Call of Duty: Ghosts Again, or Justify Your Existence

6 05 2014

I have a feeling this is going to be a meandering post. There’s a lot of ground I want to cover, and it involves areas I’ve tried to address in several draft posts that have never gelled enough to go public. It’s stuff I’ve wanted to discuss for quite a while, so I’m planning to power through this one, but fair warning: it’s likely to be a disjointed and long-winded ride.

Still with me? Well, away we go.

Gamasutra posted an article featuring a video of Jon Snow, reporter for the UK’s Channel 4, speaking with broadcaster and satirist Charlie Brooker about games while toying with the PlayStation 4. It’s kind of a mess, and not terribly edifying. As Gamasutra points out, “Snow questions the ‘violence’ in kids’ game Lego Marvel Super Heroes,” and Brooker struggles (and typically fails) to form coherent thoughts while being interrupted frequently by Snow, but there is an important point underneath the “old people don’t get it, maaaaaaan” vibe of the thing. Brooker, who appears fond of games, seems to be trying to make the point that games have changed the world, which is hard to argue with. If you want to be purely logical about it, there was a time in the world where we didn’t have video games. That has now changed. Snow presses him directly and repeatedly to say how they’ve changed it (presumably he wanted a more substantial answer than “by existing at all”) and how any change they’ve made has been a good thing. Brooker lands a blow by describing Papers, Please, which I’ve heard is a great satire and a strong statement on how people can enter a situation with the best of intentions and become drawn inexorably toward objectionable behavior and corruption, but the structure of the piece itself undercut that argument – Brooker wasn’t invited to do an interview about Papers, Please – he was brought on to discuss the new wave of consoles and the blockbusters at the forefront of their launches. Papers, Please, for all of its critical acclaim, didn’t make millions in its first 24 hours of availability. It may make Brooker’s argument perfectly, but it’s not what most people think of when they think of video games, and if Call of Duty: Ghosts is what’s left to make the argument, well, it ain’t making a very good case for games’ positives. I’ll explain why in a moment, but it needs some backstory.

Watching Brooker and Snow left me unsettled. I haven’t felt very drawn to games lately, and that’s an odd thing. It happens every so often and usually goes away soon enough, but the lull and uncertainty that comes with a new console generation has meant a dearth of really interesting large-scale games. Often I can fall back on old standbys, specifically the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, but I’ve been focusing on console titles of late. I had some hope that Call of Duty: Ghosts would reenergize me, as Infinity Ward made a big deal about how hard they were working on the story. There was reason to be hopeful – it was Call of Duty that years ago crystallized my idea of why games are important, after all.

When the first Call of Duty came out, it seemed like it was destined to be a straight rip-off of the reigning king of WWII shooters, EA’s Medal of Honor. Playing it for any length of time, however, made the differences readily apparent. Medal of Honor followed a single character, coming up with contrived reasons for him to be at various key battles of the war. Call of Duty instead moved between several characters of different nationalities, which made the inclusion of different theaters make much more narrative sense, but also enabled a bit of gameplay variation and jettisoned the jingoistic implication that the US won the war alone. Similarly, Call of Duty always put the player in the company of AI teammates. They weren’t necessarily competent, but they were there, and hovering the reticle over them showed their names, making them seem just a bit more real. These touches made Medal of Honor‘s single protagonist seem all the more like Wolfenstein‘s B.J. Blaskowicz – a one-man army who won the war for God, America, and apple pie all by himself. On the gameplay front, everything in CoD seemed less linear, with maps that were significantly more open and offered more valid paths to victory. Where Medal of Honor often felt like an updated Wolfenstein without the mystical trappings and mecha-Hitler, Call of Duty felt like a game about the war as it really happened. It even managed to feel almost profound.

To be fair, the seed of this feeling was planted for me by the Normandy landing from Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, which was very difficult and imparted at least a weak notion of the hell that those who fought the war actually experienced. Unfortunately, this impact was undercut by the decision to remove all blood from the game. I’m not a gore-hound, and I didn’t mind the absence anywhere else, but when the incidental dialogue and situations are lifted verbatim from Saving Private Ryan‘s famously gory and intense Normandy sequence, coupling a completely intact and unblemished soldier model prone on the sand with dialogue about his guts being blown out, the punch lands a lot softer than it should have. Still, the idea was there – games can put people into situations they could never safely or sanely experience in the real world, and by doing so, they could teach us something. And hey, they’re still fun to play, so it doesn’t all have to be some kind of stiff Public Service Announcement. The point was driven home a bit more by the inclusion of famous quotations about the awfulness of war on Call of Duty‘s post-death Continue screens. Infinity Ward seemed to want you to recognize that no one person or one nation won the war single-handedly, that war is hell, and that quite a lot of real people gave their lives to stop the unquestionably evil Nazi regime.

