No other franchise creates a rift in the gaming community the way Call of Duty does. For some gamers, Call of Duty represents the very epitome of disposable entertainment, war porn shipped annually in bulk to fraternity houses the world over; a game whose success is testament to the inevitable triumph of marketing over substance. There goes the neighbourhood.
But outside of those circles, there’s another, more enduring and more popular narrative: Call of Duty – a videogame, no less – is the world’s most popular entertainment product, one impatiently anticipated and rabidly received by many millions of fans each November, and one whose success legitimises an entire industry in the eyes of its peers in the wider field of entertainment. No Roger, games are big business now, just look at that Call a’ Doody.
From a stage in a converted warehouse in Santa Monica, Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg points out to assembled press that you could count on one hand the intellectual properties that have the staying power of Call of Duty. Star Wars, maybe a few more. That’s true, and for that reason alone, asserts Hirshberg correctly, Call of Duty deserves admiration.
The transition to a new hardware generation is always treacherous. Proud dynasties are often toppled by new, more nimble competitors unburdened by the need to conform to established conventions, or what Hirshberg wryly calls “honouring the guard rails”.
Of course, venerable Call of Duty has not only negotiated a generational transition successfully in the past, but it has gone on to flourish where old rivals have sputtered, and perhaps even rattled their last. Tonight, Hirshberg and executive producer Mark Rubin will outline how Activision and Infinity Ward intend to achieve this truly remarkable feat a second time.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is a new franchise storyline for a new generation of hardware. A new global superpower has risen in the wake of an apocalyptic event that has reshaped America both geographically and geopolitically. The Ghosts are an insurgent squad of American patriots leading a lo-fi resistance against these occupiers. There are no drone strikes to call down, no heat signatures to scan; the squad has a dog.
When it comes to setting the stage for Ghosts, no one is prepared to show a hole card just yet, but already the premise sounds something like John Milius’ Red Dawn, the film that inspired ill-fated Call of Duty contender Homefront.
“The Red Dawn analogy, I hadn’t put it together that way, but I think there’s some subtext to that,” says Daniel Suarez, vice president of production at Activision on Call of Duty. “Call of Duty has always been called a jingoistic game: it’s all, ‘Rah rah! America!’” A game where “you call in the AC-130 to defend [yourself].”
“Feeling naked is a very unique experience [in the Call of Duty series]. When you get into the game you’re going to feel vulnerable.”
Taking the card analogy forward, the proverbial ace up Ghosts’ narrative sleeve is Academy Award-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, whose credits include Traffic, and Syriana. Interestingly, Gaghan is considered one of the foremost practitioners of hyperlink cinema, a narrative structural technique that cuts between, and begins to link together, otherwise separate storylines and characters. Could Ghosts be so avante-garde as to feature such a structure? Probably not, but it’s an exciting possibility and a comfort to learn of Gaghan’s involvement all the same.
That narrative will be rolled out on a new, currently nameless engine, developed in-house by Call of Duty creators Infinity Ward. From his spot on stage, it’ll take executive producer Mark Rubin more than 20 minutes simply to top-line the improvements in Infinity Ward’s next-generation engine, and showcase some of the substantial improvements during an in-engine fly-through.
Sub-D is a graphics technology that cleverly increases and decreases the polygon count of in-game assets in real-time depending on where the player is looking, and how closely. By way of example, Rubin pulls up a weapon scope from 2011’s Modern Warfare 3. The sight ring is a geometric shape intended as a use-your-imagination stand-in for a circle. Turning on Sub-D significantly increases the number of polygons used to draw the object, and the result is a perfectly smooth surface.
When paired with the significantly higher resolution textures made possible by next generation hardware, the effect is compelling. Move close, and the once-flat painted rocks on the bank of a jungle stream are now modelled and have their own texture geometry. The character’s arms and hands – a permanent fixture at the bottom of the player’s field of view – have individual hairs, and dirt has built up under the nails. On closer inspection, our German Shepherd has a deep scar on his nose, and a small, slightly faded identification number tattooed on the inside of his ear.
High-dynamic-range (HDR) lighting generates self-casting shadows, and more believable smoke and occlusion effects. Rubin lingers in the misty spray under a waterfall, and pans across wobbling light reflected on the surface of the under-cut. When the camera swings suddenly to the exterior, the lens briefly flares to accurately replicate the way our own irises adjust to sudden changes in the volume of light.
Rubin barely mentions the multiplayer, the mode that for many of the series’ millions of seasoned fans is all that really matters. However, he does briefly touch upon aesthetic character customisation options and new dynamic events in multiplayer matches – earthquakes, for example – that will change a map’s geography and disrupt the otherwise predictable flow of proceedings.
Overwhelmingly the impression is that this is Call of Duty, grittier and prettier. The improvements here are very welcome, and also very clearly iterative. As Hirshberg points out, the safe play would’ve been to make “Modern Warfare 4”, and perhaps there’s a sense that developing a new Call of Duty timeline to straddle two generations is risk enough for one year, thank you.
What needs no further speculation is that even as it gears-up for its third hardware tour, Call of Duty will have the technical wherewithal to satisfy its legions of fans around the world. Any would-be challenger to its position as apex predator of the entire entertainment world had better bring more than a comely dress.