Tag Archives: call of duty

PlayStation E3 2015 Recap

PlayStation E3 2015

Sony this year came out with some heat. We all thought most of it would just be rumors because—let’s face it—a lot of it sounded absurd. A comeback? A remake? Oh come on. We should know better by now. Go back to your village and take your pipe dreams with you.

But wham, bam, holy shit. We really shouldn’t be calling out “winners” for this sort of thing, but this press conference did actually bring down the Internet. Feel free to read on or rewatch the entire thing.

The Last Guardian

Ummm, what? I guess sometimes vaporware comes back from the dead. After being in and out of development and existence for the past 2007, it was pretty safe to assume the long awaited project was simply dead and buried. After the trauma of numerous rumors, the latest rumblings that we’d see The Last Guardian at this E3 seemed to only freshen up old wounds.

But it’s all true. Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida confirmed it would release for PlayStation 4 in 2016. Coming from Team Ico and director Fumito Ueda, the same combo that brought you Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, its expectations were high. After all these delays, are they just as lofty?

Horizon: Zero Dawn

Guerrilla Games, developer of the Killzone series, is throwing quite the delicious curveball here. Going from a stock FPS to this is rather incredible. Perhaps filling the PlayStation 4’s required space marine quota earned them some laterality.

But Horizon: Zero Dawn has a fascinating premise. Something along the course of humanity’s development caused them to plunge back into a pre-civilization structure except machines are still rampant and necessary. So instead of hunting for food, they hunt for parts. Sure, the gameplay looks fun enough, but that setup is incredible.

Hitman

Even if you don’t care for the Hitman games, this is a well put together trailer. It finely composes the idea that he’s a killer of tactics, brutality, and skill. Also, the backing track that surreptitiously features ragged breathing slowly sinks in and is reinforced by the kill shot.

The trailer itself, however, doesn’t reveal much except that the series still animates people a bit too cartoonishly. I guess Square Enix assumes we already know what to expect from the game, which is kind of a sad notion anyway. Hitman lands on PlayStation 4 and PC on December 8. (Franchise reboots that simply start off with the same name is an organizational nightmare, by the way.)

Dreams

Media Molecule is still very much about games in which you create, if you were wondering. The latest is Dreams, and while the trailer is very obtuse about what you’ll actually be doing, you’ll definitely be creating…something.

It looks like you’ll be using your controller to sculpt out characters inside of scenes. The “dreams” motif comes in where everything is fast and impressionistic rather than details and builds upon a previously known (read: made) lexicon of items. You can then grab your creations and puppeteer them to life. (The short demo preceding the trailer shows more than anyone could ever say with words.)

Destiny: The Taken King

While I found Destiny to be somewhat lacking in its original release, the more that Bungie puts out for the game, the more I want to go back and play it. It seems like they’re solving the two biggest problems simultaneously with each DLC, being the lack of content for a massive world and a refinement of how to use that world in interesting ways.

Coming September 15, The Taken King will cost $39.99 for the regular edition and $79.99 for the collector’s edition, both of which will also include Destiny itself. The expansion will include new Guardian subclasses and super moves.

Final Fantasy VII

Part of the crazy heat Sony threw around yesterday. Even more dubious than The Last Guardian comeback rumors, we heard voices on the wind talk of a Final Fantasy VII remake, something fans have been clamoring for since dinosaurs walked the Earth.

And now it’s happening. This isn’t a tech demo or a PC version or an upgraded PC version for PlayStation 4, but this is a remake. At this point, it’s unclear as to what that means. This could end up just an HD remaster for all we know, but hopefully they’re not just misleading us with the word “remake.”

The bigger question, however, is if anyone still cares. Tetsuya Nomura is coming on as director after guiding the Kingdom Hearts series (and directing Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children) while Yoshinori Kitase, original director of Final Fantasy VII, will be returning to produce. Is that enough to garner interest beyond the 18-year-old fan base?

No Man’s Sky

This is the first lengthy gameplay demo anyone outside of the press has seen from No Man’s Sky. Hello Games co-founder Sean Murray hopefully imparted upon the audience the sheer size of what they’re attempting with this procedurally generated universe simulator. (If you still don’t get it, read this piece over at The New Yorker.)

Still no release date, but we do learn that every world is fully destructible. Plus there are fish!

Shenmue III

And here’s the real surprise of the event. No one was even expecting this, but Yu Suzuki, creator of an immense number of classics like Space Harrier, Out Run, After Burner, and Virtua Fighter, came out on stage to announce that he’d like to revitalize the Shenmue franchise through Kickstarter.

And then everyone lost their god damn minds. Which is the appropriate response, I might add. It brought down Kickstarter itself for a brief time as it rocketed up hundreds of thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes. It’s already hit its $2 million goal in its first day. If you’re not jacked for this, then you’re a fool. Or you were too young to have played the first two.

Call of Duty

Now we know why Call of Duty was mysteriously absent during Microsoft press conference. PlayStation CEO Andrew House announced that Sony will get all of the military shooter’s map packs first. The deal will start up with Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, coming to PlayStation 4, PC, and Xbox One November 6.

Map packs have traditionally gone to Xbox platforms first since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare back in 2007. While not necessarily everyone’s thing, this is a huge move for PlayStation.

Firewatch

Firewatch is pretty much exactly the kind of game I love playing. Or at least it’s the kind of game I love thinking that I would love playing based on the trailer because the trailer sells a very particular kind of game.

The adventure game from Campo Santo and director Jake Rodkin (co-host of the Idle Thumbs podcast) tells the story of a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness in 1989. Numerous mysteries begin to unfold as he goes about his patrols.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

While the return of the Uncharted series still doesn’t seem like the best creative decision, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End still looks pretty incredible. Like, visually, I mean. It seems like it’ll play like the other games, so you probably already know if you’ll be into that or not, but there’s certainly something to be said for a masterful refinement of a craft.

After a little technical hiccup where protagonist Nathan Drake froze in front of a still animating crowd, we go on a classic Uncharted whirlwind ride of shooting bad guys, running from overwhelming odds, shooting more guys, and (as a franchise first) driving a vehicle. Oh, and crackin’ some wise. Don’t forget that.

