This is my third attempt at writing a review for the latest in the Call of Duty franchise of games. I’ve decided that the usual format of describing the single player versus the multiplayer and the story and such is unnecessary. If you’re at all interested in a review of the game then you probably already have a good grasp on what it’s about and, if you don’t, there are plenty of other reviews out there that go the traditional route. Instead, I’m going to focus on the PC version and its pros and cons.
Here’s the short review that may be all 85% of you reading this would need to make a decision on: If you’re not a fan of CoD then there is absolutely nothing about Call of Duty: Ghosts that will in any way change your mind and if you are a fan of the series then chances are you’ve already bought it making a review unnecessary. For those of you on the fence, whether you should buy it depends on how much you’ve enjoyed the past games in the series and whether you think your PC is up to the challenge of running it.
The campaign mode continues the trend of shortening the amount of hours it’ll take to finish setting a new record of a scant 4 hours total; perhaps a little longer if you make a point of finding all the hidden briefcases scattered along the levels. The story is completely over the top and full of the sort of spectacle you’ve come to expect from the series. The multiplayer introduces a couple of new game modes, but otherwise feels like what you’d get if you took Modern Warfare 3 and both Black Ops I & II and smashed them together. The three different types of killstreaks (assault, support, specialist) from MW3 return combined with the ability to unlock perks/weapons/equipment/accessories using a form of currency (squad points) of BO 1 and a pseudo-Pick 10 class loadout system like what was in BO 2. I’m a fan of the series and I find this new game, when it’s working properly, to be a lot of fun.
You’ll note the caveat I put in that last sentence. We’ll use that as the segue into the longer review.
It’s tough being a first person shooter fan on the PC these days and this is doubly so for Call of Duty fans. For me playing FPS games on a console is as close to sacrilege as you can get because the average console controller is no match for a good keyboard and mouse — part of why they don’t allow for cross-platform play between consoles and PC players — and yet consoles are where most FPS games make their money these days so that’s where a majority of the developer’s attention is focused. The PC versions of many FPS games end up being console ports with just the barest of tweaks to get it to work on the PC. It’s somewhat understandable when you consider that the consoles are easier to develop for as you know ahead of time what every Xbox/PS3/Xbox One/PS4 owner has in the way of hardware whereas the hardware in any given PC can vary wildly depending on the inclinations and fortunes of the individual gamer.
Call of Duty: Ghosts on the PC has some hefty minimum requirements: You must be running a 64 bit version of Win 7 or 8, have at least 4GB of RAM (down from a launch requirement of 6GB), a Intel Core 2 Duo E8200 2.66 GHZ or AMD Phenom X3 8750 2.4 GHZ or better processor, 40GB of HD space, and a NVIDIA GeForce GTS 450 or ATI Radeon HD 5870 or better, and a DirectX compatible sound card. The “recommended” specs are 8GB of RAM, Intel Core i5 – 680 3.6GHz processor, and a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 760 4GB video card. My own system is up to par on the processor (AMD FX 4170 quad core at 4.21GHz) and RAM (8GB), but my video card is a little on the low end for this game (AMD Radeon 7770 with 1GB of RAM).
The thing is, it’s hard to tell what use all those resources are being put to. Supposedly this is a new engine (it’s not, it has the same base as all the others with lots of new bits bolted on) that should make it the best looking CoD game ever, but it’s really no better looking than BO 2 or MW3 and it performs a lot worse than either of those two games. The one really impressive innovation in Ghosts is that the sniper rifle scopes no longer black out the screen around the scope. Instead it shifts to a very fuzzy rendering of the environment making for a much more realistic effect when aiming down the sight. You’ve just enough visual information to see movement, but not be able to tell what it is until you get your scope over it. From what I’ve read, that’s a real technical feat engine-wise which is why in the past it was easier to just to black out the screen around the scope. If there’s anything else particularly innovative or impressive about this “new” engine, I’ve yet to see it as, other than the new scope effect, it looks pretty much like the past few CoD games when you crank up all the effects.