This unique weight persisted in Call of Duty 2, which added a new wrinkle (or at least seemed to add it – it’s been quite a while since I’ve played the early games, so my recollection is a bit fuzzy. Feel free to correct me if I’m crediting the wrong games with anything) – staying in one place caused more enemies to spawn. When advancing through a level, defeating a large group of enemies didn’t mean you could stroll around a newly empty area, hunting down ammo and casually checking out dropped weapons. Sticking around meant another wave of enemies would come at you. This upped the urgency and lessened the artificial sense of safety that comes with discovering the boundaries of the game’s script. Battlefields don’t become safe just because you’ve killed X soldiers, especially if you’re attacking a city occupied by the enemy. Once again, CoD was pushing the representation of war forward in games.

With Call of Duty 3, the official policy of seesawing responsibility between Infinity Ward and Treyarch began, along with yearly releases for the series. Unfortunately, Treyarch’s offerings have never shown the same level of polish and consideration that the Infinity Ward outings did. Gameplay-wise, CoD3 felt significantly more linear, and invisible walls were far too common and easy to find. While it’s not Treyarch’s fault that the WWII setting was beginning to seem care-worn, their storytelling felt less polished than Infinity Ward’s. Also (and again, my memory is fuzzy on this), game-ending friendly fire kills seemed far more frequent in CoD3, changing the AI teammates from subtle reminders of the human realities of the war to annoying obstacles that, along with the linearity and invisible walls, made the whole thing seem much more gamey.

When the seesaw swung back to Infinity Ward the next year, they broke new ground by ditching the series’ WWII roots in favor of a modern setting, and the result was fantastic. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare introduced new multiplayer mechanics that made the CoD series the unquestioned ruler of the military multiplayer genre. The story was strong, too, retaining the character-hopping of the earlier games to tell a tale of international intrigue, painting a war in the Middle East as interwoven with schemes by corrupt ex-Soviet military in a way that seemed at least plausible. It also featured a stunningly effective moment that used players’ expectations about the nature of video games to deliver a chilling and memorable message. The player is aboard a transport helicopter that is knocked out of the sky by the nearby detonation of a nuclear bomb. The player watches through the open rear cargo hatch as the helicopter spins out of control and crashes. The game cuts away to the usual between-missions map/loading screen, and then starts a new level inside the downed helicopter. The player’s character is clearly injured, but he can crawl, and the presentation of the between-mission screen, along with an understanding based on years of game experience, tells players that they should crawl away from the wreckage, probably to find some shelter and heal up before enemies appear. It’s a pretty standard game trope. You’ve been stripped of your weapons and placed at a disadvantage – surely a stealthy mission awaits. Not this time, though – you can crawl a short distance before inevitably succumbing to the radiation and your wounds. That’s it. There’s no objective, no point. You’re just dead. In games, this kind of inescapable, utterly futile death simply didn’t happen. I remember talking to friends about the experience of playing it – the confusion and shock at the subversion of game logic, followed by the dawning of the heavy realization of what the game was saying – in war, plenty of people just die. Plenty of heroes who did everything right are still just dead.

Unfortunately, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare marked the high point of the series in terms of storytelling. The Treyarch-helmed Call of Duty: World at War returned to the WWII setting of the older games and seemed much more limited for it after the previous game’s modern setting. As Treyarch probably felt a strong need to differentiate the game from the earlier WWII-based titles, which concentrated primarily on the European campaign, all of the missions featuring American characters are set in the Pacific. The game also features a darker tone than the other WWII entries, likely inspired by the seriousness of Modern Warfare and the critical acclaim it garnered. The popular understanding of the Pacific campaign is that it was often more savage and brutal than the fighting in Europe, so the setting seems right, but much of that savagery came from long, drawn out conflicts in sweltering heat, with soldiers dying en masse to take control of tiny, seemingly insignificant islands. “Drawn out” rarely describes a compelling game experience, and while much technical effort seems to have been focused on making the characters look sweaty, the feeling of oppressive heat never quite lands. The brutality is present, with far gorier kills than previous games and a heavy reliance on quick timer events where the player is rushed by a wild-eyed Japanese soldier with a sword and has to bash him back with the butt of a rifle or stab him with a bayonet, but the writing fails to firmly establish the context of the violence, leaving it feeling more like a gimmick than a message. Kiefer Sutherland and Gary Oldman provided voices for major characters in the American and Soviet campaigns, respectively, but the amount of time and dialogue lavished on them makes them strong individual points of focus, undermining the old “no one fights alone” mentality that had been one of the series’ strong points for so long. The result is a story that seems stale, brutality and violence that seems gimmicky, and an experience that is entirely forgettable.

World at War did introduce the very enjoyable Zombie mode, though it too is marred by lousy storytelling. Amusingly, it starts out perfectly well with no real story or characterization beyond “There are zombies. Fight them,” but quickly shoots itself in the foot by adding a story and identifiable characters in a subsequent DLC map pack. The characters are national stereotypes played for laughs (the Soviet soldier is constantly talking about vodka, for instance), but the writers missed “funny” and landed squarely on “annoying.” The WWII-era characters were eventually (and temporarily) replaced in the Zombie mode in Black Ops II, but if anything, the new characters are even worse. The WWII set reappears in the final map pack for Black Ops II, and for once they’re played entirely seriously, but what could have been a satisfying tone instead comes off as entirely out of place given the “zany” “humor” of the Zombies mode to that point.

