Call of Duty: Ghosts Review – Xbox One

Back for my fourth and final review of Call of Duty: Ghosts, this time we are checking out the Xbox One release, possibly the most anticipated version of all the platforms, new and old, yet sadly the most lacking.  While decisively better looking than last gen versions, the Xbox One fails to compete with either the PC or the PlayStation 4 when it comes to overall presentation and the Infinity Ward’s promise of 1080p/60fps gameplay.  I’m not sure if this was due to limitations within the Xbox One hardware specs or if Activision rushed the game out to meet Microsoft’s system release, which in hindsight also seems to have been rushed.

Call of Duty: Ghosts is a new direction for the series that abandons historical war scenarios as well as the Modern Warfare canon of stories and characters. Infinity Ward is heading up this latest project that includes a gripping story mode and enough new online content (now and in the future with the Season Pass content) to keep couch commandos playing until next November.

Eight years ago, Call of Duty 2 marked the debut of a new generation of console when it released as a launch title for the Xbox 360.   Infinity Ward is once again banking on an entirely new generation of console to help celebrate their most ambitious game in the franchise to date, and with versions of the game spanning last-gen, this-gen, and PC, it’s been quite the challenge to find all the subtleties when trying to compare and rank these Call of Duty: Ghosts.

Given the fact that the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are pretty much glorified PC’s, it was no surprise that the graphics on both new consoles have a lot in common with the PC, but there are also some glaring issues specific to the Xbox One.  In order to keep their promise of 60fps gameplay, the Xbox One version of Ghosts is only rendering at 720p and then being upscaled to 1080p.  This seems to be happening in many of the Xbox One launch titles, and during the upscale process the system is applying some sort of sharpening filter to assist with the post-process anti-aliasing.  Translation – the game is already jaggy from the upscaling and the sharpening process only accentuates the effect as well as producing an overall grain to the image.  Ironically, the game looks considerably better if you change your Xbox One to output a native 720p signal, thus elimination the upscaling effect.

The new Xbox One controller will take a bit of getting used to, especially if you’re like me and have been using an Xbox 360 gamepad for both console and PC gaming for the past seven years.  I’m still not quite used to the floppy analog sticks and their weak return-to-center.   I tried putting on my new Kontrol Freek stick extenders, which has always helped with my precision aiming, but the sticks just don’t feel right.  I guess I have seven years of thumb muscle memory to overcome.

There is a companion app that you can download for your iOS device that will enhance your online games by allowing you to queue up new weapon loadouts and view level maps in a second screen mode without having to pause your game.   You also get a nice 3D model of your soldier as well as real-time stats, friends’ updates and clan notifications.  Many of the features can even be accessed when you aren’t playing the game, but just want to check in with the community.

While most people are into Call of Duty for its online multiplayer, I always head to the story first because if anybody can tell an explosive wartime drama its Infinity Ward. Their latest opus kicks off in the immediate present with a recounting of a legendary group of warriors known as the Ghosts. The opening cutscene, along with all of the other between-mission videos are presented in this stylish grayscale animation that is simply gorgeous. As the opening narration ends, we realize that the story is being told by Elias, a seasoned veteran out on a hike with his two sons, Logan and Hesh. As they start to head home tremors start to rock the hillside. What at first appears to be an ordinary California earthquake is actually an attack on our country from an orbital weapons platform.

The scene quickly changes to 15 minutes prior, and we find ourselves in one of the most visually striking levels in the game; in orbit working on the space station near the Odin weapons system. Yes, the game takes necessary liberties with inertia and such, but the effect is still jaw dropping and not unlike the movie Gravity. The station is quickly occupied by hostile Federation forces, and they program Odin to launch a series of kinetic rods at key targets decimating the United States.

