By now you’ve seen Activision’s yearly entry into the Call of Duty franchise, with 2013’s Ghosts
. So what separates this newest foray into Bay-inspired blockbusterness
(it’s a word, look it up) over previous entries? Well, for one it’s running on a brand-new custom-built in-house engine. It’s also a new story not linked in any way to other Call of Duty iterations and, most importantly, it’s Infinity Ward post-Zampella and West -- without the help of Sledgehammer -- flexing their young, invigorated creative muscle. And on next-gen consoles and top-end PCs, no less.
It’s a tough statement to suggest that Call of Duty has a creative streak. We’ve become accustomed to a relatively safety-in-numbers design philosophy since it broke the ceiling, but if you look close enough, you’ll see that each entry in the franchise has indeed thrown in some measure of uniqueness and creativity, it’s just been done in a construct a lot of people don’t perceive as all that cerebral
. Yet here we are, standing at the precipice of a new console and gaming generation, and despite feeling somewhat confident the majority of the CoD experience you’ll get with Ghosts is par for the course, it’s not to say there hasn’t been creative additions to sand traps, water hazards and overall course design.
Ahead of today’s Xbox One reveal, AusGamers was invited out to a pre-E3 unveiling of elements of the game, which could be better read as Infinity Ward showing off their new toy. And no, I’m not talking about Ghosts in the narrative, CoD chapter sense, but rather the new game engine the team (and others) built to not only usher Call of Duty into the next-generation, but to solidify them as a benchmark studio despite the exits that happened over the past few years. Their confidence in what they’ve crafted at the potential of this engine though, is contagious. Yes we’ve heard studios and publishers tout game engines before, and debates go back and forth, but at the end of the day, with a billion dollar franchise like this, only the best toolset will do, and while it’s early days yet, the Call of Duty: Ghosts engine is bringing the ruckus like Dutes has never seen before.
“When you look at Infinity Ward after MW3, for them it was about new beginnings,” explains Daniel Suarez, VP of production for Call of Duty at Activision. “[A] new story; they knew they were coming [out] on next-gen, there was the idea of reimagining the tech thing from the ground up for what they needed to do and, really just starting with a broad sheet of paper to start this new Call of Duty. And whatever happened at Infinity Ward, they were then able to move on to MW3 and create a highly-rated game that sold phenomenally well.
“And after they were able to kind of ‘finish
’ MW3 this sort of serendipitous event of next-gens coming allowed them to do that, and I think that’s what you’re starting to see, is the fruits of that labour that... that effort they’ve put in,” Suarez adds. “So there’s been a focus in terms of the three key factors that we talked about -- this idea that with this new story it’s a brand-new story, it’s not in any universe; it’s not part of the Modern Warfare universe, it’s not part of the Black Ops universe, it’s the new Ghosts sort of sub brand universe that is going to exist.”
The game’s new engine (which didn’t have a name) is very pretty. We saw examples of living coral reefs and sun-soaked jungles during our presentation, as well as a look at some of the neat tricks the studio has employed to help bring Call of Duty into the new. Highlighting their desire to remain at 60fps across all platforms, Infinity Ward added tech names like “displacement mapping” and a Pixar-crafted system called “SubD” to the presentation, but also showed how these worked. The former being a more pronounced poly system to break the habit of just using bump mapping to give the illusion of geometry in textures, while the latter is an impressive tool designed to round out circular, point-heavy polygon designs for perfectly smooth curves -- looking through a weapon’s scopes has never been so impressive.
And it all really was. It’s the best Call of Duty has ever looked, and thanks to some side-by-side comparison screens and videos, we were given serious context to what Infinity Ward has managed to pull off. I’ll go down on record to say that at this stage it’s clearly not trumping Frostbite 3, but very few engines will or could. But it’s really not the point, because one of the main pillars the team talked about was gameplay driving tech, not the other way around. It could be some clever bait-and-switch tactics being employed here, but it’s a component that seems to hang off the franchise no matter who’s developing, and it rung quite true here. So what then, is the new Ghosts experience all about?
Interestingly for a Call of Duty presentation, and ahead of the official reveal, I might add, was an actual mention of multiplayer. It was small, but significant, and revolved around maps harbouring both man-made and natural disasters/traps that dynamically alter them for the duration of the session. How this works wasn’t fully explained, but we saw screens of piles of logs that looked to be easily let loose on an unsuspecting enemy, and the word “Earthquake” was thrown into the mix. Like I said, it certainly wasn’t a lot, but was incredibly enticing as an idea. When prodded though, Suarez did give up the ghost on a few other tidbits, specifically revolving around player customisation.
“In previous Call of Duty titles, your player avatar was dictated by your loadout or faction,” he adds. “This time, we are giving players more control over their in-game persona.
