Call of Duty isn’t really a game anymore. It is an annual event about a box of games. We should unpack it the way we unpack a new console system, or a care package, or a gift basket. Here is the controller, here are some oatmeal cookies someone made, here is a gift certificate to Burke Williams, here are some little bottles of wine. Wait, I don’t like oatmeal cookies. Oh, these aren’t bottles of wine, they’re wine coolers. Is there a Burke Williams near my house? It can be very confusing. At least I can use this $10 iTunes gift cards.
After the jump, the four faces of this latest Call of Duty.
The biggest problem with Call of Duty: Ghosts is the Calls of Duty that preceded it. The last Call of Duty, Black Ops II, was a uniquely appealing single-player game for how it was unlike any previous Call of Duty. Each mission had accomplishments to unlock weapons. Each mission was also a scoring challenge, with a leaderboard. These were your usual scripted massacres, but you could bring the guns of your choice to introduce a touch of variety, such as fighting the Cubans in Angola with a fancy 21st century assault rifle that hasn’t even been invented yet. You could even bring along special inventory items to unlock new paths. Even the storyline had some branching. Who cared about saving the world? The real question was whether you got Michael Rooker killed. The story was the typically convoluted post-Modern Warfare nonsense, but Treyarch turned a linear shooting gallery into something just more enough.
But Ghosts’ single-player story is a barren featureless throwback to typically convoluted post-Modern Warfare nonsense, minus anything to pull you through. There are no variable paths, no options to bring along different loadouts, no challenges, and certainly no scoring. There are barely even collectibles. It is instead a return to the suffocating and rote inevitability of the series at its most forgettable. The early missions have the vague wow of scripted apocalyptic set pieces, but these play like stunted siblings to the apocalyptic set pieces in Battlefield 4. Buildings burn, cities flood, skyscrapers crumble, but it’s like community theater compared to Electronic Arts’ AAA summer blockbuster. What awful timing for Activision. You’re scurrying around inside a modest iteration of a disaster movie, pushing forward when instructed, waiting when instructed, holding the triggers and buttons when instructed. “I made the hardest decision of my life,” one of the characters observes about a flashback in which you push the B button. “I pushed B,” you finish for him. You can do this stuff in your sleep. You might as well for how lively it is.
Even the apocalyptic set pieces run dry early on, leaving you to do the usual train mission, the usual missile base mission, and so on. Brief romps in space and under the sea have a nice visual snap, but without any corresponding gameplay snap. Watch carefully to avoid the patrol path of the shark. Use cover in space. No matter how high or low it aims, there’s no sense of identity to this Call of Duty or its mute protagonist, not to mention its generically gruff father figure, convenient villain, jocular sidekick, and throwaway post-apocalypse. Even the dog is forgotten after a few missions. “Oh yeah,” the campaign seems to remember fairly late in the game, “Here’s your dog again. Remember him? Okay, let’s go into space! Dog, you stay here. Stay!”
Fortunately, a Call of Duty is never only its single-player campaign. The usual multiplayer is an ever-so-slightly reinvigorated take on the familiar formula, in which you (and by “you” I mean “I”) run around until you see someone who hasn’t seen you, at which point you shoot him. Or her. There are chicks in this game. You’ll get shot several times before this happens, of course, but them’s the Call of Duty breaks. Divide the number of times the first thing happens by the number of times the second thing happens and there’s your kill/death ratio on the web site and on the app that replaces Call of Duty Elite. There’s a potentially nifty clan system in the works that ties into your iPad, but it won’t kick into gear for another few weeks.
In Ghosts’ multiplayer progression, the perks, weapons, and attachments are scattered willy nilly for you to unlock and kit however you like. It’s generous enough, although I personally prefer the harder loadout decisions you had to make in the last game. As you play, little translucent briefcases appear with dynamic challenges. You have to accomplish these before you get killed, so once again, Call of Duty reserves special rewards for people who don’t die, which is frustrating in a game where I die so often. The briefcases include tasks like getting kills while jumping or humiliating a defeated enemy. Yes, that means ingame incentives for bunnyhopping and teabagging. These challenges unlock special powers, including an apocalyptic set piece for some of the maps. You know how cool those are in Battlefield 4? Ghosts is doing the best its modest engine and familiar gameplay can handle. Again, bad timing for Activision.
What Ghosts really brings to the table is a new appreciation for bot matches. This very nearly redeems the entire package for me. Whereas developers like DICE and Bungie have been pouring their AAA shooter budgets into multiplayer-only multiplayer, blithely ignoring the tradition of Unreal Tournament, it’s encouraging to see Activision’s series heading in the opposite direction. With the last two releases, they’ve quietly included bot matches as a way to play. And now, with Ghosts, they proudly proclaim it as an entire section of the game, threaded into your multiplayer progression. You can set up a squad of bots and join them against other people’s bots. You can either declare no humans allowed, or you can bring along a few friends, or you can play with a single human player on each team. The AI adjusts itself, and the maps and modes are chosen for you, so it’s presented as an alternative to jumping into full-blown multiplayer. For some odd reason, a new horde mode is tucked into this feature. Weapons, perks, and killstreak abilities drop from the sky. One of your squad bots can come along. It’s not quite as robust as the horde mode in Modern Warfare 3, but it’ll do.
