Call of Duty: Ghosts – Xbox 360
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Infinity Ward
Release Date: Nov 5, 2013
Genre: Action, FPS
Reviewed by Mark Smith

Review Score: 4.5 of 5

Yes, it’s another November which means that just like clockwork Activision is releasing another installment in their billion-dollar Call of Duty Empire. This time it is Call of Duty: Ghosts, a new direction for the series that abandons historical war scenarios as well as the Modern Warfare canon of stories and characters. Infinity Ward is heading up this latest project that includes a gripping story mode and enough new online content (now and in the future with the Season Pass content) to keep us playing until next November.

Call of Duty is easily one of the most controversial franchises in gaming history. Despite being unabashedly criticized by thousands (often before a new game is even released), millions upon millions continue to purchase each new installment fully knowing what to expect…and what not to. And when you start throwing in various sub-factions like the Battlefield-lovers and the Treyarch-haters, etc. it seems people would rather argue about games than actually play them.

Rather than stress on which multiplayer modes got axed in favor of new ones or lament on the clearly broken spawn system that had me going 0-32 on the Prison Break level because I could never survive for more than 3-5 seconds after reentering the game, I’m going to be a bit more optimistic. After all, if one of your favorite modes got nixed then go play the version of the game that still has it – there are still thousands playing most all of the recent installments, and instead of trolling about the broken spawns; why not check out the amazing campaign story mode or the totally addicting Extinction mode, which is far superior to the hackneyed Zombie mode of past games. Bottom line – for everything you can complain about in Call of Duty: Ghosts, I can find a positive counterpoint.

While most people are into Call of Duty for its online multiplayer I always head to the story first because if anybody can tell an explosive wartime drama its Infinity Ward. Their latest opus kicks off in the immediate present with a recounting of a legendary group of warriors known as the Ghosts. The opening cutscene, along with all of the other between-mission videos are presented in this stylish grayscale animation that is simply gorgeous. As the opening narration ends we realize that the story is being told by Elias, a seasoned veteran out on a hike with his two sons, Logan and Hesh. As they start to head home tremors start to rock the hillside. What at first appears to be an ordinary California earthquake is actually an attack on our country from an orbital weapons platform.

The scene quickly changes to 15 minutes prior and we find ourselves in one of the most visually striking levels in the game; in orbit working on the space station near the Odin weapons system. Yes, the game takes necessary liberties with inertia and such, but the effect is still jaw dropping and not unlike the movie Gravity. The station is quickly occupied by hostile Federation forces, and they program Odin to launch a series of kinetic rods at key targets decimating the United States.

With the exception of one flashback episode where you play as Elias, most of the game centers around you and your brother and your faithful and extremely talented dog, Riley taking the lead roles in the resistance movement to keep the Federation from dominating the USA ten years in the future. Riley is arguably one of the most touted new additions to Ghosts, and also one of the most talked about by fans, but not to steal any of his canine thunder or detract from his contribution to the few levels in which he appears, Riley is more of a novelty than anything else. I would compare him to a quadcopter drone; albeit one that can rip a man’s throat out. I had my fun issuing the occasional “attack” order and even playing as Riley in those few instances where I got to sync with his high-tech doggie gear, but ultimately, I felt Riley was underutilized. Why wasn’t he sniffing out bombs or fetching me better weapons from fallen enemies like in Dead to Rights. I have to admit that I was a bit nervous throwing that first grenade since the first time we see Riley he is playing fetch with a tennis ball.

As expected, the story is a massive non-stop rollercoaster ride of action set pieces and dramatic moments that will leave you physically and emotionally exhausted; especially if you try to marathon the 8-10 hour campaign in a single session. You’ll be fighting in space, under the ocean, on land, in the jungle, in the snow, and even in the air as you dangle from a skyscraper or take control of an attack chopper to provide cover for your ground forces, and then start swapping back and forth between the two. There are 18 pieces of intel called Rorke Files; glowing green laptops, and while none of these are particularly well-hidden you will need to keep your head on a swivel to find them all. These files can be accessed from the main menu after you find them. Call of Duty: Ghosts offers the usually selection of difficulty options, and as before the Recruit and Normal modes are disposably easy, while Hardened offers a decent challenge and Veteran will test your FPS mettle and reward you with an achievement if you can complete the campaign on its hardest mode.

Zombies are out and aliens are the new hotness in Ghosts. Extinction mode is an additive and challenging game designed for 4-player co-op but can be tackled alone – just don’t plan on getting too far. The game operates under the premise that aliens arrived on the planet around the same time as the Odin strike and now there are all these hives sprouting up. It’s your job to drill into these hives and destroy them, but naturally, once you start drilling these dog-like lizard creatures start attacking in waves. You need to defend (and possibly repair) the drill until the hive is destroyed and then move on to the next. It’s basically one big survival game to see how long you can last and how high a score you can post on the leaderboards. Naturally, you’ll earn cash for kills and for completing bonus objectives during the waves and you can spend that cash on better weapons, more ammo, and even portable gun turrets. Extinction puts a heavy emphasis on tactical teamwork by having players choose from various starting loadouts like Assault or Medic then supporting each other as you try to cleanse the map of the alien infestation.

