Gaming press from around the world assembled in Los Angeles to find out more about Ghosts, the next Call of Duty game from Infinity Ward. This is not Modern Warfare 4, Activision were keen to stress that fact from the start. They want to draw a line under that part of the series' history, and Ghosts is the new direction that they're taking the record-breaking franchise.
During an interview with Infinity Ward's Zach Volker, the situation was explained to us: "There was a lot of talk about Modern Warfare 4, there was a lot of discussion; some of the team members wanted to go in that direction, but after a lot of discussion we ultimately decided that Call of Duty: Ghosts was the direction we wanted to go in."
Even after the latest reveal, much of game remains shrouded in mystery. What we do know is that the story is to be centred around a team of elite soldiers, trained using military techniques cherry-picked from across the history of warfare. However, the "Masks" trailer we've seen already points to this.
The story has been penned by Oscar-winning writer Stephen Gaghan (Traffic and Syriana), and the team are guarding the finer plot details very fiercely. What they let slip would fit on the back of a postcard: America is, once again, on the back foot, buckling under the pressure of a new super power. The story kicks of with "a mass event", with American forces on their knees. We're to assume the role of underdog, battling superior forces, in a team made up of the remnants of U.S. Special Forces.
For those who remember battling on the lawn of the White House in Modern Warfare 2, it'll be a familiar notion, though I think it's fair to say we can expect many more twists and turns on the journey, rather than a simple rehash of old ideas.
Who this big new threat is remains to be seen. The imagination wanders to the likely suspects; China, North Korea, any one of the Middle Eastern countries irked by the very existence of the U.S. spring to mind. It's all speculation though, after the dust has settled following Activision's presentation, we're still none the wiser in regards to the fictional political landscape of this new chapter in the series.
While concrete plot details may be thin on the ground, we can speculate that Ghosts will steer away from the crazy futuristic exploits of the Black Ops strand of the series, instead focusing on a more plausible, realistic scenario. On a personal level I certainly hope this is the case, because it was all getting a little bit silly for my tastes, and the odd slice of believability would go down a treat, all things considered.
What we do have a much clearer idea about is the technological leap we can expect to see when Ghosts launches later this year, particularly for those who pick the game up on PS4 or Xbox 720. Those who stick with their current generation consoles will still get the traditional CoD offering, that is to say fluid 60FPS gameplay, bombastic set-pieces and a comprehensive multiplayer suite. However, the next generation of Call of Duty titles are definitely going to look the part.
There's a couple of technological advancements that are going to really standout, the most obvious being SubD. Designed by Pixar, the tech increases the polygon count of an object the closer you get to it, meaning that surfaces are now incredibly smooth when inspected closely. The result, at least on the demo that we were privy to, was once hexagonal gun sights are now perfect circles, and environments have a visual fidelity unlike anything we've seen from the series to date.
Zack Volker, the lead animator on Ghosts, had plenty to tell us about how the new tech works: "What it allows us to do is flag certain geometries with this tech, and as you get closer to the tech, or the model, dynamically it will start to subdivide itself, and what that does is it removes the faceting you can see of the individual polygons along curves, and so the closer you get the more it will fasten... almost to a level of infinity."
He then explained further: "You can get to the point when you don't see any of the polygons, it's just a perfectly smooth, round thing, and that works on the weapons, the characters, their heads, their helmets, their gear, any specific props in the environment that we've got a set on, or foliage. It's fantastic tech and it really removes that aspect of a reminder that you're in a game."
Another improvement brought about by SubD is going to be considerable improvement to the visual quality of the player-characters, most notably their forearms. When you think just how much time we spend looking at that particular part of our character's body, it makes sense that a lot of time has gone into making the skin look realistic. The level of detail has been increased dramatically; now you can see fine hairs, and other such nuanced details. Faces get a similarly impressive upgrade; the next-gen tech is already being used to good effect.
One thing we're going to see is a massive improvement in the dogs that feature in Ghosts. This is particularly important because they're going to be on your team, not just nipping at your heels (or at your throat), as has been the case in previous iterations. The mutts have been motion captured, just like their bipedal counterparts, so their movement looks incredibly realistic. They're going to add an extra layer of protection for the team, and will carry out tasks like sniffing out explosives. Infinity Ward promise that we'll care about our canine friends in a way we haven't before.
Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg opened up proceedings with an impassioned monologue explaining why the series has not lost its luster, even after all these years at the top of the food chain. This success is largely based on the popularity of CoD's multiplayer. We can expect more of the same in this iteration, but with many more customisation options that'll allow players to personalise their experience even more than they have been able to in the past. Those who delight in tweaking their virtual appearance down to the smallest detail will no doubt be licking their lips in anticipation.
Also set to appear in Ghosts are dynamic multiplayer maps. There's to be game changing events taking place in the midst of combat, from things like floods, to player driven actions - doors, explosive traps etc. These additions, coupled with new player animations such as improved mantling and the leaping slide, should inject some life into the online scene, which while enduringly popular, could definitely do with a shot in the arm.
We're shown plenty of images that demonstrate how Infinity Ward are going to bring the series forward into the next-generation. These renders are followed by a tour through a dense jungle. Light pokes through the dense canopy, and water trickles down a mountain stream that is surrounded by foliage. We spend an unusual amount of time admiring the curvature of pebbles in the stream, and Infinity Ward's Mark Rubin took great pleasure in demonstrating the increased polygon count in the surrounding environment.
Displacement mapping - where geometric positions on a surface are displaced - means walls are now much more detailed, their rough and uneven surfaces subtly enhanced by the new technological advancements made possible by the new hardware that the studio are able to utilise. The closer we inspect a cliff face, the more polygons appear, and the more detailed it looks. On top of the increased polygon count we're going to have interactive smoke, improved textures, shading and lighting; they want to make a world that is "as immersive as possible."
It all looks very nice, though we're unlikely to spend too much time admiring the finer details when we're opening fire on enemy troops as they advance on our position, so it's good that we're able to get a look at it all now, before the inevitable hail of gunfire, and the explosive set-pieces that have become Call of Duty's trademark.
At the end of the presentation we're shown some gameplay, with a pair of Ghosts deep underwater in full scuba gear, sneaking through enemy lines in order to take down a sonar-blasting warship. Bubbles drift in front of the HUD, exotic fish swim away from the advancing soldiers thanks to improved AI. Coral shimmers under the influence of light hitting the surface of the water above, and sharks nonchalently swim by. Our Ghost comments something along the lines of: "we're not the only hunters around here".
It's quintessential CoD, with the characters following a seemingly linear path along the ocean floor, taking out underwater patrols as they move into position. Overhead there are boats and aquatic patrols milling around, as with classic sniper levels like "All Ghillied Up", there's the tangible feeling that one misstep and all hell will break lose.
They eventually find themselves secreted inside what looks like a submerged lighthouse, and from their vantage point the two soldiers fire a torpedo into the hull of the vessel, destroying it and sending an avalanche of military equipment down into the depths. Of course there's the expected set-piece moments; one character gets trapped under falling debris, and once freed there's sinking helicopters and the like that must be avoided as they make good their escape.
The constant ping of the sonar booms out across the presentation hall, almost distracting our attention from the visual feast on offer. The graphical improvement is easy to spot, as there's plenty of nuance to admire in the environment, but it's also clear from our brief glimpse that this is a Call of Duty game. There doesn't appear to be too much deviation away from the tried and tested route - if it isn't broke, don't fix it.
We walk away from the Call of Duty: Ghosts presentation excited, but at the same time a tiny bit disappointed. We knew there was going to be a shift, and there is, and we know more now about how Infinity Ward (along with Raven Software and Neversoft) are going to achieve this. We know that the next-gen iteration of the world's most popular shooter is going to look the part, and that there's going to be an incredible amount of detail in the game, from the soldiers, through to the very ground that they walk over.
What we don't know is anything substantial about the game's plot, save for some facts that could've been gleaned from the promotional materials already released, and from some vague statements made during the event; statements that could well apply to other games in the same series. We want to know more, and it's difficult to get super excited about Ghosts when there's so much left to find out. Activision are still holding plenty back at this early stage.
It's not a major problem though. The tech demo we saw points to an incredibly detailed world, with near photo-realistic player animations, beautifully rendered environments, nuanced enemies, realistic weapons, and some of the smoothest surfaces ever seen in a video game. The next-gen is most certainly coming, and it's going to look great, but even if you give us all the polygons in the world, we're still going to want a great story, and at the moment that's the only thing that's AWOL. Roll on E3, where hopefully we'll be able to find out more about the titular Ghosts, and who they'll be fighting come the end of the year.