Three men huddle around a campfire, eager to hear the story of an elite force of highly-feared soldiers. Ghosts, they're called. Two of the men listening — the sons, Logan and Hesh Walker — are sceptical. Surely the tale-spinning father doesn't expect them to believe such an outlandish story?
They're sceptical, but we know the story is true, because games like these always feature an elite force of sorts. You're always in it. So before you hear the story, you already know — really, as soon as you look at the game's box, you know. You'll become a ghost. But you can't think about this supposed 'myth' for very long before the explosions happen. And then the guns. And then the running, the running, the running. Toward the explosions? Away from them? I don't know.
If I sound fatigued and a little bewildered, it's because I am.
OK, this much I can concretely tell you: something goes horribly wrong at the start of the game, setting into motion the majority of events you get to play through. Mass weapons were used, somehow. These weapons wreck your home at the start of the game, much like the rest of North America. Then, um, war. Against...the Federation. Following the disaster at the start of the game, the Federation becomes a superpower. Your job as a member of the ghosts is to fight against the Federation before whatever evil thing they're planning happens. Things escalate from there and you end up having to go to a lot of different places for some reason or another.
There are finer details here, I'm sure, about these factions, their plans, the locations, the major players. There is exposition about that stuff, often delivered between levels or to contextualise whatever thing you need to do at a given moment. And yet, embarrassingly, in order to write that barebones explanation, I still had to refer to the fact sheet that comes with the game. A game I've spent seven hours in. Maybe it's the sparse delivery that doesn't explain stuff very well. Maybe it's just easy to get lost in the military jargon, in the same way it can be confusing to try to keep up with games dealing with technobabble. Whatever it is...I like to think I'm a reasonably smart girl, but it's amazing how stupid a game like Call of Duty can make one feel for being unable to fully understand what's going on.
But maybe that stuff doesn't matter. We are mostly here to shoot, and next year there will be another reason to shoot some more. Just get in the roller coaster! OK, ok. I'll get in the roller coaster.
If you are new to the franchise, here's what you need to know about how the game works, mechanically. Call of Duty titles are fast-paced games where you go between shooting sections, the occasional vehicle section as well as sections where you sprint forward as everything around you explodes. Traditionally, all these aspects make the games feel thrilling — like you're starring in a Michael Bay film is the common comparison people make. You feel powerful, or at least excited.
Traditionally that's the case. Not here though. It's funny — playing through the initial section of scripted events where you run through your under-attack town, all I could think was, wow. This isn't nearly as well-paced, or as deliberate as say, the start of The Last of Us — where everything seems so tight and considered that you forget the game is just mostly making you walk forward while stuff (like explosions, crashes, deaths) happen around you. So I know the problem isn't with the design itself, but rather execution: despite also heavily relying on scripted events that happen at precise moments, Ghosts doesn't feel exact in what it wants to evoke in the player. Everything happens in a big enough scale that it all ends up feeling overwhelming, even for a high-octane game, and that feeling doesn't feel intentional.
It's often hard to get a grasp on what's happening and when, which means that you stop paying attention to what's going on around you. Why should you? That stuff is distracting you from your actual targets. This, in turn, makes all the locations blur into each other. It's hard to feel grounded in Ghosts.That's ok, really, because all you need to know is that stuff is perpetually falling apart, and that some people need to get shot. And before long, like a platformer taking you from the ice world to the desert world, the scenery changes.
Maybe you're underwater now. Or in Las Vegas. Or in a baseball field. Heck, five minutes into the game you go from being on Earth to being in space — which is definitely a cool location, but the pacing is so out of whack in the transition there, it doesn't really feel right. Never mind when everyone suddenly starts pulling guns out in space and shooting each other. I wish I didn't care about how ridiculous that is, I wish I could just get into it. Maybe you'll be able to — I mean, abstractly, as a concept, it's cool! I know that. But for me, not only was "shooting....IN SPACE!!" boring post-Gravity, but that thanks to the floatiness, playing through it felt not much different than playing through an underwater level in the same game. If I only talk about the space level specifically, it's because it's the most noteworthy level in the game. Other locations suffer from being locales that previous games have allowed us to explore, or because there's nothing particularly memorable about playing through them. Go here. Flip this switch. Plant this charge. It doesn't feel exciting, especially when a lot of the different actions you take are done via the same context-sensitive buttons. Really, it just feels like, well. More Call of Duty.
