At some point, every franchise reaches a point of decline. It may take two games or ten, five years or fifty, but eventually the public thirsts for something different, something new.
The games press is fully engaged with predicting when these downturns are about to occur, and for Call of Duty most of all. The last two games in the series have been greeted by widespread discussion of whether this will be the moment that Activision's money-printing shooter fails to work its annualised magic on the consumer, and on both occasions it has sold in the sort of quantities that could sustain most publishers for years to come. More to the point, on both occasions the a games received high-scores and near unanimous praise.
"Infinity Ward has crafted a story that reflects the Ghosts themselves: focused, efficient, and committed to the task at hand"
Whatever degree of success Call of Duty: Ghosts achieves, there is a marked difference in the enthusiasm of the reviewers. There are more 6s, fewer 9s, and an abiding sense that Activision's production line is running out of ways to tweak, refine and hone.
Gamespot is among the more enthusiastic parties, awarding an 8 in one of the few reviews to find much worth in its campaign mode. Ghosts' single-player content is the same world-travelling, whizz-bang adventure to which we are accustomed, but Gamespot commends Infinity Ward's decision to, "reign in the excesses of previous Call of Duty campaigns."
"It's a game that avoids falling in love with its own cinematic ambitions, allowing the ruthless combat and well-paced encounters to take centre stage over the plot... In many ways, Infinity Ward has crafted a story that reflects the stoic nature of the Ghosts themselves: focused, efficient, and committed to the task at hand.
"The approach pays off: Ghosts features a terrific collection of shootouts and set pieces, largely unburdened by the sensation that you're merely an extra in someone else's adventure... It all adds up to a campaign that follows the familiar rhythms of the series, but in a more varied and generous way. There's a real willingness to let you stretch your legs and soak up the spectacle, driven by the feeling that - for the most part - you're the one at the center of the action."
Eurogamer begs to differ. "The moment-to-moment thrills are still there," it notes in its 7 out of 10 review, but they have become, "muted by expectation" - an inevitable side-effect of the pressure to deliver half-a-dozen new set-pieces every single year. But Ghosts also represents a step backwards for the series as a whole, reverting to a more linear, controlled approach following Black Ops II's flirtation with branching narrative and customisable loadouts. This is compounded by a, "dimwitted, flag-waving, chest-beating story."
"Ghosts feels like an accountant's sequel, with just enough content to justify a new instalment. It just never goes beyond that"
"There are many things wrong with the scenario, not least of which is that it's yet another shooter that paints the US as a victimised underdog, caught unawares by evil Third World forces, rather than an 800lb gorilla with a nuclear payload. Unlike Black Ops 2, which at least used its drone warfare storyline to question the wisdom of such weaponry in its own comic-book fashion, Ghosts never once suggests that giant city-crushing space spears are a bad idea - at least until those dastardly Hispanic hordes get their hands on them."
However, Eurogamer concedes that, as ever, the true appeal of Call of Duty is found online, and the multiplayer has received its usual care package of new modes, maps and changes - both effective and, on the odd occasion, damaging. Indeed, the most widely praised new features are both multiplayer content: "Cranked," a new competitive mode modelled on the high-concept of the dumb-but-fun Jason Statham films, and "Extinction," a cooperative mode in the spirit of Nazi Zombies.
For Polygon, however, the changes to Ghosts' multiplayer modes feel rote, an obligation shouldered by company seeking to release a new game every single year. Some modes remain, some have changed. Systems have been tweaked for reasons both obvious and oblique, to the benefit of the experience and to its detriment. "Call of Duty: Ghosts is the best evidence in years of a franchise going through the motions," the review states in its opening line, and the 6.5 out of 10 it receives hammers the point home.
"Despite the changes to the multiplayer, Call of Duty: Ghosts too often feels like a me-too product, never breaking entirely new ground. Meanwhile, Infinity Ward has stripped out some much-loved features from Black Ops 2, including League Play, replay recording and player-created emblems. These elements were extremely popular with the Call of Duty and eSports community, and it's hard to see their removal as anything but an overall step in the wrong direction.
"Ghosts feels like an accountant's sequel, with just enough content to justify a new instalment. It just never goes beyond that."
Of course, the fact that Ghosts will be available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One at launch seemed to present Infinity Ward with a convenient shortcut to innovation - or the facade of innovation, at the very least. However, according to Edge - which, like the vast majority of outlets, attended a review event where the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions were 'made available' for comparison with the current generation - the qualitative impact of the new hardware is very difficult to detect.
"Many will be satisfied by the simple existence of a COD game on the day next-gen hardware launches, but this is a missed opportunity nonetheless"
"Where, then, is all that next-gen power going?" Edge asks in its 7 out of 10 review. "As a game released across generations and running on a modified version of an aged engine, Ghosts was never going to be a next-gen showcase, but it's still a letdown to discover the only tangible result of PS4's extra processing power is a few sliders being nudged up. It's a brighter, higher-res version of the same game as ever, and the only sign you're not simply playing a maxed-out PC build of Black Ops II is the abundance of particles. Whether it's dust from a crumbling wall, debris fluttering in the aftermath of an explosion or bubbles from a scuba-diving NPC's air tank, you're never far away from a big cloud of something small.
"Elsewhere, there is only disappointment in how the next-gen consoles' power has, or rather hasn't, been used. After a plane crash, we skulk through the undergrowth and dispatch an enemy search party. This abundant hi-res foliage doesn't react to our presence at all. Things are even worse on Xbox One, where resolution is dialled down in favour of the series' 60fps tradition and the game runs at 720p. While the PS4 version runs at a native 1080p, that precious frame-rate drops briefly before checkpoints, which are at least placed so that the odd stutter never affects gunplay.
"Many will be satisfied by the simple existence of a COD game on the day next-gen hardware launches, but this is a missed opportunity nonetheless. The studio that defined the console FPS in the current generation has declined to do the same here. By the time it gets another chance, it may be too late."