Despite major the personnel change following the release of Modern Warfare 2, few franchises could claim to have moved the sheer number of units as Call of Duty by the end of the seventh console generation. Modern Warfare 3 and the two Black Ops installments in particular stand as some of the greatest selling games of all time, with sales figures exceeding thirty-million each. As each entry in the Modern Warfare trilogy eclipsed the last in terms of sales, Activision requested the creation of a new game on an annual basis. By 2013, the seventh console generation was nearing its end. This year in particular proved to be a something of a tumultuous time for the industry. Though titles such as BioShock: Infinite and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, were excellent swansongs, companies – publishers in particular – seemed to become less scrupulous with their marketing tactics. One of the worst cases of this occurred in February of 2013 when, in a move that wouldn’t seem out of place in the eighties or nineties, a review embargo was effected in order to sell one-million units of the terrible Aliens: Colonial Marines.
In November of 2013, the annual release of the latest Call of Duty installment, Call of Duty: Ghosts, installment came to pass. As per usual, the marketing campaign was extensive, ensuring that even those who don’t play games knew of its existence. Taking the reviews at face value, one could get the impression that what Infinity Ward, Neversoft, and Raven Software created was a decent game.
The fan response was a different story. Immediately after the game’s release, a faction of enthusiasts took to the aggregate review site Metacritic to write immensely negative pieces in protest. By 2013, the gaming sphere as a whole had a notorious reputation for being reactionary with their backlash to the positive reception of Gone Home earlier in the year being a particularly egregious example. However, there was one piece of evidence to suggest that these weren’t the actions of an unduly negative, yet vocal minority. While the installments leading up to Call of Duty: Ghosts broke sales records, this one didn’t fare quite as well. Activision blamed the slump of demand on the uncertainty caused by the impending start of the eighth console generation. The mid-2010s was a time when the opinions of critics and those of fans often clashed with each other. Was Call of Duty: Ghosts a decent game unfairly lambasted or the disaster those fans made it out to be?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers throughout.
Nuclear warfare has destroyed the Middle East. In response to the ensuing global economic crisis, the oil-producing nations of South America formed the Federation of the Americas. It didn’t take long for them to become a global superpower. They used their newfound military might to wage campaigns across Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico.
U.S. Army officer Elias Walker tells his teenage sons, Hesh and Logan, of how an elite squadron of U.S. Special Operations units first formed. As he tells the story, the land is struck with a powerful force originating from outer space. The Federation hijacked a United States orbital superweapon – the Orbital Defense Initiative (ODIN). It consists of a satellite network that utilizes kinetic bombardment, and is capable of striking anywhere on Earth. Two astronauts sacrifice their lives to destroy the space station, prevent ODIN from launching further payloads, and the Walker family is able to escape the destruction of San Diego.
Ten years have passed since that day, and the war between the United States and the Federation has been fought to a stalemate. The site of the destroyed cites has been dubbed No Man’s Land, and the conflict is a war of attrition as the Federation forces try to break past the line. Now members of a U.S. special unit under the command of their father, Hesh, Logan, and the rest of the troops venture forth to fight off this invasion before their powerful foe can dominate the world.
When I review games, I try to maintain a fairly neutral tone until I’ve laid out what the experience entails. I typically accomplish this by outlining the basic premise and explaining how the game is played before I proceed to detail my own subjective thoughts. In what should serve as foreshadowing for how the rest of this review will go, I haven’t even discussed the gameplay, and we’ve already run into the first problem plaguing Call of Duty: Ghosts. To put the following criticism in context, by 2013, the Call of Duty series had a reputation for catering to the more nationalistic members of the community. In a particularly damning move, Activision hired Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who had been accused of a serious war crime as a result of his role in the Iran-Contra Affair, as a spokesperson for Black Ops II. Even ignoring the marketing campaigns and focusing on the games themselves, just playing the Modern Warfare trilogy demonstrates how much credibly the series lost in such a short time. What started off as a gritty, anti-war series ended as something that wouldn’t feel out of place in Roland Emmerich’s filmography. However, as problematic as Modern Warfare 3 was, it at least had the courtesy to remind you how hollow war can be. |This is especially evident in how the final scene has Captain Price smoking a cigar in an empty room. He successfully vanquished his mortal enemy, but all of his comrades are dead.|
Any chance of Call of Duty: Ghosts had of shaking off its negative stigma with critics – particularly independent ones – was dashed the second the writers conceived its premise. After coming under fire for promoting xenophobia, nationalism, racism, and any number of social problems, Call of Duty: Ghosts removed any ambiguity in this regard. In this game, Latin Americans are universally portrayed as terrorists who are banding together to overthrow the United States for an ill-defined reason. For fun, you can play a game wherein you count every character in the campaign that isn’t a white man you’re not forced to murder |– you’ll have an entire hand and some of the fingers on your first left over|. Supplementary materials you can find throughout the game do go into more detail about the Federation, showing that its member states were unwilling allies as well as commenting on the public unrest in the conquered Latin American countries. However, none of this is reflected in the game proper, meaning that the information is effectively on in a different dimension from whichever one the narrative exists. The premise is openly racist without any indication that it was intended to be ironic. Something this lacking in self-awareness has no business existing after Spec Ops: The Line dismantled the genre, laying all of its horrifying implications bare.
