Ghosts, huh. People think of Call of Duty: Ghosts as the low point of the franchise – and that’s not entirely the game’s fault. It fell at a bit of a turning point for the series as a whole. If you’re not familiar with the production cycle for Call of Duty, these games essentially function on a three-year roster. There are three major studios making CoD games – Infinity Ward, Treyarch, and Sledgehammer – and each year one of them releases their new title. It means the public gets a new game every year, even though each studio only releases a game once every two or three years. That’s an interesting way to keep your franchise in the media cycle, to keep it prominent in the public’s mind – and it also gives us this fascinating interplay between the different Call of Duty studios. They have periods of relative strength and weakness, which we discussed previously in relation to the first Black Ops. In the late noughties, Infinity Ward held the throne with Modern Warfare. By 2013, when Ghosts is released, the landscape had shifted. The Modern Warfare series wrapped up in 2011, and Infinity Ward seemed to be passing the baton to Treyarch, who had successful instalments of Black Ops in 2010 and 2012. In that context, Ghosts wasn’t well received – partly because it’s not very good, but also because Call of Duty more broadly was shifting gears. Ghosts felt like a Modern Warfare game at a time when Modern Warfare had already given way to Black Ops. It felt like Infinity Ward overstaying their welcome, like a rehash of past glories, a look backwards while Treyarch takes the series forwards. That’s arguably less about the game’s merits in itself and more about where it falls in the transition between Infinity Ward and Treyarch as the two key frontrunners of the Call of Duty franchise.
Of course, the game is also quite bad. It’s incoherent in a manner that’s unusual for Call of Duty. It has an unclear voice. When you play Ghosts, you can tell it’s trying to do something new. It’s trying to move on from Modern Warfare, trying to usher in a new chapter for Infinity Ward as a studio. It offers some elements that are genuinely startling and new. The first four levels and the later Las Vegas level are carefully built around the afterlife of performance and entertainment. They take you through destroyed versions of Hollywood, through casinos, through a devastated theater, through a sports stadium that’s been cracked open like an egg. A theme park sits on the horizon of a military base, a roller coaster ride the backdrop to key narrative exposition. In a franchise where death is a form of entertainment, sites of entertainment are ritually destroyed, and you’re left wandering through the carcass. There’s the promise of a theme here: Ghosts is almost a game about the afterlife, about what it means to keep living after the end of the world. But it struggles to transform in full. The voice and style are still heavily informed by Modern Warfare, with awkward, unnatural interpolations from Black Ops. It can’t help being a Call of Duty game – it doesn’t quite transcend itself – and the outcome is this confused, self-destructive mess.
The organising principle of Ghosts – the alleged organising principle – comes in a story told by Marine-daddy Elias Walker in the game’s opening cutscene. A small force of US soldiers holds off a powerful invading army to protect a hospital or some shit. The soldiers are cut down to only a handful, and camouflage themselves under the corpses of their comrades. The blood of the fallen seeps into their veins, and they turn into stealthy ninja assassins, and as the enemy army passes by, they sneak around and kill everyone, saving the day and becoming the legendary Ghosts. That’s the core concept underpinning this game – you’re not a traditional military power, but a small group of sneaky soldiers sent out to do things in secret. That’s not a shockingly new idea for the franchise – we’ve seen it with the UK squad in the original Modern Warfare, as well as Shepard’s Task Force 141 in Modern Warfare 2. The game is also taking influence from Black Ops, where you’re carrying out secret missions in South America on behalf of the CIA.
In that regard, the game stays true to an established formula – which I don’t necessarily think is a bad thing. When the game adheres to that premise, I think it’s actually pretty passable. One of the best levels, for my money, is the mission ‘Clockwork’. The Ghosts need to sneak into an enemy base and steal some secrets. They dress in enemy uniforms, and set up an ambush at an enemy checkpoint to steal a vehicle, and then waltz into the enemy base, bold as brass, trusting their uniforms to keep them safe. And then, after stealing the intel, they use their uniforms to help them blend in and escape. There’s still the obligatory car chase, and the approved number of shootouts along the way, but there are also some fun little stealth moments. When they’re escaping the compound, they’re all still dressed as enemy soldiers, and so to cover their escape they act like they’re helping. There’s a wounded enemy soldier limping along, and one of the team throws an arm around him and helps him hobble to safety. It’s a little moment, but it feels well crafted. It fits with our theme. It looks like support, but it’s not. It’s an illusion – like Vegas, like the theater. It’s a performance. And the bad guys are suckers for not realising they’re on the receiving end of a performance. They should know better. They should know by now that none of it’s real.
