Suppose a billionaire luthier (already implausible) gives you a mythically well-crafted electric guitar but restricts playing the guitar to three specific scenarios. First, you can play it by yourself, but the strings from frets five and up are replaced with colorful buttons, and it can only play a cover of “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins. You can play it as much as you want.
Second, you can play in a guitar quartet, but each member has to play one of four parts to Carol of the Bells by Trans-Siberian Orchestra. While you’re playing, the luthier will throw dead fish at you. You can play it as much as you want.
Last, because you’re not the only one fortunate enough to receive this eccentric billionaire’s charity, you can rock out in a jam session with friends and strangers to fourteen different songs (fifteen if you pay a little). Only now you can customize your guitar with pedals and amps, and you can choose to play with the others, at the others, against the others, to the others, or around the others before you explode. You can play it as much as you want.
The point of the analogy is to draw out the element that undergirds Call of Duty: Ghosts and has supported the series since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare: its instrument. Often this is referred to as the game’s mechanics, or more crudely, its gameplay. It’s the guitar, the core piece of tech required to participate in any of the three events. Without its unique timbre, shiny pickups, and silvery strings, it might be just another guitar. And only guitar players can recognize its voice and discern its sound from that of another guitar. To everyone else, it’s just another popular, high-quality axe.
The analogy also brings into view the tripartite structure of Ghosts, a design approach that started with Call of Duty: World at War and resurfaced as recently as last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. The underlying philosophy to this approach, I think, is that if someone doesn’t like hyper-linear, high-action target practice (single player campaign), then they could still buy the game for its manically rewarding online fracas (multiplayer) or the arcade-style cooperative survival mode (now called Extinction). The three distinct games packed into Ghosts are unified by the mechanical instrument that has brought the series this far: the fast-paced, clear presentation and execution of movement, shooting, and interaction.
So it’s worthwhile, I think, to discuss these components separately, starting with the guitar, the framework that the other three build on. Call of Duty: Ghosts is the seventh game in the Call of Duty series since the introduction of the gameplay that launched the franchise’s current trajectory, and the fourth installment made primarily by development studio Infinity Ward (the other four were made primarily by development studio Treyarch). To then call Ghosts a refining of a previous work would be not only precise but illuminating.
Let’s also not act like this game was developed in some alternate universe where Modern Warfare 3 didn’t gross $775 million on its release day two years ago and Blacks Ops 2 didn’t gross $800 million on its release day last year. It would be fiscally irresponsible, one might argue, for Call of Duty’s creators to not re-use this clearly successful formula in Ghosts as well. That Ghosts feels remarkably similar in its core gameplay design to past Call of Duty games, to say nothing of its three-part structure or narrative call-backs, should be both unsurprising and understandable. The temptation with critiquing this kind of development iteration (again, this is the seventh one of these games) is to demand something different, maybe even something more. I’d argue that Ghosts delivers precisely what it means to, almost exactly how it should. That I, and vocal others, have grown weary of this formula, is a reflection of the intersection of game and game culture.
With that in mind, I can say with a clean conscience that Ghosts’ mechanical play design is superb, maybe the best in the industry. Running at 60 frames-per-second across all console platforms (according to Infinity Ward, and in my experience on the Xbox 360 version), the mania of activity in a firefight still stuns me, and the wickedly responsive controls allow me to dive into the character’s perspective. For instance, because I don’t see a lag in the frame rate, and because I’m not held back by a sluggish run mechanic or heavy-feeling vaulting mechanic, I never feel like I’m controlling an avatar, but instead feel like I’m playing a role. It’s just a few inches of difference academically, and but it feels practically a world apart.
From inside this helmet, I turn to shoot, and Infinity Ward’s impressive understanding of feedback loops comes into play. In forsaking realism for the sake of play, the developer implements a slight visual cue and tight zipping sound to signify when I’ve hit my mark, as has been done since the first Modern Warfare. Only in Ghosts, a dynamic sound system morphs the sounds from yours and other weapons based on the space they’re in, conveying spatial awareness for aesthetic and tactical use. Other mechanical additions like the knee-slide and contextual lean are the cherry on top of what is otherwise a familiar, effective system.
It’s a shame, then, that a studio with such a knack for fine-tuning its core competency does nothing remarkable with it in the single player campaign. There’s some overarching plot about an elite military group called the Ghosts, some bad 300-style cut scenes to connect the sinews of the narrative to the shooting, and there’s a lot of rooms with shooting. Or buttons. Or more shooting. Or explosions. Or invincible vehicle segments. The point is that even though the levels have the veneer of variety, they lack any real skill challenge outside of the stop-and-pop shooting bits, which I still find genuinely fun if somewhat bedraggled.