At this point, it almost doesn’t seem worthwhile expound upon the gameplay, for anything less than the most sublime experience the medium has to offer wouldn’t even begin to make up for a narrative predicated on such an appalling premise. Nonetheless, I insist on giving every game a fair shot regardless of what objectionable material it presents to me from the onset.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is a typical early-2010s first-person modern military shooter that encourages players to find cover in combat. This is heavily enforced by Logan being rather fragile compared to a protagonist of a classic first-person shooter such as the Doom marine or Duke Nukem. Premise notwithstanding, the series is known for being somewhat realistic in terms of how much punishment your character can take. If he takes damage, a red arc appears on the screen in the direction from which the bullets emanate. Should he take too much damage, blood droplets adorn the screen and a red, visceral graphic borders the screen. Any further damage taken in this state will finish off him off, forcing you to restart at the last checkpoint.
You’re allowed to carry two firearms of any type. You also have access to fragmentation grenades and flashbangs. Grenades are useful when the enemy has you pinned down, as they can potentially dispatch multiple soldiers at once. By holding down the grenade button, you can cook it, thereby reducing the amount of time it takes to explode. Helpfully, there are four crosshairs that light up one by one, indicating how much time you have. Flashbangs, though unable to directly harm your foes, explode on contact, blinding anybody in the vicinity. Conversely, should an enemy throw a grenade in Logan’s direction, an appropriate graphic will appear onscreen with an arrow pointing in the direction of the bomb. You then have a limited time to get out of its blast radius. A single blast is enough to fell Logan. Alternatively, if you’re feeling brave, you can have Logan run right toward the grenade to throw it back at them.
In a blatant, though acceptable break from reality, wounds are automatically healed by staying out of gunfire for a long enough duration. As usual, the problem with the mechanic is that it’s difficult to distinguish any enemies in this state. This means it’s easy for them to get the drop on you as you’re trying to restore Logan’s health. Thankfully, dying isn’t too much of a consequence, as the load screens tend to be short and checkpoints are placed frequently enough that you usually won’t lose too much progress.
It may sound as though I just described every Call of Duty game you’ve ever played or seen footage of. This is no coincidence, for as a game, Call of Duty: Ghosts is shamelessly derivative of the franchise’s past accomplishments. This was in spite of the fact that the promotional materials for Call of Duty: Ghosts suggested the series would take a different route compared to its predecessors – particularly in how they hyped the presence of Riley, the protagonist’s attack dog. In a reversal of many frustrating sequences from the original Modern Warfare, he can help you out on certain missions. In fact, there are a few instances in which you can take control of him to covertly take out any hostile forces. Unfortunately, you only get to do this a few times – and early in the game at that. The only time Riley becomes relevant to the plot again is near the end when he gets shot by Federation forces. Hilariously, the characters emoted more during this sequence than when their comrade was murdered earlier in the game. In fairness, Riley is the best character in the game by a significant margin.
The 2010s seemed to mark a turning point for AAA gaming wherein companies expected us to sympathize with thoroughly unlikable characters. I can appreciate wanting to give protagonists flaws to overcome. However, a twofold problem arose from when it became the rule, and not the exception in gaming. The first is it made video games feel several decades behind the times. An argument has been made that the anti-heroes spawned from the worst excesses of the nineties comics industry work better in this medium due to fitting the implicit narrative told through gameplay. Even if there was some validity to that assertion, it came across as a lazy method of resolving the issues which arise from enforcing a divide between story and gameplay. The more pressing issue is that, to be brutally honest, the AAA industry of the 2010s didn’t exactly have an abundance of talented writers. Flawed characters are often praised for being three-dimensional, and they require nuance to make the audience want to identify with them. This is especially important when it comes to video games where we’re actively helping them achieve their goals.
