Tuesday, November 4, 2014

My incomplete review of Call of Duty: Ghosts

For various reasons related to timing, I didn’t finish this review of Call of Duty: Ghosts and we never published it. But I was re-reading it while working on my review of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and I realize what a shame it was that it never went live. So here’s what I wrote.

If you’re developing a first person military shooter with the US as the protagonist, you’ve got a problem: there’s no good enemy to fight against.

The US is the world’s only current superpower. There’s no rival force that’s comparable in terms of firepower and threat. Terrorism is real, but terrorists do not pose an existential threat to the United States in the way that the Soviet Union once did.

Using America’s real-world (notionally) anti-terrorist actions in Iraq and Afghanistan as the backdrop for a game can be done, but is problematic: these invasions and occupations aren’t universally popular, and in any case, so what if you lose? It’s not as if defeat is going to result in Saddam Hussein nuking the US with his Scud missiles. There’s so little at stake.

Which is not to say it can’t be done. The 2010 Medal of Honor reboot was set in Afghanistan, and loosely based on a real battle. Rather than travelling to exciting and exotic locations around the world, the action was all in one country, and all unfolded over a couple of days. It was low-key, with the game making no pretence that the safety of the free world hinged on our actions. It was also personal in scale—the only lives at risk were those of the characters we played—while creating a great sense that we were just a small part of a larger conflict.

We weren’t shooting rockets out of the sky, and there were no terrorists buying black market Russian nukes. It was very grounded. I think that 2010’s Medal of Honor worked well (and its sequel Warfighter was atrocious, in no small part because it completely eschewed this style), but I don’t think that kind of story-telling is a good fit for the Call of Duty series. The modern era Call of Duty games have always favored action movie spectacle and bombast.

With the nuclear terrorist storyline of the Modern Warfare trio wrapped up and thoroughly played out, Infinity Ward needed to create a new scenario to justify sending American warriors to exotic locations to kill innumerable bad guys.

The approach this time has been to make the US the underdog. Doing this in a credible way remains beyond the wit of action writers. The good news here is that Infinity Ward didn’t go for the currently fashionable “North Korea attacks” strategy, because of its blatant absurdity.

Instead, the writers decided to blow up the Middle East with nuclear weapons, sending oil prices sky high. This greatly enriches the oil-rich nations of South America, and they form a group known as “the Federation.” The Federation then goes on to invade Central America for whatever reason.

In spite of this obvious belligerence, the US and Federation work together on an orbiting kinetic bombardment superweapon, ODIN. It works by shooting large heavy rods at the ground, at high speed, with their kinetic energy being the destructive element. The US is betrayed by the Federation, which uses ODIN to destroy various American cities.

This wouldn’t work, by the way: although such a weapon could be designed and used, its payload just wouldn’t be city-levelling. Rather, it would be a precision-guided bunker buster. It’s hard to see just how big ODIN’s rods are, but presuming them to be cylinders of around 20 meters long, with a 0.5 meter diameter, and made of tungsten, they’d have a mass in the ballpark of 80 tons. Even if travelling at 20 kilometers a second—which is implausibly fast—the kinetic energy would be equivalent to less than 4 kilotons of TNT. For comparison, the yield of “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima was about 16 kT TNT, and “Fat Man,” dropped on Nagasaki, had a yield of about 20 kT TNT. As destructive as these weapons were, they weren’t sufficient to destroy entire cities.

Such physical limitations serve to demonstrate the practical difficulties with ending the US’s dominant position on the world stage.

The player action starts off in that ODIN attack, witnessed first on the ground, and then in space. On the ground, we meet our protagonist, Logan Walker. In many Call of Duty games, play jumps from character to character. In this one, we almost exclusively play as Logan, save for a flashback, when we play as his father, Elias, and a couple of short space-based missions where we play as random astronauts.