Did I mention that the first achievement you get in the game is in space, and it is awarded for pulling the trigger once? You don't even have to aim, the game does it for you. Boom goes the head. Congratulations.
The first time you control Logan Walker as a soldier, you meet Riley the attack dog. Your brother Hesh is playing fetch with Riley. They look happy. This moment is the highest point in the game — the most joyful, the most peaceful. You notice there is a ball at your feet, but you can't pick it up. I tried. Instead I accidentally fired some bullets — I didn't know I was even holding a gun at the time, but I ruined the moment. They both burst forward, running away from me, horrified. I don't blame them.
I am a man of few words. My gun is my only method of communication. I mostly follow my brother in the game, and he tends to speak for me. I take orders. I'm good at that, even if I don't always understand what I'm doing or why I'm doing it.
If you've been keeping up with Ghosts at all, then it's possible you already knew about Riley, it's possible that you are already embroiled in the drama over whether he lives or dies. His importance in the game was predetermined, sure, but that doesn't make it any less significant. Sections where you get to play as Riley are novel — they are mainly sneak sections where Riley scouts an area out, and these provided an occasional slower-paced section that the game honestly needs more of. Plus, when Riley sneaks in the grass, he mushes his ears down. It's really cute.
Other sections are improved simply by having Riley present: there's one section where he sticks his head out on a moving vehicle, clearly overjoyed. Like dogs like to do when riding in cars, you know? I couldn't help but smile — Riley is the most human part of the game. But I felt kind of sad about his presence, too. Riley is cool, yes — he takes down freakin' helicopters by himself, for crying out loud! But having a dog in a video game is such a dilemma. It's annoying to play through a game while constantly worrying over whether or not it's going to decide to axe one of your favourite parts of the game. I don't feel like I worry so much about this with media that isn't video games.
Because of course the game will go there. There is even a Tough Moral Choice in Ghosts, actually. It goes like this: the game asks you to press X to hold on to a person. So you press X. Then two seconds later it says let go, or else you're going to crash. And you've gotta let go, else it's game over. You gotta let go because at that moment the video game wants you to feel bad for doing something it's forcing you to do, and it's your fault for doing it even though you literally have no choice but to do it. So two seconds later, after you save this man, you then press a button and let go. The clincher: you watch this man sink into the sea and all you can think is, boy. That man sure is ugly. Not that it's his fault, of course — the game just looks kind of dated on the 360.
Part of the problem contributing to how eh the game feels is that it never really challenges you. Playing on normal is rather easy, most of the time the AI just kind of stands there — sometimes literally. There are sections where you burst into a room in slow motion, before the enemies have time to react. Other times the AI clearly just spazzes out on its own accord, making it easy to dispose of those in your way. Sure, some levels seem wide and open, with the occasional verticality added in — lots of places to climb — but there is scarcely reason to move around the map to gain a better position. So you wont.
Sometimes you'll be 'pinned down,' but if it happens, it's because the game wants it to happen. Those are the moments in which you stop controlling the guys on the ground and instead gain control of a vehicle, such as a tank or aircraft. These are some of the most rewarding parts of the game: you get to pack a punch and get rid of a ton of enemies at a time, and you often have a wide area that you do need to move around in to do it. You get a sense of scale while playing, that this war is bigger than just your small squad of soldiers. These vehicle sections were the only moments in which Ghosts felt thrilling, the only times when I truly felt powerful. This is true even though the normal infantry sections are more varied — you'll go between blowing up oil rigs and rappelling down South American skyscrapers, sure, but it all feels forgettable. I'd rather just be a tank and blow some stuff up, as mindless as that may sound. At least it's enjoyable.