The reason I mention all of this is because Call of Duty: Ghosts is, in a lot of ways, a dark reflection of its scene. Historians researching the most common criticisms lodged towards AAA games in the first half of the 2010s are likely to find most, if not all of them, in this title alone. This game features a sizable cast of characters and there’s not a single shred of likability or charisma among them. Elias has no qualms sending his children into warzones, the prospect of which carries the very real possibility of them dying horribly as anyone who has played the game at length can attest. This was after putting them through hellish training from an early age, seemingly apathetic that either of them could have other aspirations.
The soldiers that comprise the main Ghosts unit, Merrick, Keegan, Kick, and Ajax, don’t fare any better. Merrick openly admits that he’s fighting in the war to satiate his bloodlust, and his crowning achievement involves executing unarmed civilians. Keegan has no personality to speak of save for a moment in which he murders an unarmed soldier begging for his life. Kick is such a nonentity that most players probably wouldn’t notice he’s there. Ajax is far and away the most likable of any of them. This is because he’s killed off mere moments after his introduction, thus depriving him of any chance to be reprehensible.
Call of Duty deviated from the series’ formula somewhat by featuring a voiced protagonist in Black Ops II, but Call of Duty: Ghosts is a return to form by rendering Logan a silent protagonist. Despite silent protagonists typically being the standard for the series, this is not a narrative that benefits from having one. Taken at face value, Logan has no problem carrying out the various atrocities that Ghosts commit throughout the game. This includes destroying a Federation oil rig, which likely had hundreds of workers who had nothing to do with the war on top of doing serious harm to the local ecosystem. Though Hesh is admittedly inoffensive compared to his peers, he’s so bland, he may as well have never uttered a word.
In most works like this, people root for the villains as an alternative. After all, one of the first acts the Federation commits is hijacking the ODIN superweapon. The narrative casts this action in a negative light. It’s clearly meant to motivate the United States Army, and by extension, the player into crushing the Federation. Like most aspects of the story, this doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The game wants us to be horrified that such a thing could happen when ODIN’s existence patently violates international law. As if there was any doubt, when you regain control of it later in the game, using it is every bit as impersonal as one would expect. This could make a poignant argument of how less human war has become with various technological advancements, but the writers were clearly not thinking things through. Even if they were, it would’ve been entirely redundant considering the point was made far more effectively in a previous installment |– the original Modern Warfare, specifically|.
However, even with the dire characterization saddling the protagonists and the United States as a whole, by the end of the game, you won’t be on the Federation’s side either. Though ODIN could have lent the Federation credence to their invasion of the United States, they are, at the end of the day, genocidal racists not one iota better than the nominal heroes you’re stuck with. Only one of their prominent members, Rorke, has any sort of development, and his motivations constitute some of the most awkward snippets of writing the series has seen thus far.
Rorke was once the leader of the Ghosts with Elias being one of the soldiers under his command. Twelve years prior, he led a successful mission to assassinate General Diego Almagro, the president of the Federation. Tragically, Elias is forced to abandon Rorke upon completing the mission.
To give credit where it’s due, this sequence is actually well executed. Unlike many similar instances you may have encountered in the series in which the soldier has no problem sacrificing themselves for the greater good, Rorke explicitly begs you not to leave him behind, making the utilitarian decision all the more difficult.
The miniscule amount of goodwill the game received from this moment is rendered moot seconds later when we learn what happened to Rorke after he plunged into the river. He barely survived, and he is now affiliated with the Federation – the entity he fought against all those years ago. Considering the premise itself is bound to raise several red flags in any reasonable person, Rorke, being an American, is clearly there as a preemptive attempt to deflect any accusations of xenophobia. Not only is this painfully transparent, the only reason he is evil in the first place is because the Federation used Amazonian torture techniques to brainwash Rorke into betraying his homeland. No part of that previous sentence was made up. If someone had made a spoof the modern military shooter genre, nothing the hypothetical artist could conceive would reach the level of absurdity Call of Duty: Ghosts achieved with this revelation.
To add insult to injury, any attempt at proving the narrative isn’t racist was in vain. His turn to evil was still wholly on the shoulders of the Federation. On a more basic level, this plot element fails because it raises the question of why the Federation needed to hijack the orbital superweapon in the first place. If they have a prefect mind control technique, there was no reason to start the war at all. They could just kidnap several high ranking officials and rule the world without a single casualty involved. As it stands, the sole purpose it serves in the narrative is to act as the catalyst behind Rorke’s fall from grace when his probable despondency from having been abandoned by Elias would have worked just as well – if not better.
