Call of Duty: Ghosts PS4 review: Haunted by the past

Call of Duty: Ghosts represents a new set of challenges for Activision's flagship series. Ghosts marks the first game to transition to a new generation of platforms since the franchise gained its fame with Modern Warfare, and it raises the question "Does the Call of Duty formula still work?" With a highly-touted new engine in tow, Ghosts is Infinity Ward's first major shift in the series since it moved out of the Second World War.

But Infinity Ward – along with a handful of other developers, including Neversoft and Raven – has delivered a largely by-the-numbers installment in Call of Duty: Ghosts. It layers a fresh coat of paint over a tired design document; a document that brings players down a rote campaign path before landing them in a multiplayer mode that abandons many of the creative advancements seen in Black Ops 2.

While even a routine Call of Duty still brings with it a blockbuster ride through exciting engagements, and its multiplayer experience can compete with the industry's best, Call of Duty: Ghosts is a step in the wrong direction for the series and a stumble into the next generation.
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Call of Duty: Ghosts (Xbox One/PS4)

Despite the touted advancements of its engine, Ghosts looks eerily familiar, even on PS4. The Xbox 360 and PS3 versions certainly look better than previous games in the series, but the PS4 visuals don't present the kind of stark improvement many will expect from a next-generation game. Changes to the animation system, however, are a big leap in the right direction. Characters smoothly vault over cover without breaking stride from a full sprint; a new sliding mechanic makes it possible to rush through a doorway and glide into the room. It feels outstanding and inspires some memorable moments. On more than one occasion I claimed a handful of kills thanks to a slide that caught my adversaries off guard. Coupled with perks to maximize speed and endurance, I was addicted to sliding around the map and into tense combat scenarios.

A key pillar of the Call of Duty experience has always been rock-solid 60 frames per seconds gameplay. On Xbox 360, Ghosts maintains this mandate. The PlayStation 4 version, however, has noticeable technical issues, sometimes slowing to a crawl, particularly during set-piece moments with multiple effects. One specific moment I was able to replicate multiple times was a campaign scene featuring explosions and smoke that ran smoothly on Xbox 360 and PS3 but chugged on Sony's next-gen platform. These frame rate hitches happen throughout the campaign on PlayStation 4 and, in a series known for its Hollywood-inspired bombast, it detracted from the experience.

Ghosts is inconsistent elsewhere as well. Its narrative starts strong, with a somewhat new take on an old tale: America attacked and invaded. In Ghosts, it's South America – banded together under the banner of the United Federation – that attacks the US by gaining control of a weaponized American satellite. Rather than drop you in the middle of an invasion, the story picks up ten years later. America has lost control. The country is dying, but a dedicated group of American soldiers and an elite squad known as Ghosts are determined to keep the country alive. The set up is simple and effective, presenting players with as much motivation as they'd need: Save America. The story continues to pile it on, unfortunately, bringing back a tragic moment from the Ghost team's past, which ultimately shoehorns a villain into the plot. Also, while Ghosts requires player interaction in its more dramatic moments – "Press X to ..." – these moments don't offer any real choice. Unlike Black Ops 2, there are no decisions to be made, nor can players diverge from the linear Ghosts path.

Call of Duty: Ghosts maintains the series' flair for globe-trotting, sending you to plenty of different locales. Players can expect to fight basically anywhere in and out of this world. That includes a mission that finds you floating near a satellite in outer space, during which you're told to "get into cover." Cover. In space. Space cover. Conveniently, there are bits of debris to hide behind, but it only highlights the inherent silliness of a firefight in space.

It's the first half that plays best with the franchise's penchant for scene jumping, from dodging a massive vessel's sonar pings underwater to attacking an enemy stronghold from the cockpit of an attack helicopter. And there's Riley, the dog that follows you throughout a handful of missions, one of which allows you to control him. These missions represent the best Ghosts has to offer, but the campaign doesn't maintain its excitement. The second half falters and lands on overused "Point A to Point B" objectives and even recycles locales. With its best ideas front-loading the campaign, Ghosts becomes rote and monotonous by the end.

Combat is still well-tuned and fast-paced. Set pieces still burn bright with thundering spectacle, but Infinity Ward retreads lukewarm water with its scenario set-up. Enemies often spawn and flood areas based on your position, a problem the series has always had. Stand still and those ten enemies you killed will be replaced by a squad of identical recruits. Move up a few feet and the soldier flood gates magically close. It's lazy in general, and in some cases it's completely inane – like when you're fighting in space or underwater.

Outside of the campaign is Extinction, a survival mode in the vein of Horde 2.0 from Gears of War 3, in which you and up to three friends stave off increasingly difficult alien aggressors with weapons and defenses. Initially, it seemed like a simple attempt to draw on Treyarch's goofy Zombies mode, but I loved my time with Extinction. Aliens have landed on earth and your squad must use a drill to burrow into their hives and eventually destroy them. As you protect the drill while it completes its task, your team is given specific challenges that will reward you with tokens to upgrade your character's stats. One challenge might have you kill a certain number of aliens with a specific weapon. Other challenges are more interesting, like surviving an entire minute without anyone reloading their weapons.

