"Call of Duty: Ghosts" is the first game in Activision's juggernaut shooter series to not sport a gun on its cover.
I can't tell you why that is.
Maybe the publisher is trying to make a statement. Maybe they think "Ghosts" is just that different from the nine, nearly annual "Call of Duty" games that came before it. Or maybe it wasn't even a conscious decision. Who knows.
What I can tell you is why this is important.
No, not because "Call of Duty" has gone pacifist. You're still popping bloody tulips through the heads of hundreds, if not thousands, to the almighty thump of near-future armaments. Nothing new there.
"Ghosts" does, however, mark the first time that "Call of Duty" doesn't feel like the alpha dog anymore. Sure, it can still make hundreds of millions of dollars on release day, and draw hundreds of thousands of users to its multiplayer arena for months afterward. But not only are those numbers declining, there's enough cracks in "Ghosts" to suggest that decline will do nothing but continue as Xbox One and PlayStation 4 usher in a new, uncertain generation of gaming.
The lack of a gun on the "Ghosts" cover is therefore, symbolically, a surrender. A surrender to shooters that still feel hungry, or maybe to another, fresher genre altogether. Either way, "Call of Duty" has become unfit to lead.
"Modern Warfare" studio Infinity Ward does find its share of success in the "Ghosts" campaign, a defensive war led by the titular special ops unit against an oil-grubbing South American alliance called The Federation. It begins with a promising bang, warping from the Ghosts' "300"-esque origin story to a satellite hijack that feels more like "Moonraker" than "Call of Duty." But the series' deafening hooks dig in soon enough, from the feeling of every single thing around you exploding into flaming shrapnel at all times to the Michael Rooker and James Remar soundalikes that dominate the voice cast.
Riley, the much-touted canine addition to "Call of Duty," is fun to sneak through enemy territory using whatever neuromechanical doohickey it is that would actually allow someone to remote-control a dog. The problem, in Riley's levels and throughout the "Ghosts" campaign, is ease. On the hardest difficulty, the most harrowing shootouts require no more than a few restarts. And stealth sequences like Riley's can be sauntered through without worry, let alone strategy. So either "Ghosts" has gone soft, or I'm just really good at "Call of Duty" — and I don't know if I want to face the possibility that I've developed such a dead-end talent.
Much attention as he's received, Riley is only around for a level or two. That's because Infinity Ward stays somewhat adventurous, setting levels underwater, atop a moving train and even in space, where a zero-G shootout manages to make "Call of Duty: In Space" not as preposterous as it sounds on paper. Like everything else in this relentlessly ADHD series, the story stays in none of its 18 settings for too long — half an hour at the most. Even then, fun with physics isn't enough to shake the feeling of mechanical sameness that's weighed down "Call of Duty" since "Modern Warfare."
Soon as you've lapped up the campaign, Extinction mode awaits. A twist on Treyarch's "Black Ops" zombie flings, Extinction asks up to four players to drill through alien nests as the little buggers swarm and douse you in acid under hemorrhaging skies. The enemies are more out of "Borderlands" than anything previously in "Call of Duty," and that alone makes Extinction a surprisingly fun, off-the-rails blast. The mode also delivers the difficulty missing in the campaign — especially solo. But with enough runs to level up, master the map and figure out the best skills and weaponry to buy — as well as a few useful partners — it can be conquered.
The multiplayer, meanwhile, is the multiplayer. It's the same addictive, impeccably designed machine it's been since "Modern Warfare," with a few new distractions. You can acquire a match-ending nuke by killing the first-place player, swiping a briefcase from their corpse and completing a few objectives. Squads mode formalizes team competition, introduces a collective leveling experience and integrates horde co-op all at once. And Infinity Ward continues to incrementally twist Team Deathmatch into exciting new forms, this time Cranked, which grants a speed bonus with a kill — but go 30 seconds without another, and you go kablooey.
Some multiplayer maps can be altered or partially blown up, which is good, because they're a bit unremarkable altogether. Visuals on the whole mark a weak spot in "Ghosts." Where "Battlefield" continues to push and burn and explode the envelope with its Frostbite engine, "Call of Duty" seems to have fallen into a graphic rut. It doesn't look bad, and boy is 60 frames per second easy on the eyes in multiplayer — but it's far from breathtaking. And with next-generation machines on our doorsteps, the time to catch up is near.
Of all the changes in "Ghosts," it's the simplest one that leaves perhaps the biggest footprint: Finally, multiplayer soldiers can be female. With more strides of that magnitude, maybe "Call of Duty" can take back the gun.