There are some other odds and ends that came out of the conference (like a new Street Fighter V trailer), but that’s the gist of it. There were several genuine surprises, capping off a rather momentous start to this year’s E3. Look for more coverage as the show continues the rest of the week.

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Refining Value

Refining Value

The most common criticism leveled against the recently released Far Cry 4 is that it is basically just Far Cry 3, except more of it. While entirely valid, there is a lot of meat left on that bone to chew on. The most superficial counter—while still being significant—is that this is only the second of this style of Far Cry that has been put out.

Even if you counted the Blood Dragon DLC for Far Cry 3, that still is a fa—nope, not gonna say that joke—that is still peanuts compared to the saturating product Activision has been pushing for the past seven years. (I’ll give them that Advanced Warfare is interesting enough to warrant differentiation.) Creatively and commercially, it’s worth revisiting something successful to divine something’s true value.

It allows the mining of deployed tactics to determine more discretely what concepts and philosophies to carry forward with and what to discard. The first go-round is more or less a stab in the dark. Via the tried and true scientific method, variables can be tweaked to see if a hypothesis was correct. Was it worth putting in more missions like that one? Should we have brought back that one vehicle?

Far Cry 4

Of course, that means that even with entirely new ideas being injected into the resuscitated product, there is going to be some wholly unchanged and eerily familiar bits and bobs floating around. In Far Cry 4‘s case, it is the game’s entire structure. Missions take you all over an enclosed and expansive territory while you hunt animals to collect furs for crafting; you climb towers so as to reveal previously fog-covered parts of the map; and you take over enemy outposts to prevent bad guys from harassing you and your local war buddies.

It is Far Cry 3 except in the Himalayas. But important differences crop up when you hold that Venn diagram a little closer. A lot of this sequel felt like it was a test, an experiment to verify the designers’ beliefs as to what succeeded and what didn’t in its predecessor. The wingsuit, for example, was a super cool part of Far Cry 3, but it came way too late in the game to be of much use (or much fun). This time, you can get it pretty much right off the bat.

More than that, they tested the theory further by making Kyrat much more vertical than the Rook Islands. Not to say there wasn’t a lot to climb in the tropics, but Kyrat is much more obviously designed around the idea of moving up and down with purpose, not just to be higher for fun. The tools given to you such as the grappling hook and the buzzer both are additional litmus tests to see if it is indeed better being able to move easily in all directions.

Far Cry 4

It wasn’t just that the wingsuit was a neat idea and helps us fulfill an incredibly dangerous fantasy but it made traversing down cliffsides a breeze. It’s a message that surprisingly didn’t make it from the Assassin’s Creed hall in the Ubisoft offices. In that game, it’s fun figuring out how and then watching your character climb up huge structures, but getting back down when there isn’t water or a hay pile nearby is a nightmare.

Far Cry makes the descent exponentially worse by not having any purely dedicated mechanics for climbing downwards, save for falling and hoping for the best. These implements eliminate the nearly punitive experience of backtracking down to the ground after scaling up high for the absolutely necessary prep stage of scoping and tagging an entire outpost.

And then there are touches like allowing you to replay a whole outpost anytime you’d like, which is probably one of the best parts of the games. And automatically crafting syringes by culling the types you can create, which is quite literally a lifesaver when you have to hunt a bear with a bow. And speaking of that, allowing for clean harvests of furs and skins when you manage to skillfully kill critters with arrows and blades instead of bullets and bombs is a great change.

Far Cry 4

The game wants to still have the carrots in there, but these streamlined processes for either removing processes that add obstacles to gameplay (having to pause to craft syringes) or adding a layer to eventually bland activities (sniping animals for their fleshy interiors and valuable exteriors) improve upon already proven concepts. And they make such a sizable step up that it makes these old acts new again and, more importantly, more rewarding.

Far Cry 4 also takes more squarely compartmentalized bits and remixes them. For instance, the animals this time around don’t feel as intensely dangerous. Looking at a shark or a crocodile around the Rook Islands, you definitely get that they’re violent and should not be fucked with. Far Cry 4 has scary wildlife, too, in its tigers and wolves and bears, but it also has far more dickish critters.

Animals like dholes and honey badgers and eagles and definitely kill you if you come across them unawares and in dire straits, but they are generally just there to fuck with you. They take a well-laid plan and minutes of careful tagging and throw it out the window. Either you try to knife something to death while taking minimal damage (good luck) or you run like an idiot into the outpost with guns blazing and let the animals do some of your dirt. And try remaining calm when you hear growling come up behind you while peering through your binoculars.

Far Cry 4

They’ve become far more about mixing it up than being fodder for loot or making the rivers less than ideal to swim in. The same could be said for how the weapons are meted out this time around. Just as before, you get free weapons for taking back towers. This time, however, it feels like they are much more organized around the idea of engaging progression. You can still buy weapons if you have the cash, but finding and earning feels much more organic to the game.

By going the route of getting guns as I looted them or was reward them, I stepped into using a lot of guns I wouldn’t have used otherwise. Almost right out of the gate in Far Cry 3, I was stocked with an entire arsenal of silenced armaments including a potent and accurate assault rifle and an insanely powerful sniper rifle. While still fun for the majority of the time, it made every outpost the same thing over and over again.

This time, I was forced to use a crude bow for far longer than I would have liked for stealth. And once I got a silenced weapon (a pistol), the range was so short, I was still locked into close encounters. It forced me to take on the side missions that earned me more takedown skills. It also made me appreciate that silenced Z93 sniper rifle that I eventually got all the more.

Far Cry 4

It provided context and contrast for the luxury of being able to sit back and deal with those heathens from afar while making the early parts of the game feel appropriately raw and savage before allowing the refined ability to choose how you want to eliminate fools. And given the size and the scope of the game, it would have been hard to nail that sort of pace the first time around. Even the differences between the first and second Far Cry games were dipping toes into the waters of the extremes.

Then they found middle ground, and Far Cry 4 is the refinement of that calibration. Not to say they should continue on with this iterative production line for another five years, but this moderate repetition was well worth it if it means the designers gained insight for future games in the process. More ideas for how to make a game engaging is never a bad idea so long as innovation comes along for the ride.

