But when the smoke finally clears, gamers are left with what is simply a military first person shooter (FPS), one that has Hollywood-level budgets, and usually Hollywood writers and voice talent as well.
In Call of Duty: Ghosts, the 2013 version of the popular franchise, Infinity Ward--the masterminds behind the idea of a "call of duty" game and the creators of arguably one of the greatest FPS's ever in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare--return with an all new story, new features, and a whole new polish on the mega-popular online multiplayer. At least that was the plan.
Infinity Ward, joined by Raven Studios and NeverSoft--the studio responsible for the Tony Hawk Pro Skater games in the late '90s-early '00s--have combined to try and elevate the genre even higher than before, all the while giving gamers the game they want to play amidst a strange time in the video game world: the twilight of a console generation.
The results, sadly, are mixed. Call of Duty: Ghosts seems to borrow from every military FPS game that has come before it, whether published by Activision or not. The solo story campaign, which runs anywhere between 6 and 10 hours to complete, is a new story altogether. It's not a sequel to Modern Warfare, nor does it continue the Black Ops story that sister developer Treyarch has been telling for the last three years.
The story follows a father and his two sons after a cataclysmic event initiated by "The Federation," a conglomerate of oil-producing South American countries that has started a war with the United States. The remaining U.S. military employs the "Ghosts," who are legendary mega-Tier 1 operatives i.e. the best of the best. The father, Elias, and his two sons, Hesh and Logan (who the player controls) go on mission after mission to try and defeat the Federation and restore the United States as the main power in this hemisphere.
Working for the Federation is an old ally of the U.S. who knows the Ghosts inside and out, and the two factions are constantly working to stay ahead of the other.
The solo campaign is solid. The story is rich with ideas--especially the haunting origin story of the first Ghosts, as told by Elias to his sons on the game's prologue--and the missions are varied and the action is fast-paced and intense. It is very reminiscent of the first Modern Warfare game in how it is told and in the variety of the missions. Too often, military FPS games tend to fallback on the "run, shoot, clear and move again" style of mission that is rinsed and repeated for a few hours before the player turns to online multiplayer. Not this game.
While it's great that Infinity Ward and company have returned to this type of storytelling, the elements are all things we've seen before in other games, and not just other Call of Duty games.
For every inspired mission, such as the two in-orbital-space levels, there is a vehicle mission that I've played before in an Electronic Arts game. Whether it's the Apache helicopter level from the 2010 Medal of Honor reboot, or the tank ground war mission from Battlefield 3, I cannot get away from the feeling of de ja vu.
Ghosts also has a pretty spectacular underwater mission that not only has a few firefights, but bloodthirsty sharks. This level and the space levels are inspired and something new in a game, franchise and genre that is growing tired. I would much rather play cat and mouse with terrorists on the solar panels of a space station than run through a war-ravaged town shooting militants hiding in alleyways.
The end result of the solo campaign is a good story. It is frenetic and paced well, and while not 100% new, offers a good counterbalance to the rest of the Call of Duty: Ghosts package: online multiplayer, squads, and Extinction.
Squads is a game mode that allows the player to take their squad of three or more players and go into missions cooperatively or competitively. This mode is more for beginners, and all XP earned transfers over to the online multiplayer component.
Extinction is Infinity Ward's answer to Treyarch's Zombies mode. Instead of the undead, players are tasked with fighting off an alien invasion. Much like Zombies, Extinction is a fun, neat little distraction and it can be played solo, with local friends and online (1-4 players).
The real bread and butter of a Call of Duty game is in the online multiplayer, and Ghosts continues its streak of rehash here. The Pick 10 system from Black Ops II has been reworked to fit the "new" loadout model here, and there are 30 new weapons to choose from, including a whole new class, Marksman, which lies between a run and gun style of weapon and a long range sniper type of weapon.
Also new is the fully customizable player creator. For the first time, gamers can change up how their character looks, even in race and sex, and with the re-worked pick 10 create-a-class and perk system, there are over 20,000 possible combinations to create the perfect soldier. There are slots for 10 members of a player's squad, and instead of the player getting ten prestige levels, each character can hit prestige. This is actually a welcome addition to the series, as I hated resetting my levels and weapons after hitting prestige in earlier games.
Even with the "new," there is an overall feeling of "we've been here before." Another new selling point are the dynamic map events, which are game changers that can drastically alter the map during a game, no matter the mode. This is something that the Battlefield franchise has been doing for three games now.
Again, it's not a game breaker, but Call of Duty: Ghosts plays like a military FPS greatest hits game, and the amazing promise of some of the solo campaign levels, including the space and underwater levels, is forgotten. I would have loved to play a full online multiplayer game against 11 other people around a space station. I don't think I'm alone here.
The other major enhancements to the franchise come with the inclusion of a new animation system, which allows for sliding. I love sliding. I love sprinting into a firefight, sliding on one knee and firing round after round into my enemy. It looks cool, feels smooth, and I come off looking like a seasoned bad ass, even when my K/D ratio clearly states that I suck.
Lastly, Ghosts includes controllable dogs for the first time ever. In the solo campaign, Hesh has his trusty pet dog, Riley (an homage to a character from Modern Warfare 2), and the player controls Riley in a few early missions. Late in the campaign, Riley is hurt, and Logan, the player's character, is the one tasked with carrying the dog to safety. I hated this mission with every ounce of my being. I'm not anti-dog, and I completely understand the unconditional love that one can have for a pet, but really? I'm going to carry this 200-pound dog through a tense firefight when I am completely capable of using a gun to kill the bad guys shooting my active squad mates?
I'm sorry, when the place is overrun, it is do-or-die, and the dog could no longer do. What's worse is that the dog is never used again in the story, and the player only uses him once or twice in early missions anyway.
In the online multiplayer game, the dog partner is an unlockable killstreak perk, and the dog will follow the player, attack local enemies, protect the player, and if things go bad, will seek revenge for the player's demise. That makes the addition well worth it.
Lastly, there are a few new multiplayer game modes, including a search and rescue mode, which replaces search and destroy, and blitz, where once you get your first kill, you must continue to kill within an allotted time or the character explodes. Yikes!
Call of Duty games have their own sub-culture of fans and players. These are folks that will call in from work on launch day, drop hours upon hours into the game all year long, and will only stop playing it when another Call of Duty game is released. For these people, Ghosts is a welcome addition to the Call of Duty family.
For the rest of us, the casual players and the military FPS fans, Ghosts feels too familiar in too many areas, and may be a let down in other areas. While the story campaign is easily one of the franchise's best, the online multiplayer evokes a feeling of boredom, and that is a word that should never be used in ANY military FPS game. The maps are insipid and maybe too big. How many maps of war-torn streets, malls, train stations, etc. are considered too much? Missing the opportunity for an underwater and outer space map or two may be the biggest mistake in the history of the franchise. The next great innovation now falls to Treyarch, who are presumably hard at work as we speak on the follow up to Black Ops II. Here's to hoping that they can pull it off.
All in all, if you are a fan of Call of Duty, you are still a fan and Call of Duty: Ghosts is the game for you. If you are a fringe fan or an FPS dabbler, you may get bored quickly after the stellar story mode ends. Regardless of which camp you belong to, Activision will continue to roll out a new game year after year, and if Ghosts is your "down year game," expect the next installment to right the boat. It seems to be the pattern, after all.
Call of Duty: Ghosts was played on Xbox 360 for this review and provided by Activision. It was released on November 5, 2013 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U and PC. It will also be available for Xbox One and PlayStation 4.