When the new generation of consoles released, they, of course, needed a new Call of Duty to launch alongside them. Back in 2013, Call of Duty was coming off a real banger with Black Ops II and it was once again Infinity Ward’s turn to push the series forward. Having just completed their Modern Warfare trilogy they chose to play close to the chest with a new CoD universe set in a near future scenario where South America unites under a single banner, the Federation, and push north to take over the western hemisphere. On a basic level, it followed a similar formula to the Modern Warfare series by putting the US primarily on the defensive while executing some precision strikes to counter.
In terms of storytelling, it was a little flat. The subplot of a proud father raising his two boys into elite soldiers (the titular Ghosts) often misses the mark thanks to some poor dialogue and never really delivers. At the time, many critics and fans agreed that the story itself was a disappointment, calling the game’s campaign a sort of “greatest hits” of the series. However, being a “greatest hits” sells this campaign short in many regards. Rather, I’d say that Call of Duty: Ghosts features the series’ most exciting single player content to date with stunning set-piece moments and a few surprises along the way.
Things get off to a great start when Federation forces manage to sneak aboard the US orbital defense platform ODIN, planning to use it to cripple the country by attacking its most densely populated cities. Floating around in zero gravity firefights feels great and adds a punch to the weapons that feels missing in the boots on the ground gameplay. We get our series staple character sacrifice early as you manage to scuttle the control center and knock the platform out of stable orbit. You and your commanding officer begin to plummet down to Earth, burning up upon entering the atmosphere. In the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t have any sort of emotional impact, but damn does it look cool.
From here we get a few missions that play it safe and stick to the familiar format: run, gun, blow up a helicopter, repeat. Ghosts finally spices things up with Riley, the military trained German Shepherd who you can control at certain points to quietly recon locations and eliminate hostiles. Riley is a good boy who knows how to go for the jugular but still be adorable. If there is any character you’re going to care about in this game, Riley is it. Riley is also an introduction to the more remote-controlled nature of your fire support. Throughout the game, you’ll be tasked with taking control of A-10 drones, remote snipers, torpedoes, and more. At first, it might seem a little disengaging being in an intense firefight only to be forced to look at a tablet, but these sequences are diverse enough to feel special each time you do them. Executing a strafing run with A-10 drones is immensely satisfying as you see hostile markers disappear almost as quickly as you can target them and finally see the aircraft pass overhead when you put down the display.
Even when the game is playing it safe with its overall design, it is putting something awesome and powerful in your hands, making an otherwise familiar scenario feel special. Infinity Ward also succeeds in establishing a villain that is appropriately strong without feeling forced. While I know many hold the Modern Warfare 2 campaign in high regard, I always thought General Shepherd was a good plot twist but an awful villain. Rourke, on the other hand, is a threat because he knows how Ghosts operate and has been broken beyond repair by the Federation. In the years before the ODIN incident, a team of Ghosts, including your character’s father, Elias, was sent to Caracas to eliminate the Federation’s leader, Diego Almagro. The mission goes south quickly as the Federation destroys a nearby dam, wiping out much of the Federation and other US forces engaged in the area. The Ghosts eventually catch up to Almagro aboard his helicopter and eliminate the target, but not before the pilot is shot and the chopper crashes.
Elias, briefly knocked out from the crash, comes to just as the wreckage shifts. Rourke falls and Elias catches him, but the other Ghosts know that the wreckage won’t hold under all this stress. Rourke, unable to climb up, looks at you, a panicked look on his face as he hears the others saying you have to let him go. As the wreckage once again shifts, you have no choice, you let him go. Not only did Rourke survive, he was found by the Federation and subjected to ancient tortures designed to break the body, mind, and soul. He was rebuilt on his focus for revenge against the people who left him behind, the same people who were the greatest threat to the stability of the Federation. No, he isn’t exactly sympathetic, nor is he outright menacing, but he certainly plays the part of someone who knows exactly what he is doing and isn’t afraid to flaunt it. This is made most apparent when he allows himself to be captured before turning the situation on the Ghosts ala Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” by ripping their plan apart in a midair rescue from the Federation.
Knowing who they are dealing with, the Ghosts begin a series of operations that will strike at the heart of the Federation. From infiltrating a known research facility in the heart of Federation territory to uncover their new secret weapon to uncovering and bombing said weapon, the campaign’s second half comes at a blistering pace. The moment to moment action isn’t the only star of these events either. Ghosts does an excellent job of diversifying how you fight, often swapping from ground to air units and back again in the same mission, allowing you to be your own support fire, much as you do with the drones. These vehicle segments are much more engaging than the drones by virtue of their direct control. Rather than simply pulling the trigger and some light aiming, you become the helicopter pilot in one mission. Navigating around anti-air emplacements and other hostile aircraft is a much different experience from the whack-a-mole style shooting that normally permeates a Call of Duty campaign. The frequency in which these segments are used is maybe a tad on the low side given how enjoyable they can be, and I would have liked to have a few more opportunities to take control of some heavy armor to do some damage.
