In Call of Duty: Ghosts, Game Plays You!

A recent post over at Kotaku¬†addressed why it matters that the PS4 is, so far at least, consistently pushing out higher resolutions than the Xbone. Fear not, this post isn’t some fanboy rant about which system is better – because I do not really care. Ultimately, both systems will have stellar exclusive games and will be worth owning for that reason alone.

Kotaku references a comparison of both systems done over at Eurogamer, where Call of Duty: Ghosts was compared across PS4, XBONE, and PC. The comparison reveals just what you would expect: PCs still deliver the best graphics. But while reading the Eurogamer article I kept thinking of one thing: Even at its graphical best on PC, Ghosts isn’t exactly a game with good graphics, and more importantly, it isn’t really even a good game. No resolution is going to make the gameplay less derivative. Running Ghosts at max settings isn’t so much like polishing a turd as it is like upgrading your home theatre set up to a wall sized 4K TV and deciding to only watch TMZ and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo.

But what happened to Call of Duty? Before I really jump into my opinion on the matter (valued at $.02!), I do want to establish up front that the original Call of Duty was, and is one of the most intense and fun FPS experiences I have ever had, and the Chernobyl sniper mission in Modern Warfare is one of the most stressful and memorable gaming levels I have ever played. I dig the Call of Duty franchise, or at least I dig it when it has a sense of its identity – to me, the series has always been about those cornball super action movie moments. The gameplay isn’t realistic, the characters aren’t really sympathetic, and in the place of real drama, we get explosions. But the gameplay was always fun. Holy shit was it fun.

Think back to the first time you played the original Call of Duty. The simple addition of iron sights revolutionized the level of immersion felt by the player, and the sheer number of enemies in each gunfight created an unprecedented level of intensity. Playing Medal of Honor after Call of Duty came around felt like eating canned chicken noodle soup after being introduced to the best pho joint in town – bland, unexciting, and unsatisfying. Some of this is hard to blame on Medal of Honor’s developers, since all the people who once made it great left the franchise to form Infinity Ward and make Call of Duty.

Now, the series was never perfect, but it did originally strive to keep things fresh. When WWII became to video game settings what teen love stories with supernatural themes are to basically everything in the US now, it was the boys (and girls, I assume) over at Infinity Ward who shifted the default FPS setting to the post-9/11 world – a setting which would eventually become just as stale as WWII, with generic “shoot that foreigner!” games clogging the market. But before the series lost its essence and basically became a caricature of the lamest aspects of itself, gamers would have some great moments in Call of Duty.

In Modern Warfare II, the game cuts from a surprise launch of a missile from a submarine, to the viewpoint of an astronaut in space. As this poor bastard we watched the nuke crest the horizon, detonate in low orbit, and kill us right as the screen went black, and we were like, “ho-lee- fuck!” It was epic. Forcing a submarine to surface outside Manhattan in the midst of WWIII in Modern Warfare 3 was equally awesome. These moments felt like being inside a ridiculous, over-the-top blockbuster movie. Were they sophisticated? Did they imply deeper meaning or make some sort of commentary on larger culture? No. They were pure masturbation, and felt great.

But as the Modern Warfare franchise established its story arc in the 2000s, gamers were also introduced to a new CoD series that would take them to through the Cold War: Black Ops. Black Ops was developed by a studio other than Infinity Ward, and I think that we can use Black Ops to diagnose everything wrong with the series now, because everything I hated about Ghosts, I hated about Black Ops too.

I won’t complain about Black Ops’ story, because I don’t remember it at all. This isn’t really a dig at Black Ops though, since I don’t recall the story of different first person shooters that I liked either (see: Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare trilogy, Halo 2/3). Black Ops just felt like an imitation, like someone trying to recreate Call of Duty by checking off a few boxes. The problem was that it totally checked all the wrong boxes because it completely missed what made the series so great. It’s like if someone heard Natalie Portman was a babe (SHE IS) and decided to imitate her look, but the look they chose was Princess Amidala. Ultimately though, the biggest problem with Black Ops is that it’s just a shitty, boring game.

The most on point review of Black Ops I’ve ever read described the game as “barely interactive,” and holy hell do I agree. Two hours into the game I had lost count of the useless quick time events that happened for no reason other than breaking up some dialogue, or to create a set piece that would have been more exciting if the player was actually allowed to play through it. Funny how games you interact with tend to be more fun than games you “play” by occasionally tapping a button.

There is a part in Black Ops where the player is climbing up a ladder and is prompted to hit a button to take out a guard above them. It was sort of neat, and you think, “this will be handy later.” Except it isn’t, because that takedown only appears in the game once and the skill serves no purpose besides jamming some violence into the gameplay at that moment, and that exact moment only. The game is littered with similar moments where an action that would have been a useful and fun gameplay mechanic is useful only in the same way a single corner-piece of a puzzle is. The player is basically a camera rig with a gun. The game doesn’t need you, not really.

I felt similar playing Ghosts. One scene has the player breaching a room in a powerless building, and attached to the player’s gun is a strobe which disorients enemies and creates a really hectic atmosphere in the room. You finish the takedown and think, “I will use that on the next batch of generic enemies because the power is still out in the entire building. Also, I will probably aim for their junk.” Nope. You can’t. The strobe exists for no reason except that specific room. More cool but ultimately useless gadgets include: remote sniper rifles, auto-turrets, a dog. But rather than allow the player to use these items in a creative and open way, the developers restricted their use to only specific moments.

I fully support the trend toward games being more cinematic, but the execution has to make sense. I doubt anyone has ever been watching the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when it appears Indy went over the cliff and died,¬†and felt they would be more engaged in the experience if, when Indy crawls up behind everyone, they were suddenly prompted to hit a series of buttons on the remote correctly or the scene would start over. If the movie went on like this, your focus would be on watching for button prompts instead of the narrative. And this highlights the problem with using quick time events to try and make gameplay or in-game cinematics more exciting: the gameplay and cinematics should be engaging on their own. When developers find themselves bored during gameplay or cinematics, the solution isn’t to add in some loud bits requiring the player to smash some buttons, it’s to fix why your game isn’t engaging or fun in the first place.

The difference between scripted moments that stick in gamers’ minds for being memorable, and those that stick out as gimmicks that inadvertently highlight a game’s bad design is narrow, but Call of Duty: Ghosts, like Black Ops before it, gets it wrong.