Call of Duty Playthrough Pt5 - Ghosts

A special series playthrough review – Part Five, Ghosts

FBT is in the Modern Warfare afterlife with Ghosts

Ghosts is an odd one in the CoD super cannon. Earning its name, it’s as if Ghosts doesn’t exist. It’s the forgotten CoD game, the first chink in Activision’s billion-dollar franchise. It’s hard to understand why though, at least at first. We’re in an entrenched, up-close war set on US soil; deserted old towns repurposed as command posts, decimated ghost cities, an eerie no-man’s land - but once this compelling setting and its backstory is established, Ghosts pulls a u-turn and heads for the comfort of the standard CoD fold.

South American countries form the Federation of the Americas. When the new super-power absorbs Mexico, America Prime pushes back but peace talks avert a full-scale war. Years later, the Feds break the ceasefire by boarding a US missile satellite (US astronauts do not fair well in CoD) and turning it on US cities along the Fed-America border, interrupt Dad telling his lads all about the Ghosts, an elite spec ops group who forced the peace talks and helped avoid the war. Bang up job Dad, we’re running from our own missiles here.

More years later, and between Fed-exico and America is now a demilitarised zone. The lads, Hesh and Logan recon the border with the first CoD character I’ve genuinely cared about, Riley. A dog. They run into a couple of Ghosts and a suitably intense mission follows as the rookies learn how to do things Ghost-style. That is, the same as any other CoD game.

Returning to the base, Hesh and Logan take a knee again. He loves a story does Dad. He’s worse than MW’s Price. Playing as young Dad, we learn about the Ghosts’ original leader Rorke. Left for dead, he was tortured and brainwashed by the Feds and is now a Ghost buster. Dad sends us on a mission to bring Rorke down; just like every other COD where we’re an elite group tasked with stopping the invading forces’ figurehead.

Ghosts is frustrating because there’s two set-ups here and neither are realised - One; we’re Ghosts. As the old man described, we’re guerrilla warfare; it should be us sneaking about making life hell for the Feds, but we're just standard grunts. Two, Rorke should be hunting us not the other way around; he taught us everything we know and ought to be cutting us to pieces; it would have been great to be on the backfoot for once as Rorke cuts us (not dogs) to pieces. Instead, to win the war we have to capture Rorke, a man with a personal mission and an army at his bidding; this is Jnr’s missions in BOII. We’ve done this already and the Ghosts do nothing to justify their reputation; we fight from one end of the level to the other, skip a cut-scene and crack on. This is classic CoD; a reworked story to justify the levels. Spectacular levels that feel very familiar.

To its credit, Ghosts does feature two new sequences, one under water and one in space – we have a Moonraker-style space fight and have to avoid Tiger sharks - not in the same mission, that would be too cool, but they’re the same zero-g experience and there’s not enough of those to make Ghosts stand out. But … while we’re primarily Logan (there’s a couple of character detours which scream padding) we actually get to character-hop into a dog. It works insanely well as Riley sneaks around the camp, ripping out throats and listening in on conversations. It’s something new and fresh - but we only do it once. While he can be directed in firefights, he gets killed so easily you don’t risk it. We should be able to switch into Cujo-mode at any time, get around entrenched troops and pee on them, but it’s just another missed opportunity; Ghost is filled with them. Good boy. Bad game.

Why are we chasing Rorke anyway? He’s just one disgruntled ex-employee who’s been missing for a decade, how critical to the war effort can he be? And when we do capture him he stages a Dark Knight Rises rip-off and escapes; it’s the same story beats we’ve played several times now. Why isn’t this set in the demilitarised zone with us cut off and picked off one by one as Rorke gets his revenge? An intense potboiler like Predator would have been incredible and just what the series needed. Instead we get a low-energy MW clone.

Ghosts is a fair crack; you blow up an oil refinery then have to escape through choking smoke and fire, fight through a decaying Las Vegas and the early mission set in an old football stadium where we remote-snipe and have a running gun battle to reach a helicopter is a great tone-setter, but that isn’t enough anymore. Ghosts isn’t as insulting as the BO sequels but it’s just … a CoD game and what’s frustrating is how close it gets to being something interesting; the space and underwater levels, controlling Riley, the personal plot, the setting, they’re all interesting but frustratingly unrealised. The ending, chasing Rorke on a speeding train where each carriage moves independently making shooting hard and falling off easy is brilliant and what the entire game should have been – personal and desperate. But it’s too little too late.

But the most unforgivable element is the shocking cliffhanger ending. Clearly Activision wanted a new franchise but Ghosts had to follow not only the MW series, but Black Ops as well, two absolute juggernaut franchises and in trying to replicate their success it cancelled itself out. It’s as if Ghosts keeps getting its leash pulled like it's Riley; every time it leaps forward it gets pulled back and that just exposes how CoD has done the same thing too many times now. I’d rather a patchy, try-something-new shooter than a polished autopilot; I feel like an NPC, just going through the motions. It’s not enough to be effective, it has to innovate.

Ghosts still did huge numbers but critics pointed out the worn nature of the gameplay and so rather than risk a sequel, Activision stuck what could have been a stellar Ghosts II into the Black Ops universe - Black Ops II. Make it the Feds led by a brain-washed Logan instead of Menendez and you’re there. You could even make Mason Snr Ghost Dad to further explore his and Rorke’s past. It would have been gold. Instead, we got a crappy sequel to Black Ops and killer cliff-hanger in Ghosts that went unresolved.

I really wanted to like Ghosts, and at times I was into it, but with that unresolved ending it’s not really worth the effort. Just like Activision did, it’s better to pretend it didn’t happen and keep going. Let’s see how well that worked out for them.

Read the next part in FBT’s increasingly unforgiving CoD playthrough - Advanced Warfare. But is it advancing to the rear?