With the exception of one flashback episode where you play as Elias, most of the game centers around you and your brother and your faithful and extremely talented dog, Riley taking the lead roles in the resistance movement to keep the Federation from dominating the USA ten years in the future. Riley is arguably one of the most touted new additions to Ghosts, and also one of the most talked about by fans, but not to steal any of his canine thunder or detract from his contribution to the few levels in which he appears, Riley is more of a novelty than anything else. I would compare him to a quadcopter drone; albeit one that can rip a man’s throat out. I had my fun issuing the occasional “attack” order and even playing as Riley in those few instances where I got to sync with his high-tech doggie gear, but ultimately, I felt Riley was underutilized. Why wasn’t he sniffing out bombs or fetching me better weapons from fallen enemies like in Dead to Rights. I have to admit that I was a bit nervous throwing that first grenade since the first time we see Riley he is playing fetch with a tennis ball.

As expected, the story is a massive non-stop rollercoaster ride of action set pieces and dramatic moments that will leave you physically and emotionally exhausted; especially if you try to marathon the 8-10 hour campaign in a single session. You’ll be fighting in space, under the ocean, on land, in the jungle, in the snow, and even in the air as you dangle from a skyscraper or take control of an attack chopper to provide cover for your ground forces, and then start swapping back and forth between the two. There are 18 pieces of intel called Rorke Files; glowing green laptops, and while none of these are particularly well-hidden you will need to keep your head on a swivel to find them all. These files can be accessed from the main menu after you find them. Call of Duty: Ghosts offers the usual selection of difficulty options, and as before the Recruit and Normal modes are disposably easy, while Hardened offers a decent challenge and Veteran will test your FPS mettle and reward you with an achievement if you can complete the campaign on its hardest mode.

Zombies are out and aliens are the new hotness in Ghosts. Extinction mode is an additive and challenging game designed for 4-player co-op but can be tackled alone – just don’t plan on getting too far. The game operates under the premise that aliens arrived on the planet around the same time as the Odin strike and now there are all these hives sprouting up. It’s your job to drill into these hives and destroy them, but naturally, once you start drilling these dog-like lizard creatures start attacking in waves. You need to defend (and possibly repair) the drill until the hive is destroyed and then move on to the next. It’s basically one big survival game to see how long you can last and how high a score you can post on the leaderboards. Naturally, you’ll earn cash for kills and for completing bonus objectives during the waves and you can spend that cash on better weapons, more ammo, and even portable gun turrets. Extinction puts a heavy emphasis on tactical teamwork by having players choose from various starting loadouts like Assault or Medic then supporting each other as you try to cleanse the map of the alien infestation.

Multiplayer is the meat and potatoes of Call of Duty, but Ghosts dares to change up the menu with some new entrees and side dishes. Character customization has been greatly enhanced and now allows for female players along with a host of other customization options, most of which must be unlocked. Squads is the new buzzword, and this new feature allows you to test the online waters before diving into the full online experience with friends and bots. You start by picking a character. One is open at the start and nine others can be purchased using squad points (SP). New squad members range in cost and initial appearance, and the more expensive they are the more perks, better weapons, and weapon mods come with their initial loadout. Each character levels up separately, but your earned SP can be used to enhance any character in your roster by purchasing new perks, weapons, and attachments. Squad Points are a bit slow to come by, so I can see it taking hundreds of hours to earn enough to unlock everything Ghosts has to offer, but you should be able to fully deck out a single character in 30-40 hours of play. While you can only have one “active” squad member for online play at any given time, you can assign non-active squad members to be used in bot matches against another human player and their squad-bots.

Ghosts returns the online experience to something a bit more reserved and “normal” with tweaked kill streaks like Sat Coms instead of UAVs. If you work as a team and setup multiple Sat Coms in multiple locations, they provide better results and are harder for the enemy to wipe out. Oracles provide temporary awareness of enemy locations in the first-person view and not just the map, and you can even earn your very own attack dog, which will alert you to the enemy, attack the enemy, and even avenge your death.

