"Call of Duty" adds a new dog but trots out mostly old tricks in the latest installment of the first-person shooter franchise.
Much was made of players' new canine companion, Riley, in the run-up to "Call of Duty: Ghosts" (Activision, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Wii U, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, $59.99). He's less integral to the single-player campaign than expected, though still more memorable than the blandly heroic Walker family meant to be at the heart of the story. While the campaign feels like a step back, there are enough new multiplayer modes and tweaks to keep loyal "CoD" fans happy during the transition to next-generation consoles.
The single-player story begins with an attack from an orbiting missile launcher on the family's suburban San Diego neighborhood, then jumps forward a decade as brothers Logan and Hesh fight back under the command of their dad, Elias, against an invading force called the Federation. Neither the family dynamic nor key antagonist Rorke are fully fleshed out in the script by "Syriana" writer Stephen Gaghan. Though by the end, you'll dodge fighter jets sliding off a sinking aircraft carrier, shoot guns underwater (KER-PLUNK!) and blow up stuff in space (louder than you'd think!), the framework bolting such set pieces together is flimsy.
You can criticize this franchise for repetitive gameplay, but there was passion behind the original "Modern Warfare" entries, with truly shocking character deaths and that memorable airport terror attack. Last year's "Black Ops II" added a branching story line and subtly questioned the value of America's past military interventions. While playing "Ghosts," I was reminded of the merciless skewering "CoD" took in "Grand Theft Auto V." A bloody military game within the game called "Righteous Slaughter 7" was rated PG for "pretty much the same as last game" and featured the tip, "If someone speaks with an accent - blow their head off." (Many of the enemies in "Ghosts" speak Spanish.)
It took me about five hours to finish the campaign on normal difficulty, but that's not where "CoD" players spend most of their time. The multiplayer and cooperative modes are more varied, with some interesting crossover rewards between a new Squads mode - targeted at newcomers and those intimidated by ruthless 12-year-olds online - and the familiar main multiplayer mode. The 14 initial multiplayer maps are generally on the large side, many with more contained indoor spaces than in previous games. Two early favorites for their unconventional sightlines are a destroyed Los Angeles office building with slanting floors and the hillside ruins of a British castle.
You can finally play as a woman in multiplayer, and it's surprisingly refreshing to hear female voices calling out locations where bad guys might be hiding. The highly customizable perk and weapon customization feels like a smart evolution of last game's "Pick 10" system. Rewards for success - killstreaks in "CoD" parlance - include the brief use of Riley as a personal guard-slash-attack dog. And while I won't spoil it by saying whether he dies in the campaign story, I felt a jolt of sadness in one match when a competitor took out my dog just a few seconds after I'd whistled him to my side.
Minor movement changes help with immersion: You can now knee-slide after sprinting, lean around corners, and your view is appropriately jostled when climbing over walls or ledges. Little things, all, but done well with the big-budget professional polish.
The cooperative section is led by an enjoyably frantic alien-attack mode called Extinction that blends base defense with a class and leveling system. "Gears of War" fans may gasp at the brazen borrowing here, but if you're a "CoD" die-hard, Extinction is more forgiving and varied than the Zombies mode in previous games. The four-player co-op mode initially offers only one, admittedly difficult, level. Expect more to come as downloadable content later. Two-and-a-half stars out of four.