Extinction is more immediately accessible than Zombies, requiring much less guesswork. My team was easily able to call out enemy positions, plan each wave, talk out upgrade trees and strategize on the fly. Sure, the premise is silly, but this is a game where you find cover in space. Silly is already on the menu. Unfortunately, Extinction has very few options, offering only one map with a single objective. You might replay it to increase your end-game score, but without additional maps I don't see myself playing it more than a handful of times.

Squads, another new mode, lets you customize a team of AI soldiers and pit them and yourself against enemy AI. You can also face off against your friends' squads or join them to battle enemy AI together. There are various ways to play Squads, but all of them boil down to glorified bot matches. It's a poor substitute when real, unpredictable human beings are only a few menus away.

For many, of course, multiplayer is the only element of Ghosts that matters. Getting the basics out of the way: It's the same Call of Duty you know, coupled with Ghosts' improved animations. While Infinity Ward has promoted the way maps in Ghosts can change during the course of a battle, these elements are few and far between. The lone exception is the map Strikezone, where a player can earn the ability to launch a nuke-like attack on the map that drastically changes its look and layout. More of these sweeping changes mid-match would have been welcome, forcing players to quickly adapt their strategy, but Strikezone is the only map included that features such destructibility. Other maps have only a few small environmental effects that players can utilize.

Earning Care Packages has been relegated to a new system called Field Orders. If you get your hands on a special briefcase and complete the assignment within – kill two enemies while prone, etc. – you can call in a Care Package. If you die before completing the task, the briefcase hovers above your body for someone else to claim. Ultimately, Field Orders only served as a distraction for me. Rather than get an easy clutch kill for my team, I found myself chasing down enemies for knife kills because my Field Order challenged me to do so.

Multiplayer modes attempt to discourage this kind of lone-wolf thinking with team-oriented objectives. Search & Rescue replaces Search & Destroy, for example. In S&D, one team attempted to plant a bomb and players did not respawn after death. Search & Rescue is the same concept, except when players die they drop dog tags. If an ally picks up your tags, you respawn. If an adversary gets them, it's spectator mode for you. This encourages players to work together, though I still encountered plenty of soldiers waiting in corners for easy kills while their allies' tags floated around the map.

Other new modes include Cranked, in which you earn perks as you kill enemies in order to reset a timer – if the timer reaches zero, you explode. Blitz is a new rush mode that has players running into the enemy's "goal" to score. Finally, we have Hunted, in which every player begins with a handgun and must resupply from dropped Care Packages.

These varied modes work as palate cleanser, but they didn't scratch my progression itch. Many of them – like Hunted – feature predetermined loadouts, putting my customized gear on the shelf to present me with a gimmick. These modes can be entertaining, but the traditional game types are still the most engaging.

Treyarch introduced the Pick-10 system in Black Ops 2, a system that I quickly became enamored with. Given ten points, you'd select gear and weapons that were given a certain value, allowing you to mix and match so long as you fell within the available points. Ghosts adopts a somewhat similar though more ambiguous system, placing its emphasis on Perks. For each piece of gear you decide not to carry into battle, you earn extra slots for your Perks. Fill up on weapons and equipment and you have eight slots to fill with perks. Only feel like rocking a combat knife for a loadout? Then your Perk limit jumps to twelve.

The meticulous tweaking and testing of loadouts in Black Ops 2, attempting to carve out the best soldier with ten points, was a better system. Black Ops 2 offered equipment over time, unlocking selectable pieces at every level and allowing weapons to earn experience that granted new attachments. In Ghosts, weapon experience is gone and replaced by Squad Points, which can be used to buy Perks and to unlock weaponry and gear. The Pick-10 system was far more elegant, leveraging each piece in your loadout as a crucial decision in your character build. Ghosts, meanwhile funnels all of its attention into Perks. Multiplayer is still the central focus of Ghosts, and it's entertaining, but the customization and personality offered by Pick 10 deserved further evolution. Ghosts' focus on player buffs makes for a far less interesting experience.

Call of Duty: Ghosts is a solid installment, but it lacks creativity and innovation. Its new engine already looks dated in the face of the competition, and it eschews many of the solid concepts seen in Black Ops 2. After Treyarch attempted to expand the established Call of Duty formula with risky campaign and multiplayer ideas, Infinity Ward and friends have ignored the franchise's innovative climb. Despite this, Ghosts still steals the show with more memorable missions than those found in Black Ops 2. And even with the loss of Pick 10, I still played the multiplayer for hours and had a good time.

Expanding on Treyarch's accomplishments could have elevated Call of Duty: Ghosts, but Infinity Ward largely returns to ideas it has been tweaking since the original Modern Warfare. Infinity Ward has always forged its own path, but its formulaic design document has become worn. It's a good book, but it's time to turn a new page.

This review is based on review code of the PS4 version and a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Call of Duty: Ghosts, provided by Activision. The PS4 version was the primary version used for this review. The PS3 version was also tested. Xbox One impressions will be available on November 12.

The game was played at an event hosted by Activision. Multiplayer on PS4 was played on non-public servers. Travel and accommodation were paid for by Joystiq, in accordance with our editorial policy. The Xbox 360 version was tested in our own environment, including multiplayer sessions on Xbox Live prior to launch.

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