Multiplayer is the meat and potatoes of Call of Duty, but Ghosts dares to change up the menu with some new entrees and side dishes. Character customization has been greatly enhanced and now allows for female players along with a host of other customization options, most of which must be unlocked. Squads is the new buzzword and this new feature allows you to test the online waters before diving into the full online experience with friends and bots. You start by picking a character. One is open at the start and nine others can be purchased using squad points (SP). New squad members range in cost and initial appearance, and the more expensive they are the more perks, better weapons, and weapon mods come with their initial loadout. Each character levels up separately, but your earned SP can be used to enhance any character in your roster by purchasing new perks, weapons, and attachments. Squad Points are a bit slow to come by, so I can see it taking hundreds of hours to earn enough to unlock everything Ghosts has to offer, but you should be able to fully deck out a single character in 30-40 hours of play. While you can only have one “active” squad member for online play at any given time, you can assign non-active squad members to be used in bot matches against another human player and their squad-bots.

Ghosts returns the online experience to something a bit more reserved and “normal” with tweaked kill streaks like Sat Coms instead of UAVs. If you work as a team and setup multiple Sat Coms in multiple locations they provide better results and are harder for the enemy to wipe out. Oracles provide temporary awareness of enemy locations in the first-person view and not just the map, and you can even earn your very own attack dog, which will alert you to the enemy, attack the enemy, and even avenge your death.

Online modes like Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Kill Confirmed are back but some modes are missing and some have been mixed up a bit for this latest installment. Search and Destroy is now Search and Rescue, which I find encourages a lot more teamwork. Yes, you still only have one life, but if your team picks up your dog tag before the enemy does you can spawn back into the game. Infected is basically a last man standing game that pits a team of survivors with shotguns against a slowly growing number of zombies as each human dies. Hunted is a variation of TDM where everybody starts with pistols and fights as weapon crates are dropped into the area with better guns. Grind expands upon the Kill Confirmed mode by actually making you deposit your dog tags at designated locations to lock in the score. Blitz is a variation of CTF that merely requires you to reach the enemy base to score. There is no flag to retrieve or carry back, so it’s not very challenging or fun. And then you have Cranked; a crazy variation of TDM where each time you kill someone you get a 30-second speed boost, but if you fail to kill somebody else within those 30 seconds you explode.

At the time I write this review there are some noteworthy multiplayer issues; mostly in the areas of poor spawning and camping; the latter being more a fault of the lame attitude of gamers than the designers, but I guess we rely on Infinity Ward to police the campers. Team Deathmatch is the worst. A minute after the game starts everyone seems to have found their “spot” and woe to anyone who dares walk around. It’s very discouraging to newcomers who are just trying to learn the maps, which is why I recommend Squad play. The levels are massive this time around, which is both a blessing and a curse. 95% of the time you will never see the person who killed you because of all the various paths and flanking positions in these complex maps with multi-level buildings and vertical terrain that offer unprecedented cover. Ironically, for as many people complaining about the multiplayer issues in the various forums, there are a hundred times more just playing and enjoying the game as is, knowing full well it always takes weeks, perhaps months, to fine tune the online experience.

Call of Duty: Ghosts looks incredible on the Xbox 360, and maintains a fluid 60fps. I haven’t had a chance to play the game on any of the new consoles, but I did play the PC version, and I have to admit, there isn’t a lot of obvious differences between the two, and since the PC is still more powerful than the Xbox One or PS4 I’m not seeing any real reason to not jump onboard with a current gen copy of the game. Sure, the PC (and soon to be released GEN4 consoles) offers better light and physics, but at face value, especially in the fast and frantic multiplayer modes; those difference are negligible at best. The level of detail, the textures, the animation, the special effects, and lighting are all pushing the current gen systems to their limits.

As always, the audio presentation is outstanding. You play as Logan, the typical mute protagonist, but your brother Hesh is voiced by Brandon Routh (Superman Return) and he has plenty to say. Some of the voice acting is better than others and the script relies on a lot of clichéd and overly dramatic moments and set pieces, but it all works and is what it is. Gun effects are exaggerated and nowhere near as realistic as those in the Battlefield games, but nothing about Ghosts is really striving for realism. The soundtrack is also exceptional, complementing the action when necessary but sticking mostly to the story points. The final credit song from Eminem was horrible and out of place with the rest of the game. There were more F-bombs in any single verse of that song than the entire game script combined.

Call of Duty: Ghosts is sure to polarize a new generation of gamers as it goes up against not only its own controversial history, but tackles EA’s Battlefield 4 in the GEN4 launch wars later this month. Ghosts is not without its faults but trying something new isn’t one of them. Gamers continuously cry for something new then complain when they get it. Infinity Ward has delivered a compelling single-player campaign that I couldn’t put down, a delightfully addictive Extinction mode that I have enjoyed more in three days than I have in three years of Zombies, and some of the best eSports-quality run and gun military combat you can play online that will only get better over time.

Whether you buy and play it now on current gen or wait for the marginally superior next-gen version is up to you, or you can just go straight to the technically superior PC version if you have the rig to run it, but no Call of Duty fan should miss out on Ghosts. It dares to do a few things different while offering the tried and true experience we all crave this time of year. True fans won’t be disappointed.