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Changing Paces

Changing Paces

A massive shock to a dying system is what I consider Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. As much as I was over Call of Duty before with whatever notions of banality and boredom were infused into the franchise by its seventh(!) iteration of the modern era, this latest release has done something significant: it has made the series interesting again.

One of the biggest and most noteworthy games ever released in recent history—and possibly ever—is without a doubt Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the first in the neo age of military shooters. Its campaign not only set a then unbelievable but now unfortunate precedent of storytelling, the multiplayer component of Modern Warfare was the first of its kind.

Well, to be more accurate, it was the best of its kind, which made it the first military shooter to gobble up mass appeal like a Pac-Man dinner. The feel of playing Modern Warfare was and still is a paragon of what it should be to play competitive multiplayer shooters online. It was quick, impactful, and had a constant potential for exciting plays.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

And then that carried on for six years. It’s not exactly like Infinity Ward and Treyarch just sat back on their haunches all that time; there were certainly attempts at infusing interesting ideas. Call of Duty: Ghosts, for example, threw in map-centric killstreaks and alterable terrain/events. (It also had the Squads mode, which was novel but ultimately dispensable.) Call of Duty: Black Ops II went hard with switching from killstreaks to scorestreaks.

These integrations clung on with varying degrees of success, mostly depending on public reception as well as a failure to maintain consistency between studios as the annual rotation progressed. But even then, at its core, this was still the same Call of Duty we’ve been playing (by the god damn droves) since 2007.

It wasn’t that it played worse or anything. Far from it, the gameplay was as tight and snappy as it ever was. But after six iterations and six years of overlapping effect on the first-person concept, it became tired simply through the nature of existing. The rhythm of the game’s encounters became so deeply ingrained in the industry that there was an uncanny valley for games that skewed too close to the monolithic franchise.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

We felt the granular shift between games, but it didn’t mean much. At least not to the non-professional level of players. It still came down to check the map, sprint a corner, hold down RT just before snapping in with LT, get a kill, and then get shot in the back. That can sum up the vast majority of multiplayer encounters with not just Call of Duty but—because of its influence as a quality game and an enormously successful product—mostly every other online FPS out there.

Now, however, Advanced Warfare has come along. It has, though its nutso future tech, managed to bring about meaningful change. Its heightened focus on mobility is something that I can’t see following Call of Duty games not integrating. With the universal appendage of exoskeletons, we now have the ability to double jump, air dash, dodge, and generally just be more mobile and vertical.

This is extremely important considering that without this narrative conceit of being in the year 2054, we would still be stuck playing in a largely flat, two-dimensional theatre. These additional abilities of locomotion add much needed verticality to the game. The ability and necessity to move up and down quickly and efficiently is what made the multiplayer of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves at all interesting and now the added dimension is doing the same for Advanced Warfare.

Titanfall

Very obviously, this is not the first game to do this in the industry, as evidenced by that first example. But even in the first-person shooter space, we have Titanfall from earlier this year that allowed much of the same to happen in addition to wall running and climbing into massive mechs. And seeing as how that actually came from the former heads of Infinity Ward (now Respawn Entertainment), this development feels all the more inevitable.

It’s not even just about the ability to move up and down in a new way but that in any particular direction, you now have an additional variation to the tired cadence. You can, at any point, change the pace of an encounter. It’s rare you die in Call of Duty totally unaware of your previously impending doom. It’s always the brief but gnawing and knowing sensation of being on the end of your current existence before you hear the snap of a near miss and the subsequent pops of your ongoing demise.

That is because, like most everything else, it is a numbers game. The probability of someone turning this particular corner with their head in this position is, let’s say, only 30%, but the probability of dinging any part of their body from this other angle is up to 60%. And we know the timing that it takes from the kerfuffle you saw on your map to your location is approximately two seconds, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, and…

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

But now there’s an additional wrinkle to account for. Those percentages drop drastically because now the ability for your enemy to come at you from above or below or in a quarter of the predicted time makes those numbers almost entirely worthless. And once you engage, boosting left or right or towards or away removes the now ingrained ability to make micro-tracking shots across 20-yard encounters.

It makes multiplayer far less of a knee-jerk reaction, twitch shooting (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and adds a level of variance that the series has been missing for far too long. And the fact that the longtime leader in the field of online FPS multiplayer gaming has taken the step to inject some life into its staple, stable, and flowing bloodline is an encouraging notion in the industry.

I’m not looking for more games to once more ape Call of Duty, but I am looking forward to the spread of the idea that change is good.

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Advanced Fragmentation and Warfare

Advanced Fragmentation and Warfare

I’m not sure it’s entirely safe to label a Call of Duty release the “biggest entertainment launch ever,” let alone the year. It didn’t happen last year and it probably won’t happen this year. Not only has that been on a downward trajectory for a while now (something Activision foolishly blames on the generational transition), but there is also sizable competition this year.

There’s Assassin’s Creed Unity and Assassin’s Creed Rogue in about a week, though it’s possible the split console titles might also split total sales. Then there’s also the Halo: Master Chief Collection, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Far Cry 4, LittleBigPlanet 3, new Pokémon and Super Smash Bros., and the PlayStation 4/Xbox One re-release of Grand Theft Auto V, the game that undoubtedly shoved Call of Duty: Ghosts from the top slot last year. (And let’s not forget earlier releases like Destiny and Titanfall.)

But what’s happening this go-round with the 11-year annual franchise isn’t the important part; it’s what happening in the future. With increasing development times and costs in resources, Activision has taken the logical and necessary step to maintain their yearly shooter schedule by moving to a three-year, three-studio rotation including Advanced Warfare‘s Sledgehammer Games, Ghosts‘ Infinity Ward, and Black Ops II‘s Treyarch.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

It’s been rumored and debunked that Treyarch is putting out World at War II next year, so math puts Infinity War down for 2016. (It’s absurd to me that games are being announced/assumed this far ahead, kind of like the nigh clairvoyant Marvel film releases.) This division of responsibilities raises some concerns, especially with some revelatory additions to Advanced Warfare.

First off, Advanced Warfare is a good game. I would say it’s a great game, but its redundancy as a franchise slackens an otherwise taut grip on exploding action into, onto, and all over our collective faces. And its most compelling changes have been more or less proven—and to a more extreme degree—in Titanfall: mobility. With the future tech of empowering exoskeletons, you and your comrades (and enemies) have the ability to double jump, dash, and dodge.