It’s not entirely fair to call the experience of playing this game monotonous, as there are a few gimmicks thrown into the mix. Unfortunately, they only succeed in demonstrating how bad the developers were when tasked with leaving their comfort zone. To wit, one level takes place underwater where your goal is to sink a combat ship loaded with advanced Federation weaponry. Considering the formulaic nature of this game, one might assume such a mission would add highly appreciated variety to the proceedings. Whatever praise a hypothetical player may have had for this sequence is short-lived when they learn just how difficult it is to take cover when one has an extra dimension to worry about. As one obviously can’t crouch, escaping enemy gunfire is a matter of picking a random set piece and hoping that it provides adequate shelter. Coupled with the poor visibility, this is easier said than done.
Moreover, during this level, you will be made to avoid sharks. If Logan gets caught by one, he dies instantly. What makes this especially infuriating is that his partner will look onward without firing a single round even if one is clearly swimming toward him. One of the very few advantages Call of Duty: Ghosts had over Modern Warfare was that it lacked the guard dogs capable of felling the player character in a single attack. In other words, the developers managed to excise a glaring problem in a classic game only to reintroduce it for one stage and make it more aggravating to deal with.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is a game that gives its audience no shortage of reasons to despise it. Bearing that in mind, the creators still somehow succeeded in saving all of their worst ideas for the final third. The final confrontation between the Walker brothers and Rorke has them confront the latter on a Federation supply train. He killed their father in an earlier chapter, and they now seek revenge. Getting to Rorke proves overly annoying when you are made to breach a doorway to the car he is in. Immediately upon blasting the door, Logan is accosted by two soldiers. If he doesn’t shoot them in time, he is killed automatically. This is a surprisingly difficult task because it seemingly involves dispatching them in the right order with pinpoint accuracy. I remember having to repeat this sequence several times, which obnoxiously involves rehearing Hesh’s pep talk every single time. Why they couldn’t place the checkpoint right after his speech is anyone’s guess. If that wasn’t enough, if you succeed in killing the first two soldiers, a third toting a rocket launcher will show up in the background. This is almost guaranteed to catch the player off-guard at least once.
Following the success of Uncharted 2 in 2009, more developers sought to make cinematic experiences out of their games. The results of this shift in design philosophy led to many awkward moments wherein the gameplay and narrative were often at odds with each other. Characters would fail at inopportune moments through no fault of the player for the sake of advancing the plot. Moments like these work in films because the audience has no control over the narrative. In video games, they’re not unlike someone smacking the controller out of their opponent’s hands when they’re about to lose. I choose to mention this because the final sequences of this game gleefully ignore the fact that the narrative exists in an interactive medium just to spite the player. In fact, I could tell Call of Duty: Ghosts was so bound to the time period from which it spawned even as I played it that I made a prediction right before the Walker brothers reached Rorke. I hypothesized that the very instant Logan and Rorke occupied the same general area, the narrative would take away all of the former’s weapons purely for the sake of adding drama, thus quelling any remote semblance of player agency. I was in no way, shape, or form surprised when my prediction came to pass.
The rocket-launcher wielding soldier from before inadvertently hits the train’s engine, causing Logan and Hesh to fly forward into the front car.
This does indeed cause Logan to drop his weapons as he crashes right into Rorke. Pushing him down, Logan uses a revolver to kill two of the soldiers while Hesh takes down the third. Naturally, Rorke recovers in time to kick the weapon out of Logan’s hand in case you were hoping to end the conflict in a pragmatic fashion. As he holds Logan hostage, Hesh discretely tells Merrick, who managed to hijack the Federation’s own orbital weapon to fire upon the train. The blast derails the train, causing it to plunge into the ocean.
When Logan regains consciousness, the train is underwater and quickly sinking. The attack failed to kill Rorke. They crawl for the revolver resting between the two of them. Rorke reaches it first, but Hesh strikes him from behind with a fire extinguisher. Logan picks up the gun Rorke dropped, but finds it has no ammunition. Hesh manages to throw some bullets in Logan’s direction. It should be noted that this is a quick-time event, so if you don’t press the button when the prompt suddenly pops up, you get sent back to the last checkpoint. Hesh grabs onto Rorke, and begs him to take the shot. Logan obliges as the bullet strikes Rorke before going through Hesh as well. They abandon Rorke in the car as it sinks into the abyss below. Barely managing to break the surface before they run out of air, the two of them make it to a beach.
Hesh informs Merrick that Rorke is dead and requests extraction. It would appear that the Ghosts have won.
