Even a billion-dollar franchise like Call of Duty feels pressure sometimes, and this year’s entry, Call of Duty: Ghosts, probably had even more than usual. Fans were concerned about Infinity Ward stepping away from the Modern Warfare series and introducing something new—not to mention rival Battlefield 4 raising the stakes on next-gen with 32-on-32 multiplayer.

Infinity Ward also felt competition from fellow Call of Duty developer Treyarch’s huge success with Black Ops II last year. Even with all this pressure, though, Infinity Ward looked to maintain a steady course and reach their customary peak at the top of the FPS food chain. But sometimes, more change is needed to reach familiar goals—and I couldn’t help but feel that Ghosts doesn’t do enough to keep the formula fresh.

Ghosts’ campaign starts when a South American alliance called the Federation hijacks an American space station armed with ODIN, a kinetic bombardment system. Turning their own weapon against them, the Federation thrusts America into a decade-long conflict that instantly flips the global balance of power.

Logan Walker—the son of a former member of a U.S. Special Ops unit designated as “Ghosts”—quickly rises up the ranks along with his brother, Hesh, in a resistance group led by their dad as they help protect the ever-shrinking American border. But the Federation isn’t the only threat Logan and his family needs to deal with; an ex-Ghost named Rorke has allied himself with the Federation for the express purpose of making the lives of his former squadmates a living nightmare.

While Ghosts may tread familiar ground, it’s certainly not a bad experience overall. In fact, its single-player campaign is on par, in many regards, with Black Ops II, and it has the added bonus of not including those broken RTS side missions. Most of the levels impart that big-budget, adrenaline-fueled, action-movie ride players are looking for. It’s just that there are enough blemishes here—and a lack of overall innovation—to make it a good game, not a great one.

The major issue comes with the disconnect between the action and the narrative. Ghosts takes players all over the world and throws them into some insane scenarios that further the parallel between this game and action movies. But, like many action flicks, when the protagonists are placed in cool places like the Antarctic, dense jungles, underwater, or deep space, the narrative starts to come undone. In at least four of the game’s 18 missions, you’ll probably find yourself having flashbacks to college philosophy classes when you ask, “Why am I here?” I don’t know, Plato—but you might as well blow it all to kingdom come while you’re at it!

While the narrative reasoning leaves something to be desired, there’s certainly plenty of gameplay variety this time around. Whether it’s high-speed chases or subterranean subterfuge, Ghosts makes sure there’s never a dull moment. I did take issue with one activity, however—and that was playing as Riley, the German Shepard.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s awesome having Riley as a part of your unit, and it’s a blast issuing him commands. If you’re not good enough in multiplayer to ever earn that new perk, at least you get the satisfaction in single-player of having your pooch bite off a bad guy’s face. It’s nothing short of stupid, though, to have sections where you’re actually playing as the dog himself. Sneaking through the grass and silently taking down enemies isn’t something you need the dog for. Looking through a camera on its back is completely unnecessary, too, and considering that Riley’s only in three of the 18 missions, he’s not all that important, giving his segments a tacked-on feeling. I will say, however, that Riley’s voice actor is probably the second-best in the game after Rorke’s.

Despite these issues, the five-hour campaign still managed to pull me in with some excellent action sequences and enough of a cohesive narrative to make me want to keep going. But even with all its cool moments—unless you miss some Achievements or want to go through on harder difficulty levels—you probably won’t be going back to the campaign again and again. No, it’s the multiplayer that makes Call of Duty stay in our systems for months on end until the next chapter hits store shelves. But while this portion is technically sound—much like the campaign—it does little to make the experience feel fresh again.

Unfortunately, all the “new” multiplayer options in Ghosts are simply mashups of previous game modes, direct ports, or minor rule changes. Most of them are still fun, but I expected more than just a bunch of rehashes. The worst part of the multiplayer, however, is the new UI. The new character customization is a huge bonus this year, but the screen’s a mess, and most players will have to look long and hard at their TVs just to find the simplest of options, such as making the character male or female.

The UI problems continue when setting up your perks. While the few limits of Black Ops II’s Pick Ten system have been thrown out the window, so has the ability to quickly and conveniently make changes to your loadouts between matches. Due to tiny icons and a cluttered menu screen, if you really want to change your guns and perks, you should leave your respective lobby, since it’s going to take some time to really figure everything out.

All that said, the maps are more intricate than ever. Many of the larger areas have a multitude of lanes you can use in order to reach your objectives, providing some interesting variety when you spawn on these new killing fields.

The biggest surprise with Ghosts comes in the co-op mode: Extinction. The idea here is that up to four players have been inserted into the remains of a town that was hit by one of ODIN’s orbital strikes. It seems this strike unearthed something that had been long been buried…something alien. Now, you and your teammates have to get to ground zero, plant a nuke, and get the heck out of Dodge, all while trying to fend off this alien horde.

More focused than Zombies and far more creative than anything Infinity Ward has done with a co-op mode before, Extinction may be my new favorite co-op mode for the franchise. My only concern comes from the lack of replayability. Once you beat this section with your buddies, there’s little to make you come back, but hopefully some more maps and other add-ons come down the line.

When compared to the Call of Duty games that have come before it, Ghosts has a few problems, primarily in regards to innovation and moving the franchise forward. There’s no denying this. There’s also no denying, however, that the game’s still really damn fun to play—and even with the issues I’ve outlined, Infinity Ward has proven they can still hold the line, no matter the pressure.

Developer: Infinity Ward/Raven Software/Neversoft • Publisher: Activision • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 11.5.13
Narrative issues and a lack of ingenuity in multiplayer plague what could’ve been an all-time great Call of Duty game. As is, Ghosts is still an enjoyable experience and shows that Infinity Ward can still hold the line—but the concept falls short of its true potential.
The Good Gorgeous set pieces with tons of action; the new bad guy is excellent; Extinction mode adds something new to multiplayer.
The Bad Some levels feel tacked on for the sole purpose of lengthening the campaign; multiplayer UI is awful.
The Ugly Riley’s whimpering actually had an effect on me.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is available on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, and PC and is a launch title for Xbox One and PS4. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.