A yearly Call of Duty release is as inevitable as genera-terrorists deciding to attack a country, necessitating U.S. Special Forces intervention, in the single-player campaign and a mouthy teenager insulting your parentage while experiencing the online component. With an annual entry appearing consecutively since 2006, Activision have long been faced with criticisms over originality and transforming the franchise into a cash cow, albeit one with camouflage markings.
With the introduction of a new generation of consoles Infinity Ward has taken the wise decision to let the Modern Warfare sub-series rest after the surprising excesses of the third chapter. Instead, the studio has decided to introduce a new set of characters, locations and what seems to be a major departure in terms of narrative. Seemingly set in an alternate history, an as-yet unrevealed cataclysm means the United States is no longer a superpower. The military and government have been crippled and instead a mysterious Special Forces unit, the "Ghosts", are now one of the most valuable assets the country possesses.
Our time with the game began with a demonstration highlighting the "new" engine that runs Call of Duty: Ghosts and its enhanced features. While it is still fundamentally the IW engine used in the most recent entries into the series, it has been significantly overhauled leading to the developers describing it as something altogether different. With new elements including Displacement Mapping (designed to provide more high-resolution geometry in real time) and SubD (technology that smoothes curves and enhances small details), the visuals bear distinctive next-generation hallmarks.
However, our real interest was in the changes and improvements Infinity Ward had made in regards to the gameplay. Much has been made of Call of Duty's lack of innovation and its rigid adherence to formulaic templates. The first level we were shown was designed to highlight some of the fresh inclusions and unveil the new world the protagonist finds himself in. Call of Duty: Ghosts follows two brothers and members of the titular spec-ops unit and their battle against a sinister and unknown enemy group.
"No Man's Land" found the siblings ten-miles north of a damaged San Diego, which appeared to have been badly hit by earthquakes with large craters and demolished buildings littering the landscape. Thankfully they were not on their own and had another squad-member, Riley, helping their infiltration. Riley comes equipped with a telescopic camera, a tactical vest, his own earpiece and even a state-of-the-art collar. In case you were wondering, Riley is their faithful German Shepherd and is based on current military attack dogs. Yes, you read that correctly: one of the biggest innovations in Call of Duty: Ghosts is the ability to play as a dog.
The reactions from gamers to this news have, understandably, been diverse. From those who think it an interesting new move to others who find it laughable, ridiculous and bizarre. It certainly takes a while to get used to. Initially, Riley fulfils his role as a squad member attacking a lone guard as the missions begins. His animations are undeniably impressive with the canine reacting to earth tremors with whimpers and responding to praise with subtle wags and barks. However, it was not long before Infinity Ward showed his more active abilities and our protagonist activated Riley's camera entering into some doggy gameplay.
A digital screen pops-up, with the writing "REX 3380 K9" appearing underneath, which immediately brings to mind a four-legged UAV. Controlling Riley's movements, the developers guided him through some undergrowth to sneak up on a lone enemy who was wearing some form of biohazard suit and carrying what appears to be a Geiger counter. At the press of a button Riley pounces, initiating a stealth takedown as he bites the man's throat.
With the soldier dead, Riley then walks to a close by clump of bushes and activates his enhanced senses to smell enemies through walls. This activates an overlay highlighting the outlines of any nearby enemies and his master's voice crackles over his earpiece instructing him he needs to create a distraction. At the press of a button Riley barks, prompting an enemy to investigate what on earth the sound of a dog barking could possibly be. As he leaves the safety of his building he is promptly shot in the head by the waiting brothers with their silenced rifle.
The level culminated with Infinity Ward showing one of Riley's "Dog Breaches" (they clarified that they do not mean trousers for dogs). Here one of the brothers highlights a window, which Riley promptly smashes through before, seconds later, a large cluster of guards breaks through with the hound hanging off one of their arms. Time slows down and the brothers then shoot the troops while Riley dusts himself off and gives a little wag. At this point, the demonstration drew to a close as the team donned their trademark balaclavas.