After destroying a cutting edge warship, dodging sharks, and then assaulting and sinking an oil platform in the Arctic, you’d think the game was about to climax, and you’re right, but not before one final attempt at selling you on the “human” element of the story. Rourke ambushes your team at a known meeting location and eventually kills your father. Of course, he leaves you and your brother alive because reasons and you escape. Of note, Ghosts does the thing I was fearing it would do, they shot Riley. You had to assume at some point they would use the dog as a motivator, and they did. Luckily, Riley was okay but we would have to carry him out. I held that dog tight as we fought our way through dozens of Federation forces and got my best boy to safety. Infinity Ward knew better than to kill my dog, more than likely because they knew we were expecting them to, but I would like to believe they just couldn’t bring themselves to do it.
Now we have reached the endgame, and the two brothers are a part of the final assault against the Federation. The US is going all in, risking their last carrier in an operation to attacking the Feds head on. It turns out that the Federation successfully deployed their secret weapon, a reverse-engineered ODIN platform, and successfully stopped the US assault in its tracks by sinking the carrier. Not ready to give up, the US plans a multi-pronged attack involving heavy armor busting their ground support stations and sending in the Ghost team to launch a ground-based missile at the location. Simultaneously, a team in orbit would fight for control of the orbital weapon.
This is by far my favorite mission in the game. You take command of one of the tanks assaulting the early warning network and wreak havoc on the facility. Between combating enemy armor and shooting down hostile attack choppers, you’re speeding around the facility taking out key targets to make an opening for the Ghosts missile strike. The tanks are fast and furious and an absolute blast to play with. Upon completing the initial objective we take control of the Ghosts as they assault the facility. After gunning down the nearby hostiles we fire the missile before learning the Rourke is somewhere nearby and chase the lead.
In the meantime, we return to the tank unit to take out the last line of defense against the missile. After destroying the anti-air and anti-missile capabilities of the base, our tank is wrecked and the clock is ticking. With the missile inbound, we make our way to another functioning tank and get the hell out of dodge just in time for the missile to wipe out the early warning network, giving our boys in orbit a fighting chance. The return to space combat is a welcome one with enemies not just around every corner, but above and below too. While it is easy to lose track of hostiles in the area the combat environment itself is a refreshing change of pace. With the station under our control, we turn the Federations weapons against them, just as they did to us, wiping out all of their ground forces in short order with devastating orbital strikes. Eat your heart out AC-130.
One final train ride is all that remains. The brothers have tracked down Rourke and are ready to deal the final blow to his plans, so much so that they order an orbital strike on their location to ensure the job gets done. Now, in most Call of Duty games, you expect this to be the end. Every Call of Duty introduces a bad guy and ends them with some slow-motion death sequence. In this case, we have an empty revolver and our brother tossing us rounds before taking the final shot. The thing is, Ghosts, for as much as it has followed the CoD formula on a basic level, has been attempting to defy it at every turn with new and engaging mechanics and amazing set piece sequences. The ending of this game is no different, and I am about to dive into it, so last warning if you don’t want to be spoiled.
Our Ghosts manage to get out of the eventual train wreckage and watch as the final blows are dealt to the nearby facilities. The feeling of finality permeates the scene as it fades to the logo and credits. It is the classic CoD ending. But the credits appear to be brief and we are returned to our heroes, watching as things unfold. Soon you, as the player, realize you can control the camera. Look slightly to your right and BOOM, ROURKE JUST KICKED YOU IN THE FACE. Not only is he still alive, (and kicking as it were) but he has caught you at your weakest. Your brother is wounded and unable to move and has already reported Rourke as being dead. No one is around to help, no one is around to save you. Rourke promises that this isn’t the end and that he’ll end the Ghosts, and that you are going to help him. He begins to drag you away as your brother desperately screams, hoping his words can do what his body cannot.
The first time I saw this my jaw was on the floor. “Did that just happen?” I never expected something like that to end a Call of Duty game, it defied all my expectations of how I expected the game to end. But wait, there’s more. After the actual credits, we get one more scene in the jungle. As the scene comes into view you notice you are trapped and time begins to rapidly pass as rain begins to pour into your prison. Rourke is clearly doing to you what the Federation did to him, he is trying to break you. This was the perfect setup for a game that never came.
Ghosts is currently the second lowest rated CoD of the generation, just ahead of Infinity Ward’s second effort of the generation, Infinite Warfare, at a respectable 78 on Metacritic, but the user reviews rest at an average of 3.8. The general unpopularity of Ghosts among long-time fans led to Infinity Ward going in another drastic direction, leaving behind a dangling storyline just begging to be explored. Despite it being nearly six years since Ghosts’ release, I think the time is right to return to and complete this story. With Infinity Ward up at bat with a lot to prove after producing back to back “duds” in the eyes of fans, and with the promise that this entry will feature a proper campaign, finishing what they started seems like the right move.
Ghosts’ story stands out much more in a world where Call of Duty just keeps trying to find itself in its past and is choosing to iterate rather than innovate. A Ghosts story continuation would allow IW do continue to deliver stunning setpieces while adding another chapter to an underrated entry in the series, so long as they can deliver on the all-important multiplayer. In a world where fans appear to be moving on from CoD, the fact that this campaign still stands out in 2019 means a lot. It will be interesting to see how the series evolves in the coming years, but I do hope it does so by completing its most interesting story arc since Modern Warfare.