Here’s What We Know About Call of Duty: Ghosts

Written by Stephen Gaghan

Considered one of the progenitors of the Hyperlink Cinema film genre, Stephen Gaghan is most notable for penning Stephen Soderbergh’s 2000 ode to the fiasco of the American war on drugs, Traffic, and his similarly acclaimed directorial effort Syriana. Both films offer a furious critique to the idea of America’s self-evident greatness, and flipping between interwoven stories and multiple protagonists, they also defy the attention span of audiences. It reminds me of something I can’t quite put my finger on…

I’m kidding, they resemble video game storytelling (duh), if you imagine his dramatic moments as cutscenes, and his violent scenes as game play. And as it turns out, that makes sense, as Gaghan turns out to be a serious gamer. So serious, in fact, that according to Rubin, he tore into his work with Infinity Ward with the same zeal he would have with film or television.

“We’ve worked with writers before,” Rubin told us in an interview. “They come in for their hours, and they get into the story while they’re there, but then they go off and do movies and stuff. Gaghan’s been different.” He has an office at Treyarch, he spends time with the rest of the team, he’s on hand for level and gameplay reviews, and according to Rubin, “he stays, he eats dinner with us, he plays Ping-Pong.”

Given the way the video game sausage is made, this is no guarantee that Gaghan’s artistic cred will pay off in the form of video game brilliance. But if Infinity Ward means to impress us in advance of the Call of Duty series’ new direction, consider us impressed. Few screenwriters are willing to go all in on something as presumably demeaning as video game work. Those that do have rarely won oscars and helped found genres. At minimum, even if the final game sucks, the plot and dialogue are guaranteed to sparkle. At the current moment in gaming, that almost feels like too much to ask for.

New Technology for a New Generation

Ghosts is going to use a whole new engine, something the series hasn’t really seen since Modern Warfare 2. From what we saw at Activision’s pre-E3 event, it’s a significant update, too, adding a lot of graphical bells and whistles to the already high graphical expectations for the series.

As Rubin explained, the engine scales to all next-gen and current-gen systems — you’ll be using the same tech on Playstation 3 as Playstation 4 and a high-end PC, and the engine will adapt to all of them equally. Part of the secret is in the art assets, which are being developed at the level of computer-animated Hollywood films, at resolutions high above what even the burliest PCs can currently render. That allows Infinity Ward to use the same assets for all the versions of the game and scale them down accordingly.

The engine also looks pretty snazzy in action, as well. The two major features shown to press at the event were subD, a process used by Pixar and other animation studios, and displacement mapping. Both of which offer subtle but notable improvements to the engine, as Infinity Ward demonstrated. With subD tech, the game engine is able to add polygons exponentially to any surface, especially as it draws closer to your point of view. The best example of that effect is in raising a scope to your face for aiming: In current-gen engines, that scope might look jagged around its edges, as the number of polygons used to render the circle hasn’t changed from when it was far away from you.

SubD, however, dynamically adds polygons to the surface, so as you raise the scope to your face, the engine is literally smoothing out the jagged bits of the round edges, and the result is a scope that looks much more natural. The effect was even more pronounced in the hands players see gripping weapons in first-person play, dramatically smoothing them so that they looked a great deal more real. Throw in things like realistic skin shading that takes into account what’s beneath and the result was some of the best-looking hands in a video game possibly ever.

Displacement mapping, the second bit of tech demonstrated for players, was another polygon-adding trick that the engine could execute on the fly. The best example for that part of the engine was in a riverbed filled with small stones. In a current-gen game, you might see a texture map created by an artist for that riverbed that would outline each of the stones, but it would be largely impossible for the game to render them all; basically, they’d be one flat sheet painted to look like stones were there.

With displacement mapping, the engine can recognize those individual stones and add polygons to puff them out. The result is a stretched texture with 3-D polygons beneath it — essentially, a riverbed full of small rocks, or a jagged cliff face with real indents and protrusions. The overall effect, again, was subtle, but significant when compared to current-gen tech.

We also saw some other spiffy graphical bits as Infinity Ward walked us through an in-engine jungle area, although the demo was not immune to pop-in textures. That said, it was also extremely beautiful, with dynamic lighting, shadows and particles that were all very impressive. Rubin also said that, for all this in-engine wizardry, Infinity Ward had managed to keep Ghosts running at 60 frames per second without additional input lag.

Perhaps best about the new technology, however, was its scaling ability. The ability of the engine to work on all platforms, Rubin told Game Front, means that it’s constantly being tested on all platforms. That means there are no “ports” of Call of Duty: Ghosts — it was developed simultaneously on all major next-gen and current-gen platforms, including PC. We don’t quite know what that means in terms of interface optimization, but from a tech standpoint, don’t expect to have your PC held back by what’s available on consoles when you fire up Call of Duty: Ghosts; in fact, Rubin said players would be able to push the new engine with their high-end PC hardware.

1) You’re goddamned right we’re Browncoats.

This is a joint report by Phil Hornshaw and Ross Lincoln. Read more of Ross’s work here and follow him on Twitter at @rossalincoln. Read more of Phil’s work here, and follow him and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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