It makes the extraordinarily fine-tuned yet exceptionally flat gameplay of the Call of Duty series actually interesting rather than just precise. Being able to move at an additionally variable speed makes both the campaign and the multiplayer vastly more engaging, with the extra offensive strategies allowed by the currently nonexistent technology making the usually nominal, trite exchange of bullets and cover something genuinely original.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

The problem is that we’re unlikely to see this again. Or at least until we get another game from Sledgehammer. While the World at War II leak may not be true, it doesn’t necessarily tie Treyarch to making another World War II game. However, studios traditionally tackle their own era and their own sub-series under the overarching Call of Duty umbrella. Infinity Ward handles all of the Modern Warfares and thus anything with the current/pseudo-current fighting. Sledgehammer just established itself as the moderately near future studio.

And Treyarch has unfortunately locked away the stuff of the past. This means that we probably won’t be seeing the exoskeleton-induced mobility in next year’s release, and if Infinity Ward carries on with present day combat, 2016 will be without the compelling addition either.

It’s unfortunate because even with the small amount of time going back to last year’s Ghosts after spending a few hours with Advanced Warfare, I found the lack of future tech, well, dull. Uninspired, even, despite finding it acceptable one year ago. And it’s certainly not a new problem with the franchise either.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Black Ops II was the first of the series to contain a branching storyline based on player choice, and it actually made a not insignificant portion of the game’s narrative rather interesting. But then, with a different studio at the helm, it went missing with Ghosts. A large omission of a noteworthy improvement.

Also from Treyarch in the Black Ops pairing was the dolphin dive, an odd but useful bonus in the shooter’s repertoire. It also went missing in the intervening releases from Infinity Ward. Whether good or bad, it and the integration of player choice and the focus on player mobility represent the greatest problem facing the formerly monolithic and unstoppable franchise: fragmentation.

There is no cohesive or unifying direction of the series regarding these differences. And I don’t see how they could in the short term considering development of all three studios is all in parallel. But this actively hurts the franchise since no good ideas or lessons from poor experiments get transplanted to the following year. Worse than that, each studio may wholeheartedly revel in the idea of pushing back and being entirely unique, for better or worse.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

This wouldn’t be terrible if all three studios weren’t ostensibly aiming for the same goal. The interesting thing about, say, the Mission Impossible movies switching directors is that each one takes a massive detour in terms of tone, action, and general milieu. Every Call of Duty, however, tries to gin up categorical summer blockbuster action, hanging you from launch rockets and speeding busses and the like.

The end result is a feeling of petty conflict, and if not that, some degree of punitive ignorance. Whether it’s true or not, it’s a real enough sensation. Wouldn’t the combination of the best parts of three studios’ worth of ingenuity result in the best Call of Duty possible? Maybe not, but it’s certainly worth finding out rather than assuming it’s not.

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Trailer Roundup: Nintendo, Call of Duty, H1Z1, and More

Trailer Roundup: Nintendo, Call of Duty, H1Z1, and More

Yeah, I moved Trailer Roundup from Fridays to Mondays. It just seemed to make sense considering Fridays are actually quite the popular day for new trailers to come out. Also, I’d much rather waste away the beginning of a week watching videos on the Internet than the end. (But honestly I like to spend both and everything in between doing just that.) Anyways, here we go!

Fearless Fantasy

Umm…so I guess there’s, uh. Well, if you look at it this way, it could be—oh who am I kidding. This trailer is a solid 60 seconds of nonsense.

Self-described as “the weirdest RPG you’ll play this year” by the same guys that made the fantastic SpeedRunners, Fearless Fantasy is a turn-based game where combat is determined by gestures with the mouse. From its press kit, the game’s features include “a full-on story” and “RPG stuff.” Count me in. I think.

Nintendo’s E3 Plans

Sometimes I wonder just how much free time Reggie Fils-Aime has. It seems like either he’s got a lot of that or he’s just super self-aware how much people like watching him do things. It’s a toss-up, really. Produced by Mega64, this video actually coincides with one of the bigger pieces of news from last week, albeit not one of the bigger surprises.

Just like last year, Nintendo will not be hosting a traditional E3 press conference like Sony and Nintendo. Instead, they’ll be holding a tournament in the Nokia Theater for Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. But they will be bringing back the ability for those not at E3 to play their unreleased games at Best Buys all around America. Also, no new console?

H1Z1

It makes sense. People like playing online with their friends and they like playing around in giant open worlds but they don’t like lots of emptiness in between. So what is relatively easy to implement that can fill those large gaps?

Zombies! Simply directed AI and vast expanses of terrifying openness. Hence State of Decay, DayZ, and now H1Z1. It’s free-to-play and there are zombies and, well, you get it, right?

Watch Dogs Season Pass

The trailer itself isn’t doing much for me, but its contents are, like, really weird. It’s boasting an additional single-player campaign with a character named T-Bone, a character we’re not at all familiar with, let alone the game he resides in. And you can dress Aiden like Eliot Ness and also fight techno zombies? This is some super strange stuff, guys.

Outlast Whistleblower DLC

Nooooope. Nope nope nope nope nope.

Nidhogg

If you haven’t played Nidhogg yet on PC, fear not because now it’s coming to the PlayStation 4. It looks simple, but it’s actually quite an impressively deep game of one-on-one sword dueling that, honestly, I can’t get enough of. If I had more friends with commensurate time to waste, I’d be playing it basically nonstop.

Axiom Verge

Looks essentially like a class 2D Metroid game but with entirely modern sensibilities. I don’t just mean that very obviously has side-scrolling trappings that you would see from today in its gameplay, but that its atmosphere feels very present. Axiom Verge‘s trailer’s ability to create a foreboding sense of narrative impetus and its purposefully electronic tunes makes me want to believe that this game is going to be the real deal.

And come on, Sony. “Announce” trailer? I thought we were done with that. Not just as an industry but as a people.