After World at War, Infinity Ward took the reins again with Modern Warfare 2. Shortly before the release of the game, Jason West (Infinity Ward president, co-founder, and project lead on CoD: Modern Warfare and CoD: Modern Warfare 2) and Vince Zampella (Infinity Ward CEO and co-founder) were fired by Activision, leading to a public feud that saw nearly half of the studio quit in protest. It’s difficult to say how much of an impact this had on Modern Warfare 2, as it happened late in the development cycle, and it may be unfair to say that it’s to blame for the decline in quality in later games… but I’m saying it anyway.

Modern Warfare 2 continues the storyline from the first MW game, chronicling efforts to find and stop Vladimir Makarov, a lieutenant of the previous game’s antagonist, who has undertaken a series of terrorist attacks in order to push the United States and the Russian Federation into open war. The story isn’t badly written, though the motivations behind the actions of many of the characters are pretty unhinged, making them significantly less sympathetic than in previous games. After a false flag terrorist operation in a Russian airport is blamed on the United States, Russia initiates an invasion of the US East Coast. Believing that an unforgivable Russian transgression will cancel the unforgivable transgression of the airport attack, one of the protagonists infiltrates a Russian submarine and launches a nuclear missile at Washington, DC, though he sets the warhead to detonate in the upper atmosphere instead of striking the city. The game features a playable mission as an astronaut who witnesses the missile’s detonation while performing an EVA near the International Space Station. The player retains control of the astronaut up until the shock wave from the detonation destroys the ISS and kills the astronaut. This is obviously meant to recall the tremendously powerful nuclear bomb sequence from the first MW, but the fact that the player hadn’t spent any time with the astronaut prior to this mission and the overt similarity to the events of the last game rob it of significance. Instead of a poignant punctuation of a serious moment, it feels like more of a “look, we’re in space!” tech demo and a weak attempt to mimic the stand-out moment from the prior MW title.

In another case of questionable motives, the commander of US forces seeks to escalate the war between the US and Russia as revenge against those who detonated the nuclear device in Modern Warfare, which killed 30,000 US servicepeople under his command. While such a desire may be understandable, the person who masterminded that event, Imran Zakhaev, died at the end of that game. While Vladimir Makarov is one of Zakhaev’s lieutenants, and therefore arguably equally responsible, the US commander, General Shepherd, actually helps further Makarov’s aims in order to spark the war, with apparently no real plan as to how to punish Makarov himself – not to mention no guarantee that the US will win the resulting conflict. If he’s angry that 30,000 servicepeople died under his command, how will he feel about the deaths brought about by a full-scale Russian invasion of the East Coast?

The game also famously features the airport attack mission, “No Russian,” that puts the player in the role of an undercover CIA agent taking part in the terrorist massacre of civilians that sets off the Russo-American war. While many found this mission objectionable, and the game even features the option to skip it beforehand and at any time during the mission, I was never bothered by it. It’s certainly blunt, but it fits within the story of the game, and it does a pretty good job of making us consider what we’re willing to do in the furtherance of our own security. We know that our intelligence apparatus works to place agents within terrorist organizations – what lines are they expected to cross in order to gain and maintain the trust of their targets? Can we stomach small atrocities committed by our own people if they prevent larger atrocities against us? In the current climate of drone strikes and widespread domestic spying operations, it’s a valid and worthwhile question to ask. It’s a shame that the rest of the game’s plot doesn’t hold together terribly well and that the questions implied by the mission aren’t explored further. It also takes the hot-button issue of international terrorism and turns it into a clumsy continuation of the Cold War, rather than looking into the complicated and thorny issues of the real world. I understand that taking a hard and serious look at modern terrorism has the potential to piss off a lot of people, but by punting on it, Infinity Ward relegated MW2 to popcorn fiction. That’s fine, of course. That may have been their plan all along. Given the heft of their earlier achievements, though, it’s a disappointment.

