Call of Duty’s Bid to Stay on Top

Chris Watters checks out Call of Duty: Ghosts for the first time and sees how its competitive multiplayer suite aims to straddle the console generation gap.

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The next generation of consoles is nigh upon us and like many big games this fall, Call of Duty: Ghosts is releasing on both current and next-gen platforms. This puts the developer, Infinity Ward, in the tricky position of delivering equal experiences to consumers on both platforms; any perceived differences beyond the expected graphical gap are likely to be judged harshly in the court of public opinion. Infinity Ward must up their game to keep the venerable franchise relevant on the new systems without outpacing the aging hardware of the old ones.

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Modest changes aren't going to cut it. The newly announced Cranked mode throws more fuel on the fire of the already frenetic action by amping up players' speed when they get a kill and then sticking them with a 30-second countdown; if they fail to notch another kill in time, they explode. Search and Rescue combines the tension of the respawn-less Search and Destroy mode with the dog tag collection from Kill Confirmed, creating a battlefield where teamwork is even more powerful. While these changes make for exciting matches, they are ultimately small variations on the theme, incremental tweaks to the action that players have enjoyed for years. At today's multiplayer event in Los Angeles, however, Infinity Ward and Activision revealed a few bigger steps that they are hoping will preserve Call of Duty's relevance--and dominance--in a changing world.

A New Engine

Just because it's on the same consoles we've had for the better part of a decade doesn't mean there isn't room to squeeze more out of those old systems. Infinity Ward has developed a new engine to power the speedy, silky 60 frames per second that the franchise so proudly touts. With baked-in technologies to make guns more realistic, textures more lifelike, and lighting more dynamic, this new engine aims to boost the visual fidelity of the action, even on the current gen.

It also creates some extra wiggle room to do things that Infinity Ward hasn't done before. Player customization was a big focus of the multiplayer debut presentation. For the first time, Call of Duty will allow players to design their own soldier by choosing from a variety of uniforms, helmets, face models, skin tones, and genders. This may seem like little more than playing dress up with dolls to some players, but a more visually diverse army will be a welcome changes to the randomly generated homogeneity of Call of Duty.

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And it's not just about looks. Scoped-in players will now have some blurry peripheral vision to allow them increased situational awareness, thanks to a "dual render system." Furthermore, the new engine allows developers to add in dynamic events on multiplayer maps that open up new tactical routes, cause strategic destruction, or rework the structure of the level entirely. Similar events have been happening in online battlefields for years, from the environmental changes of Gears of War 3 to the destructibility of Battlefield: Bad Company 2. If Ghosts is going to carry the standard for the franchise into the next generation, it's going to have to build on the dynamic elements we've seen already in this generation.

Reaching Out to Veterans and Newcomers Alike

Ghosts introduces a new loadout structure which allows players to purchase multiple soldiers for their profile. Each soldier will level up independently and have their own loadouts; time playing with one does not benefit the others. This is meant in part to replace the prestige system. Rather than wiping your unlocks when you hit a certain level, you can preserve your kitted-out combatant and move on to a new soldier.

Aside from the obvious benefit of letting you keep all your goodies available, this system fuels the new squad play modes. In one such mode, a player faces off against another player in a five-on-five match. Each player only controls one soldier on their team, but the rest of the team consists of the other soldiers in his or her profile. You determine the loadout for your teammates and then the overhauled AI sends them into the field with a corresponding set of tactics. In another mode, you team up with other human players to take on an AI squad that someone has kitted out and placed on a map and mode of their choosing. You and your AI squad can also take on other AI squads if you prefer to be the only sentient player on the battlefield.

Growing the player base is more important than ever for Call of Duty as the new consoles tempt lapsed or new players into to world of gaming.
The squad system seems poised to offer something new to both veteran prestige-seekers and folks who haven't prestiged at all. Fighting alongside the soldiers you've put a lot of time into customizing seems like a cool way to keep all your progress relevant, while facing off against only AI provides the kind of accessibility offered by combat training mode in Black Ops. The pressure of online competition could be significantly abated when you know you aren't facing angry backlash from enemies or allies for a subpar performance, and this could be the kind of welcome that reluctant players need to enjoy the competitive action. Growing the player base is more important than ever for Call of Duty as the new consoles tempt lapsed or new players into to world of gaming.

Building on Treyarch's Innovations

In last year's Black Ops II, Treyarch reinvented the way loadouts work with the pick 10 system. Pick 10 was a great way to inject some life and flexibility into the aging loadout system, and Infinity Ward is taking what Treyarch did and applying it to an overhauled perk system. Perks are now assigned a numerical value from one to five based on how impactful the development team judges them to be. Players have eight points to work with and must calculate how to best spend them. Selecting a suite of perks to complement your play style is nothing new, but the flexibility carried over from Black Ops II should make for more diverse battlefields (especially if players opt to leave a weapon or two behind in favor of more perks).

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Another Treyarch concept that Infinity Ward has made their own is COD points. Appearing only in Black Ops, this currency allowed players a certain degree of choice over what guns they unlocked, rather than setting all players on the same unlock path. For Call of Duty: Ghosts, Infinity Ward is introducing squad points and removing the tiered restrictions imposed by COD points. Now, all a player needs in order to unlock any gun they want is enough squad points to pay for it.

These two iterations move player customization towards a more open, flexible model, creating some breathing room in a system that has long thrived on the tightly restricted doling out of rewards. Changes like these help these systems branch out further from the family tree. The fewer elements that remain largely unchanged from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the more it feels like Ghosts is actively plotting its own course, rather than simply riding on the coattails of its predecessors.

Bridging the Gap

Though players will be limited to playing only against opponents on the same console or system (as is appropriate, given the gulfs in processing power), Ghosts will bridge the gap between the console generations. Progress you make for your squad members on the PlayStation 3 can be transferred to your PlayStation 4, should you decide to upgrade (ditto for the Xbox 360/Xbox One). This is done through your Call of Duty account, which is a step up from Call of Duty Elite. All the stat-tracking and loadout customization options from that premium service will be carried over, along with the ability to continue progress within a given family of consoles. Of course, it'd be even better if you could carry that progress across console lines, but only time will tell if Activision is able to negotiate such a technological--and political--feat.

The fewer elements that remain intact from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the more it feels like Ghosts is actively plotting its own course…
Call of Duty is also keeping up with next generation trends by offering all of this data tracking, customization, and social media sharing through an app. This so-called "second screen experience" is developed by Beachhead Studio, the folks responsible for Call of Duty Elite, and includes such additions as a touch-based emblem editor and the ability to select, in-game, the loadout for your next respawn.

The app also contains a broader metagame called Clan Wars. Host to the robust clan system that aims to stoke the fires of competition, Clan Wars takes data from clan matches and uses it to inform a game of territorial conquest. Every two weeks, clans of comparable skill are placed in a group and challenged to fight over territories by playing different game modes in Ghosts. At the end of the fortnight, clans are awarded unlocks and other virtual goodies for successful conquests. Between Clan Wars and a partnership with Major League Gaming, organized competition is clearly a big part of Call of Duty's bid to stay on top of the heap in 2014.

This is a challenging year for developers, especially those working on yearly franchises, and it seems that Infinity Ward had this in mind when outlining their vision for Call of Duty: Ghosts multiplayer during the reveal event. The next generation of consoles holds the potential to be very disruptive for the reigning titan of the FPS genre, and it'll be interesting to see what new elements Activision chooses to focus on at Gamescom in Cologne, Germany next week, and in the months leading up to the November 5th release of Call of Duty: Ghosts.

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