There are no UAVs to shoot down. Strike packages are back, and the dolphin dive has been replaced with a knee slide. You can lean out from cover. All of the launchers are free-fire, and knife kills now come with an annoyingly forced kill animation that leaves would-be stabbers open to counterattack. Theater mode is history. Headquarters mode is nowhere to be found. Same with Hardpoint. Call of Duty: Ghosts continues the weird trend of reversing/removing changes made by the other development team(s) that ensure that Activision's dominating shooter franchise makes it to shelves every November, but it also represents some of the largest multiplayer changes the series has seen since Call of Duty 4 redefined console-based first-person shooters for the previous generation of consoles. Here's the catch, though: many of those changes just make me want to play Black Ops II, instead.
In some cases, Call of Duty: Ghosts provides similar items in an attempt to iterate on existing ideas. UAVs, for example, used to fly around overhead (which then provided a clear need for lock-on rocket launchers). Now, the baseline killstreak item is the SAT COM, a ground-based deployable that, by default, paints enemies on your minimap if they're in your team's direct field of vision. Placing multiple SAT COM units eventually gives it a UAV-like "sweep" effect. Since they're on the ground, enemies can shoot or stab them out of service pretty easily--if they can find where you put them. I hated the move away from UAVs at first, but eventually warmed up to it. There's an overall reduction in airpower going on across most of Ghosts' killstreaks, which shifts the focus back down to the ground where you once again need to aim carefully but quickly to take out your targets. Compared to Modern Warfare 3, the last game to come out of Infinity Ward, you'd think that Ghosts took place in one big no-fly zone.
You'll also have some new modes to play in multiplayer, like Cranked, which gives you a speed boost and a timer when you get your first kill on every life. Once you're in this "cranked" state, you have to keep getting kills to reset your timer or else you blow up, respawning as normal. Search and Rescue replaces Search and Destroy in playlists, though the old mode is still available in private matches. S&R mixes S&D with Kill Confirmed, causing dog tags to pop out of players when they're killed. If your team recovers your dog tags, you respawn. If the enemy grabs them, you're out until the next round. Hunted starts everyone with pistols and drops low-ammo weapon cases onto the maps over the course of the match. That means you must fight your way to a crate to get a temporary crack at some random, potentially useful equipment. Blitz is a team mode that gives each team a goal point. Players try to run into the opposing team's goal to score, resulting in a ton of monotonous pistol runs from one side of the map to the other. Infected is a pretty standard "regular guys spawn with shotguns, but if the fast-moving zombie kills them, they're infected and swap to the other team" mode that feels like it fell out of a Halo game. The inclusion of some new modes is a nice touch, but none of them are as much fun as Hardpoint or Headquarters, both of which are missing from the game.
As Call of Duty does every year, Ghosts changes up the way you unlock the same sorts of guns, perks, and create-a-class options. This year, you have a squad of ten different soldiers, each of which can be visually customized with a variety of different heads, hats, and clothing. These serve as different sets of custom classes, in a way, since you can't change soldiers mid-match, but you can choose from a collection of loadouts and unlocks specific to that soldier. The choice between Assault, Support, and Specialist strike packages returns from Modern Warfare 3, and the perk limits feel a bit like Black Ops II's points-based class system in that you can opt to remove items from your loadout in exchange for more perk points. Each perk--these are the character modifiers like "don't take fall damage" or "be invisible to SAT COMs," in case you forgot--has a number of points associated with them, and you're free to choose any perk you like, provided you don't go over your points total. There are no "pro" versions of perks this time out. Care packages are relegated to a new "field orders" system that asks you to complete specific tasks to earn a Care Package drop. Some of these are simple, so when you pick up a field order briefcase it might tell you to kill one enemy from behind or get a melee kill. It also might tell you to kill one enemy while jumping or, yes, "humiliate" the next enemy you kill. Yeah. The game actually rewards you for teabagging. This might be the lamest thing to ever appear in a Call of Duty game.
Perks unlock as you gain experience points, but everything else only unlocks when you spend squad points, which are a new type of currency in Ghosts. You'll earn squad points by playing the game, and you can use them to unlock new weapons, attachments, perks, additional loadout slots--just about anything except for the cosmetic stuff. This means that if you already know what type of player you are, you can just get on with the process of unlocking the exact items you know you'll want to use. For me, that meant immediately unlocking an LSAT light machine gun with a rapid fire attachment and the tracker sight, which highlights targets when you aim down your sights but covers the rest of the screen with a blur filter that looks a little ugly on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 but has a decent depth-of-field look to it on next-generation consoles.
Squad points can also come out of the new squads mode, which is essentially a place to play bot matches in a variety of configurations. The core idea is that your long list of unlockable soldiers form a squad that other players can challenge when you aren't online, giving you some incentive to outfit each soldier with some better gear than they start with. If you like, you can take your AI-controlled squad in and match against one other player who also rolls with an AI squad. Or you can opt for Safeguard, which is one of the wave-based survival modes in Ghosts. This one is set on multiplayer maps and has you teaming up with other players to take on dogs, soldiers, and other AI-controlled enemies. Aside from this mode, though, the squads section of the game feels like training wheels for people who are too squeamish for the real multiplayer modes. Unless taking on AI squads or sending your AI squad out for battle becomes a great way to farm squad points, it doesn't seem like something anyone who's played a previous Call of Duty game would ever use.