Online modes like Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Kill Confirmed are back but some modes are missing, and some have been mixed up a bit for this latest installment. Search and Destroy is now Search and Rescue, which I find encourages a lot more teamwork. Yes, you still only have one life, but if your team picks up your dog tag before the enemy does you can spawn back into the game. Infected is basically a last man standing game that pits a team of survivors with shotguns against a slowly growing number of zombies as each human dies. Hunted is a variation of TDM where everybody starts with pistols and fights as weapon crates are dropped into the area with better guns. Grind expands upon the Kill Confirmed mode by actually making you deposit your dog tags at designated locations to lock in the score. Blitz is a variation of CTF that merely requires you to reach the enemy base to score. There is no flag to retrieve or carry back, so it’s not very challenging or fun. And then you have Cranked; a crazy variation of TDM where each time you kill someone you get a 30-second speed boost, but if you fail to kill somebody else within those 30 seconds you explode.

Even weeks after launch there are still a few multiplayer issues; mostly in the areas of poor spawning and camping; the latter being more a fault of the lame attitude of gamers than the designers, but I guess we rely on Infinity Ward to police the campers. Team Deathmatch is the worst. A minute after the game starts everyone seems to have found their “spot” and woe to anyone who dares walk around. It’s very discouraging to newcomers who are just trying to learn the maps, which is why I recommend Squad play. The levels are massive this time around, which is both a blessing and a curse. 95% of the time you will never see the person who killed you because of all the various paths and flanking positions in these complex maps with multi-level buildings and vertical terrain that offer unprecedented cover. Ironically, for as many people complaining about the multiplayer issues in the various forums, there are a hundred times more just playing and enjoying the game as is, knowing full well it always takes weeks, perhaps months, to fine tune the online experience.

As always, the PCM surround audio presentation is outstanding and envelops you in the war. You play as Logan, the typical mute protagonist, but your brother Hesh is voiced by Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) and he has plenty to say. Some of the voice acting is better than others and the script relies on a lot of clichéd and overly dramatic moments and set pieces, but it all works and is what it is. Gun effects are exaggerated and nowhere near as realistic as those in the Battlefield games, but nothing about Ghosts is really striving for realism. The soundtrack is also exceptional, complementing the action when necessary but sticking mostly to the story points. The final credit song from Eminem was horrible and out of place with the rest of the game.

Call of Duty: Ghosts is sure to polarize a new generation of gamers as it goes up against not only its own controversial history, but tackles EA’s Battlefield 4 in the launch of not one but two new consoles. Ghosts is not without its faults but trying something new isn’t one of them. Gamers continuously cry for something new then complain when they get it. Infinity Ward has delivered a compelling single-player campaign that I couldn’t put down (and this was my third time playing), a delightfully addictive Extinction mode that I continue to enjoy on each new system, and some of the best eSports-quality run and gun military combat you can play online that will only get better over time.

If you already enlisted in a last gen copy of Call of Duty: Ghosts then it’s time to report to the PX for that $10 upgrade, but if you are coming into this game fresh then you may want to consider options like the PC or even PS4, as those two systems clearly outperform the Xbox One.   The upscaling just creates this unsightly “haze” over the entire experience, and the lower resolution will actually affect the draw distance and your ability to spot and reliably target enemies in both single and multiplayer modes.

No Call of Duty fan should miss out on Ghosts, but the Xbox One isn’t necessarily the best system to be playing it on.  I dare say, you’ll have a smoother and more enjoyable experience with a much larger online community sticking with the Xbox 360. What little polish the Xbox One offers in textures and details are swallowed up by the side-effects of trying to match the performance of a seven-year old console.  Too much, too soon, or simply rushed to retail; we may never know, but when you factor in the visually disappointing release of Call of Duty: Ghosts and the all but completely broken release of Battlefield 4 (so broken we aren’t even reviewing it) for the Xbox One, the console wars are off to a shaky start and clearly, FPS games won’t be the deciding factor in this launch battle.

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Author: Mark Smith
I've been an avid gamer since I stumbled upon ZORK running in my local Radio Shack in 1980. Ten years later I was working for Sierra Online. Since then I've owned nearly every game system and most of the games to go with them. Not sure if 40+ years of gaming qualifies me to write reviews, but I do it anyway.

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