You’ll note all of the “No” or “Off” settings on this screenshot of the Advance Video Options. This gives a tiny performance boost on my card. Click to embiggen.
Whether you can crank up all the effects will depend entirely on what make and model video card you own and having the best video card, or more than one, is no guarantee that the game will perform decently. This is probably the biggest issue I have with Ghosts. My video card is a mid-range model that’s almost two years old. Outside of Crysis 3 it can run most games I throw at it with all the effects cranked up. With Ghosts I’ve got most of the effects disabled or set to low because it offers a slight, and I do mean slight, performance boost. This doesn’t resolve the one major ongoing performance issue I have when playing the game. At the start of a level or the beginning of a multiplayer match there is often a period of about 15 to 25 seconds where the game will lag considerably. I’m talking a frame rate of around 5 to 10 FPS with the occasional pause of 2 to 3 seconds thrown in here and there. Once we get past that initial few seconds (often long enough for someone to kill me in a multiplayer match which is highly aggravating) the game will usually perform well enough to be playable. As near as I can tell from reading up on the issue the most likely reason for this is the fact that my video card only has 1GB of RAM on it. The weird thing is that it doesn’t appear that having a better video card is any guarantee of better performance. I know of folks who had nVidia Titans — arguably the best video card available at a cool $1,000 a pop — that suffered from the same start of the round lag issues I’m having. One guy I play multiplayer with has a system that exceeds all of the recommended specs for the game and he has constant lag throughout multiplayer that is so bad as to make the game nearly unplayable. Having multiple video cards in SLI or Crossfire configurations is actually not recommended as the game has not been optimized for it and will suffer from major microstuttering. One fellow I play with who has an SLI setup tried it and reported that it caused the trees in the game to flash as well as parts of his weapon. Another guy I played a lot of multiplayer with under previous CoD games won’t play Ghosts because it will not support multi-monitor setups. He has a very high end system with three monitors and just about every other FPS game he plays will spread the image over all three monitors, but not Ghosts. Attempts to contact anyone at Infinity Ward and Activision to inquire as to why have gone unanswered. Lastly it appears that the game’s frame rate is capped at 60FPS. If you have a setup capable of rendering at a higher frame rate that’s just too fucking bad.
Compare Ghosts’ audio options to Black Ops II. Notice a difference? Click to embiggen.
Then there’s a lot of options players have come to expect that are simply missing from the game. You’ll note in the screenshot to the above right that Field of View, which is quite common on most FPS games, is absent from Ghosts. You can use a third-party program to force it to modify the FoV, but that might get your account banned. No one seems to know for sure.
The Audio Options section is even more ridiculous as you can see in the screenshot to the left. There’s just a single slider for Volume. You have to wonder why they would even bother as just about everyone will use the volume controls on their speakers/headsets to adjust overall volume. Compare that to Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II which had separate sliders for voice, music, sound effects, cod casters (a streaming option for eSports), and a master volume to boot. To be fair when BO2 was first released it also lacked a FoV option, but after fans asked for one they quickly added it in a patch not long after release. I’d be happy if Infinity Ward just put in multiple volume options like Treyarch did. I play multiplayer with a regular group of guys and I like to have the voice communication be the loudest setting so I can hear them talking. I like to turn the music way down so that I can still hear it, but not have it overwhelm the sound effects so I can still hear enemy footsteps. Your only option in Ghosts, much like Modern Warfare 3 before it, is to rename several of the sound files so the game can’t load them canceling out the music altogether. That’s just stupid.