It doesn't all feel middling, of course. One of the stand-out moments would have to be a segment where you have to set up turrets, mines and traps while waves of enemies come at you, horde style. This section felt a tad out of place, sure, but it wasn't overly-bombastic, and it wasn't overstimulating. It was just fun to play, partially because it required you to be tactical — unlike a lot of the game, which I kind of turned my brain off for — and partially because you got to deal with swarms of enemies at once without having to go into a vehicle. Aside from this, there is also a short section where you get to sneak through a band of sharks that sticks out...and, beyond this, I struggle to list any more particularly enjoyable sections.
As someone who has played Call of Duty before, Ghosts mostly felt rather meh. I concede that someone new to the series might have something to like here — it'll all be new, and perhaps it'll be easier to slide into the thrills. But the degree and frequency in which said 'thrills' happen make the game feel overwhelming at worst, and like a blur at best. This would have been slightly forgivable had Ghosts had curious politics that make you think, branching endings, or any of the exciting futuristic or retro weaponry of Black Ops II. But it doesn't, so I don't feel that you'd be missing out on much if you skipped out on the single player altogether.
The good news is that Call of Duty games aren't just the single-player portions. While I have to dedicate a lot more time than my measly five hours before giving a verdict, so far, some of the multiplayer looks promising. It's still that signature Call of Duty play: it's still a twitch shooter. The maps are still small, and the pace is still fast, ensuring you're constantly coming across other players. Playing still feels tense, and this tension is sometimes punctuated by the sudden high of kills. You'll still live or die by your reflexes. The customisation options are still robust (more so than before, actually), and the number of things you can level and earn experience points for is dizzying. You could spend an endless number of hours playing the multiplayer if you wanted, grinding different things, and going for all the unlocks. And now you can play as a woman, too! A cool and much appreciated change.
So far, none of the maps feel particularly memorable, but I also haven't seen very many of the dynamic events (like earthquakes) that happen while you play. Will they match up to Battlefield levolutions though, now that is the question.
I will say that one of the new modes, Cranked, is an absolute blast to play — basically, when you kill someone, a timer starts ticking down. You've got 30 seconds to kill someone else, or you'll explode. When the timer is ticking down, however, you'll be 'cranked' — and this means you get bonuses like faster movement and reload. So killing someone rewards you, yes, but also potentially dooms you if you don't manage to keep it up. You'd think that a faster-paced, high stakes team deathmatch mode would be maddening, but no, Cranked is wonderful. Ridiculous, sure — you imagine that someone must've been on their fifth Red Bull of the day when they came up with the idea for the mode — but wonderful. It's the main mode I want to spend time playing.
Beyond this, Extinction — the mode with aliens in it — also feels promising. The goal is to kill alien hordes while defending something — maybe a drill, or maybe a helicopter, as a couple of examples. Aliens, unlike humans, can jump great heights and climb up all sorts of stuff, on top of being able to spit acid — which immediately makes them more interesting than, say, zombies. That, and aliens look cooler than zombies too — so I definitely like this mode more than zombies on Black Ops.
Anyway, the way it works is, you can pick classes and abilities, and as you go along, you can purchase different weapons and traps, as well as find attachments hidden about. Your loadout will be different depending on what type of role you want to play on the squad, and should you want to get particularly far in the mode, you'll want to coordinate between players. Compared to multiplayer, Extinction feels like a mode where you can go and unwind with your buddies. It also makes you wonder where the series could go should it suddenly decide to go sci-fi. Isn't that the next big trend now? Don't get left behind, Call of Duty... (more on this in our bigger write-up about multiplayer).
We'll update you with more in-depth impressions on both multiplayer and Extinction in the coming weeks, after I rank up a bunch and spend more hours with it, so be on the lookout for that. For now, Ghosts isn't getting a 'Yes' based on the merits of single-player alone.