Unfortunately, Ghosts whiffs its bot support in a few important ways. The squads feature can be confusing and even limited. Who can keep straight asynchronous games vs. AI squads, 1 vs 1 games with each player having a squad in tow, the horde mode which has almost nothing to do with squads, and the wargames mode in which nothing is unlocked and no one is advanced? What if you want to level up your squad by doing something other than the usual team deathmatches, which should be an option given how well the AI seems to understand various game modes? All these wonderful bots shoehorned into a weirdly restrictive corner of the game.
Each of the characters in your squad is basically a character model, a name, and a set of loadouts (one of these is the “character” you play in regular multiplayer games). This might seem deceptively like a way to level up characters like you might in an RPG, but that’s not quite how it works. Leveling up the characters unlocks some of the perks, but you still have to spend tokens giving them equipment, which drains the same tokens you might otherwise focus on your multiplayer advancement.
If you want to customize a squad of five bots, which makes sense given that each mode uses five of your bots, you’re going to have to spend three tokens each unlocking on the first four characters. Easy enough. But then you’ll want to unlock that fifth bot to give her a name and loadout. The cost? 100 tokens. Where did that jump in price come from? So I have a squad of themed characters running around with Ross, whose name I can’t change until I have a hundred leveling up tokens to spare. Yep, Ross. Come on, Ross, keep up. Hey, good going Ross, you got a kill. Oh, look, it’s Ross. Ross. My four themed characters and their sidekick Ross. Ross. Only 92 more tokens to go to give Ross a new name.
Furthermore, if you want Ghosts to be about leveling up and equipping a squad of bots, you have to care enough about unlocking the sorts of perks and attachments that make all the difference for a human player in a battle of split-second reflexes. But it’s hard to care about these factors when they’ll be auto-adjusted into irrelevance in bot battles where the AI is dynamically scaled. I get the sense that no matter how I equip my squad — all those points I could have used for my multiplayer loadouts — every match is going to be close. Whatever Activision is attempting with the squads feature, it’s not the bot RPG it could have been.
After the disappointing single-player campaign, the usual multiplayer, and the slightly confused squad bot matches, the fourth element of Call of Duty: Ghosts is the new Extinction mode, which substitutes alien bugs for zombies. It’s built from the ground up to tap into a sleek leveling system with classes, skills, and gadgets, carefully built to encourage co-operative gameplay based on players defending points on an open map. It reminds me of the Little Sister sequences in Bioshock 2, where you set up defenses around a pre-designated spot while the Little Sister harvested her resources. Except in this case the Little Sister is a drill. Don’t ask. Something about alien nests. Someone in a helicopter explains the backstory.
I definitely prefer Extinction to the zombie modes because it has a solid handle on how to progress without forcing you to figure out puzzles that could grind zombie modes to a screeching halt. The map — there’s only one — features three separate sections, each with several points to defend in any sequence you want. Finish all three sections and then survive a mad dash back to the beginning while a million things attack you. Make it back and you’ll unlock a difficulty modifier to make it harder next time, similar to skulls in Halo. Do it again and you can equip two difficulty modifiers. And so on. Earning more and more experience as you play.
There’s a lot of variety in Extinction: how you upgrade your character as the map progresses; what weapons to use; what environmental traps to use; how you interact with up to three other players; and even dynamically presented challenges to level everyone up faster. It’s like a more focused version of the co-op mode in Resistance that Insomniac sadly abandoned. Although there’s a lot of flexibility in the single map, it does get a bit tedious playing the same opening bits over and over again. But you can tell by the way you start the game — first you select Extinction mode, then you select the Point of Contact map — that more maps are in the works.
And so that’s the sum total of Call of Duty: Ghosts. The disappointing single-player, the usual multiplayer, the slightly confused squad bot matches, and a nifty co-op Extinction mode that could use more maps. When you start Ghosts, the logos for three separate studios flash onscreen, which speaks volumes about what follows. Here is several different things, some of them intriguing, some of them familiar, most of them slight. Frankly, I’d rather have fewer better things, because this is like picking through a sack of candy instead of having dinner. For those of us who aren’t devout adopters of the usual multiplayer, a big bag of modest distractions can’t compare to something with the depth, breadth, legs, and unique identity of, say, Battlefield 4, Grand Theft Auto 5, or Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Does anyone really like getting a gift basket?