[25 November 2013]
It has been a long time since I last played a Call of Duty game. Going into Ghosts, it had been two years since my last Call of Duty experience and three years since my last Call of Duty multiplayer experience. I bring this up because Call of Duty is a very iterative franchise. The changes between each game are subtle—if not unnoticeable—to the casual player.
For example: Treyarch added a “dive to prone” animation in Black Ops 2. I thought that sounded cool but never understood the practical point of it. In Ghosts, Infinity Ward changed that to a “slide to prone” animation, which has generated a fair amount of controversy and discussion. I still didn’t understand the practical point of it, but then I got into a special stand-off with another player. I hid in an alcove, ready to headshot him the moment he came after me, feeling confident in my trickery, and then he slid into view on his ass and put a bullet through my chin. I died because I didn’t consider sliding a viable combat mechanic. Lesson learned.
My point is that Call of Duty does evolve over time. Its minor mechanical changes bring significant practical changes, but I’m not the best one to explain them. Heck, I just learned that sliding can be useful. The more important change for me is how Ghosts gets around the persistent problem of its online community.
People are just so damned good at Call of Duty that the very idea of playing online makes me anxious. Other players seem almost supernatural in their reaction time, and prophetic in their movements. To play online is to die again and again, not only bruising your ego, but also bringing down your entire team. It’s disheartening.
But Ghosts offers something for those defeated players like myself: Squad Mode. When you play online you play as one of 10 members of your squad. Each member is like a new online profile. This system replaces the Prestige system. Instead of leveling up one character 10 times, you level up 10 characters one time. As your squad levels up you can outfit them with better weapons and perks, which makes them better able to handle themselves when you use them as AI companions in Squad Mode. This semi-online mode has you teaming up with other players or AI against another player’s squad of bots. Since these aren’t just random AI opponents but a team of AI outfitted by another player, they can vary in difficulty, but that’s part of the fun. Besides, even the hardest AI opponent is easier than the average human opponent.
The experience you earn in Squad Mode is limited, so you can’t grind out unlockables playing against bots, but that’s a fair tradeoff. If I can’t even reach 2000xp in a normal online game, I don’t mind that it’s capped at 2000xp for a bot game. Squad Mode is a great introduction for multiplayer. Essentially, it makes the famed Call of Duty multiplayer playable for those who aren’t experts.
Regarding the campaign, Ghosts is the first new Call of Duty sub-series that Infinity Ward has worked on since the seminal Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and it represents an interesting evolution of the developer and franchise. The very first Call of Duty was about putting players into the shoes of an average soldier. It was about replacing the personal heroics of Medal of Honor with something more universal. This focus drifted with each iteration of the series until Call of Duty became obsessed with the Myth of the Soldier and its characters became super action heroes. Ghosts continues on this path but, this time, now free from the narrative constraints of the Modern Warfare trilogy, Infinity Ward crafts a story that comfortably embraces that aggrandizement.
The game opens with a story about the Ghosts, and how this squad of amazing soldiers was able to defeat 500 enemy combatants with only 60 men. It’s a mythical story, the kind of ethereal and semi-supernatural story the lone enemy survivor tells his comrades to create a sense of fear in them every time that they hear the word “ghost.” But this story isn’t being told by a lone enemy survivor; it’s being told by a father to his adult sons. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the father was a Ghost who lived through that story and that his sons (you) will also become official Ghosts by Mission 5. You’re part of that myth now, a physical embodiment of the Myth of the Soldier, and every time you take on a mob of enemies or survive one of the spectacular disasters that Call of Duty is known for, you’re only reinforcing that myth further. Call of Duty is not the same game it was at its inception. Infinity Ward understands this and has embraced that change.
And thank goodness they did because some of the set pieces in Ghosts are more wild and inventive than Modern Warfare would have allowed. There are extended gun battles underwater and in space, officially turning the “average” soldier into James Bond. Then there are a couple stealth sequences with Riley the Wonder Dog (it’s unintentionally funny but still endearing to watch him take a grenade to the face, then shake it off as if he just went swimming). Sadly, Riley doesn’t have as big a role in the game as the advertising would have you believe. It’s a shame because he’s a fun addition to the mechanics and story.
The actual story involves a war between the U.S. and the Federation, which is some group that somehow took over South America. The plot doesn’t matter as much as the action it facilitates, and even when that action is grounded in plausibility, it’s still wonderfully inventive. There’s a great sequence that has you sneaking through a forest behind enemy lines.The level is big and non-linear, so there’s a genuine fear of getting lost in enemy territory. There’s a gun battle on flooded streets, allowing you to crouch underwater and sneak up on guys. To describe every action sequence would be to spoil the campaign, but rest assured that Infinity Ward still has some clever tricks up their sleeve.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is fascinating as a new take on old material by Infinity Ward. It doesn’t have the same ambition to attempy social commentary that Modern Warfare had, but shedding that desire has allowed it to go so buck wild crazy that the loss is worth it. And thanks to Squad Mode, I can actually participate online.