Elias takes a commanding role in the now crippled US’s fight back against the Federation. It turns out that Elias was once a member of a near-mythical special forces group calling themselves the Ghosts, so he’s all scary and battle-hardened, and has seen all kinds of action. While out on a mission we soon learn that an American is working with the Federation, and, wouldn’t you know it, he’s a former Ghost too, by the name of Rorke.

As if that weren’t remarkable enough, he’s a former Ghost who just happens to have a major grievance with Elias. In the apparently obligatory flashback mission, we discover that Elias was forced to let go of Rorke’s hand, saving himself, but leaving Rorke behind. He was subsequently captured by Federation forces, tortured extensively using organic, FairTrade-sourced torture techniques, and turned traitor.

What are the chances? I mean, really. Various parts of the subsequent action are specifically motivated by Rorke’s animosity toward Elias and, transitively, his offspring. Even with the US suffering from heavy losses due to the ODIN attacks and subsequent warring with the Federation, it seems quite extraordinary that the guy who just happened to be the reason for much of Rorke’s rage should be the one commanding the team that goes after him. Sending in his sons, no less.

Based on this unlikely premise, the story plays out across the usual exotic locations that we’ve become used to in Call of Duty titles. Plus, there’s one new location: space.

Some may remember the James Bond film Moonraker, part of which takes part in space. James Bond wasn’t very good when it went into space. Call of Duty doesn’t fare much better. There are two short space missions. The first one, during which we disrupt the ODIN attack and prevent the US from being completely destroyed, is actually quite enjoyable. The mere fact of being in space, with debris and corpses floating around, the Blue Marble serene in the background, indifferent to the chaos we’re experiencing: it’s spectacular.

Second time around? It’s just annoying. The second space mission highlights that Infinity Ward hasn’t actually done a very good job of implementing space combat. First time around, this isn’t immediately apparent. Although we’re in space, much of the action takes place within the tubular confines of a space station, so the combat is straightforward—we know where we are, we know where the enemy is, and we know where we’re supposed to go—allowing us to enjoy the set-up without being frustrated by the gameplay.

The second time around, we’re less constrained, and have to fight more in space, rather than in a space station. At this point, we realize that moving around in space is deeply annoying, because you drift everywhere, it’s hard to tell where you’re being attacked from, and thanks to the lack of clear landmarks, it’s hard to tell where we’re meant to be going. I like that Call of Duty can take me to exotic or exciting locations, but in the second space mission, I wasn’t marvelling at miracle of being in space. I was frustrated at it not being clear who was killing me, or where I was meant to be going.

This wasn’t the only part of Ghosts that made me feel that way, either. There was an extensive swimming level. I hate swimming levels, in general, because the movement is sluggish and imprecise. The one in Call of Duty: Ghosts is no exception. It was longer than most swimming levels, and it felt laborious. In it, we learn that sharks can only detect prey if they’re directly in front of them and no more than a few feet away. As with the second of the space missions, it also suffered from making it hard to tell who’s shooting at me and from where.

I appreciate that in both space and underwater, the game designers can explore options that aren’t available on dry land. The mission design becomes considerably more three dimensional, because people can attack from literally any angle. I understand that in an objective sense, this makes the game more varied, and creates fighting dynamics that don’t normally exist.

But Call of Duty is a cover-based shooter. It’s designed so that you can duck behind cover and be moderately safe when doing so, regenerate your health, and then pop out to kill more bad guys. That’s fundamentally undermined in the underwater and space missions, where you can’t dart behind cover, and where cover doesn’t necessarily cover you.

Neither of these things are bad as such, and cover-based shooters aren’t the only valid design choice—I’m sure that many people would even argue that they’re one of the worst design choices—but if cover-based shooter is the decision you’ve made for your game, arbitrarily discarding those rules actually sucks. It means that the player has to throw away their knowledge and experience and play something that’s a different kind of game, but that still superficially looks like the kind of game they’re expecting.

