It's another year and another map pack as Infinity Ward comes up to bat with Call of Duty: Ghosts. Although IW was the studio that gave us Modern Warfare, Ghosts' setting doesn't bother much with the past. It's released just in time to hit current- and next-gen hardware with a new story, characters, and another multiplayer experience stretching over the next year.
Ghosts is an OK-looking game on the Xbox 360 and requires — not suggests — the installation of content this time around. It also raids film and games from the last five years or so to build its bizarre single-player narrative.
Satellite-based kinetic weapon threatening the world? I saw that in "G.I. Joe: Retaliation." Vengeful villain once a part of the team? Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 remembers that. If you missed fighting on an aircraft carrier a la Black Ops 2, you'll get another opportunity in Ghosts, though more recently, Battlefield 4 had also opted to double-down on a flattop fight. There's also a voice-over narration set between levels that occasionally colors the Ghosts as modern-day Spartans, filling the story with enough testosterone to start a new religion with Commando's Arnold Schwarzenegger as its high priest.
I know. "No one" plays CoD for its story, but I have since the first one came out on PCs in 2003, and those early titles had that going for them in addition to the easily moddable multiplayer on PCs. Who can forget Gary Oldman's turn as Viktor Resnov in both World at War and Black Ops? Or the sniper level in Pripyat from Modern Warfare? How about the Battle of Stalingrad levels from Call of Duty 2? With Ghosts, there's little to reminisce about because I've seen it all before somewhere else. No wonder people treat the single-player in CoD as an afterthought nowadays.
In Ghosts' reality, the Middle East conveniently "disappears" in a cloud of black smoke, wrecking the oil economy and leaving nations like the United States begging for a beating. Meanwhile, South America is united under Venezuela as the scary-sounding "Federation," sporting a modified flag from the European Union as its banner. Launching a secret sneak attack against ODIN, the United States' orbital kinetic weapon, they rain down destruction on the nation before it's destroyed by a duo of self-sacrificing astronauts. This sets the stage for an uneasy war against everyone south of the border at the hands of an all-American squad. Where were the thousands of nukes that the U.S. presumably has in storage? It's just another conveniently placed plot hole.
On the ground, you play as the ever-silent Logan as you guide him in the tutorial after his house in Southern California is rocked by ODIN impacts. Fast-forward 10 years, and the Federation invasion of the U.S. has been halted, and an uneasy stalemate exists. Predictably, it doesn't last very long. We don't get an explanation about why they want to destroy the U.S., either, as cinematics curiously stain the map from South America and upward with a corrupted, viral texture that suggests evil. Logan and his brother dive behind the front lines of the Federation/U.S. war, where they try to save their home from a new superweapon. Cue the music.
Of all of the stories for the CoD series to date, this is the weakest I've seen, which is really unusual given the expertise behind it. There are a few bits and pieces that stand out, such as the assault on a massive oil platform off the coast of Antarctica or fighting it out on a hanging freight train, but altogether, the action is safe and fits within the lines of what the series had done before (and with better material). Remember when Call of Duty had an expansion pack that went so far as to include a short campaign on top of extra multiplayer content? Those were the days.
One of the things that stood out with Treyarch's Black Ops II was the attempt to encourage replayability on several levels beyond simply jacking up the difficulty. A few of those options even affected how the story played out, which I felt was a clever and fresh addition to an established formula. After experiencing that, going back to Ghosts' linear walk felt like putting the training wheels back on, which could have been forgiven if the campaign were compelling enough. In this case, it compounded the déjà vu I was already experiencing. It's also relatively short, so veteran players can roll through this in one sitting on the normal difficulty level. It's the intended warm-up for multiplayer.
Fans of certain modes like Ground War and Headquarters won't find them here, but Infinity Ward has added two replacements — Blitz and Cranked — in addition to its take on zombies with the Extinction mode. A host of new maps is also present, along with Infinity Ward's multiplayer tweaks that change the way players establish their characters. Instead of strictly level-based unlocks as in Black Ops II, two "squad points" are earned per level to spend on anything you want. Don't want to bother with low-level weapons? With enough points, you can go straight to the good stuff.
