Call of Duty is in decline. The juggernaut franchise that has broken all kinds of records and made obscene amounts of money may have finally reached the point of diminishing returns. Call of Duty: Ghosts could mark the beginning of the end.
Activision has confirmed that Call of Duty: Ghosts did not sell as well as its predecessor, choosing to release extremely impressive shipment numbers (sold to retail) versus actual sales numbers (to consumers). Although Activision CEO Bobby Kotick was quick to point out that actual sales figures would not include either the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 versions of the game, it’s hard to see that as anything but bad news. This is also the first time that a game in the main series dipped below a 75 (the bar for “Generally favorable reviews”) on Metacritic on one of its main platforms. The Xbox 360 version of the game currently sits at a 74. Every game since Call of Duty 2 has received at least an 82, and no Infinity Ward-developed game has dipped below an 88.
So what happened?
It starts with the campaign. This is developer Infinity Ward’s first attempt at a new timeline since the original Modern Warfare, and boy how the mighty have fallen. Many people don’t play modern first-person shooters for their story (see Battlefield, aside from the Bad Company spinoffs), but as long as the campaign is a selling point, it deserves a serious look. Back in the day, a Call of Duty narrative was something to be excited about. Remember the atom bomb explosion in Modern Warfare? Or “No Russian” in its sequel? That was some heavy stuff (although the decision to allow players to skip that latter scene still leaves a bad taste in my mouth).
There is nothing like that here. There are some cool moments, and it’s a reasonably enjoyable ride, but the pacing is totally out of whack. There’s no sense of escalation because the whole thing is on such a massive scale. I lost track of how many times I had to run through crumbling/exploding set pieces over the course of the 6-hour-long campaign, and it just became tiresome. It’s not particularly original, either. It takes from everything, including one of its predecessors. It also features a scene that is shockingly reminiscent of the prologue in The Dark Knight Rises.
The narrative follows two brothers, Logan (who the player controls), and his brother, Hesh (who narrates most of the weird liquid-metal cut scenes). The two brothers join a special group called the Ghosts, which are secret soldiers who work in the shadows, and someone is trying to kill them off. I’m refraining from spoilers, but there’s nothing really surprising or interesting about the narrative. As soon as the opening ended, I figured out at least half of the basic story progression, and as soon as the major conflict was introduced, I figured out the rest.
One of the most significant steps back is the number of people who can join the multiplayer mode. On the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, matches are capped at six versus six or less, down from nine versus nine found in previous games, while the PC and PS4/Xbox One versions still have the capacity to hold that number. This isn’t a problem in some of the game’s smaller maps, but in the larger ones the one-third reduction in players is huge. One of the new game modes requires players to take out an opponent every 30 seconds, or else explode. On the bigger maps, it’s hard to run into anybody from the opposite team in just 30 seconds. Actual firefights last seconds, so running around alone only to be killed immediately is frustrating.
The biggest addition to the multiplayer is the customization. Not only can players choose a female avatar (in fact, the basic character defaults to the female model), but they can change the appearance in a number of ways, and this is a warmup for the new “Squads” mode. Every player has a team of 10 AI characters that they can outfit how they like. Someone who really wants to take their squad on a world domination tour will probably find this rewarding.
After completing the campaign, an “Extinction” mode opens up. It’s like the Zombie mode found in Treyarch’s Call of Duty games, except it has aliens in it. Players gang up (or go solo, but why would anyone do that?) to destroy alien pods and kill aliens. It’s a decent distraction, but other games have done it better. Work clearly went into making it, but it still feels like something to get feature parity with Treyarch’s releases rather than a truly inspired move.
And that’s how most of the game feels: uninspired. Just as development on Modern Warfare 3 began, Infinity Ward lost its heads in a bizarre scandal involving Activision, EA, and a billion-dollar lawsuit. Modern Warfare 3, even with Jason West and Vince Zampella’s basic framework, was a step back. The good people at Sledgehammer Games, run by the creators of the Dead Space franchise, helped in that game’s development after the chaos, but they had no part in Ghosts. Two people do not a development house make, but if Ghosts is any indication of where the studio is headed, there are going to be rough seas ahead.
Maybe the poor sales of Call of Duty: Ghosts aren’t attributable to indecision about platform purchases but point toward a larger ambivalence in the franchise. Any time I logged onto Call of Duty’s servers, there were over 200,000 people playing on the PlayStation 3, so it’s still successful. But this is the eighth year in a row that a Call of Duty game has been released, and next year will still see the arrival of another Call of Duty game—and if the cliffhanger ending of Ghosts is any indication, there will be a Ghosts 2 in 2015. It may finally be time to slow things down.