Infinity Ward’s first game after the bulk of its employees left to form Respawn Entertainment was not a great effort. Modern Warfare 3 couldn’t come close to matching the magic of its two predecessors, but perhaps that was to be expected from what could be considered a new team taking an old name. Treyarch, you’ll recall, had their own struggles to make their mark, but with last year’s Black Ops II they very much hit it finally, in their fourth attempt.
On the new-look Infinity Ward’s second time out (with help from Raven and Neversoft), they didn’t hit their mark. Amid flashes of greatness, Call of Duty: Ghosts is a rather ho-hum experience, not terrible but not particularly notable outside of comical number of times you’ll have to sprint out of some place that is on fire and about to explode.
The reason for the ho-humness is that IW mostly ignored the philosophy Treyarch adopted in order to make Black Ops II such a memorable game: try new things that are new in a sweeping manner rather than on a small scale. In the campaign, that referred to the honest-to-god use of actual cutscenes, the ability to fail at some objectives while still progressing through a story that adapted to said failures, and a new strategy game mode that did an excellent job of changing the pace of the game.
I don’t think Ghosts necessarily needed to adopt those specific features in order to succeed, but it did need to be a bit more reckless in its design than it turned out to be. Ghosts has turned out to feel like a retread in a series that at this point is quite long in the tooth. If you want to stay on top, you can’t be timid, but timid is exactly what Ghosts is.
When Infinity Ward and the co-developing studios made an effort to set Ghosts apart, they succeeded, and greatly. Ghosts’ answer to Treyarch’s staple zombie mode, Extinction, is a brilliant new take on the horde mode concept, in which you move from spot to spot across a map and defend different positions from attacking monsters in co-op. The scenarios are randomized to an extent in the sense that one spot might be quick and easy one time and a longer endurance test the next.
And while the story campaign can feel like a big, familiar slog at times, the last two sections of the climactic battle are so well staged that you wonder how the rest of it could seem so bland and repetitive. And the ending shows that the writing team, which includes one Stephen Gaghan, does have some real cojones after six hours of no exciting twists. You have to be skeptical that Infinity Ward will come out of their shell enough to run with what they set up there, but that they go where they go (it’s a serious gut punch the likes of which the franchise hasn’t seen) at all gives me some hope that they’re growing up a bit on the job.
An incredible, potential-filled conclusion doesn’t redeem the entire experience, however. IW did still make a game about two brothers and their dad in which one brother utters not even a single word. And since that brother is you, you never get to see his face, rendering the entire family dynamic academic in every possible sense.
Meanwhile, Ghosts in a universe distinct from that of Modern Warfare and Black Ops and our own in which South America is collectively in a war with a version of the US it bombed to hell with an orbital missile launcher. It doesn’t start with our world as the baseline and then move into this other thing. It just begins there, only barely introduces us to it, and then tosses out concepts that make sense in-universe but are confusing to outsiders like everyone who is playing. Even after it was over I really had no idea what the state of the USA was.
And it continues to insist on setting up every new mission with a short narration that plays over the loading screen, something Black Ops II abandoned in favor of cutscenes in a move that was incredibly effective. The reversion to the old ways in a story about a family fighting the good fight is painful and leaves gaping holes in both the big picture and the immediate proceedings.
Between the great and the annoying is everything else. Despite my complaints about its presentation, the campaign, it is competently constructed – it simply tends to lack significant imagination. Multiplayer is pretty standardly enjoyable, with the squads concept being an addition I like. Or, more specifically, I like 1v1 with each player having some AI teammates. Whereas with matchmaking in a traditional mode might put you in a completely uneven battle, I found these bot-filled matches to be extraordinarily close every time. And if you’re generally terrible at multiplayer then squads offers a way to rank up without needing to grind through 3:10 KDR battle after battle. It also will help acquaint you to new maps without the pain of diving straight into the madness.
And then there’s the new mode of deathmatch called Cranked, in which each player’s first kill after spawning starts a 30-second countdown to self-destruction, and only another kill can reset it. I like the concept, but I think the intended effect (pure chaos) would be more effectively achieved with a shorter timer. Perhaps “Really Cranked” will come in an update or one of the map packs, but as it currently exists Cranked feels like somebody upsetting the status quo in only the slightest way they can think of.
A bipolar package, it’s difficult to say what the lesson here is. If it were comprehensively mediocre I’d know how to put it in its place. But the flashes here and there confuse the issue, indicating either that Infinity Ward began to figure out what was going on during production or that if you throw enough money and manpower at a game then at least some part of it will turn out well. I don’t know which one is the truth in this instance, and I won’t even try to guess. C’est la vie.
6 out of 10
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.