The follow-up to MW2 is Treyarch’s Black Ops, which abandons WWII (well, not entirely, as the Nazis do make an appearance) in favor of a frame story that takes the characters through several major 20th century conflicts. Centered around the interrogation of the primary player character, the story is told primarily through flashbacks. Missions are set in Cuba, a Soviet prison camp, Vietnam, the Arctic Circle, and other parts of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the game’s fictional tale of chasing a poison gas-wielding Soviet general around the world prevents it from treating these environments as anything more than set dressing, reducing thorny and complex conflicts to a series of amusement park rides. The tragic mess of the Vietnam War was a formative experience for the United States and a nightmare for the people who fought it, but you get no sense of that from the game. Just like World at War, there are only the barest hints of the awful conditions and absolutely no sense of the long slog alternating between tedium and terror – just a couple of quick missions and you’re on your way. The game lifts the idea of prisoners being forced to play Russian Roulette against each other by the NVA from The Deer Hunter, but doesn’t bother to include any of that film’s major themes of the horror and psychological toll of war, specifically the one in Vietnam. The motivations behind US involvement in Vietnam don’t even come in for a passing mention – it just happens to be where the decades-long machinations of the antagonist have taken him at that particular moment. While the main character, Alex Mason, is psychologically damaged, it is understood that the damage is exclusively due to brainwashing he underwent in the Soviet prison camp – not any of his experiences through years of war and clandestine assassination ops. That damage apparently didn’t worry his employers too much – after two and a half years in Soviet custody, Mason is returned to active duty about a month after his escape. This shallow, lightweight story is told through dialogue that is primarily screamed rather than spoken and sounds like it was written by a nine year old who has just discovered the transgressive thrill of swearing and is eager to do so whenever possible.

The remains of Infinity Ward produced the next year’s entry, Modern Warfare 3, in cooperation with Sledgehammer Games and Raven Software. MW3 picks up immediately after the end of MW2, with the US and Russia still at war. After a Delta Force team manages to destroy a communications jammer in Lower Manhattan and turn a Russian submarine’s missiles against the nearby Russian fleet, the Russians call off the invasion. Peace appears to be imminent before a plane carrying the Russian president is attacked on its way to a summit in Germany. The president and his daughter are taken captive, and poison gas attacks are launched against cities throughout Europe as the first move in a larger Russian invasion lead by ultranationalists. The poison gas attack on London provides MW3‘s now obligatory unavoidable death mission, which feels like a manipulative gimmick well past its prime, rather than the gut-wrenching shock of the downed helicopter from the first Modern Warfare. The player takes on the role of one of the Delta operators and of members of the British SAS as they try to prevent the gas attacks and save the Russian president in order to stop the ultranationalists (and WWIII). The story is fairly inoffensive, though it is disappointing to see a reheated Cold War paranoid fantasy. It isn’t as objectionable as Black Ops cloak-and-dagger story, but it’s far from the often poignant study of war that had characterized Infinity Ward’s earlier outings. The entire Modern Warfare story seems to be all about placing stand-ins for our real modern conflicts in the context of oversimplified US-Russia relations. We get war in the Middle East, but it’s just a puppet show put on by corrupt Russians. We get terrorism, but it’s those wacky Russians pulling a false flag job to provoke a war. We get a Somalian warlord trafficking poison gas, but he’s only doing it for the Russians. I understand that trying to address the realities of actual present-day tensions is a minefield – Homefront had to change its invading force from the Chinese to the wildly implausible North Koreans, and Konami backed out of publishing Six Days in Fallujah after the firestorm of controversy it kicked up – but the approach taken by Infinity Ward in the MW series feels like cowardice and a missed opportunity. It’s understandable that people are upset by the depiction of a current real world conflict in a game, but the real world is shown in movies without the same backlash. The Hurt Locker dealt with the very real and very tragic issue of IEDs in Iraq and was rightfully given copious praise, and it’s far from the only movie about the Iraq War that’s been released in the last ten years. We’ve seen fictional retellings of various aspects of the September 11th attacks without people being offended, or at least without the productions being shut down. Why can’t a game take something like the second battle of Fallujah and present it carefully and respectfully, allowing the player to participate in it in order to give them an understanding of what actually happened and the sacrifices made there? If real-world conflicts are too complex, why not treat them as that by having the player kept relatively unaware of the larger story for most (if not all) of the game? Is it a fear that it won’t be fun? That it’s too morally ambiguous? CoD has become an incredibly important franchise. I don’t know where I heard it or who said it, but somewhere I picked up the understanding that “mid-core” gamers can be relied upon to buy exactly two games a year – that year’s Madden and that year’s CoD. I’m sure Activision is leery of putting out anything that could be considered challenging on any level other than gameplay difficulty. It’s just that the series started so strongly… and I haven’t even gotten to Black Ops II yet.

Actually, there’s not a whole lot I can say about Black Ops II. At least not about the single-player campaign, as I never finished it. I couldn’t take it. Continuing the time-jumping of Black Ops, BOII ups the ante by having the player interact briefly with several real-world figures from recent history, like Oliver North and Manuel Noriega. Just like the first game’s failure to imbue its settings with any meaning, BOII happily throws these symbols of the convoluted, shady, and downright criminal role of US intelligence throughout the world in the 1980s into the mix without even trying to explore the realities of that role. Even as the player is acting as an off-the-books presence in South America, there’s no sense at all of how or why we were there. The Iran/Contra affair, the CIA turning a blind eye to drug trafficking, rampant interference with democratically elected governments – all of these are cut in favor of using the settings for a hackneyed revenge story. I think I got about halfway through the campaign before deciding I’d had enough. The story was just too vapid to continue.