The other wave-based survival mode is called Extinction, and it has aliens in it. It's not a simple carbon-copy of the window-boarding weirdness found in Black Ops II's overwrought Zombies mode, though there are certainly plenty of similarities. Instead you and a team must carry a drill around from one alien hive to the next. As the drill works to destroy each alien hive, you have to protect it and yourselves from a handful of different alien types. You earn currency as you play, which can be used to buy additional weapons or dole out power-ups for your team, like explosive ammo or bouncing betty mines. You'll also earn skill points, which are used to upgrade your character's deployables, but this upgrades don't persist from one round to the next. The goal is to get to the end of the level and then race all the way back to the start for extraction. It's not terribly complicated, but a variety of optional challenges (like pistols only or maintaining a high accuracy level for the duration of one drill session) toughen things up. The glowing alien designs look like something out of a Lost Planet game, which is either good or bad, depending on which Lost Planet you think of when I say "Lost Planet."
Then there's the campaign. One of the nice things about the Black Ops games was that it felt like it was at least rooted in some sort of fiction. By playing the games, you got the impression that someone was thinking about keeping things semi-plausible, or playing off of real-world events in a just-beyond-believable way. Black Ops II took a huge-but-worthwhile risk by adding a branching storyline that made every moment matter just a bit more than it has in other Call of Duty games. For its part, the Modern Warfare series was ridiculous in a really enjoyable way, with Captain Price and his big, broomy mustache doing just the sort of over-the-top nonsense you'd want to see out of a big, ludicrous action movie. It was ridiculous, but it worked. Ghosts trades all this in for a new universe that fails to meaningfully distinguish itself.
You primarily play as Logan Walker, a silent protagonist who follows his brother, Hesh (Hesh?!?) around as the world goes completely sideways. An ill-defined enemy blows huge holes into the United States and it's up to the brothers--who, conveniently, report to their father--to... shoot a bunch of people and eventually join up with an elite force known as the Ghosts and fight back against a decidedly underwhelming foe that only feels barely connected to the main conflict. It's hokey, with corny dialogue that eschews actual moment-building in favor of cheap emotion by playing off of the fact that you're constantly interacting with your father, your brother, and a dog. Later missions divert you to other characters as the battles heat up, but they do so in a way that feels disjointed, like someone accidentally dropped in levels from a different game.
Story aside, the game still puts you in a few interesting situations with cool, cinematic moments, like a city near a dam that has just been blown up or a high-speed chase on the ice. It also attempts to change its pace in spots, but most of these--including the much-vaunted sequence where you play as a dog--boil down to you going prone and remaining still while enemies pass, just like that flashback sequence in Call of Duty 4. The best mission in the game has you stealing some enemy uniforms and infiltrating an installation. This mission creates the tension that the entire game feels like it's striving for, but rarely manages to reach.
As for the gameplay in campaign, it's straightforward. The campaign doesn't branch in huge ways, it just presents itself, you perform the same basic shooting tasks you've been doing for years, it surprises you a couple of times with sequences that look better than they play, and the credits roll. Taken as the follow-up to Black Ops II's ambitious (if occasionally flawed) campaign, this feels like a huge step back.
Call of Duty: Ghosts has the pleasure of being the first next-generation game I've played to completion as well as being the first game I've been able to play on both current and new consoles. The PlayStation 4 version of the game looks very sharp and feels very effects-laden, with a lot of good-looking lighting and reflections. It has a long draw distance, while the current consoles occasionally fog things up a bit to reduce the amount of geometry on-screen at a given time. The campaign has an early moment where you come up and see the state of the world by looking at a shot of the Hollywood Sign, which is way off in the distance. On the next-generation consoles, this sign is sharp and easily viewable. On current consoles, it's sort of a blocky mess.
That said, the 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of Ghosts still look good on their own terms. The facial animations in the campaign are intact and the action is roughly identical across all platforms. If you don't mind some flat, occasionally ugly textures, some frame rate hitching, and a lower limit on bots (11 on current-gen versus 17 elsewhere) you could certainly get away with playing this on a current system. And if the current-generation runs it better than expected, it also holds that the next-generation versions aren't really doing anything that will blow you away. It looks nice, but it's a sharper, better-lit and textured version of the game, nothing more. Additionally, the PlayStation 4 version has a handful of noticeable dips in its frame rate. This usually seemed to happen when a lot of smoke or other effects were on-screen, but occasionally it occurred in multiplayer for reasons I couldn't even guess at. Judging graphics on a brand-new platform can be tough, since we don't have a lot to compare it with at this point, but I will say that I had hoped that it would look a little better across the board. Whether that says more about my expectations or the quality of the game will have to wait until we see more next-generation games in action.
Ghosts offers the same style of video game combat that Call of Duty has had since 2007. The core of it is still engaging and can be very thrilling, if you're receptive to this type of action. In fact, it's still my favorite online multiplayer shooter. But the bells and whistles surrounding the game are muted and missing, leaving behind that same core without giving you enough new and exciting reasons to come back. Even with the improved graphics to be had on next-generation consoles, I'd rather play Black Ops II.