The moment thousands of haters have waited for is finally here. Call of Duty is wobbling. Reviews of Ghosts were more wearily critical than usual, and with sales noticeably down on those of its predecessor, it seems gamers too may be growing tired of the annual "corridors and carnage" formula. It's still the top dog, but the rest of the pack is nipping a little closer at its heels.
Onslaught, the game's first add-on pack, captures this precarious moment perfectly. Once upon a time, just a few short years ago, a map pack was just that: four maps, packed together. In Onslaught, it's notable that the quartet of maps - three new, one classic - are no longer treated as the main attraction. They're the burger and fries in the Happy Meal. The toys that make the sale come in the form of an episodic addition to the Extinction sci-fi co-op mode and a slasher movie Easter egg.
Those maps, then. Of the four, the best is Containment. Set in a ruined Mexican town, it has an unexploded radioactive warhead smack bang in the middle. The area around the warhead sends your mini-map offline, adding a little tactical wrinkle to play. Savvy players can lurk in the hot zone, essentially invisible to enemy tech, but at the risk of being picked off by similarly hidden opponents.
Do you remember that bit in The Dark Knight Rises when Bane escapes from a plane in flight, blowing it in half and whisking himself to freedom as the fuselage falls away? Infinity Ward certainly does. It recreates the scene almost exactly in Call of Duty: Ghosts. It's just one of many widescreen blockbuster moments in a game that is, as always, propelled more by macho bombast than narrative coherence - but in lifting so blatantly from such a famous scene in a recent popular movie, it offers us a glimpse at the desperate emptiness that can so easily creep into a series when annual updates require a constant stream of wow moments.
Following Treyarch's mostly successful attempt to inject change and ambition into the COD formula with Black Ops 2's branching narrative and loadout-agnostic construction, the Ghosts campaign can't help but feel like a step backwards. Penned by Hollywood screenwriter Stephen Gaghan - whose work includes such intelligent political thrillers as Traffic and Syriana - the dimwitted, flag-waving, chest-beating story is perhaps the biggest letdown.
In the opening scenes, we see how a US military satellite armed with kinetic rods - essentially giant space spears that use gravity alone to create horrifying devastation when they crash to Earth - is captured and turned against San Diego by the forces of the Federation. In one of the game's only surprises, this Federation is composed not of scheming Russians, imperial Chinese or demented Arabs, but of vengeful South American countries which turn a global energy crisis into the touchpaper for their own worldwide revolution.