On the gameplay front, Treyarch should be applauded for trying something new by adding real-time strategy levels to the campaign, though that applause should be tempered by the fact that they play poorly and are very frustrating. It may be that I was playing on too high a difficulty level, but if I’m handling the traditional FPS portion just fine and slam headlong into an RTS I don’t have a prayer of beating, there’s a problem, and it’s probably not with me. The multiplayer mode is probably the deepest CoD offered up to that point, though I’m having a tough time remembering what features were added by MW3 and which came with BOII. Either way, it was a lot of fun. Zombies mode received some fun tweaks by adding adventure-game item hunting and assembly quests, though successfully completing the story-related find and build quests is essentially impossible without looking up the solution on the internet. The dialogue in Zombies continues to be bad to the point of being genuinely offensive. I’d say Treyarch’s next outing should be a standalone Zombies title, but that would mean a single-player campaign, which in turn means more dialogue, and I’d really hate to see what they’d come up with. The dialogue improved a bit with the final DLC map pack, but not enough to call it “good.” Not by a long shot.

So that brings us, at long last, to Call of Duty: Ghosts. For me, this game had a lot going for it. For starters, it was being penned by Steven Gaghan. I love Syriana. I think it’s a brilliant distillation of the utter mess that is the oil industry, the effect it has had on the political landscape of the Middle East, and the disastrous legacy of Western meddling in the affairs of nations situated atop our oil. That meant more attention was being paid to story, which almost certainly meant that the single-player wouldn’t seem like such an afterthought this time around. What’s more, the story seemed to be set in a US devastated by what seemed to be a double-whammy of natural disaster and invasion. Most likely, some massive natural disaster threw America into disarray, allowing an opportunistic enemy to sweep in and take over. We were told that the player faction would be significantly weaker than the enemy. It sounded as though the player would be part of a guerilla resistance, and the “Ghosts” name definitely lent credence to that idea. All of that seemed written directly to my great loves. I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic settings (or at least post-massive upheaval), and I adore stories about how strictly regimented organizations deal with being thrown far outside of anything for which they’ve planned. I anxiously awaited the hugely disappointing Homefront, and this looked like a similar story being handled by a team with a better track record. It could take on issues of resistance vs. occupation – what tactics are appropriate? What is ethical? Do we find that we understand the recent insurgency in Iraq better when the tables are turned and we’re the occupied populace?

Unforunately, very little of that panned out. If you haven’t played it, there will be spoilers ahead, so make your choices accordingly.

The single-player campaign isn’t sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it short. The dialogue is okay, even though it tends a bit toward encouraging chewing of the scenery. It’s just that the core story doesn’t really work. For starters, there’s no natural disaster. The devastated environments are the result of the enemy, a never-explained Federation of South American states, taking over an orbital weapons platform and using its payload on several US cities. Dialogue in the opening sequence explains that the Federation became a power after the oil-producing deserts were (somehow) destroyed. There must have been some hostilities against the US in there, because when we play through their takeover of the orbital weapon, we get dialogue about how the Federation is “breaking the truce.”

Here we have our first glaring story problem. The Federation is a known hostile entity presently kept at bay by a truce. The US has an orbital weapons platform and space station. Those facilities receive resupply via spacecraft whose launch site and crew are presumably under pretty tight security, but the known hostile force somehow manages to sneak six or seven heavily armed soldiers (all in space suits conveniently a different color than those worn by US astronauts) aboard and take over the station. At that point, they somehow take over the fire control system and fire the weapon at several US cities. There’s some dialogue in there about ground-based controllers being locked out of the system, and the arrival seemed to coincide with a simulated firing, so maybe they gained control of the system because it was in simulated fire mode and then locked everyone out, but… it seemed too easy. That also ignores the starting point – how did they manage to stow away on the supply craft? It just doesn’t seem plausible. But hey, this is like a big action movie – things have to happen to set the ball rolling, and now it’s rolling. Or plunging through the atmosphere at ridiculous speed, whatever.

We experience the impact of the orbital weapons, tungsten rods the size of telephone poles, on San Diego. Our primary player character, Logan Walker, has been hanging out with his brother and father in the woods near their home in the hills above the city, with their father regaling them with a thrilling tale of the incredibly stealthy and possibly legendary Ghosts. Using hit-and-fade tactics, the Ghosts managed to annihilate an enemy force larger than theirs by an order of magnitude, leaving one enemy soldier alive to tell his comrades about the vengeful spirits that killed absolutely everyone else. After storytime, the Walkers experience what they think are tremors, which are actually either sonic booms generated by the incoming rods or their nearby impacts. Papa Walker quickly realizes what’s going on and sends the boys running home. At this point, the scene shifts to fifteen minutes prior in low Earth orbit, where we see the Federation takeover of ODIN, the weapons satellite. After a brief battle that sees our player character and another astronaut heroically sacrifice themselves to destroy ODIN before several more cities can be hit, it’s back to the Walkers in San Diego. A quick jaunt through an obstacle course of cinematically crumbling McMansions leads the Walker boys back to their father and a pickup truck ride out of the devastated city.