The story ends on a dissatisfying note that serves to render the player’s actions in the game entirely irrelevant and sets us up for a sequel. As if either the setup or the sequel were actually necessary.

There’s also the usual post-credits sequence. The post-credits sequence is oh so tired. I hate to break it to you, game developers, but when those credits are rolling I’m actively doing something else. Call of Duty: Ghosts won’t even let you alt-tab out of the credits—it pauses them if you do—but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to sit there and read them. I’m just going to play on my phone instead. So please, let’s just cut the crap. Put the entirety of the game before the credits, or at least let me skip the credits and go to the post-credits sequence instantly.

Ghosts is far and away the best looking Call of Duty title I’ve played. But that qualification is important. It uses an updated and modified version of the same engine that previous titles have used, and while it looks OK, there’s definitely a gap in visual quality when compared to Battlefield 4. Ghosts has crisp textures and decent models, and a richer variety in settings than Battlefield 4, but Battlefield 4 gives me a much greater sense of being immersed in a real, malleable, environment.

But that’s about the best that can be said for the game. After the impressive high of the opening space level, the rest of the game falls terribly flat.

Shooting people in Ghosts doesn’t feel especially satisfying. I don’t know if it’s because of the way the levels are designed—almost all the engagements felt short range and cramped—or the fact that even though there are, technically, lots of different kinds of gun that you can pick up and use, they all feel basically the same, or the fact that I never felt short of ammo or punished for spraying bullets everywhere.

Normally in this kind of game, I pounce on any dropped sniper rifles because I know that the ability they give me to engage at long range affords me a tactical advantage. But I didn’t in Ghosts because almost every time I was shooting bad guys, they were no more than a few metres away from me. All these different kinds of guns, with all their various attachments and add-ons, and the differences are all basically irrelevant. Just pick up whatever gun is dropped nearby and use it. They’re all the same.

This is taken to absurd levels, too. There are a few missions where you have silenced weapons, because you’re trying to be all stealthy. You’d think that this would limit your ability to use enemy weapons: after all, they’re just guards out on patrol, so they have no need for silenced weapons. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. They drop silenced weapons too.

Then there’s the thing with the dog. I actually tried to blank this out of my memory. It was awful at the time, and I managed to forget about it until someone reminded me about it, and then I remembered how bad it was.

You drive a dog around. You have one button to make him bark. Bow wow. You have another button to make him jump on people and rip out their throats.

You’re driving a goddamn dog, and apparently nobody at Infinity Ward stopped for even a nanosecond to realize how monumentally stupid this was and put an end to it.

The dog part of Call of Duty: Ghosts at once manages to be both too much, and not enough.

Even if we were to suppose that somehow the ability to essentially mind control animals were a thing in this universe, the dog driving level falls short. Because if that’s a thing, I want to do more than drive a dog around. I want to drive a tiger around. I want to leap out from the undergrowth, say ROAR in a loud tiger voice, and then eat people’s faces. I want to drive one of those annoying sharks around on the underwater level and use him to dismember the enemy troops.

With flat combat, a story that’s ultimately pointless, and idiocy like driving around a dog, the Call of Duty: Ghosts single player mode is a great disappointment. I had really hoped that Ghosts might include some of the innovations found in the Treyarch-developed sibling title, Call of Duty: Black Ops II. That game included seamlessly integrated decisions and multiple outcomes, without always depending on quick time events to force the player to consciously pick one course of action or another. It took Call of Duty single player in a new, altogether more interesting direction. A direction apparently ignored by Infinity Ward.

But as it is, the campaign just isn’t special. We see the same old settings and an astonishing disregard for logic. Not for the first time, for example, we find ourselves on an oil rig. This time we discover that apparently oil rigs have a big red button that, when pressed, makes the entire thing blow up, for god knows what reason. The plot needs an easy way to quickly destroy the oil rig, so they gave us a button to do it. Lazy isn’t the half of it.