Naming the latest Call of Duty game after invisible but potentially effectual specters seems exceedingly appropriate; it is a franchise, for the most part, comprised of vestiges of years past. Its games go on and on and annually haunt the industry. But that’s also to say that it is the progenitor of so many things we take for granted now, like experience points-based multiplayer and nukes in space.
Call of Duty: Ghosts, however, seems to make a solid argument for exhuming the military shooter and breathing new life into it. There’s a dog, there’s a story that so far sounds reasonable, and the box art doesn’t even feature a guy holding a gun. Hell, you can even see part of his face! That seems like a small detail, but for a franchise that eventually became about undead extras and prestiging multiplayer. To me, it signifies an attempt (the execution remains to be seen) of a much more personal story and an attempt to go beyond spectacle.
That’s not to say, however, that there won’t be any spectacle. The behind-closed-doors demo I saw walked us through three missions (and was preceded by a video about the new tech powering the game which seems cool and closes in on some of the things the latest CryEngine has been doing like adaptive tessellation, dynamic surface subdivision, and HDR lighting). The first is “No Man’s Land” and takes place just outside of San Diego, California. The second is “Federation Day,” a BCD-exclusive mission that puts us in The Federation’s capital of Caracas, Venezuela. The third is “Into the Deep” and has us navigating the waters of the Caribbean Sea.
No Man’s Land
This piece of the demo seems like its sole purpose is to show off what our war dog Riley can do (is he named after Simon Riley, the original “Ghost” from the Modern Warfare series?). We and another soldier are hiding out in some grass, waiting for an enemy patrol to pass by. Or so it seems. Instead of going the patient route and risking being caught, our partner suggests we send Riley out to attack them. So we do, and off our pup goes, taking down one bad guy while we gun down the others from afar. Pretty neat, but I wonder if we could have also just shot them all up or sneak by without using our bloodthirsty quadruped.
We continue on and make our way through an abandoned house. Out of the back, we see the devastation caused by whatever cataclysmic event triggered the US falling from global superpower status. It’s basically a giant crater with rubble and debris filling in a minute portion of the otherwise overwhelming hole. To our right, a church crumbles into the enormous pit, and we walk on as we comfort Riley, who seems to make a lot of noise for a military-trained ninja dog. He does, however, animate extremely well and I find him endearing already and I haven’t even played the game, so good job with the mocap, Infinity Ward, but I swear to god, if you kill that dog, I will Schwarzenegger you in half.
Next, we use our remote control capabilities with Riley. That’s not to say that he’s a robot and we use joysticks to maneuver him around, but it’s not far off, either. In the narrative (and, ostensibly, the real world), war dogs are equipped with a headset so they can receive verbal commands, a vibrating collar to tell them where to go, and an over-the-head camera to feed back to the soldiers where they are.
Riley first sneaks up on one dude and stealth kills him. Then we make Riley bark to call over another dude and we snipe him (automatic since we’re still in Riley Cam; the same goes for another sniper). We exit dog mode and prepare to breach a door, except it’s a reverse breach. Riley jumps into a window by the door, we hear some barking and yelling, and then, in slow motion, three dudes stumble out and we shoot them in the head/body area. While I like Riley himself, these dog sections seem exceptionally linear and the Call of Duty equivalent of quick-time events.
Your three-man team is sitting atop a skyscraper in Caracas while fireworks go off all around you in the night sky. It’s a stealth operation, so you put on your Ghost team balaclava and set about sneaking across to some other building. You all fire off some grappling hooks that will allow you to zip-line over. About three-quarters of the way across, you cut the anchor and end up positioned to rappel down the side of the building.
Wind is blowing pretty hard up here, so it’s pushing both you and your aim all over the place. Through the windows, though, you can see enemy patrols wandering around the floor, and they must die. If you recall past Call of Duty missions involving you listening to a spotter on what to do while you snipe dudes, it’s a lot like that. All you do is shoot when they tell you to and move when they tell you to. This goes on for another few floors.
Once you reach the proper level, you and your squad will bust out torches to cut out holes in the window. Your goal here is to hack into the power system of the building so you can safely descend the rest of the building (how the bad guys don’t notice the lights go out is beyond me, but whatever, I’m not a trained henchman so what do I know). As you watch a meter fill—err, hack the Gibson, your point man will point out that another enemy patrol is approaching, so either finish or hide. We choose to finish with plenty of time to also hide. One man lingers behind and he takes him out before dragging him into the shadows.
Then we head back out our window holes and continue to rappel down, eventually doing a drop kill and throwing knife kill on two unsuspecting dudes on a balcony. We then time warp ahead to a crumbling building and a necessary escape in high demand. We run through corridors and yell a lot at each other and into our headsets. Apparently the mission has been “compromised,” so we have to haul ass.
Eventually we find ourselves in a large room where some bad guys are, but no one is particularly focused on killing anyone else as the building that they happen to be on the 2,000th floor of is fucking going down. It reminds me a lot of the building sequence in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves except from a first-person perspective and without the elegant escape at the end. Instead, our Ghost team ends up jumping and falling through some glass and…well, we don’t get to find out because it’s an E3 demo.
Into the Deep
This final mission actually is the most interesting of the three. It takes place entirely underwater as you and a partner scuba around somewhere in the Caribbean Sea. It is described as “the most visually stunning Call of Duty level” yet, and I kind of agree. The underwater effects are really neat with a proper haze and warping occurring as you flipper about, and seeing all the coral and the fish around you is pretty cool.
As we navigate our way through some coral, a sonar patrol drops down from the surface. Our best option, apparently, is to take them out, but my partner warns me that “bullets aren’t as effective underwater,” that it’ll take more than just a shot or two take someone down. Point taken, and it in fact sounds like it could have interesting ramifications on the traditional find-cover-then-shoot-everything tactic of Call of Duty games, but all it really means is I hold down the trigger half a second longer than usual.
We then encounter another underwater patrol and hide from them. Following the familiar pattern now of first mechanics, then spectacle, we then time warp further ahead in the mission to when shit, undoubtedly, has gone wrong. We’re forced to dart from cover to cover due to an overwhelmingly powerful sonar blast coming from an enemy submarine. We eventually get close enough and hunker down in some old sunken wooden ship so we can remote control a torpedo into the hostile vessel.
We nail it (yay!) but our cover begins to fall into an underwater ravine (boo!) and drags us down with it. As the wreckage settles, we see our air tube flopping around in front of our face, though we can’t do anything since our entire body is pinned by debris and now filling with water and gurgling noises. Luckily, our partner swims up, hooks us back up, and frees us. We begin our escape as chunks of the destroyed sub are now falling all around us only to then be stopped by a sizable group of enemy divers. Fade to black and end the demo.
Once again, there are a lot of promises being made in the new Call of Duty game. Once again, the previews and demos prove that both Infinity Ward and Treyarch are perfectly capable of doing what they do. Given what I saw with my half-hour demo of Call of Duty: Ghosts, I saw nothing to suggest that it would be any different. It looks full of spectacular set pieces and some riveting moments of “oh shit” followed by “fuck yeah” and everything in between. The question, of course, is whether or not that’s what we still want, or is Activision just selling this to ghosts?
Look for Call of Duty: Ghosts to release November 5th of this year for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U, and PC.