While Ghosts flexes its technical muscles in outer space and underwater, the rest of this campaign is a confusing mess that undoes all of Black Ops 2's hard work.
By Joab Gilroy on November 5, 2013 at 6:30 pm
Jokes about Call of Duty‘s pro-USA skew have always been fairly flimsy — the game tests a fictional America’s resilience, but the country hasn’t typically been tested alone. In Treyarch’s Black Ops series the game even dared to raise some questions about America’s real-life methods while it traipsed across the world.
The jingoistic, pro-USA propaganda in Call of Duty: Ghosts is no joke.
Ghosts creates monsters out of South America, where all the countries combine to create a “Federation” designed to take over the USA — a plotline seemingly ripped directly from justifications for Operation Wetback. The game never provides justification for this. In its prologue it describes a period of international adjustment where Middle Eastern oil reserves are depleted and the Federation becomes a new superpower, but the motive for South America to attack remains unclear the entire game.
The story begins with your father retelling Frank Miller’s version of the Battle of Thermopylae (with a twist) before you hike back home, where your home town gets blown up. Up in space the Federation has broken “the treaty” (one apparently formed because of South America’s insatiable desire for North America) and taken over the ODIN kinetic weapon platform.
The space missions are actually fairly interesting, even if they do suffer in direct comparison to Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. There’s no conservation of momentum, so the player moves freely through the 3D space seemingly unaided (except when using their jetpacks to ascend or descend) — a fact made odder because your companions always push off nearby environmental elements to move around.
Nevertheless, when the game puts the player in orbit it looks fantastic and feels like something more than just a mindless run-and-gun. This goes double for the fantastic underwater mission — Call of Duty: Ghosts is at its best when the player is suspended in a 3D space, even if you’re not truly free to roam around it.
Elsewhere the game is a mess.
The progress Treyarch made with Black Ops 2 was impressive, if tempered by comparisons with its contemporaries in Dishonored and Far Cry 3. It offered players the chance to actually have an impact on the game world, both through the open-ended Strike Force missions and through in-game choices – choices players might not even know they were making. The Eastern European influence was deeply evident in the game design, and it felt like actual positive growth for a series many felt was stagnating.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is regressive, eliminating any concept of choice in favour of linear stealth sections to pad out the sprint-to-the-end philosophy the COD series is famous for. Hiding in tall grass appears to be the major extent of the game’s stealth elements — this goes for both humans and the moments when you control Riley the dog.
Riley’s existence is almost pointless, by the way. He exists as an emotional anchor, I suppose, because it’s not enough that you spend the entire game hanging out with both your brother and father — you need to care about a dog as well. The game’s start, where your dad tells you his deep military parable, doesn’t feature the dog at all — so Riley’s not some long-standing family pet. Worse, you’re a silent protagonist so the only connection you actually make with him is via wi-fi, when you control his actions using a tablet. Most of the time you instead watch him bond with your brother “Hesh”, and so the relationship between you and the dog doesn’t really exist.
The silent protagonist thing is extremely jarring in Call of Duty: Ghosts. As Logan Walker, it just seems like you might actually be a mute — your father treats you like a mute, always talking at you and not to you — but the game often thrusts you into the boots of other characters who you know can talk. At the very start, in the first space mission, mission control pleads for someone to talk to them only to announce a “Loss of Signal” (an announcement you’re able to hear because they haven’t actually lost the signal… you just won’t talk to them).
While the single-player game is technically sound, it does vary in visual quality. Some levels — like the aforementioned space and underwater missions — look gorgeous and run beautifully. Others look quite ugly — whenever the game ventures into areas with a lot of red, the texture quality seems to degrade and the game looks poor. This isn’t a huge problem, but once again it jars the senses to go from a gorgeous level to something subpar.
Call of Duty: Ghosts’ singleplayer campaign has a litany of problems, most of which stem from the writing itself. It features an actual gun in a Chekhov’s Gun scenario which never appears to have any importance, for crying out loud. At one point you actually return to your childhood home in “No Mans Land” and instead of grabbing family photos your brother grabs his favourite gun from childhood — and then it’s never mentioned again.
It’s such blatantly, obviously bad storytelling it borders on the bizarrely satirical. There is nonsense deep in spoiler territory which nearly convinced me that the game was a clever parody sending up videogames, but instead I was simply convinced that Stephen Gaghan — who earned the sole writing credit for the game — respects neither videogames nor its audience enough to put in a coherent and decent effort.
Still, there is hope. If you told me eight years ago that the team who made Call of Duty 2: Big Red One would one day be the lead designers for the franchise and (seemingly) the only team with some idea of what they’re doing with the series, I’d have laughed in your face. Maybe Call of Duty: Ghosts is Infinity Ward’s Big Red One — a stumbled first attempt at a series they don’t yet understand.
Regardless, if you typically play Call of Duty for the singleplayer experience you would do well to skip this game.
- Game nails movement in a truly 3D space, even without proper conservation of momentum.
- Nobody is actually forcing you to play the singleplayer campaign.
- If MST3K ever reunited and did videogames, this one is lobbed at the plate for them.
- Why won’t anyone tell me why the South Americans want to invade the USA?
- The game is so US-focused that even Canada doesn’t get a look in.
- When [redacted] and your [redacted] how the hell does [redacted]?
games.on.net attended the Call of Duty: Ghosts review event in Los Angeles from October 21 – 24. Travel and accommodation costs were met by Activision.
This review conducted on a PS4 version of the game, as no PC review code was available. We’ll have a PC-specific follow-up article as soon as possible.
Screenshots used in this review provided by Activision.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is available on Steam for $89.99.