Adding a little flavor to the action, special field orders, which look like blue suitcases, are occasionally dropped by the dead. Snagging one begins a new challenge, such as shooting an enemy while prone, which earns you an upgrade point if you pull it off before someone else puts a bullet in you.
The point system has its merits. As long as he has enough points, the player has the freedom to pick the desired weapon or weapon upgrade from the entire slate instead of waiting to level up. Perks are still tied to levels but also use the point purchase system, so players can pick multiple, cheap perks in one go.
For the first time in the series, creating a character allows you to pick from male and female models with customizable loadouts. Game types include the usual suspects of deathmatch, domination, and team-based variants. "Party" games and a few other modes, such as the ones noted before, were also removed.
In Blitz, players are split up into two teams starting on opposite ends of a map. To score, they have to head into enemy territory to tag the goal point, which takes a few seconds to respawn, and then they must repeat the whole thing again. In Cranked, whenever a kill is made, the player has 30 seconds to make the next one before he explodes. While players are cranked, they also get increased speed to things like movement and reloads; this creates an exciting moment where you need to chain together kills as quickly as possible to stay alive.
Infected also returns, and it involves one randomly chosen player killing other players, infecting them and adding to the horde until none are left. As "survivors," the other players must go for as long as possible while the clock counts down, while they try to kill the infinitely respawning infected players that come after them.
Ghosts also mixes things up with a few twists on kill streak strike packages. Instead of a UAV hovering overhead and revealing enemy positions, players can call up a sat-com unit that has to be placed on the map, but it is vulnerable and can be destroyed. Other items include an attack dog that follows you, attacks enemies and even avenges your death. Hitting a 25 kill streak, or making 24 with the right perk, also triggers the K.E.M. strike package, which is particularly lethal. It kills pretty much everything on the map, including any buildings, reducing select levels to a burning, postapocalyptic waste of rubble and fire.
Extinction replaces Treyarch's popular zombie mode with an alien invasion as players lug around a portable drill to destroy "hives" in the area. As each hive is attacked with the drill, the alien horde sends increasingly tougher numbers of cannon fodder in your direction. Cash is dropped whenever aliens are nailed and hives are successfully destroyed. It can be spent on weapons and gear to hopefully give your team an edge in the next wave. Levels earned in Extinction also go toward unlocking new weapons within the mode, like incendiary ammo, healing packs, grenade-tossing turrets. It's not a bad way to burn an hour or two with friends as you punch, shoot, and explode waves of alien horrors. At the same time, it can get repetitive, especially when the main track of Extinction essentially follows the same route.
Squad mode encourages players to team up and go at a number of challenges in co-op, such as Safeguard, which is a Horde-like mode that pits one to four players against increasingly difficult waves of AI. Everyone starts with pistols and has to find new weapons from supply drops; it can make things interesting if you must decide whether to snag the Hind gunship strike package or revive your friend on the ground. Other modes, like Squad vs. Squad, pit players and their squads against AI opponents and each other. In Squad Assault, the experience goes to the winning team. You can also opt to go solo in any of these modes and see how far you can make it without squadmates.
It's strange for Call of Duty: Ghosts to be released so close to the next-gen console launches, and in a way, it feels like it was rushed to the finish line. It brings few new ideas to the table, and nothing really shakes the core of the series as much as Treyarch's bold changes did in Black Ops II. If anything else, it's a map pack with a small number of new modes and tweaks to satisfy fans until next year, after next-gen consoles have established a foothold with audiences. The paper-thin campaign mode, overbearing mythology, and the relatively by-the-book feel of the multiplayer portion make this CoD's back-to-basics approach feel like an addendum to the series rather than a devoted chapter.
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