screen while the battle rages on without you. The Strikezone map even has a drone attack built in, and when it hits the entire layout of the location changes, leaving those who memorized it via repeat play at a loss. Other tacked on modes like Blitz, Cranked, and Hunted, are scarcely inventive, discouraging clever assault routes and loadouts by sticking to preset courses and assigned gear (Hunted grants you only a solitary handgun, resulting in a mad dash to resupply from care packages). Equipment perks are present in Ghosts, but the refined Pick-10 system from Black Ops 2 has been axed in favor of the take-it-or-leave-it Squad Points conformance, which forces players to mix and match armaments by tossing out less important pieces. Thus, split-second decisions aren’t as crucial, going into a warzone with less than optimal supplies doesn’t have as much of an impact as it once did.
Ultimately, Ghosts contains a handful of standout moments, but is regrettably something of a misfire. It doesn’t make enough changes or upgrades to warrant being labeled as the precursor of the incoming wave of gaming advancements. It’s a mildly distracting tumble through ideas and procedures Infinity Ward established years ago. Luckily, this is a series that will likely never fade away, and one can only hope that the next Call of Duty episode can liberate itself from the digital prison cell erected by its own stubborn stagnancy.