“We've also overhauled our animation system. We've added several new animations as well as integrated the underlying animation system from single-player to allow for more fluid and detailed animations than ever before. The animations changes include a new fluid mantling system, the ability to peek around corners, and a new slide for players to get out of harm’s way and into cover quickly.”
So on the single-player side of things, we were left to ponder what Infinity Ward could possibly add post-Modern Warfare and how, exactly, it would all fit in the grand Call of Duty scheme. As Suarez mentioned above, this game is not at all set in any existing tangent of the Call of Duty landscape, and offers up a few major differences to how things have been run in the past.
“The story behind it really focuses on -- what I think is going to be an interesting way to tell a narrative [and] we hinted at it in the video presentation -- America as you know it, changes,” Suarez teases. “There is an event that happens; this cataclysmic event that basically changes the geographical landscape of the United States (it changes the Geo-political landscape as well), and suddenly the super power you know as America is no longer a superpower, we are now the underdog. And I think, you know, Call of Duty has always been called a jingoistic game; it’s all about row, row, row “America!”, and that kind of changes that dynamic for the first time.
“So you start off... you’re a witness and a victim of this event, and out of that event you and your brother sort of start becoming part of the defenses and start building those lines of defense, and through your progression through the game you meet up with this elite group called the Ghosts and you’ve heard about them before: they were this sort of “urban myth”; these guys would operate under veil of darkness that, you know, were able to do the things that scare the shit out of the enemy, they were the guys that did that: the Ghosts.”
Don’t go trying to tie links to one of Modern Warfare’s favourites though, Suarez quickly puts a lid on that one for us.
“That’s really where the concept of Ghosts came from. It’s not Ghost from the Modern Warfare series, I mean we like that name [but] it’s a nice homage to the mask that’s there, but it’s its own unique thing. So this concept of the new story sort of comes from there,” he explains.
Further to this is the expansion of the idea of a squad and what these individuals mean to you. In previous Call of Duty titles, specifically those from Infinity Ward, you’ve certainly had key players, but the narrative jumps between hapless person to hapless person in the name of interactive exposition. This time around, it’s looking like they’re tying a tighter knot around what it means to experience the types of things you do in a game like this. The biggest factor here being the introduction of the squad dog.
“For Call of Duty: Ghosts, Infinity Ward interviewed a former Navy Seal who brought his dog into the office,” Suarez reveals. “He explained how dogs are used in real-world combat situations and we are definitely bringing some of those mechanics into the game. But what really resonated with the team is how the dog became more than just a part of the squad, but part of the soldier’s family -- I don’t want to go into the deep details of the dog of the story, but it’s a unique gameplay component [and] we’re not gonna create the “old yella experience” where, you know, the dog dies and people are gonna cry and... it’s gonna play a unique dynamic to the gameplay and we’re excited about it.”
I also asked if other squad-based elements would come into play, but was met with a brick wall, leaving us with knowledge of dynamically shifting multiplayer maps, a brand-new single-player story not tied to any previous Call of Duty titles and a new game engine to help usher the series into the next-generation. Oh, and a dog. But our prodding wasn’t over yet because despite the presentation being of a particular graphical fidelity, I got the idea we were only looking at next-gen console spec’d visuals, and that the PC hadn’t even been let out of its cage yet. Apparently I was right.
“For us, we’re really focusing on supporting the PC further than we ever did before,” Suarez says enthusiastically. “Just in terms of graphic fidelity. The team... you know, not that we’ve never done it in the past, but it’s one of those things where there are so many things going on right now in terms of pushing the technological envelope that we want to get as much of that incorporated into the PC as possible. We have a tonne of high-end spec PCs in the office that we’re really trying to put all the bells and whistles on. So it’s definitely a goal for us this year.”
The jury will consistently be out on Ghosts, unless you’re an avid Call of Duty player, and even then there’s a good chance you could be on the fence. But looking into what the team has built to deliver what they’re hoping is a new and dynamic experience in both multiplayer and single-player, and on next-gen consoles and top-end PCs, no less, it’s hard to really throw everything away at this point. Yes franchise fatigue is a thing, and despite enormous sales for the series still, there are many who believe the fatigue onset is now, but with new tech comes new experiences, and with each driving the other, and a little something to prove given the next-gen clean slate for Infinity Ward, we’ll remain cautiously optimistic.
By no means is this the benchmark for modern military shooters at this early stage, but it’s a thing and it’s a thing that is happening. And if Infinity Ward can get that monkey off their back and deliver a Call of Duty for the ages, we’ll definitely be happy to play it.
Stay tuned for more over the coming weeks and months, right here on AusGamers.