The story then jumps to ten years later, with Logan and his brother Hesh serving in the US military, stationed in Santa Monica. An enormous wall separates the city from “No Man’s Land,” and the Federation is constantly testing the defenses. The player repels a Federation attack before heading into the city to meet up with father Walker, who seems to be in command of the military base situated near the Santa Monica pier. He tells the boys that he needs them to go on a mission in No Man’s Land, specifically back to their home in San Diego. The voiceover on the loading screen tells us that very few people operate in No Man’s Land and that it’s extremely dangerous, but we’re not told why. During the following mission, certain areas of the level are irradiated as a means of keeping the player in the map, so there’s some implication that NML is somehow toxic. Unfortunately, there’s no real reason for it to be that way. Tungsten rods fired from space don’t cause radioactive fallout or any other kind of toxic aftermath. They just hit really, really hard. There is a nuclear power plant in San Diego County, so it’s possible that the ODIN strike damaged the plant and caused fallout, but that scenario is never mentioned, so we’re just left with unexplained toxicity in the area around San Diego.

San Diego is more than 100 miles from Santa Monica, and yet the only part of Logan, Hesh, and their dog’s trip between the two that we see is their arrival in the immediate environs of their old house. We’re told that only the best operate in NML, and that they’ve seen three enemy patrols over the final twenty miles of their trip, but we see none of that. What could have been an interesting trek through devastated areas is instead skipped over in a fancier version of the line-on-a-map interludes from the Indiana Jones movies. Despite the fact that Federation forces were apparently plentiful enough to constantly test the Los Angeles wall, we’re given the impression that nothing worth showing happened in those hundred miles. Hesh’s voiceover tells us that he felt like the mission was another in a long line of tests the boys had to complete for their father, though we’ve had no indication of anything test-like in their history to this point. When we met them, they weren’t running an obstacle course or completing some grueling workout. They were sitting around a campfire listening to their father tell ghost stories… er… Ghost stories. In the interactions we’ve seen with him, he’s been kind and demonstrative of his affection for his sons. While the game did give us a ten year gap between the campfire and the mission in NML, the player is told nothing to indicate that those years have been spent repeatedly proving themselves to their father. Much like the apparent toxicity of NML, we’re given a situation where we’re being told something interesting and important in the conspicuous absence of any evidence or reason for it.

In San Diego, the Walkers visit their house… for no reason. If it’s meant to have emotional punch, it fails due to the fact that the house can’t be explored in any meaningful way and seems to contain little evidence that it was ever lived in. It is a collapsing ruin, but it still feels strangely sterile. Not far from this unnecessary homecoming, they run into Federation soldiers. The player takes control of Riley the dog to dispatch these targets, a gameplay mechanic that appears here and (if I remember correctly) nowhere else in the game. It’s a shame, too, as it’s the closest the gameplay ever comes to incorporating the kind of stealth that characterized the Ghosts in Elias Walker’s campfire story before the destruction of Santa Monica. Soon after a fairly effective stealth sequence with Riley, the player meets up with the actual Ghosts and everything becomes bog-standard run-and-gun. It’s fun run-and-gun, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen in every outing of Call of Duty.

Before long, we learn that the Ghosts are being hunted by a former squad member, Rorke, along with the fact that the Federation seemed to be excavating the ruins of the ODIN satellite in San Diego. The Walkers and the Ghosts return to Santa Monica, which is promptly attacked by a massive Federation force. In the earlier Santa Monica sequence, several US warships were seen just off-shore, but they apparently left or were handily defeated by a force of Federation landing ships and helicopters, leaving the beach unprotected. There are plausible ways that this could happen, of course, but the game doesn’t spend any time showing or explaining them. The ships were there, now they’re gone. Also, the Federation has spent months, maybe even years nibbling at the city wall, only to finally attack by sea. Maybe all of that wall stuff was just misdirection.

The Walkers fight through trenches on the beach and make their way to the command post in hopes of finding their father, but he’s not there. Just as the player is about to be killed by a surprise attack, the ceiling bursts open and Logan and Hesh are lifted out of the fight and onto the Ghosts’ helicopter, which promptly leaves Santa Monica. There seemed to be plenty of enemy aircraft swarming over the beach only minutes earlier, but the Ghosts’ bird simply flies out of the city unmolested. Aboard the helicopter, we are treated to the incredibly shocking and in no way predictable revelation the boys’ father is (gasp!) the commanding officer of the Ghosts (in addition to commanding the now-overrun Santa Monica base). He tells the boys that they’ve passed his final test (which seemed to be failing to protect Santa Monica) and that they are now members of the Ghosts.

