After the success of the first few Call of Duty titles during this current generation, Activision made it a plan and priority to make sure there was a new entry on shelves every year. Infinity Ward and Treyarch took turns developing new entries, alternating releases every other year. For a while, Infinity Ward had the stellar Modern Warfare series anchoring its requisite involvement in the development cycle. This year however, IW started a new series dubbed Call of Duty: Ghosts. As the Modern Warfare trilogy was one of the best sagas in FPS gaming over the last decade, Ghosts had rather large shoes to fill.
After a short time with Call of Duty: Ghosts' campaign, it's immediately clear this new series can't possibly live up to the impossible standards of Infinity Ward's previous work. Ghosts begins with an assault on the U.S. by a unified South American government called the Federation. Several major cities in the States are destroyed after the Federation takes over the ODIN strike satellite. This all happens in the first ten minutes of Ghosts' story. The crescendo is immediate, and the narrative has no chance to top what happens in the hectic and confusing opening moments. It's surprising given that Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare trilogy's storytelling was allowed room to breathe, and characters were allowed to grow. The big, bombastic moments were still there, but they meant something since the game built to those moments. In Ghosts, there is no build to that moment. It happens immediately and suddenly, and every other moment following has the unfortunate fate of not being as impactful.
Now, had Ghosts actually followed this opening sequence with a story that matched or exceeded what occurred, this wouldn't be an issue. However, the rest of Ghosts' story is a hollow experience rife with beats seemingly taken from Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare series. There's the time where you have to sneak through the jungle, staying out of sight of enemy patrols, a near repeat of a mission in Call of Duty 4. There's the time you have to attack an oil rig, also eerily similar to a mission in Call of Duty 4. And of course, this is without even talking about the lack of character development or attachment to the protagonists. The two primary players are brothers, whose commanding officer happens to be their father. You're supposed to care, but it's nearly impossible to do so as the heroes are so wooden and generic, there's almost no life to them at all. The best written character in the game is the heavily underutilized Riley the dog. That should tell you all you really need to know.
While Call of Duty; Ghosts fails as a single-player experience, it certainly continues delivering the incredible standard of online multiplayer enjoyment the franchise is known for. All your familiar modes are back again, along with some new ones that provide a bit of a twist to multiplayer playlists. Hunted, where you start with just a pistol and must acquire random weapons from crate drops, and Cranked, where each kill starts the clock until you die and only killing more people can keep you alive, are more successful and enjoyable than some other additions like Blitz, an extremely frustrating CTF variant, and Infected, a copy/paste of the same mode from Halo. The maps are just as enjoyable as they were in the past, though the bizarre need to include new environmental changes reeks more of Activision feeling the need to follow Battlefield's lead, rather than a change instituted because it made Call of Duty better.
Treyarch introduced the Pick 10 model for customization in Black Ops 2, but Infinity Ward brings its own unnecessarily confusing Perk Points system to Ghosts' multiplayer. Now you have a pool of points to distribute between Perks, all of which have their own unique cost. Want five easy and somewhat ineffective Perks? You can do that. Want one major Perk, and no other abilities? You can do that, too. Leaving weapons out of the mix offers up more points to work with, but like many other elements in Ghosts, the Perk Points feels like Infinity Ward needlessly added its own spin on proven methods. That said, there are plenty of ways to customize your player beyond Perks, including various outfits and accouterments to make each member of your Squad entirely different from another. These changes are superfluous, but do allow you to put a little personality into the multiplayer.
Where Infinity Ward really missed a major opportunity in the multiplayer is with its all-new Squads mode. Every player can create a Squad of up to 10 soldiers, each with their own rank and loadouts. These members can be used in a special series of modes catered around Squads where you and your AI teammates can earn experience to level up. While a few of the modes do incorporate other human players, for the most part, Squads relies entirely on AI bots based on the personalities of other created Squads. The good news is, you don't have to deal with the incessant taunting, vulgarities and terrible attitudes of the legions of people playing Call of Duty online. Unfortunately, playing against bots isn't exactly the most fun in the world. Shocking, we know. However, playing in Squads will help you earn and unlock everything you could ever need while you're waiting for your friends to come online and play. All the experience is transferable, but don't for one second think Squads will be a good tutorial for playing online (if you somehow haven't played a Call of Duty in the last seven years).
While the Call of Duty entries from Treyarch have typically featured a special four-player co-op mode in Zombies, Infinity Ward has relied solely on the standard multiplayer modes in the past. This year however, IW introduced its own Horde-styled co-op for the first time in Extinction. Swapping zombies for aliens, Extinction offers a very similar experience to what you might be used to from Treyarch's work. Extinction sets itself apart slightly by offering class-based warfare. You and three other players can pick your loadouts prior to starting the match, and the experience and points you earn to level up these attributes can make future battles easier and more competitive. It's the first time something like this has been seen in a Call of Duty title, but similar modes have been seen elsewhere (Gears of War: Judgment) to much greater effect. Extinction is by no means a bad mode, it just doesn't add much excitement to the fold.
For the first time in years, a Call of Duty game actually feels like it's more of the same. Infinity Ward's additions to the formula don't always hit the desired mark, and the single-player is a spectacular disaster. The franchise has been derided in the past for its repetitiveness and lack of innovation, but Ghosts is the first entry that lives down to that reputation. Where once Infinity Ward forged ahead with new ideas and bold narrative execution, Ghosts walks down a path we've been down countless times before.
This review is based on an Xbox 360 copy of Call of Duty: Ghosts provided by the publisher.