Did Activision expect so many questions to be asked about the dog? Hard to say. On the one hand, adding a dog as a prominent... character?... to Call of Duty will inevitably lead to questions. Can you play as the dog? If so, will it have a training level where you're a puppy? Can it swim? If so, as one journo jokingly asked, will it wear a Scuba mask in the underwater sections? Can it die? Can you play as the dog in multiplayer? Can you name the dog? Dog?
On the other, Activision probably didn't want this conference to be remembered for a dog. This was the big announcement, the world's first eyes-on for next-gen Call of Duty. As if that wasn't enough to confirm that this was serious business, Eric Hirshberg, CEO, took to the stage to talk us through the preamble. This is a man whose jacket is so well pressed you could land an aircraft on it. His shoes cost more than your house. He is a focused dude, telling us that Call of Duty is here to stay.
The numbers say so, apparently. Via every metric, it's on the up. Call of Duty isn't going anywhere. But times are changing, and COD needs to evolve like every other series. Ghosts is going to usher in the next-generation of Call of Duty graphics, we're told, and soon a gloriously exhaustive tech demo launches, with producer Mark Rubin talking us through the changes.
And it looks... alright. Nowhere near as good as, say, Battlefield 4's trailer, but far better than the previous engine, which was so old it probably ran on steam. Some of the improvements are immediately obvious: new volumetric lighting being one, which in concert with the new water effects made for the demo's most impressive segment: the camera pushing through a waterfall into a small alcove, all refracted light and rushing aqua. We're shown the newly implemented Sub-D tech: pioneered by Pixar, it finally enables smoothed-off edges. No more triangular gun reticules here – phew.
Improved character models and geometry (including realistic vegetation) also crop up, along with changes to the way players move: leaning is back, and it's now possible to quickly mantle over waist high ledges at speed.
Despite all this, however, it still didn't feel like that much of a jump. In the demo, two of the Ghosts have to take down a gigantic submarine from below the surface. Taking out two guards silently, they make their way through a literal sea of discarded military hardware: Apache helicopters fall into the depths below (nearly crushing the Ghosts in the process), and what looks like the remains of an old aircraft carrier haunts the bottom of the ocean.
The Ghosts manage to destroy a submerged sub by firing a handheld torpedo. This success isn't acquired easily however: the subs sonar ping exerts an enormous amount of pressure, nearly killing the player via sheer force and bringing submerged structures (a light house, maybe?) down on their heads.
At one point, the 'player' Ghost has to be rescued, as falling debris pins him and dislodges his breathing apparatus. As set-pieces go it's well worked if reminiscent of the Modern Warfare 3 E3 reveal, but in this instance the new tech (inevitably, with the water being the stand-out new feature) works well to take, in single-player at least, Call of Duty up a few enjoyable notches on the Michael Bay-ometer.
It was all a little underwhelming despite the explosions and whiz-bang new engine. I thought it, the other guys I was with thought it, and – speaking to Activision VP of production Daniel Suarez - they seem to know we might have thought it too.
"[The challenge is] trying to do as much as we can with a system that is being developed as it's being developed. I think that's a challenge we have any time we do a console transition... We're pushing graphics, we're pushing geometry, we're pushing particle effects and lighting, we're making bets on things that will be able to perform at 60fps by throwing as much as we can at it.
"As we're moving now to that next generation, the things we're throwing in there, some of them are very efficient, but we're going to learn a few things a lot better, so over the course of that generation, things are going to look better than they did [at launch]."
Suarez's comments stuck out because I also felt like he was explaining why this wasn't Modern Warfare 4. I told him that I felt that Infinity Ward could have slapped MW4 on the game instead of Ghosts and it wouldn't have made much of a difference. Granted, you're not a super-soldier anymore – instead you and your band of (in one case, literal) brothers have to fight for America, guerrilla style – but America is crippled (again) by a rising superpower (again).
Essentially, I asked Suarez, does making Ghosts enable Activision to take risks with the franchise it couldn't in the two mainline series?
"Sure. I think when you look at the narrative we're trying to tell and the features we're going to push with that narrative it will feel very different.
"It's going to be a very different tone, a very different player experience to what you'd experience in a Modern Warfare [or Black Ops] game. For the team at Infinity Ward, they really wanted to take that challenge. When we talk about the narrative and the story, the interaction with the squad, that's going to feel new and different than anything we've ever done before."
Hirshberg had started his presentation by saying that Activision could have taken the 'easy' route and just made MW4, but in this case, that may well have been a bad call. Transitioning between console generations is a tricky business at the best of times, and Activision seems acutely aware that Modern Warfare 4 has to be the biggest selling anything, ever. So it makes a certain amount of sense to create something new to take the strain, with the added bonus that we'll see Infinity Ward playing around with the formula.
And, let's face it, the game will sell like crazy just because of what it is. At the same time, both developer and publisher need to be careful of how they manage expectations. I've no doubt that Ghosts will be a good game, and I'd love IW to start the next-generation with a game that kicks more ass than a drunk Steven Seagal at the Pan-American Ponytail Haters Convention. However, when you've spent almost an entire conference talking about how good the tech is and all anyone wants to know about is whether you can 'be' the dog, your tech isn't standing out as much as it should.
Or, at least, not in a way that is immediately identifiable. COD's trump card has always been the fact that it runs at (or as perceptively close to as possible) 60FPS. It's what makes for those superfast gun-on-gun encounters that are the staple of the series. They're still here. Is keeping to 60FPS a problem, graphically? "No" says Suarez, firmer than a bear hug from Robocop. "It's what our foundation is built on. It's not hurting us in any way." In terms of gameplay, I agree. In terms of getting people super-excited about the visual fidelity of your next-gen tech, possibly. So then: this is still COD, for better and for worse, and I'll still be interested in playing it. As will, no doubt, about 200 quazillion other people.
For the purpose of this article, VideoGamer.com attended a Call of Duty: Ghosts reveal event in Los Angeles. Flights and accommodation provided by Activision.