I have a confession to make: I'm a lapsed Call of Duty fan. While I was once a frothing devotee of the first-person shooter series, I haven't played it in months. When the next instalment, the upcoming Call of Duty: Ghosts, was announced back in May, I kind of shrugged. I'm officially a recovering Dudebro.
I recently trekked down to a Ghosts preview session in New York, half-hoping that the developers at Infinity Ward would show and tell me things that might win me back. I may have drifted, but part of me misses those all night online multiplayer frag-fests. Truth be told, I'm looking for a reason to go back.
Let me explain the depths of my former junkie-ness: There was a time when I'd count the days until the release of the latest multiplayer map pack; or when I'd find my mind drifting during work onto matters of weapon load-outs and perks (was there an optimal combination I hadn't thought of?); every winter, without fail, I'd need massage therapy to relieve the painful tightness in my shoulders, brought on solely by marathon sessions of Call of Duty.
I'd spend all of my leisure time and sometimes more, to the chagrin of my work and my loved ones, playing online with the legions of other Dudebro addicts. We're called Dudebros because we're mainly dudes and bros, and we frequently let each other know that. "Dude, that was an awesome head shot!" "Bro, you're a total camper!"
But things changed. I initially dove into the latest release, last year's Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, as usual, dumping dozens upon dozens of hours into it. But after a month or so, my attention waned. Rather than staying up till 4 a.m. trying to hit that next prestige level, I'd either play something else or – gasp! – actually go to bed at a reasonable hour.
I told myself it was because the Black Ops 2 was unbalanced. A four-letter word in the realm of first-person shooters, it's where arming oneself with a specific set of weapons or skills provides a distinct advantage over others. Call of Duty has always prided itself on balance, or how the pluses of one weapon or skill inevitably come with some equal disadvantage, so if what I suspected were indeed the case, it was a fatal game flaw.
As time went by and I recovered from the effects of my addiction, I realized it was something else: I'd simply grown weary of the franchise. I still loved first-person shooters, but there were other games that were doing more interesting things with the genre. Battlefield 3, for one, had massively epic multiplayer battles involving helicopters, tanks and other vehicles. Far Cry 3, meanwhile, had a huge open world and a single-player storyline with multiple endings, which gave players the ability to make choices that actually mattered.
On the other hand, every Call of Duty game so far has been the same thing: infantry-versus-infantry multiplayer (except for the brief addition of tanks a few years ago in CoD: World at War ) and a single-player campaign that's so linear it has been compared to a roller coaster, which is something that runs on rails. The phrase "on rails" is another deadly indictment for game makers.
So here I am at the Ghosts event. Call of Duty is still the pre-eminent FPS on the market, with Black Ops 2 having sold at least 23 million copies. The game also has tens of thousands of players online at any given time, marking a high point for the franchise. If anything, it's as popular as ever.
I sat down with Tina Palacios, Infinity Ward's community manager, and Yale Miller, Call of Duty's senior producer at publisher Activision, to have a look at the upcoming game and to talk about my lapsed interest. Given the franchise's continued success, I'm wondering if it's just me.
It turns out everyone involved with the game is very conscious about the need to keep things fresh, given how the franchise sees annual, rotating releases from Infinity Ward one year and fellow developer Treyarch the next.
With the single-player campaign in Ghosts, Infinity Ward is taking a different approach to story. Players will again control American soldiers, but this time they find themselves in the near future, 10 years after the United States has suffered catastrophic defeat at the hands of a new, South American super power.
The outsiders are attacking the United States and it's up to the player to protect what's left. As such, you're the underdog, rather than the domineering ass-kicker that's found in just about any FPS game starring American troops.
Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning writer of Traffic, has been brought in to write the script, which focuses on two brothers – and their dog Riley – as they try to cope with their new reality. For the first time, the developers are trying to create characters that pack emotional heft by giving them an origin story, which is designed to make players feel for them, Palacios says.
"That underdog feel changes the situation you're in, [making the tone of the series] new and fresh," Miller says.
That said, the story is still rigidly linear. There will be situations where players will have choices in how they proceed, but the story will have only one ultimate outcome, something the developers consider a hallmark of the series.
