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Call of Duty: Ghosts
Graphics: 8
Gameplay: 7.7
Sound: 8.2
Control: 8
Replay Value: 7.5
Rating: 7.9

It would be a mistake to say that Call of Duty: Ghosts is a mediocre production. It would be an even bigger mistake to say that ardent fans of the franchise won’t enjoy it. However, one must begin to consider various elements that indicate a slipping IP, especially when it becomes abundantly obvious. In many ways, the campaign is rousing and engaging, and the multiplayer remains a highlight, loaded with new tweaks and refinements that make the experience even more fulfilling. But when playing, I sensed the fading light of the series…

It’s difficult to say anything against the flashy, bombastic set pieces in the story, and the well-designed maps in the multiplayer. The latest from developer Infinity Ward features a wide variety of dynamic locales during the story mode, and the special effects take center-stage. Sure, I can notice little signs that remind us of the aging engine and the fact that IW and Treyarch need to step things up in the new generation. That being said, there’s always so much going on that it’s tough to come to a disappointing conclusion. You’re always involved in the on-screen action, and that’s partly due to the designer’s world creation expertise.

The audio shines during particularly over-the-top moments, as the explosive effects and solid voice acting complement a balls-to-the-wall military adventure. The soundtrack is apt, as it continues to drive home one salient point: The action will never cease; it will only change in style, tone and theme. There are some clichéd voices mixed in and I wanted a bit more variety in the musical selection, but the production values remain relatively high throughout. All in all, the technical prowess of Ghosts is considerable, even if all aspects aren’t overly impressive. One last side note— I’ve heard the PS4 version suffers from some frame rate issues but obviously, I haven’t been able to verify that just yet.

Two things I know to be true: 1. The overwhelming majority of those who purchased this game are going to spend 99% of their time (if not more) absorbed in the multiplayer, and probably don’t give two figs about the campaign. 2. At least the majority, if not the overwhelming majority, don’t really care about review scores. The franchise has become so entrenched in mass popularity and acceptance that it’s almost immune to critical assessment. And yet, I still have to deliver an accurate, professional analysis designed to help those who may be on the fence, right? Well, let me start by saying that Call of Duty: Ghosts has a lot you’d expect…and a little you wouldn’t. There just aren't enough surprises.

For instance, the campaign isn’t bad at all. I don’t think it’s as good as the story mode in Battlefield 4 but it’s still entertaining. Four hours remains too short even for my tastes (busy people have difficulty completing longer games), and the plot itself isn’t anything to get excited about. But I liked that the writers cut down on the intricate, sometimes confusing narrative twists that were prevalent in the Modern Warfare titles. This is a more straightforward, even predictable story that is actually more enjoyable simply because it’s not bogged down with manufactured twists. It also has several emotional, dramatic moments that are worth seeing.

The balancing between all-out action sequences and narrative progression seems just about right, and the gripping shootout scenes are quite intense. The variety of locales and mission objectives is pretty good, too; you never feel as if you’re repeating the same thing over and over and over. Of course, you can’t avoid the repetition inherent to shooters; i.e., go there, shoot that, go here, shoot again. As is the case with most shooters, Ghosts doesn’t have a brain in its bullet-riddled head but at the very least, it accepts that and emphasizes the positive traits. And it’s not all about shooting wildly in every direction, as various scenes require a more tactful, timely approach, and the varying environments make you think differently.

But above all else, despite the refined and entertaining approach to the campaign, I know I’ve done it all before. What the developer uses to make it feel fresh falls flat as well. The pet dog, which got plenty of attention since the game was unveiled earlier this year, seems utterly superfluous. The dog is capable at taking down enemies but it feels very much unnecessary, and it’s not even a part of the game during the latter stages of the adventure. The canine companion wasn’t a bad idea; they just didn’t do anything with it, and the result is an almost trivial addition.