At this point, the player gets Rorke’s backstory in the form of a playable flashback to a mission in Caracas. The Ghosts had been sent there to kill the head of the Federation two years before the ODIN strikes. The mission is a success, but a helicopter crash at the end leaves Elias holding Rorke (and the weight of about half of the downed helicopter) over a very long drop. If he holds on, the entire helicopter will fall, killing everyone. If he lets go, only Rorke will die. There’s no real choice, though, as failing to hit the “let go” button causes a game over. So Rorke falls, apparently to his death, except of course not to his death.  The Federation finds and captures him, eventually subjecting him to exotic torture techniques developed by Amazonian tribes. Once broken, he is apparently made the head of the Federation military, because hey, that makes perfect sense. Now he wants to kill all of the remaining Ghosts.

The Ghosts head to Venezuela to track down Rorke, because killing him is more important than protecting Santa Monica for some reason. Maybe he has intel that will help the war effort, but there’s no particular sense that that is the case. It feels like Santa Monica (and the rest of the US) has been abandoned in favor of prosecuting a personal grudge. In the end, this leads to discovering and thwarting the nefarious plots of the Federation, but that fact seems incidental to a growly beef between Rorke and Elias. It would be entirely incidental if it weren’t for the decision by the Federation to put a mentally compromised erstwhile enemy in charge of their military. That worked out great for them.

The mission in Venezuela involves zip-lining from the roof of one building onto another, which the Ghosts then rappel down in order to capture a Federation employee who “knows where [Rorke] sleeps.” It begins with the Ghosts atop the first building, along with three rope launchers that they use to attach cables to the adjacent target building. These launchers are each the size of a mini-fridge turned on its back, if not larger, but the Ghosts managed to drop them and themselves onto a building in the heart of the Federation’s capital. It is Federation Day, which has the city convulsed with celebration and lots of fireworks, but again, the story makes no attempt to pin the successful insertion on the festivities. If it did, it probably wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense, as I’d guess that fireworks staff would notice an unidentified helicopter flying in the airspace where they’re about to put on a show. We are to understand that the Ghosts left Santa Monica, flew south into enemy territory and over the enemy capital without ever being noticed. Either that, or some interesting stuff went on in the interim that we silly gamers don’t deserve to experience or even hear about.

Following the second Caracas mission, the player has a front row seat for a set piece lifted directly from The Dark Knight Rises, which leads to a jungle mission that can be played stealthily for an achievement or can be handled as a straight-up fight with no penalty, and the plot continues along with no major diversions or surprises. There’s an attack helicopter mission, a tank mission or two, an utterly forgettable fight on an oil rig (which I actually completely forgot about before reading the list of missions when writing this), an underwater mission, a mission in Las Vegas that fails to register as taking place in Las Vegas, another fight in space, and a climactic battle aboard a hurtling monorail. Along the way, it is discovered that the Federation has launched 25 orbital weapons platforms based on research gleaned from the wreckage of ODIN. Wait a minute – weren’t they digging through that wreckage a few missions ago? According to the Call of Duty wiki, the mission in San Diego (which featured Federation forces swarming over a downed ODIN satellite) took place on June 8th, with the mission in which the enemy satellite network is discovered taking place on June 27th. That is one hell of a turnaround in terms of reverse engineering and launching a massive space program.

From that point, the story wraps up in a pretty predictable and generic fashion, making sure to set up a continuation of the story along the way. Unfortunately, there’s little to make that continuation seem worth doing. Despite the annihilation of several major US cities and apparent ecological catastrophes, the stakes never feel very high. How can they when the player characters can go wherever they want without difficulty? They traverse the terrible No Man’s Land with nary a scratch or an interesting tale to tell, and they flit in and out of the enemy capitol like it was a convenience store. When a major US military base is about to fall to the enemy, the heroes bug out to pursue a personal vendetta. There’s no weight to anything. Huge chunks of the story seem to have been left on the cutting room floor, and it’s constantly running afoul of the old writer’s mandate to show us, not tell us. None of the key moments land with any emotional resonance, and there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason to care about any of the characters. To its credit, the game never goes for the easy tearjerker of killing the dog, but it doesn’t go for anything harder than that, either. It really never goes anywhere at all.

In terms of gameplay, it’s fine. Across the board, the single player is just fine, even fun at times. It’s easy (and entirely fair) to knock it for being unambitious, but the formula is in place because it has worked well to date.