Apotheon

I’m so in love with the art style of this game, not to mention its combat system is all up in my wheelhouse of fighting mechanics: brutal, swift, and deliberate. Not that I’m always particularly good at those types of games, but I appreciate it when their systems are made to be quick and decisive, like it appears to be in Apotheon.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

Listen, I’ve played a lot of demos of Wolfenstein: The New Order. I can tell you that the tactile route is totally viable. It’s also totally boring. And when you go in guns blazing, a lot of your time is actually spent trying to find enough ammo to keep the bloodbath raining. Of course, things could have and probably have changed, but that’s just what I know. There’s a reason why it cuts between the “cool” parts.

Call of Duty and VICE

I like a lot of what VICE does. They make some good videos of investigative journalism. This one, no doubt, could be also quite good if it wasn’t a three-minute prologue to another Call of Duty game. But the weird thing about this one is that it’s trying to play that we’ve never gone through this before.

True, Americans and the world at large don’t know much about the actual operations and risks and legality of private military corporations, or PMCs, but gamers are quite familiar with the philosophical intricacies of it all via Metal Gear Solid. And every other modern military FPS, really. A little late to the part, COD.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Granted, I’m pretty much over anything modern military shooters have to offer (I mean, how many times can you be impressed with blowing up a national landmark?), but that doesn’t mean that genre as a whole doesn’t make some damn good trailers. This one especially is worthwhile due to Kevin Spacey being Kevin Spacey and talking politics, filling a void in my life since I finished season 2 of House of Cards.

Super Time Force

In total, I’ve spent about 15 to 20 minutes with Super Time Force, and I love it already. This trailer exemplifies every reason why.

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Into the Ground

Into the Ground

I’ve played and beaten every major Call of Duty game that has been released. Most of them weren’t even intentional. Sometimes a misguided but well-meaning family member sees and buys the first video game that catches their eye for your birthday or you get sent a copy to review or your roommate’s Xbox’s disc drive is stuck and the last thing in there was Call of Duty: World at War. Basically what I’m saying is that things happen.

No regrets, though. None of them were terrible, and in fact a few of them are now seminal pieces in the industry’s historical tapestry. Iron sights, heavily scripted set pieces, and more can be traced to some degree to the series, if not as a progenitor then definitely as the one that made those things popular. And of course, there’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

Perhaps no other game shook up an industry, a genre, and a franchise so wholly as the first Modern Warfare. Of course there is World of Warcraft and Minecraft and Angry Birds, but this reminded people that even staunchly set-in-their-ways games can do well with innovation. The main dude fucking died. It proved that the right mix of RPG elements into a traditionally run ‘n gun category of games can have absolutely amazing results, as can nailing the feel of shooting virtual bad guys in the face.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Its single-player missions were stellar. Who doesn’t remember sneaking along in the grass, hoping not to get spotted by the veritable phalanx of soldiers and tanks all around you? Who can’t vividly and passionately recall taking that sniper shot from what felt like worlds away, taking a digital pulse of the wind and the rotation of the Earth? And that was all on top of a redefinition of addictive multiplayer.

Then the series kind of coasted. Or at least half coasted considering no one held Treyarch in particularly high regard back then. (And still?) We got more dead main characters and more nukes in space while innovation got shuffled into a Cards Against Humanity deck, cards pulled out one at a time and added to the series: “No Russian“, torture, etc.

It eventually became a joke. It became Madden. It became Guitar Hero. It became a series that many considered an annual cash grab and still it sold like god damn gold-dusted hot cakes. Confusingly, erroneously, impossibly it sold. I guess we were all taking crazy pills back then.

Grand Theft Auto V

How are you supposed to innovate on a yearly schedule? You ship and immediately start working on DLC and then figure out why all those bugs are still in the engine and then oh god it’s four months until we ship again. Guess why there’s so much new stuff in Grand Theft Auto V: it’s because Grand Theft Auto is not a yearly franchise. I’m not saying it’s the only reason (Rockstar is a talented studio) but it certainly didn’t hurt that they had more than a few months to plan.

Worse yet, how are you supposed to consolidate the large stable of usual development problems while you try to make a game work on completely new hardware? Poised to be launch titles on the new generation of consoles, Call of Duty: Ghosts is among the first through the veil to the future. The problem with living on the frontier, though, is that you have to learn how to navigate the unknown. No matter how ample, making efficient use of memory is still a puzzle to be solved in any generation.

So it makes sense that Ghosts is not simply treading water, maintaining the same level of quality as before with just a new system for earning weapons and levels and allowing you to stealth-kill as a dog. It actually took a step back in many ways. The dog sections make a traditionally linear game even more straightforward. And the dependency on an aging Quake engine is starting to show its limits. And that’s not to mention the heavy recycling of old missions and tropes.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

And after the addition of streaming capabilities to Call of Duty: Black Ops II, you’d think there would be a more focused aim towards eSports considerations. But Ghosts, apparently, doesn’t give an eff. For the most part, the maps are too big and eschew pseudo-lanes for chaos. The lengthy melee kill animation in multiplayer effectively stabs the rhythm of the game in the neck.

Sports have been finely tuned rules-wise for so long now. By and large, every major sport has an authority that presides over its development. With eSports, though, so much comes down to the developer, and with so much time spent on simply making the game work, that doesn’t leave a lot of space on the calendar for making sure it works well as a competitive format. So far, Riot with League of Legends seems to be doing it right.

Call of Duty, though, changes yearly, and not just with minor value tweaks. In terms of innovation, the changes are minuscule. (“Dual rendering” is an actual feature touted in marketing for sniper rifles, meaning you have peripheral vision when zoomed. I mean, come on.) But they are also deep enough that they fundamentally change the way high-level games are played. In basketball, they just have to concern themselves with flopping, which, as an aside, should have been dealt with long ago.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Then you throw in Zombies or Extinction or Squads or whatever, and it becomes obvious that being run into the ground is not the exact problem with the franchise. That is the result. The cause is that it is being spread too thin. Millions of dollars are on the line in each major Call of Duty tournament. An obscene amount more is at stake when it comes to pulling together a cohesive story when it’s now relegated to the second disc.

You can see it all falling apart at the seams because of this. It’s starting to look like too little butter spread over too much toast. The franchise has tried so many things and it has decided to keep all of them. Zombies should be its own game. Extinction could be its own game. Single-player probably doesn’t appeal to half of those that play multiplayer.

