By John Walker on November 5th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
Call Of Duty: Ghosts is available now. We weren’t given any review code before release, so I’ve just started playing its single-player campaign this afternoon. About two to three hours in, I’m ready to provide you with some impressions. Will this be the CoD to win us back over? To realise the potential of such a massive budget, and remember what made the original Call Of Duty 1 and 2 such incredibly special games? Will I grow a rollercoaster out of my face and gargle fireplaces? Find out below.
I really do enjoy first-person shooters. And as such, I go into every new game with a genuine hope it’ll be something special. There’s no reason, with the wealth of talent at Activision’s various teams working on Call Of Duty: Ghosts, why it shouldn’t be a stunning shooter that I want to champion from the hills. I allow myself to believe each time that perhaps it will. If that’s the case for Ghosts, it’s not within the first three hours.
But things began promisingly. It starts off with a couple of adult brothers, sat in the woods, being told a story by their father. A story about an elite fighting force, created in the most terrible conditions, super-human creatures forged from horror – the Ghosts. The sons pah and scoff at the idea, as the three jog back to their idyllic suburban home. It’s very un-Call Of Duty, very un-macho beginnings. There’s seemingly a small earthquake. Again, in a particularly ungrunting moment, the father makes reference to a clearly late mother’s fear of such tremors, gently mocking her. What is this even.
It turns out to be an awful lot more than an earthquake. Emerging from the woods reveals a neighbourhood in chaos, vast explosions, the road cracking up beneath them. Epic scale, in an unepic environment. Not tanks and helicopters, but terrified people and domestic vehicles fleeing in terror. It has my attention.
Cuts to “15 minutes earlier”. That’s an odd length of time. It’s an even odder location: low Earth orbit. You’re now playing an astronaut on board a small space station. Improbably, astronauts in different coloured spacesuits suddenly start shooting at people. Panic ensues, you catch a weapon, and start firing back. It’s preposterous in the extreme, but gleefully so.
It turns out that a giant space laser has been taken over by a terrorist group who had posed as space-partners, and is now firing at North America. And it’s targeting a lot of other major cities. In a bold suicide mission, you and your partner set out to prevent its firing again.
That’s all, well, bonkers. But good bonkers! It’s such a boldly different beginning, and suggests a game that’s trying to do something particularly different. So my optimism doesn’t look so silly now, right?
That was the first ten minutes. Everything in the following three hours has been nothing like it, and everything like the miserably familiar ungame drear-fest that has so successfully pulled its coup over what was once the most thrilling of gaming genres.
It’s ten years later, and the two brothers have gone through the complete transition into grunting armyman blank spaces. Whoever the bad spacemen were, the South American forces are now an invading army in the USA, and you’re a defending army, so shoot at them. The ones in the slightly different coloured uniform.
I’m not far enough in to know their true origins and motives. Just that they’re the ones to fire toward, because someone said so. And it’s business as usual, as you’re forced to follow behind the AI people who actually get to play the game.
“Stay low, follow my lead,” says my brother. “Target on the right, take him out,” he instructs. If I do it, he might tell me it was a “nice kill”. Ew. If I don’t, the game either gets cryogenically frozen, ready to emerge from its stasis at such a time as I do as I’m told, or somehow we all die. “Target in the open,” my brother points out. “Target neutralised,” he continues with barely a breath, having shot him before I could look around. Oh, okay. I’ll just stand back here carrying the sandwiches.
In fact, so frequent are these barked instructions that sometimes he says two of them at the same time! “Go here.” “Shoot that.” “Stand still.” “Do nothing.” “KGiollf tohratc gouvyer.”
Joining us on our adventures, famously, is a doggie. An Alsatian called Riley, who is impervious to bullets and barks at wolves. He can be instructed, with a tap of Q, to savagely attack enemies. He leaps for their throats and brutally mauls them to death. “Nice,” says your brother. Who I’m now convinced is a very disturbed man.
At the game’s most ridiculous, you’re given direct control of Riley, able to see through a camera on his head. Quite how your extraordinary puppetry of his body is working the game chooses to throw away in a nonsense line about, I don’t know, psychic dog powers. Here you get to run around, leaping at baddies and eating their neck meats, until the game tells you it’s time to stop again. It’s utterly silly.
With each iteration of this series, and those of its rivals, the degree of player agency is reduced. While the genre has been primarily about bottom-following for years now, the contemptuous attitude taken to players seems to grow more disdainful as time goes on. Where we’ve previously been told “YOU’RE LEAVING THE GAME AREA!!!” when we’ve dared to wonder what was over there, in Ghosts you’re just plain dead if you’re audacious enough to walk off its invisible line.
Of course it’s always argued the reason the CoD games sell fourteenty-billion copies is because of the multiplayer. The reality is that a huge proportion of customers are in it for the single-player. Even the developers don’t get this: last year Treyarch’s David Vonderhaar said, “As popular as Call of Duty is, there are a lot of people who don’t play multiplayer. And quite frankly, this bugs the shit out of us.” Even they don’t understand why people are buying it for the single-player, and I find it so hard to relate to what such people want from gaming.
Dragging you around by your nose, the game wedges its fingers so far up your nostrils that it pokes at your brain, trying to stop it from ever thinking. It’s so vapid, so uninvolving, so empty. Once you’re clear of that intriguing opening, you’re faced with a sequence of shooting at pop-up baddies followed by a sequence shooting from the back of a truck. It couldn’t be less inspired or more generic. It’s like it hates you, itself, everything. Someone somewhere said, “Yeah, just put them in the back of a truck shooting, because fucking hell, they’ll buy it anyway,” before putting his plastic coffee cup down on a desk, leaning his head against a wall, and sighing.
Oh look, I’m manning a turret while scripted events happen all around me. Oh look, a scripted event has broken the turret and now I’m running in the one acceptable direction in this vast beach area. Oh look, men are shouting at me, telling me what to do, in a medium where our freedom and ability to experience the unreachable are usually so valued. One of the men shouts, “We’re surrounded from all sides!” and I simultaneously think the obvious, “what other form of surrounded is there?”, at the same time as feeling the ennui of the person who had to write that line, and the system in which it was good enough, and the man who recorded it in the studio, and the person whose job it was to make that man shout that line at that moment.
It’s a woeful experience, empty bluster and noise, shouting into the wind of meaningless explosions and pointlessly detailed locations. Tomorrow in a full review I’ll discuss the technical issues, and the depth of failure the experience truly offers. And maybe how much it improves as it goes on? Maybe?