In case you were feeling a sense of accomplishment, an extra scene plays out shortly after the credits roll to take it away. Having inexplicably survived being shot in the stomach and being trapped in a submerged train, Rorke sneaks up behind Logan and kicks him in the face, berating him for ruining his plans. Logan attempts to stab him, but Rorke breaks his arm. Showing admiration for Logan’s determination, he drags him away as Hesh screams helplessly. After the credits finish, Logan is seen in a pit, implying he’s being subjected to the same Amazonian torture methods Rorke went through.
Logan went through a ridiculous amount of suffering throughout the game. Among other things, he saw his homeland destroyed by the Fedeartion, made a rough landing when jumping out of a plane, and got shot in the stomach when he was interrogated by Rorke. Even as someone who wasn’t invested in the story at all, I found this ending to be particularly infuriating. Logan may not have been a sympathetic character, but you go through all of the trials and tribulations he does. Therefore, what the writers managed to accomplish with this plot twist was invalidate all of your accomplishments for the sake of cheap shock value. Rorke is popularly considered by Call of Duty fans to be the worst antagonist in the series, and it’s easy to see why. He has a terrible backstory, zero charisma, and even if he technically loses in the end, the laws of the universe seem to bend to his will, making him an insufferable, villainous Mary Sue on top of everything else.
One could argue this last-minute twist was intended to be a sequel hook, but it doesn’t prevent it from being horrendously convoluted. Furthermore, the only time a company can realistically get away with this is if the sequel is being produced during the final phases of the original’s development. The ending of Call of Duty: Ghosts brings to mind that of a classic 1999 PC game |called System Shock 2|. Considering the latter was a sequel to a game that didn’t sell well, this proved to be a shortsighted idea when no resolution to the last-minute development surfaced in the coming years. However, Call of Duty: Ghosts demonstrates one can’t really end on a sequel hook in an installment of a bestselling franchise either. Owing to its relatively poor sales performance and fan backlash, Infinity Ward focused their attention elsewhere, effectively abandoning the storyline. This renders what would normally be a sequel hook one of the worst endings in video game history. Then again, when I remember the roundly unlikable cast, I’m not sure if that’s better or worse.
Drawing a Conclusion
In an ironic twist of fate, I find myself in a similar position when asked whether or not I recommend playing Call of Duty: Ghosts as I did when I reviewed Spec Ops: The Line. That is to say, not only can I not recommend it, I haven’t the slightest idea who could possibly enjoy it. This game has no chance of changing the mind of anyone already opposed to the Call of Duty franchise. Meanwhile, causal fans who play little else outside of these mainstream releases would have no shortage of superior alternatives – namely, any other game in the series. Those who play Call of Duty solely for the multiplayer would have no reason to revisit this installment, for it is obsolete as a platform. I couldn’t even recommend this game to the unabashedly xenophobic and jingoistic members of the community because despite coming across as something the ultranationalists from the Modern Warfare trilogy would code if they were Americans, it somehow manages to fail at providing the kind of experience they could use to reaffirm their beliefs. Call of Duty: Ghosts was deemed by fans to be the series’ low point, and it’s perfectly clear why – it is a game without an audience.
There is no shortage of factions in which one could be disappointed when discussing this game. It’s tragic seeing Infinity Ward’s once venerable series fall so far after the already appalling slide throughout the last few installments. Meanwhile, Activision’s marketing techniques embellished the game’s alleged innovations. Among other things, they boasted about the fish in the underwater portions moving out of the way as you swim toward them when Super Mario 64, the title that codified 3D gaming had such a feature. In regards to gameplay, their highly touted “dual-render” scopes were entirely possible to implement in both Unreal Engine 2 and Source.
Though there is plenty of reason to be disappointed in the development team and the publisher, I personally feel the critics were the ones who came out of this debacle looking the absolute worst. Around this time, mainstream critics were tightly controlled by the publishers themselves. Their games would often be advertised on these sites to generate revenue, and an unsaid stipulation was that they in turn had to write positive reviews. One infamous incident on the website GameSpot in 2007 involved a critic lambasting a game that was indeed extensively promoted. He wound up getting fired for his troubles. Call of Duty: Ghosts was evidence of how much the medium suffered due to lacking a strong critical circle. When people are unable to judge a work for what it is because it would be perceived as a conflict of interest by publishers or their bosses, artists can’t hope to improve. Mainstream outlets wrote glowing reviews of Call of Duty: Ghosts, praising aspects that weren’t there. Independent critics, overly abrasive though their attitudes may have been, were unafraid of calling this game out for what it was: a poorly-written, xenophobic, chauvinistic, unambitious piece of trash.
Final Score: 2/10