"We want to focus on the cinematic experience. That's our mantra," Palacios says.
Riley, the dog, is a key addition to the gameplay in Ghosts. In the demo I was shown, one of the brothers takes control of the German Shepherd, who then scouts out an outpost near the ruins of San Diego. Riley can distract or attract guards by barking, but his handler can also control him through a collar microphone and a vibrating vest worn by the dog, both of which convey orders. The pooch can also attack and take down enemies, jump through windows and even breach doors.
The gameplay looks neat, even if it's a little ridiculous – Riley could easily be like the robot drones from other Call of Duty games; just a different name and more fur. But much of what he does is actually based in reality, I'm told. The developers consulted with real military canine units and came away equally surprised with their capabilities and intelligence.
"Seeing the dogs in [motion capture] and how athletic they are was pretty amazing," says Miller.
Ghosts also packs in a bunch of new technology, from a purpose-built game engine that drives the whole experience to a slate of new visual and audio effects. The game – under development since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was released in November, 2011 – was designed on high-end PCs, which is giving developers a good degree of leeway in scaling down for two concurrent generations of consoles. It's being released for the upcoming Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles, but also for existing Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii U machines.
The new consoles are allowing for some amazing graphical improvements, if the demos I've seeing are any indication. The new engine is able to dramatically boost and divide the number of polygons on screen as you get closer to them, meaning that backgrounds are rendering much more realistically as they come into fuller view.
One technical demonstration showed some rocks on a riverbed, as rendered in next-generation graphics versus current generation. In the latter, they appeared flat – entirely passable at a glance – but in the former they were fully realized; round and glistening with moisture.
"Oh that actually is a pile of rocks, it doesn't just look like a pile of rocks," Miller says.
The eye candy does have to be scaled down for existing consoles, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, Palacios adds. "It still looks better than Black Ops 2 or Modern Warfare 3 ever did."
On next-generation consoles the extra horsepower will also be noticeable in the audio. Gunfire, for one, will sound different depending on the environment in which its happening, adding to the immersion. You'll be able to hear if someone is firing from inside a metal ship container, for example, which will certainly introduce new elements to multiplayer.
Speaking of, I did ask about multiplayer, which is the bread and butter of Call of Duty for many. Palacios and Miller won't say much about it for now, other than it will have better character customization and dynamic maps, where players – and nature – can affect the environment in ways that affect matches.
But what about the franchise's main rival, Battlefield? I played some multiplayer in the upcoming Battlefield 4 at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in June and it was a hoot – two teams of 32, with tanks, choppers and gunboats all at your disposal. Call of Duty seems small in comparison.
Miller says the decision to stick to infantry battles, rather than adding vehicles, has so far been a purposeful one. Doing that would skew the game to where players become dependent on their vehicles or equipment, whereas Call of Duty relies more on skill.
"When you jump in, you feel just as powerful as the next guy. The other guy might have a better loadout, but it's better for him and you can always get there. You never feel like you're at a disadvantage," he says. "That's a big part of making sure it's fun for everyone."
He's right, and the rationalization does make sense. I have to admit that whenever I play Battlefield games, I immediately run for the nearest tank, rather than try to outgun my fellow players with simple skill. After all, fast reflexes and good aim really pale in comparison to a giant cannon and several tons of armour.
In the end, Ghosts is looking like it's going to offer a lot of new things, but I was left wondering whether those elements will be too subtle or if they'll be enough to make it feel fresh. Therein lies the challenge of any franchised entertainment – it needs enough new to make it feel so, but also enough familiarity to remind fans of why they were attracted to the property in the first place.
Just before my demo session took place, Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain and his young son stopped by for a look. His reaction was straightforward: "It looks awesome!" I agree, it does and I am looking forward to playing it. Call of Duty is what it is, and its makers don't apologize for it. They're continually tweaking it in an effort to make it better, which is all that can be asked of a developer.
Call of Duty seems to have reached that same level as many top sports games, with a similar value proposition. The hard-core devotees will doubtlessly lap up every annual release, whereas the general mainstream may only pick up every other title or so. At this point, I think I'm somewhere in-between. I'm cautiously optimistic about Ghosts – but I'm going to put the massage therapist on speed dial just in case.