Which brings me to the biggest problem with the game: Infinity Ward has stopped giving a shit about their fans who play on the PC. This has been becoming more apparent since the release of Modern Warfare 2. When I wrote the review for that game I opened by saying that I had a real love/hate relationship with it. In particular the decision to go with a peer-to-peer networking system rather than dedicated servers was a major problem as it opened the game to all manner of exploits and hacking and the quality of your online experience was dependent on how far away the people you were playing against were and whether or not you were the host of the game. The rise of DLC also brought about the end of player created maps. Want new maps? They’d sell them to you in 4 DLC packs after which you should buy the next iteration in the franchise if you wanted anything new. With each release since then PC fans have grown increasingly frustrated at how little support IW gave the PC version of their games. We were promised the ability to run dedicated servers in Modern Warfare 3 and they kinda kept that promise by providing a barebones option that removed the whole level up and ranking system of the peer-to-peer version of the game. They also hid the option by default — you literally had to turn on dedicated server browsing in the options — insuring that most players didn’t even realize there was a dedicated server option so the player population using them was ridiculously small. That pretty much meant that if you wanted to do multiplayer you were going to use the inferior P2P system whether you wanted to or not. For Ghosts there was a lot of promises made about dedicated servers for every platform — console and PC — giving fans hope that the days of the shitty P2P system were behind us.
As it turns out, that promise was only kind of true. You can imagine my surprise when during one match back when the game was first released the game suddenly paused with a “Host Migration” message indicating that a player that had just rage quit had been hosting the game and it was now trying to find the best connection out of the remaining players to make the new host. That’s the same shitty P2P system we hated in the previous two Modern Warfare games. If we were on a dedicated server we shouldn’t be seeing that message. When fans started to ask what the hell the deal was Infinity Ward took to Twitter to explain:
Just a reminder that we are using a hybrid system for Ghosts online play to deliver the best possible connection. So sometimes you might be on listen-servers and sometimes you might be on dedicated servers, depending on which offers the better connection. We’re making tweaks every day to improve the experience across all platforms, more updates to come. And yes, with today’s launch of Xbox One, there will be dedicated server support.
The problem, of course, is that there’s no way to tell whether you’re on a dedicated server or a P2P one other than by how laggy the game is playing. Which, considering that there are other sources of lag beyond just your network connection, it’s not easily discernable whether the lag is from being on a shitty P2P with someone in another country until the host rage quits and forces a host migration. There’s also no option in the game to only use dedicated servers which most PC players would probably take advantage of even if it meant longer wait times to find a game to join.
Ghosts was released on November 5th and I’m just getting around to posting my review on the last day of 2013. Part of the reason for that is that I wanted to give IW some time to fix some of the issues that were plaguing the game. There’s been at least six patches since launch, only two of which focused on improving game performance. There’s also been an updated video driver from AMD that helped improve performance on my system. The problem with start of the round lag in multiplayer has improved a bit since release having decreased in the amount of time it’s a problem (it could last up to 30 seconds back when the game first launched) and on some smaller maps it sometimes doesn’t happen at all, but more often than not it does happen. I’ve learned to live with it, but it’s very annoying. The fact that simply buying a better video card is no guarantee that performance will improve doesn’t speak well to IW’s commitment to PC players. Other players I game with report problems with lag throughout the game that will vary from match to match with no apparent rhyme or reason. Some rounds are fine and others are laggy as hell. There doesn’t appear to be any indication from Infinity Ward that they plan to address the performance issues on the PC any further than they already have. Needless to say, the ongoing indifference of Infinity Ward has done much to deter PC fans from buying each new release that comes along which just gives IW more incentive to half-ass any PC version of their games in favor of consoles.
Which brings us to arguably the biggest problem Ghosts has on the PC: The lower player population compared to the consoles. It doesn’t matter how well the game performs if no one is playing it. At its all-time peak shortly after launch Ghosts had 36,922 players according to Steam Charts. A month later the peak was down to 14,923. The day before Christmas it was a mere 9,654. Christmas gave it a bump thanks to all the folks who found it under their tree that morning, but the highest it’s gotten since then was on the 29th with a peak of 17,290. That’s worldwide. Consider that the all-time PC peak tends to be less than the daily player counts on the Xbox and Playstation consoles. Ghosts is the 19th most played PC game on Steam with 9,148 people playing right now at 8:40AM in the morning. What’s 20th? Black Ops II with nearly the same player population, 8,469, at this moment as Ghosts. Hell, Modern Warfare 3 has almost as many players with 6,776 currently online as I type this.
