It's another fall season, which means another Call of Duty. For those unfamiliar, the franchise switches its primary developer from Infinity Ward and Treyarch to put out a new game each year, and this year we're back in Infinity Ward's hands. Both of the talented teams have their merits, Treyarch tends to take more risks, some of which really pan out like Nazi Zombies, while Infinity Ward has an undeniable passion for crafting its marquee series. We've seen plenty of other titles trying to mimic and ape the feeling of Call of Duty, but no one handles the tightly crafted spectacle better.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is set in the not too distant future, and it actually divorces itself from the existing Modern Warfare storyline, with perhaps the only conceit to familiarity in the story being the Ghosts adopting a similar style to the fan-favorite character from the series. It's a necessary fresh start, but unfortunately everyone gets upstaged by Riley, the dog, who ends up being the most interesting addition.
To its credit, at least the enemy isn't the dastardly Russians again. Ghosts is a little disjointed in some of its set-up, but through the various cut scenes and flashback missions you'll get the big picture together - I understand wanting to get into the action but the setup could have been handled a little more smoothly. The Middle East is decimated, leaving many of the world's superpowers starved for the oil they need to operate. During this rapid geopolitical shift, radical military elements consolidate South America as "The Federation". Then several years later the Federation stages a raid that puts them into control of the US's Orbital Defense Intuitive, or ODIN, space based weapon satellite, and they use it to hammer the southern portion of the US in order to soften it up for invasion.
The whole basic premise has a few key grains of important believability to it: several South American countries' primary export is already oil, so it's not outside of the realm of possibility they could emerge as a new superpower. And kinetic space-based weapons have already been theorized, something big enough dropped from space imparts a massive amount of force even without a nuclear warhead. The only problem the story has is that it can't quite seem to decide on a tone. The game starts out in the almost post-apocalyptic devastation of southern California, and framing the entire story as the scrappy holdovers of the American military complex could have been an interesting angle, but by the end, despite being told that we're putting everything on the line, it hardly feels like you're keeping everything together with spit and duct tape when you're taking part in a massive fleet battle.
The characters themselves are mostly throw-away military badasses, hence why Riley the dog steals the show. Ghosts tries to set up some interesting characters interactions by having three of the primary characters be a father and his sons, but the bond just doesn't quite follow very well. It's almost laughable that one of the brothers seems to care more about the dog than his own brother. Granted, Riley is pretty badass himself, the sections where you control him and maul through soldiers is quite satisfying, not to mention when he takes down a helicopter. Yes, that actually happens.
The gameplay follows much of the same style for Call of Duty campaigns. You follow team mates to objectives, watch a set piece unfold and then rinse and repeat. It sometimes hard to tell how much in control of the action you are until the game sometimes comes to a grinding halt. What happens is that nothing advances until that last enemy soldier is killed, which can seem doubly damning when the soldier in question is just cowering behind cover not doing anything with you 2 feet away. The one avenue that Infinity Ward continues to excel at is constantly shifting your perspective of the action. These brief moments of controlling a drone strike or a remote control sniper rifle give just enough variety to break up the normal gameplay without dragging you through the morass of "here's the vehicle level" - though Ghosts has those too.
As a pure 5 to 6 hour thrill ride, you're probably not going to be disappointed. Cities are flooded, buildings collapse, oil rigs explode and the whole time you're trapped in the middle of that chaos. There are even a few extended shifts in the gameplay that are well developed. One section is sort of the bog-standard stealth mission, but it takes place underwater - complete with enemy divers and sharks. Little details like shooting out ballast balloons to sink a piece of cover shows that just a little bit of extra effort was put into them.