There is no easy solution, unless quitting counts as a solution. But that carries the same baggage as taking longer on each iteration; investors want big results and results don’t get bigger than a $1 billion debut. But to serve the fans better, you need to take the time to make a better, more considered product.

Call of Duty: Ghosts

Call of Duty is in the ground. Much like in the stories it tells, it’s fighting wars on several fronts, and none of them are looking up. It’s still a decent product, but how long will decent keep it afloat? How long does treading water count as success?

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A Standard Audio-ty

A Standard Audio-ty

A lot of concessions are already made for stories. There’s an entire plot device, after all, that does little else but give a name to random events kicking off subsequent action. Characters often act in extravagant or over-the-top ways so as to manufacture drama that can later be resolved in (hopefully) some meaningful way. And that’s not to mention we all experience these things in a largely default state of assuming the good guys always win, which is far from the truth of real life. When was the last time you saw a big ol’ headliner film that ended with the world blowing up and the terrorists/aliens/d-bags won?

In video games, we give up even more in the way of reality. Detachments from our tangible world become our norm and yet we cling to what’s left so as to make sense of these digital realms. For all its militaristic verisimilitude, what, exactly, is the strawberry jam covering our faces in Call of Duty supposed to be? If it’s blood, then are we to believe that when it clears up, we simply stuffed it all back into us and we’re all better now? If it’s really fruit preserves, then how are we losing to enemies that only use jelly-based munitions?

That, however, is the soup du jour of video game concessions. Or at least it was for the longest time. Before, you had to give up whatever fondness you had for accurate medical science when bullet wounds could be healed in a matter of seconds by picking up a little box with a Red Cross symbol on it. But that was just the tip of the iceberg: an endless amount of ammo magazines await you, you got a PhD in Visualizing Grenade Trajectories, and dead bodies fade into the ether.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Those are all concessions we regularly agree to and happily endure when playing most video games. A recent article by Kirk Hamilton over at Kotaku, though, made me think of the more personable, non-mechanical ones that we similarly and joyfully play through. In that piece, Hamilton talks about a bevy of games that both succeed and fail at making compelling in-game graffiti. He tears down Tomb Raider‘s admittedly poor decision to recycle and then needlessly highlight its dire survivor graffiti and then points out that even larger, more critically well-received games like The Last of Us fall victim to nonsensical wall art.

That all is in service of an overarching trend, though, called environmental storytelling. Or I guess it’s not a trend and more just a fact of narrative-driven games now since it is a very potent technique and technology is capable of rendering such things. One of my first experiences with the narrative tactic was in System Shock 2, a game that Hamilton also points to being one of the first aboard the graffiti train. But I specifically remember walking down a curving hallway—lights flickering—with a blood stain smeared across the wall next to me. That alone told a frightening story. It was, however, old-hat then in films and old-hat now in games, but it still does the trick.

One of the points Hamilton makes, though, is rather poignant and salient to my original conceit: most in-game graffiti makes no sense. What’s the purpose of writing “what happens when the food runs out” just outside of a city? Do the members of a fire-loving cult really need a spray painted reminder to “embrace the flame”?

Tomb Raider

It seems, however, that beyond the graffiti-covered zeitgeist, the bigger trend is for environmental storytelling to depart further and further from a staunch veracity and go deeper into irrationally suspended disbelief. Consider all a hallmark of the BioShock series: audio logs. A great deal of them both in Rapture and in Columbia (much more, it seems, up in the sky) contain the last words of dying men and women. Whether holding the front to some firefight, bleeding out from a sneak attack, or simply fading away with the flowing sand, they leave their mark on the world in a touching way. They’ve got family and friends untended to, they’ve got stories with unhappy endings. They all paint an appropriately grim and dark picture in these flawed and fallen utopias.

That is, of course, until you remember that they had to have been carrying these large audio recorders to do that. These big ol’ boxes of arcane technology seem to be both single purpose and single use, only being able to record a single message from a dying man before they’re tossed aside onto a shelf or behind a box or next to a pool of blood and loot. They look to be roughly the size and shape of a Ghostbusters proton pack, so think about someone lying on their side, their own blood slowly but surely running out of them, and they unhitch this behemoth from their back, rewind the tape, and press record to leave a message so perhaps someone other than a Splicer or nutso religious fanatic finds it. It is, without a doubt, absurd.

But this is the recent conclusion to years of experimenting with environmental storytelling, and it amounts to little more than overt narration, the laziest method of relating information to the viewer/player. It’s a handy relabeling to dodge the tired bullet of narration, similar to how The Office and Parks and Recreation fake documentary-style talking head segments to do the same thing.

BioShock 2 audio diary

Dead Space, Dishonored, Borderlands, Spec Ops: The Line, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Singularity, and so many more all fall victim to audio logs, and none of them make much more sense than BioShock. Giant Bomb’s concept page for audio logs lists 76 games, a density distribution curve with respect to time looking an awful lot like an exponential growth function. It is a growing trend and a rather subtle subversion of reality, but it is still a disconnect from what we know to be true.

That’s not to say, however, that it needs to be fixed for that particular reason. Breaking from the known and jumping headfirst into the unknown is perhaps the greatest strength of video games. Intuitive understanding—seeing that blood smeared across the wall—sticks around a lot harder than discrete understanding because we make the connections subconsciously, which then bubbles up to the forefront of our minds. It covers all bases of understanding and learning while reading and listening must be digested and extruded in reverse.

These audio logs fall into that undesirable latter, and when they begin to fail to make sense, they detach from our curiosity of the world we’re in and crumple into a pile of questions about the framework of the game. From improbably handy information to impossibly well-timed death rattles, those are concessions we shouldn’t have to make when we’re learning about our environment. We should be asking ourselves “what happened” instead of “how did this get here” but that’s far too often what we end up with.

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Taking The Victory Lap

Taking a Victory Lap

A victory lap is such an odd thing. In a way, it’s a bit dickish. You’re essentially rubbing your supremacy in the face of all your competitors, despite the implicit intention of also honoring them. There’s give and take involved for sure, but it’s still a gesture largely based on the premise that you’ve bested the competition and now you want to celebrate and let everyone know you’re celebrating, like, immediately. Fans will stand around and join you, congratulating you as you whizz by, while haters will jeer or turn their backs. It’s a shared moment where those in attendance can let everyone else know exactly where they stand, where on the spectrum of love and hate they lie.