Borderlands 2 – which was released in September of 2012 – has more people playing it right now (11,895) than Ghosts does. It probably helps that BL2 runs pretty fucking great on the PC and doesn’t have ridiculous system requirements and has been pretty heavily supported by Gearbox Software over the past year and some months. The current most played game on Steam? Dota 2 with over 491,070 playing it right this very moment. But that’s not a FPS and it’s technically free(ish) to play. What’s the top FPS? Currently it’s Left 4 Dead 2 followed immediately by Team Fortress 2 with 57,960 and 54,489 respectively putting them in the number 2 and 3 slots. Again to be fair TF2 is technically free(ish) to play and L4D2 was helped by a day of giving it away for free, but it’s not a stretch to say that IW’s shitty track record of support for their titles on PCs after CoD 4 has had an impact on the number of PC players buying it.
Here’s one last indicator of just how bad IW supports PC players: In Modern Warfare 3 there was a glitch that would affect kill streaks every so often during a match. Most commonly it would manifest as the inability to call in a care package. Your character would go through the animation, the signal grenade would drop to the ground, and then… nothing. The package wouldn’t come and trying to call it in again would just put you through the same animation with no results, but leaving you vulnerable to being attacked while doing it. You wouldn’t be able to call in the care package until after you died and respawned. Then it would work. With other killstreaks, like the body armor, it would do the same thing and play the animation, but not actually deploy. Over the year they released patches for the game they never bothered to fix that glitch. With Ghosts that very same glitch still exists, though it’s changed somewhat. You can only get care packages from completing field orders and those always work, but calling in a Satcom (Ghosts version of the UAVs) will sometimes not work on the first try and will leave you sitting there without a weapon until you hit the key to call it in again where you’ll go through the animation as though you were putting it away (you have the option of not deploying in Ghosts by hitting the key again) and then trying it again where it still may or may not work. Sometimes I’ve hard to try three or four times to get a stupid Satcom to deploy usually dieing in the process because I’m sitting there without a weapon. Body Armor will also sometimes just not deploy. This is a stupid glitch that I think goes back to MW2, but it’s been awhile since I last played that so my memory is a little foggy. It’s puts the lie to the idea that it’s an entirely new game engine.
OK, I’ve focused almost entirely on the problems with Ghosts on the PC. I should try to say something positive about it and the best thing I can think to say is this: Despite all of the problems I mentioned above — and that’s not even everything wrong I could say about it — when the game works I enjoy the hell out of it. Since its release I’ve invested an embarrassing amount of time into it (I won’t say how much, but in my defense I have been on vacation) and have managed to prestige 5 times already. When I get a good connection and make it past that initial 15 seconds of video card lag and get into the zone it’s just as fun as every past title in the series. I like the fact that it takes some of the best things from MW3, BO1, and BO2 and puts them into one game. I like what little I’ve been able to play of the new game modes introduced even though too often there aren’t enough players in those modes to find a game to join. I like the fact that there is an in-game system for reporting the inevitable cheaters and hackers that you’ll come across. I am still a die hard fan of the series.
The ultimate question is: Should you buy Call of Duty: Ghosts? If you’re a fan and can’t stand playing FPS games on consoles then it’s probably worth your time in spite of the problems, but given IW’s shitty treatment of their property on the PC I wouldn’t blame you if you skipped it. That’s especially true if your system is far below the “recommended” specs. If you are a fan and don’t mind playing on consoles then a lot of the problems I describe above won’t apply and you should definitely pick it up. If you’re not a fan then, well, I already addressed non-fans back at the start. On the plus side, the PC version is already down to $40 on Amazon.com.