Unfortunately, things go entirely off the rails in multiplayer, and I’m at a loss as to why that is. I’ll never claim that I was an amazing player in any iteration of CoD multiplayer, but I could hold my own. I won more than a few matches of Free-for-All, and I was frequently in the top three of the winning team in Team Deathmatch. I was frequently found in lots of other rankings, too, but in general, I did okay. More importantly, with some exceptions, I usually had a lot of fun. There were occasional deaths that felt cheap or didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but for the most part, I had a handle on things and felt pretty good about the goings-on. Not so in Ghosts. The vast majority of the time, I never catch the slightest glimpse of whoever kills me. I’m moving around carefully and then I’m dead. Sometimes, I know precisely where someone is and begin firing as soon as I can. I land three hits, but they’re unfazed, while one or two hits from whatever they’re firing take me down with no problem. When matches end, I’m consistently in last place. In fact, the end-of-match scores are almost always bizarrely lopsided. I wasn’t a stranger to blowouts in other CoD games, with my team putting up a frustrating 70 kills to the enemy’s game-winning 100. Sometimes it was even worse, with scores of 50-100 not unheard of, but that was pretty rare. Losses in Ghosts are almost universally catastrophic, with 21-100 seeming like a common final tally. Again, I don’t claim to be a great player, but just like the RTS levels in Black Ops II, that much of a gulf just can’t boil down to how terrible I am. Sadly, I can’t begin to figure out why my experience is so awful. I’ve tried a handful of loadouts, with none making the slightest difference. I’ve tried sprinting more. I’ve tried sprinting less. I’ve tried standing still. I’ve tried sniping. I’ve tried spray and pray. I’ve tried controlled bursts. Everything has failed, and I simply cannot tell you why. That lack of a clear, potentially surmountable problem makes all of the multiplayer into an exercise in frustration.

Not all of the shortcomings of the multiplayer are so nebulous. One problem that is very easy to identify is the alteration of the multiplayer progress system. Like previous CoD games, playing multiplayer earns experience points, which lead to promotions through military ranks. Better performance means more XP, which means faster ranking up. In previous games, the main benefit of ranking up was access to different weapons and perks. Particular weapons couldn’t be equipped until a certain rank was achieved, which made goals immediately clear and progress toward them very easy to gauge. In Ghosts, weapons are not unlocked by ranking up. Instead, ranking up and completion of challenges gives the player “squad points,” which can be spent to unlock weapons. At first blush, this seems like an improvement, as you no longer have to reach a high rank to unlock a specific cherished weapon. Over time, however, it becomes clear that decoupling weapons from ranks means that ranking up becomes largely meaningless. Perks are still unlocked by ranking up, but they can also be unlocked by spending squad points, so many players will simply spend points to get what they want long before they reach the necessary rank. This removes the sense of striving toward a goal. The loadout and challenge-tracking interface is cumbersome, which makes it difficult to get a sense of how close you are to reaching any kind of milestone, which often means you’ll complete several challenges without ever realizing it, leading to a sudden glut of squad points. Seeing this sudden largesse at the end of a particularly brutal drubbing makes the points seem worthless. The end result is a frustrating experience with none of the giddily addictive clawing for progress that made CoD multiplayer so damnably hard to walk away from. It’s hard to criticize Infinity Ward for trying something new – every studio should continually strive to innovate. In this case, though, it should have been entirely clear early on that new does not necessarily mean better, and that the changes robbed the multiplayer experience of most of what lead it to success in the first place.

There are a few interesting tidbits to be had, like Extinction – a takeoff of Treyarch’s enjoyable Zombies mode that swaps aliens in for the rather overdone undead, and Squad mode, which seems to be something like the team management features found in most modern sports games, but when they’re buried in a multiplayer offering that simply isn’t much fun to play, they’re certainly not enough to justify the price of admission.

When all is said and done, Call of Duty: Ghosts is simply not a great game. It’s barely even a good game. This wouldn’t be an issue if the series hadn’t flirted with true greatness on many occasions, but it did, and it has fallen a very long way. The single player is good, if you ignore the glaring holes and nonsenses of a story that was supposed to be the lovingly crafted focus of the outing, but the multiplayer is a collection of serious missteps that turned the preeminent Xbox Live title into an unpleasant chore. All of that is disappointing enough, but the real shame here is the collapse of a once excellent series into banality. At their best, the games of this series could be held up as examples of games with a point, even if that point was as simple as saying “bad things happen in war.” Even though they gave us war as the subject of entertainment, they took opportunities to remind the player that there is a reality behind the oversimplified diversion, a reality that is so often horribly final and meaningless. Now, though, the point is lost amid silly stories sloppily told, and there isn’t the old “at least it’s fun” rationalization to fall back on.

It’s unclear if this message will get to Activision any time soon. I’m not optimistic. While Ghosts has not sold as quickly as Black Ops II did, it is still selling extremely well, and it’s still seen as the vanguard of the new console generation. Critics’ scores are markedly lower than previous titles, though not so low as to jeopardize sales much. I can speak to that directly – I saw the dip in scores on MetaCritic, and I still went out and bought the thing without hesitation. In all likelihood, the next Treyarch outing will ditch the more problematic changes to multiplayer, resulting in something that’s much more fun to play, but it will almost certainly continue the shoddy, empty-headed storytelling that has always been their hallmark. It will sell well, though probably not as well as Ghosts – just not bad enough to really merit any soul-searching at Activision HQ. It will continue to be half of the mid-core’s yearly new game slate, and it will continue to be what people envision when they think about video games in general. And another chance to prove that they can be something more meaningful at the same time that they’re being entertaining will slip on by.

Oh, well… at least we have Papers, Please.

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