But it’s also deserved. You have toppled the king, taken on all comers and emerged victorious. For today, in that moment, you are indeed the best there is at what you do and you deserve to be recognized. You’ve conquered all those who oppose you and it’s your right to stand above those fallen before you. It’s showy, but it’s also necessary. Sooner or later, the lesser will have to acknowledge that you are their superior, so it might as well be sooner.

The people you’ve come against, however, weren’t your only obstacles. There’s an intrinsic challenge within simply navigating the course. On a racetrack, all those turns were foes that couldn’t be beat but only accommodated. On the half-pipe, every inch of flatbed and coping were facts of life that you had to come to terms with well before returning from the air. Taking it slow necessarily makes these maneuvers easier, allowing time for appreciation of the design and your abilities and how they mesh together in the moment, a singular point in time where empowerment over those things that challenged you enables you to understand how two disparate pieces fit inside one another.

Victory lap at 1991 British Grand Prix

That moment is what I feel is missing from many games. Too often they follow the dramatic curvature of rising action to climax before shuttering out to an inconclusive conclusion. The denouement is similarly the narrative point at which you can mentally comprehend and resolve all of the twists and turns taken before, but the gameplay rarely follows suit. Instead, we often face off against bosses who physically dominate our play space and horde what feels like all of the health in the entire gaming universe. To most games, the climax is simply a rote struggle against an overpowered AI, not the most interesting encounter where all the systems and mechanics dovetail together into an odd but satisfying cocktail of stick movements and button pushes.

It is something missing almost completely from the entirety of modern Call of Duty games. The stories wrap up nicely (if a bit ridiculously), but the gameplay moments leading up to, including, and following the narrative peaks are fairly dull. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare got by on being new and what it did at the time was quite astonishing, but as it went on to World at War, Black Ops, and so on, the spectacle of non-involvement wore thin. Mental complacency of resolving a multi-threaded story and tying them all off with a bow only got you so far when the time surrounding it involves pressing a button to slow-mo throw a knife/shoot a gun, riding an escaping vehicle, and pursuing a fleeing foe. It’s stale and doesn’t feel very comforting knowing that you long ago mined all the mechanical nuance from the game.

The Last of Us, however, gets it partially right. The denouement goes on a bit long following what I consider the narrative climax at the end of Winter. The following Spring hits all the right story beats in brilliant syncopation with its complex themes, but it does drag on a bit longer than I would have liked for a conclusion you feel is right at your fingertips. But in terms of the actual things you’re doing from the start of Spring to the end of the game, it definitely qualifies as a bit of a victory lap.

The Last of Us concept art

That’s because for so much of the game, you’ve held back on letting loose. The name of the game was restraint, and you’ve been playing by its rules for the past 12 hours. Bullets you’ve refused to shoot for fear of encountering an insurmountable situation sat unused in your backpack and in your magazine. Arrows tucked away since Boston stick out like a sore, rotting thumb. But then things change.

(Slight spoiler warning: I’m about to talk about the last two weapons you get in The Last of Us. Not really a spoiler, but some people care about that sort of stuff, so I’m just covering my bases.)

First you’re given a flamethrower, and immediately following that you’re given an excuse to use it. You’re presented with a room full of runners. As soon as one starts running, they all start running. You know this. It’s cramped quarters and there’s no way you’ll be able to draw them out one at a time and stealth through this encounter. So you step up, let one of them see you, and let the fire flow. And it’s amazing. It’s empowering. It’s intoxicating in how much pleasure you get from seeing and hearing the infected flesh sizzle and crack at your feet. And then it’s sobering. It’s what you’ve been wanting to do this whole time and it’s still starkly violent, a reminder that this is a cold, cold world.

The Last of Us

And then you’re given an assault rifle and it fuels the rest of your combat encounters. You know you’re approaching the end and it seems enemies are dropping way more ammo than before, subtle hints that it’s time to let loose. Stand and take a hit, stand and shoot back. Stand and take the time to appreciate how far you’ve come from hiding in the darkness to walking through the light with a gun at your side. It’s the contrast in restraint that enables this victory lap of sorts. And it works because it feels so incredibly gratifying in terms of gameplay but so confusing narratively because it works in concert with both. It addresses your desires and places it up against the themes it’s been laying out for you from the beginning.

There have, of course, been other games with great victory laps. Consider Super Metroid. You fought the Mother Brain. You saw your grown baby Metroid come back to save you. And now you have the Hyper Beam. You’re standing at full health, taking every hit the Mother Brain throws your way. You see your health depleting but it doesn’t matter because you are just laying wasting with this supercharged weapon. You crush a foe you just barely bested moments before, mere seconds after seeing the one emotional attachment you have in the game disintegrate and the single objective given to you irrevocably broken on the floor before you. It is, once again, a wonderful confluence of narrative and mechanical appreciation for how the two intertwine and shed new light on the growth you and the game have achieved.

Then you have to escape the crumbling world around and above you and all those Space Pirates and shutter doors that caused momentary pause before are now cannon fodder. The whole last third of the game when you get the Screw Attack and Space Jump is masterful in leading you around and teasing you with power until you finally unleash it all. (Truth be told, that whole game is masterful, but let’s leave that for another time.)

Super Metroid Mother Brain battle

Journey is another great example. For the entire rest of the game, you’d been standing around, trying to gather enough, um, sparkles to float and jump and fly around. And it’s momentary bliss at best. It feels amazing while it lasts, but then you are earthbound again and awestruck and sobered in light of what you were doing followed by what you are doing, which is to say freeing yourself from the confines of the world to being wholly trapped in them.

This leads up to the narrative finale where you are at the top of the mountain, struggling to make it up the final pass. You trudge, slower and slower as the wind and the cold beats you back. The levity seemingly imbued into the game at the binary code level has been replaced with strident indifference. It’s painful to see a light and airy and joyful creature walk as if it has been laden with 200 pounds of sadness.

And then you are flying. You are soaring through the sky in a way you didn’t think you’d ever manage. All that time spent collecting wanton resources for skyward flights of fancy and watching life drain from the sole living, benign thing on the mountain is tossed out by the unrepentant ecstasy that fills you as you finally fucking fly. It’s unbelievable beauty that follows heartbreak, incredible empowerment that trails bleak oppression. It’s the ending to an ambiguous story you didn’t know you wanted or were capable of, but your pounding heart and your giant, dumb smile are impossible to ignore. It’s a victory lap for the ages. You’re no longer struggling. You’re flying.

