I distinctly remember the first time I played Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The ghillie suits; the desperate post-snipe escape; the tower ambush; the helicopter crash. It created a pulsing blend; technical and veracious combat mixed with a clutch of characters that dared to be distinct and memorable.
The game seemed like a significant development at the time, and its significance has only grown as publisher Activision continues to wring every cent out of the formula. The sales records, huge multiplayer numbers and sky-high budgets all reflect the fact that developer Infinity Ward, with its fourth Call Of Duty iteration, had created one of the world’s biggest franchises. The problem was, though, that IW wanted to do something different after Modern Warfare 2. Activision disagreed, leaders got fired, IW team members quit en masse, and lawsuits then followed their forming of Respawn Entertanment to create Titanfall under rival EA’s wing. Not to worry, Activision assured; the hub of Infinity Ward was still alive and well, back in the Call Of Duty production mill.
Well, if the latest title in the behemoth franchise – Call Of Duty: Ghosts – is anything to go by, the corpse of Infinity Ward is instead strapped to an unrelenting life support machine with the fat bulk of Activision pumping its chest and collecting the bile that eventually seeps out of its crooked mouth. This is not a review of the game – I’d have to finish it to truly call it that. This is more of a reflection – a refraction – of my first few hours of play. This a call out to all the dedicated Call Of Duty fans, the ones who stay up all night eagerly waiting for the chance to spend their money and be first on the battleground, to start expecting more.
Because, with Ghosts, it’s crystal clear that Activision is perfectly content to slam out an entry that is so bland, so badly written, so crudely conceived, that it does not deserve the accolade of riding inevitably high in the sales charts. This is a game that has been built from the composite parts of previous titles, a set rail channeling the player onward until certain conditions are met in a constant unfaltering treadmill. It’s Space Ace, Dragon’s Lair, Operation Wolf; no more. The curtain makes no attempt to hide the wizard as it did so well in Modern Warfare; this time, it’s pulled right back with the assumption that players just don’t care any more. That may be true for some, but it’s certainly not true for me.
What’s the story, then? The story is that this is a multiplayer-focused game that is contractually obliged to have a single player campaign. Whereas the CoD storylines once were the same kind of guilty pleasure as a Micheal Bay popcorn movie, the plot here is wretched in its clichéd baseness. Jumping forward and back in time at regular intervals, we follow the paths of two brothers as they use jingoistic and stilted dialogue to interact with their All American Hero father who, in a plot twist that could only be a surprise to a deaf mute, turns out to be a Ghost. Who’d have thought. The Evil Empire, this time rising from Venezuela to unite the entirety of South America, dares to invade America at its weakest moment. Cue the complete ignorance of some great opportunities for low-fi guerrilla warfare as the resisting US Ghosts – who have no lack of fancy gadgets or scattered cases of ammunition – absorb bullets sponge-like in their quest to drive the outsiders back out.
Look. I’m not going to pretend that every story has to be a genre-ripping beacon of originality. It would be hypocritical when I have Battle: LA nestled proudly in my Blu-Ray stack. There’s nothing wrong in using the bones of cliché as the skeleton for plot. However, the flesh on the skeleton must have a degree of snap and pizazz, a vocal delivery that implies human involvement with the words, an energy that fizzes around the stock pillars. Ghosts has moments of scripting and dialogue delivery so lifeless that they would make Keanu Reeves frown. In fact, much like last year’s atrocious Battleship, it’s best to pretend that it’s a third Hot Shots movie in order to dredge up any sludge of connected enjoyment.
Are my standards too high? Definitely. My standards – for others, for myself, for everything – shift around relatively to what I’m experiencing. Accepting of errors when smothered in good ideas, recognising when a lack of money first restricts then frees creativity, filtering seeds of emotive current through the background noise. It works both ways; I am as forgiving for penniless visionaries as I am demanding of big-budget projects. And there’s no denying that Call Of Duty clearly lacks budgetary concerns. This is a series that has to count its profits in extra zeros, a monolith that scares off all other new releases from its now regular November launchpad. The opening splash screen for Ghosts is a collection of once great developer teams now purely tasked with pumping CoD‘s overstretched lungs – Raven made the criminally underrated Singularity; Neversoft was responsible for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Guitar Hero; all distant memories now as they churn together.
The aces up Call Of Duty‘s sleeves are twofold – the promise of constant action at 60 frames per second, and the familiar precise murderground that is the online multiplayer. After chugging through Assassin’s Creed 4‘s wet mud framerate (yet still really enjoying it), slipping along through CoD is admittedly an almost tangible pleasure that hasn’t nearly been seen enough in this generation of consoles. However, the spawn-kill(maybe)-die(quickly)-respawn yo-yo of its famous multiplayer really isn’t for me. Actually, that’s a gross understatement, but the most accurate very antithesis of why I game is a bit of a pretentious mouthful, so it’ll do. I play for experience, learning, connection; not for grind, or rage, or constant correction by bullets from guns I’ll only own after hours of gnashing teeth.
The minority I find myself in is one where the single-player story mode is the primary interest with every iteration of this franchise, and for a while that actually didn’t sound absurd. There are moments from all the the various Call Of Dutys that stick in my mind – the moments of grass-swaying suspense and pyrotechnic explosions and impossible assaults and defences and wins and losses. Throw me down a hill on a snow sled or force me to blast through a TV studio, that’s all I ask. The bullets have to come with style. However, Ghosts shows us so effectively that, without the pleasure of a rousing stage, the drama of the gunplay quickly falls flat and dead.
The biggest problem I have with Ghosts, though, is the real sense of Activision’s complacence. Call Of Duty may be the biggest console franchise in the world but Ghosts screams of being a product from an inexperienced, underachieving team. The knowledge that this is not the case – that the group amassed to create this money-printer is bigger than almost all others – quickly turns dissatisfaction into anger. If the coding talent is there, if the budget exists, then it has to be a decision to just not bother trying. Activision must know that their captive audience has already bought into the name, so the process of supplying them the next drip-feed of addiction is easy. At some point, however, someone inside the company must decide whether to strive for originality and creative use of the set structure, or just let it tap the usual beats. Once, Infinity Ward would have made the push for the former a reality. Now, they’re just the drummer boys.
In their shadow, Treyarch sits and waits. Once the second-tier developer who were responsible for the “other” Call Of Duty titles, they have actually been the proponents of many variances in the formula. The success of their Zombies mode was confirmed when Infinity Ward cloned it into their alien-shooting Extinction mode (which is nowhere near as balanced or fun), and their last full title – 2012’s Black Ops II – even had branching narrative paths. Now, as Infinity Ward slowly expose themselves as merely the ghosts of their former glory, it’s Treyarch who seem to hold the keys to the franchise’s evolution. This might be seen in the November of 2014; with the new breed of consoles about to experience their first Christmas sales explosion, it could be the perfect time for Treyarch’s Call Of Duty to finally take back its shine. Maybe then the ghost of Ghosts will finally be laid to rest.