If Ghosts was made up of levels similar to ‘Clockwork’, in terms of style and approach, I actually don’t think it would have its awful reputation. It might still be a minor game, and we might still criticise it for repetition (for instance, the ambush of the enemy vehicle is a sequence borrowed from ‘The Sins of the Father’ in Modern Warfare), but I don’t think feelings would run much deeper than finding it a little derivative. The real egg salad begins as the game tries to position its antagonists. I said before that Call of Duty relies routinely on small squads sent in against much bigger forces. That’s a standard way of creating drama and tension – amping up the opposition to increase the sense of threat and the subsequent euphoria of triumph. Usually the narrative explanation for this approach has to do with politics, or international relations. We can’t invade Hong Kong to extract Dr Clarke – that’s simply not done. We have to send in a small, surreptitious squad that won’t be noticed. Against that backdrop, Ghosts reaches for a new explanation. What if America wasn’t the pre-eminent superpower? What if it legitimately was a weaker force? Again, that in itself I think is a fairly interesting premise. The problem is that Ghosts can’t fully commit to the idea.
So let’s zoom out to the broader setting. Ghosts starts with the whole story about the hospital and hiding under the corpses, and that’s the explanation for the Ghosts as a unit – but on a geopolitical level, the story sits in an alternate future. The oil empires of the Middle East have collapsed, and for reasons that are not immediately clear to me, South America has become a one-nation superpower (‘the Federation’) and tried to invade the US. A defensive line stretches from LA to Houston, and the Americans are explicitly positioned as being on the back foot. That’s – again, a fairly interesting premise. I think the game is genuinely trying to do something new here. It’s making effort. The post-apocalyptic American wasteland thing is great – for instance, at one point you find yourself at ‘Fort Santa Monica’ (above), which is Santa Monica turned into a military base. You can look out over a bay crawling with battleships, with Pacific Park still there in the background, with the Ferris wheel and the roller coasters that I mentioned earlier – it’s great. It’s fun. There’s a strong creative vision.
The problem is that while Ghosts is happy to show America in ruins, it hesitates over empowering the game’s antagonists. The Federation don’t have strong characterisation and personality: they’re obscured behind a list of things that they stole from the Americans. In the game’s first level, Federation troops get the drop on America by stealing this orbital bombardment platform and launching rockets at LA and Houston and so on, devastating most of the cities along the southern border. The platform gets destroyed, and becomes the root of the game’s climax: the Federation reverse-engineer the American tech and launch their own platform. They steal the American platform to begin the game, and steal the design to finish it. They don’t have their own identity. There isn’t even a real Federation villain. The central antagonist throughout the game isn’t some South American general or military leader – it’s a captured Ghost that the Federation brainwashed. Ghosts wants to be a game about fighting a near-overwhelming enemy power, but it can’t bring itself to legitimize that power on its own terms. The threat of the Federation hinges on things they stole from the Americans, up to and including their main villain.
Things really just go into a tailspin after that. The brainwashed Ghost, Rourke, feels betrayed by the other Ghosts, because he was lost and (very reasonably) assumed dead during a mission a bunch of years ago. His quest for revenge becomes a personal drama that dominates the game’s emotional core, eclipsing the wider political narrative of a nation fighting for survival. The question of power becomes confused: the Federation are punching down at America, but they’re also focalised through Rourke, who feels like he’s an underdog punching up at a squad that betrayed him. Other confusions include the relative military power of the two nations: there’s no meaningful sense of the Federation’s advantage. The US troops still have comfortable access to things like drones and remote controlled sniper turrets, and have enough firepower to invade the Federation in the final levels, rolling in tanks and battleships and aircraft carriers. The game also can’t seem to decide whether Rourke is a senior figure in the Federation’s military hierarchy or whether he’s a disposable tool, unleashed against his country as a cruel (albeit minor) distraction. There’s also this whole thing where you have to sneak past some sharks – it’s just messy.
Infinity Ward would take some time to find their voice, after this game. Their next game would be a total change in direction (2016’s Infinite Warfare; Call of Duty in space), before they return to their roots in 2019 with a reboot of Modern Warfare. Ghosts is a moment between, an afterwards from a company that hasn’t found its new now. It’s hard to defend this game on its merits, but I’m also glad that we can watch Infinity Ward working through this question at such length. After it’s all over, Ghosts asks, what comes next?