Journey

Perhaps that’s the real point of the victory lap, to show that you’ve overcome so much, that what you used to think impossible is now firmly within your grasp. The track is clear of racers and the turns no longer seem like daunting challenges of managing throttle and brake but a chance to slow down and remind yourself to wave to the crowd. They want you to acknowledge that you’ve grown so much and come so far in this short amount of time, that despite standing up against it, the track has become a part of you in this moment. It’s something more video games could do with instead of ending with an uncompromising allegiance with the stricture of compounding enemy difficulty. Not every game needs to do it the same way, but give us a chance to appreciate our time with the game. Give us that victory lap.

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Forced From Hiding in The Last of Us

Forced From Hiding in The Last of Us

There’s a certain comfort afforded to us in death. If only in video games, it’s a chance to try again but with new knowledge. It borders on precognition, if not prescience. When you fall and rise again, you are the only one keenly aware of this infernal cycle, the only one knowing how this ended before and how it will end soon enough. It’s a bit like being Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. No one else knows that this is the 100th time you’ve done this, but you do.

Eventually you begin to call out rote patterns of easily manipulated behaviors. From your cozy vantage point of interminable life from a bed and an “I Got You, Babe” alarm or from behind a crate and a rifle scope, choices from autonomous agents become less interesting and more rote, adherence to a strict schedule that you fill in for yourself. If I got here, then he goes there and I can do this, or then that guy does this while I do that and so on and so on. Your list of causes begins to find its effects, pegs to their holes.

In some ways, this is a satisfying loop. It is, at its most rudimentary, a form of learning, albeit an interactive one. Such as in Call of Duty games when you play Veteran difficulty, you end up playing the same two-minute chunk of a level over and over and over again until the AI and routines of enemies and friendlies alike become an extension of your knowledge of the natural world. Gravity pulls at 9.8 meters per second, inertia is a property of matter, and in 10 seconds, a grenade is going to come through that front window and I’ll dodge into the next room so I can shoot three guys coming from the back so that in three more seconds, someone will set off my proximity mine at the side door. It’s the same sort of satisfaction of setting up and fully executing a Rube Goldberg machine except you are every piece of it.

But that is not a very deep type of learning. It can be ingrained in you deeply, yes, but that is not the same thing. These hamster wheels are pure operant conditioning in the cognitive sense; you are punished or rewarded for your ability to tie together cause and effect, a process that borders on simple habituation or rote learning. Memorizing your multiplication tables earns you the ability to recall very quickly what two times two or eight times five are, but they don’t gain you any deeper understanding of what it means to integrate a differential equation.

The Last of Us, the big title release for Sony from Naughty Dog this Summer, is a really good game with a trite but exceptionally well done story, but I’m sure you already knew that since you read our review. Just about everything in The Last of Us is superb from the acting to the graphics to the music to the systemic design of the combat encounters and the game’s mechanics, but perhaps one of the greatest things it does is one that few people ever bring up: it teaches you how to die.

Or rather, it teaches you how to get the most from death. With most other games, when you die and reset at a combat checkpoint, you and all your enemies reset to the same positions. This much is also true of The Last of Us, but then what happens after the game gets set back into motion is wildly different. All that cause and effect stuff that you learned before as Joel remains true (if this guy goes this way, I can go this way and choke him out), but it doesn’t matter; it all changes. That guy will not go that way so you cannot choke him out. You cannot simply sit idly by and wait for you moment to come because by then, they will have found you. And killed you.

These deaths force you to throw away the meta conditioning within conventional games as whole where once you begin to make progress, you keep hammering on that point of ingress until you succeed or retreat to the last point of failure and hammer somewhere else. It’s a bit like the algorithm for depth-first tree traversal except the tree is full of bodies instead of nodes. But in The Last of Us, deaths force you to try new tactics in a more consistent manner. There are still situations where you can get by with simplistic repetition and process of elimination such as with Clicker and Runner patrol paths, but enemies in search mode instead of patrol mode break that warm, cuddly blanket of wait and see.

The best example I can think of is when Joel makes it into the building about a third of the way through the game and fully commits to Ellie (careful to avoid spoilers). There are multiple instances where you enter a new encounter and enemies come in on the other end and are actively looking for you. I would start out behind a couch, move left behind a desk, and wait. One guy would come by, another would come by, and finally a third would strangle behind and I would take him out. Then I moved on until I messed it all up and died.

Then I would start out behind the couch again sans Cher (sorry, Murray). I would move left again to the desk and wait for the three guys to come by again, but instead, one of them comes around the left side of the desk as the other moves along the far right of the couch. My only recourse is the middle, but the third guy can see me from ther—yeah, you know how that ends.

I must have tried this encounter at least five or six times before I made it all the way through. And it wasn’t that I couldn’t have scraped by the skin of my teeth a few attempts earlier (I could have, or at least I think I could have) but I chose to just stand there and take a few bullets to the chest so I could start anew. It’s not that I was desperate for resources and wanted a perfect run. No, instead I knew I needed another lesson. The Last of Us does not allow for passive survivors. Perhaps it was a narrative facet of Joel’s aggressive nature, but it was something I sorely lacked when I first started playing.

And that’s less about learning a new way to play but rather learning a new part of The Last of Us. It is a wide- and deep-reaching systemic lesson taught through death that this does not play like many other survival horror or stealth games. Death in The Last of Us breaks open each knowledge-bearing coconut and makes us drink the juice before asking us again if we get it yet while other games throw the coconut at us and then tell us it threw a coconut at us. We must learn instead of memorize and we must move instead of hide. It is an exemplary design tucked away inside a trite zombie tale, a revelation found only in death’s sweet release.

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Eyes-On With Call Of Duty: Ghosts

Eyes-on with Call of Duty: Ghosts

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.

Federation Day

Call of Duty: Ghosts - Federation Day

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.

Call of Duty: Ghosts - Federation Day

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.

Conclusion

Call of Duty: Ghosts - Federation Day

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.

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