Well, before we go further it is time to address the elephant in the room. There is a playable dog in Call of Duty: Ghosts. A dog that is used for stealth sections, breaching rooms and attracting enemy soldiers by barking. It stretches suspension of disbelief to new levels, even for Call of Duty a franchise that had New York invaded by Russian submarines. While on the one hand, the new engine has allegedly facilitated better enemy AI these very same opponents get confused by the sound of a dog barking and will happily wander over to be brutally savaged by it.
It is very easy to be highly critical of this gameplay element when viewing a presentation and it is eminently possible that the integration will be more carefully implemented and introduced in the game as a whole. However, from the level we saw it seems like a very unusual decision that stands out markedly and it is difficult to see how Riley will play into the single-player campaign without being a jarring reminder that he is a dog. Equally, what happens to the main player character while you are in control of Riley remained unclear, as after sections of canine control he had changed position multiple times.
Our second mission was in more familiar Call of Duty territory (terrier-tory?), called "Federation Day" and took place in a high-tech skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela. The Ghosts arrived on the building's rooftop via a number of steel-cabled grappling hooks using a local fireworks display as cover for the noise. Rappelling down the side of the structure, using the surrounding bright lights as cover, the team stealthily eliminated groups of patrolling enemies floor-by-floor. Using silenced weapons, and with each shot leaving a crisp bullet-hole in the glass, none of the guards detected the Ghosts as they cut their way through the windows into the building's server room.
Here there were some small stealth sections as the two brothers carefully avoided pacing enemies by hiding in alcoves, waited for large groups to pass by and eventually killed the one enemy that stopped to smoke a little too close. Through the use of an artfully employed time-lapse section to avoid revealing plot spoilers, the action jumped ahead in time to later in the mission. Suddenly the building was collapsing, alarms were sounding and the Ghosts were busy trying to escape as the floors and walls caved-in.
Technically, the sequence was impressive with glass shattering and the entire level shifting as the building moved from side-to-side, angling the floors and walls. The team constantly had to shift from ceiling to wall and back and the demonstration culminated with the whole structure leaning precariously to one side, throwing the main character to the ground. Suddenly, his footing gave way and he was sliding horizontally towards a massive drop before the gameplay ended and we found ourselves at the beginning of an underwater segment.
The final segment of the game we saw was the mission "Into the Deep" which was set in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of South America. This portion really showed the graphical enhancements and variety of the environments on offer and was one of the highlights of the presentation. As the two scuba-attired Ghosts swam through the weeds to mask their sonar visibility, sharks and nets loomed out of the murky water. However, these were the least of their worries as it did not take long for squads of enemy divers to enter the water to patrol. Some were even equipped with small submersibles and all were armed.
While the brothers initially avoided combat, it was an inevitability and using an underwater assault rifle the pair engaged their opponents in a furious battle that brought to mind the ending of Thunderball. Due to the increased resistance of the water and its effects on the bullets, each enemy took more hits to kill so each shot had to be precise and targeting quickly was essential. Soon the two heroes had to avoid unwanted attention from ships on the surface that began dropping charges causing dangerous areas of pressure that had to be avoided with carefully timed bursts of speed.
As the level reached its climax the Ghosts were hiding in a submerged cylindrical structure from the explosions and deployed a remote controlled torpedo to sink a cruiser which promptly started dropping wreckage everywhere. A fast-paced section was then triggered requiring the main character to avoid falling debris, shoot enemies and get to safety. It did not feel like a particularly original sequence with similar examples springing to mind from titles as diverse as Dead Space 2 and WET.
Call of Duty: Ghosts was everything we expected from the series. The trademark first-person shooting, elaborate action sequences and identifiable narrative were all present and correct. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Infinity Ward have chosen to tweak the format with some new additions, chiefly the presence of your four-legged helper, Riley. It is hard to gauge the impact of this inclusion without hands-on time with the title, but our initial instinct is it will require a lot more than making him into a UAV drone with a tail and a fondness for squeaky balls.
There is still an awful lot to see with the game and Infinity Ward has ample opportunity to allay our scepticism towards some of the newer additions in the single-player campaign. Equally one of the most popular and largest elements, multiplayer, is still being kept under wraps while it is tweaked and improved. While, we certainly have some doubts over one or two features of Call of Duty: Ghosts the juggernaut of a series has enough talented developers behind it to steer it towards another success. Releasing initially on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC on November 5th versions for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Wii U will follow.