Infinity Ward’s latest shooter, Call of Duty: Ghosts, hit the shelves this week and has again proved a big success, although not to the same degree as previous titles. There’s been a drop in sales, albeit one which could be explained by players waiting for next-gen versions later this month. The critical reception has taken a hit too though as the series dips into the ‘dreaded’ yellow zone on Metacritic with a current average of 75 instead of the usual 80-90 range.
Much of the criticism has been aimed at the game’s single player element, which is surprising, given that Infinity Ward should know what they’re doing by now. Have they become lazy? Are we expecting too much? Have our tastes changed? Or do we just want to get on with the multiplayer?
Well, today let’s tackle the single player side of Ghosts, by looking at what’s strong and what’s wrong with it. My experience and thoughts are based on my recent complete playthrough of the campaign on the PS3.
Right from the start, you can see that Ghosts’ story is going to be nonsense. All we knew previously was that America had been through ‘an event’ and was now more vulnerable than ever before. Without going into too much detail for those of you that haven’t played it yet, there’s been a series of earthquakes, devastating the country and all of South America has united to try to wipe out the USA, turning the nation into a desolate wasteland. Yep, that’s the same South America that is largely be classed as a third world, giving America a good hiding. At least previous homeland invasions we’ve seen in the Modern Warfare games seemed slightly feasible.
Enough about the story though and onto the game itself. It’s getting a bit tiring listening to Infinity Ward claim their next game will use a new engine or an overhaul of an existing one, when visually there’s little to discern between previous games each time. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still good-looking (if not spectacular) games and the gunplay is amongst the smoothest you’ll find on PS3 and 360, but we’re beginning to see the visual creaks (dull textures, rubber-faced characters) aging more and more. Naturally, we’ll be watching and comparing the next-gen versions like graphic whore hawks in a few weeks.
The overall production values need a real boot up the backside too in almost every department. I’ve just finished off Battlefield 3’s campaign recently (thank you, PS Plus), and yes, it was bollocks, but the sound design of the weapons in that series is just brilliant. There’s such a sharp, violent noise to every bullet fired, but in COD: Ghosts, they seem to spill from the guns like they’ve been threatened with a beating if they don’t keep the noise down. Go loud or go home Infinity Ward!
Another area Battlefield embarrasses the Activision shooters is environmental destruction. Sure, it’s going to take a while to catch up to that delicious Frostbite engine, but at least let us shoot through thinner walls, crates and so on. We’re not asking for smashing entire buildings like Bad Company 2, but IW need to start making an effort or get left further behind.
In terms of gameplay, the handholding needs to stop. It’s not so much the linearity of the glass-corridors that bother me; it’s the bore of the slog of having to follow someone throughout most of the game. Deviate slightly from their path and it’s usually instant death or mission failure. Plus, if Infinity Ward is going to stick us with a partner or three (who are all awful shots) throughout, at least let us play the campaign in co-op. It’s 2013.
Riley the dog could have been great. This should have been a no-brainer in forging an emotional connection with on-screen events. Who the hell doesn’t love the idea of saving your nation with your own personal attack dog? For all the promotion the canine received, he’s barely in the game, merely bookending the story.
The campaign’s length seems shorter than the series norm at 5-7 hours depending on the difficulty setting. There’s no replay value such as a points mode this time either. It’s too short to be honest, I’d expect a solid eight hours even on a lower difficulty, but at least that’s not the end of the story as Ghosts of course has extensive multiplayer options, but that’s not why I’m here talking to you today.
Do you know why it was really annoying that the game ended so soon though? Because, despite the above criticisms, I bloody loved playing through Ghosts’ single player campaign. I suppose I had better explain myself.
The Right Stuff
Let’s face it, the story in the Call of Duty games on PS3 and Xbox 360 has never been great. Sure, we’ve had intense and surprising moments, like the nuke or being executed in Modern Warfare, but the story stringing events together has often been a jumbled mess. I’m just grateful IW has stopped courting controversy for the sake of it now, there’s no ‘No Russian’ slaughter or blowing up random families. Just survive, shoot bad guys and have fun.
If you can play through Ghosts and treat it more like a ride than a tightly written novel, you’ll get on with it much better. Stop worrying so much about why you find yourself in all the different locations and situations. If you’re having fun PLAYING THE GAME, does it really matter?
As far as raw adrenaline moments go, Infinity Ward knows what they’re doing more so than most studios. They may have borrowed from Uncharted, Dead Space and even Battlefield, but the momentum never lets up in the second half of the game. One minute you’re tearing through a football stadium in a truck, then you’re shooting Columbian soldiers in space (what!), or chasing an enemy along an inverted train, or avoiding sharks underwater, or piloting a chopper, or exploding holes into a frozen lake to drown chasing trucks or just manning a minigun. There’s no time to think about the nonsense of the story and certainly no time to get bored. No wonder it felt like it rushed by so fast.
One of my favourite missions though was ‘The Hunted’. This was one of the rare occasions where you’re allowed to think for yourself for a while. Given an Aliens-style motion scanner and a pistol, you have to pick off enemies in the jungle as quietly as possible. Vastly outnumbered, this was an incredibly tense section of the game that used stealth in a way I’ve not seen before in this series (yes Far Cry 3, we know you own jungle stealth, but let the others try). It’s just a shame IW don’t let us off the leash more often.
Getting back to the whole fun angle, I’m a big fan of the way IW handled the approach to vehicles in the game. Knowing full-well Battlefield has the realistic (well, like any of us know how military vehicles actually handle) angle cornered, they’ve just made the controls approachable and fun. The helicopter section feels almost on-rails as the focus is on annihilating targets and the tank section is oddly nippy and handles just like an FPS. The speed the thing moves at is ridiculous, but you’ll be too busy blowing shit up to care.
For all my misgivings about the believability of the story, the background and briefing scenes between missions are gorgeously stylish to look at as the eschew the military shooter norm of satellite imagery, censored documents or -god forbid- interrogations at a table (we’re looking at you Battlefield 3). Ghosts uses a unique graphical style that animates events in a richer way than before. The surreal landscapes and figures are made with a burnt aesthetic involving ash and charcoal, giving scenes a mysterious edge that fits in with the semi-mythical story of the Ghost’s themselves.
A few minor elements stuck with me afterwards too. Such as the dynamic lean feature, which isn’t even mentioned in the tutorial. Look out for a tiny yellow arrow on your targeting HUD when near walls, press the aim button and you’ll lean out to fire from cover. It’s new to COD rather than shooters in general, but it’s a real godsend in some shootouts, as enemies are smart enough to realise that you’re the only threat as your squad mates casually attack walls or burnt-out cars.
Another neat inclusion, although admittedly not gameplay-related, gave the game an enviable stylish flair. I’m not sure why, but changing a gun’s magazine in outer space, watching your hands flip the new magazine over in the zero gravity is all sorts of cool. It’s the kind of cool that Dead Space’s Isaac Clarke will never have.
Is Ghosts the start of a new trilogy for Infinity Ward, if you didn’t leave the room as soon as the credits started rolling, it’s not hard to see where they’re heading next and (no spoilers), given what the involved parties mentioned in the story I’ll admit I’m quite interested to see where they take things.
But the main reason I’m looking forward to the next game, is that Ghosts was massive fun for the majority of its short length. Maybe it’s time to stop overthinking the series so much, it just wants to entertain us. Not every game has to have a decent or even coherent story to be enjoyable. Hell, if it did I would have stopped playing after I made a super-fast blue hedgehog chase after a fat moustachioed scientist in 1991.