The AI isn’t anything special, either, as both your allies and enemies occasionally have total brain fades. I keep hoping to see improvement in this area but it never seems to happen. At least, it hasn’t really happened since the original Black Ops. Then there’s the fact that there are too many examples of straight-up shoot-fests in familiar surroundings. There’s only so many times I can aim down the sights and take out yet another faceless foe in yet another bland corridor. Yes, the designers implemented plenty of crowd-pleasing locales to make the experience richer and more lurid, but there are still several tedious, even boring situations.

I have to say, though, the newly revamped co-op mode, Extinction, is a definite highlight. It’s a zany alternate reality that allows you and up to three friends to throw down against some seriously bizarre enemies. No, not zombies…aliens! Yeah, it’s another overused staple of video games but in CoD, it actually feels somewhat refreshing. It changes up the gameplay, giving the game a much-needed dose of newness. In all honesty, I’d rather immerse myself in Extinction rather than the competitive multiplayer. Of course, that’s just me; the majority of franchise followers would say otherwise, I’m sure. And that makes sense, I suppose.

The multiplayer is almost exactly what you’d expect. I’m not a big fan of the lean and running slide skills, even though they are implemented relatively well. Still, there are several appreciated new additions, such as the new perk weighting system that adds depth and balance. The character customization mechanic is deeper than ever, as you can now develop a full team of personalized soldiers. Each ally can be fully equipped, and you can even choose skin color, facial design, and other neat little details. Each soldier also levels up at his own rate, which is nice. In general, you feel like you’ve got complete control over all advancement.

Squads is a great example of how this deeper, more freedom-oriented character customization helps the multiplayer. This is where you have to flex your strategic, tactical muscle, perhaps even more so than your trigger finger. Then there are other new modes that are entertaining albeit not exactly innovative: There’s Blitz, which is a mad dash to the other team’s goal; Hunted, which starts you with a handgun and 10 bullets and makes you fight for random weapon drops; and Grind, an updated version of Kill Confirmed that tasks you with retrieving fallen dog tags and bringing them to specific locations on the map. All of this works quite well and I don’t take issue with the mechanics, outside of that silly slide.

There really isn’t anything glaringly wrong with this production. There are a few drawbacks and missteps, but nothing major. The problem is that at every turn, you sense…old. It’s there, lurking behind every admittedly grin-inducing spectacle, and it’s impossible to miss. The campaign has its moments and the story is more appealing for a number of reasons. The multiplayer is deeper and more diverse than ever; more options, more customization, more modes, more reasons to keep playing and playing. And yet, despite these pros, the one giant con is that you can’t help but feel tired. The engine is old, for one, and the gameplay is what you’d expect from a military shooter and nothing more.

I’m not saying CoD should suddenly morph into something else. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be an FPS. I’m saying it’s time to work an a new evolution of the series, because Ghosts is just begging for that evolution. It’s proudly beating its chest while at the same time, it knows its an aging, predictable formula that is in dire need of a change. I’m not the design or development visionary that has all the answers; I’m not telling Activision how best to reimagine Call of Duty. I’m simply saying it has to be done, because refusing to face the music is a bad idea. Infinity Ward and Treyarch are talented enough; just let ‘em try.

Call of Duty: Ghosts is an example of a tried-and-true formula that has begun to fray. There’s nothing particularly objectionable about it, the first-person shooter mechanics have long since been refined and almost perfected, and the multiplayer is still bound to draw in millions. The production values are still very high and the fun factor, depending on your affinity for the genre, is definitely there. None of that is in dispute. That being established, we have to realize that even the most successful packages reach a point where only minor tweaks and additions attempt to masquerade as innovation. That doesn’t work and hopefully, Activision will realize that CoD is on the downward slope and it’s once again time to reinvent. It must be done in the next generation.

The Good: Great set pieces and enjoyable action sequences. Explosive visual and sound effects. Decent voice acting. Campaign has worthwhile dramatic moments. Solid variety. Multiplayer is still hugely robust, and Extinction is great fun.

The Bad: Aging engine is starting to wear down. New pet dog mechanic is cute, but ultimately a waste of time. The formula is definitely starting to feel tired.

The Ugly: “Millions will still blindly buy any new CoD, so maybe innovation is sadly unnecessary.”

11/6/2013   Ben Dutka