I’m not arguing for a platformer in the middle of a shooter, but couldn’t a game about the world’s greatest military stealth unit involve a bit more stealth beyond “weave the dog through the tall grass”? Oh, yes, there’s a dog, Riley, and he’s the best. He takes down a helicopter and is capable of love. Man’s best friend and man’s best weapon. Riley’s set aside just a few levels in, though, to make way for stages like Undersea Shark-Dodge, Float-and-Shoot Space Camp, and Make That Thing Explode—all breathtaking sights to behold but underwhelming games to play.
Hear me when I say, though, that it’s not bad, wrong, or incorrect to construct a single-player campaign this way. It may not be revolutionary for the genre, but Ghosts continues the tradition of high-quality action movies interspersed with gun battles, which is a bar that many games, innovative or not, don’t even come close to meeting with parity. And I’m grateful that Ghosts never descends into the dissonant pit of “war is hell, but enjoy this war” like some other games in the genre. It’s as bombastic as ever, to satisfying results.
A player could spend their lifetime developing an understanding for the nuance of online multiplayer, particularly in the complex environment that Infinity Ward has honed over these years. Multiplayer is consistently the most successful, most-played, and most-lauded component to the Call of Duty triple threat, and Ghosts is no exception. Fourteen new maps (the fifteenth available for purchase) that dynamically react to scripted events and player interaction take center stage as arenas for working out the finer points of the game’s instrument.
Some instances of – I’m cringing already – “levolution”, in which the maps change through the course of multiplayer matches, are more of an annoyance than anything, like when the map “Flooded” drowns players three quarters of the way through a game. Other maps like “Freight” offer interactive doors (the novelty!) to change the tactical opportunities of a room. Unfortunately, these smart and sometimes delicate tweaks to level design are often undone by bad spawn placement. That issue will probably be ironed out in a later patch, but for now, the woes of spawning and dying in seconds remain.
There are loads of new guns, a few new perks, and a couple new killstreak bonuses in Ghosts, but none of them change the dynamics of play for low-to-mid tier players— which is almost everyone who will play Ghosts, myself included. We commoners may, however, notice the appropriation of Black Ops 2’s “Pick 10” system for choosing perks, a few weapons with built-in attachments, and the revamped SATCOM arrays that players now place on the ground to reveal enemy silhouettes on the battlefield and enemy positions on radar when paired with two other SATCOMs. Overall, the flow of play is more focused on the game’s instrument, the careful movement, positioning, and execution of shooting that feeds instant gratification. The gimmicks, airborne or otherwise, have receded.
But if you want gimmicks, gimmicks Ghosts has, particularly in its new multiplayer mode “Cranked” and separate training mode “Squads”. “Cranked” causes every player to become Jason Statham after their first kill, adding perks and speed with each subsequent kill, as well as a timer counting down to their own death. Only killing extends life. For some reason it’s team-based, which causes confusion in the chaos of the kamikaze runs that dominate this mode.
“Squads” allows players to form AI teams offline and take them online to hone particular skills outside of a clan, while still going up against other players and earning multiplayer experience points. It’s only worth mentioning because it appears on the main menu screen along with the other modes, but it seems like it might only be valuable for a perplexing few. I could find no compelling purpose to play “Squads,” myself.
I did, however, find a number of reasons to play Ghosts’ “Extinction” mode once, and once only. In “Extinction,” players form teams of up to four class-specific specialists who, starting with only a pistol and a drill, have to travel through small town America destroying alien pods and fending off alien hordes, all while snagging new weapons, upgrades, and perks to fend off larger waves of extraterrestrial enemies.
In being wonderfully out-of-place, “Extinction” echoes Treyarch’s “Zombies” modes, but it never rises to the same level of replayability. There’s only one level, and it can be beaten rather easily with the right crew. Placing the end so near within reach makes “Extinction,” in its current form, a one-time proposition. It’s still a delight to play through once, though, even if it doesn’t commend the same kind of value as its undead counterpart.
For the last five years, I have come away from each Call of Duty game feeling both an exhilarating rush of gratifying play and a disappointing sense of déjà vu. But it would be disingenuous, I think, to write off the yearly Call of Duty installment just because it just does the same thing incredibly well again.
Ghosts is by no means the most creative or flawless game in this series, but it nails its core competency better than any Call of Duty before it. The immediate, uncluttered return of a successful shot paired with the rubric of near-future warfare and an inviting warehouse of unlockables still commands the attention of millions of gamers worldwide. The tightly-balanced nuance of competitive online play and its endless variables continue to draw attention, even devotion. Ghosts is my biggest supporter when I play Ghosts, and that feeling is mostly, though not entirely, mutual. But if I hear “Danger Zone” just one more time …
Dan Crabtree is an I.T. guy and freelance writer with words on Paste, Ars Technica, Kill Screen, and Gamernode. His dog is considered handsome and well-read. You can find him (the human) on Twitter.