Call of Duty will play the same on next-generation consoles, but it will be much, much prettier
There is something deeply strange about seeing Call of Duty: Ghosts running on the next-generation engine that will fuel the future of the series. The first thing that jumps out at you is that it does not look that much better. There is no moment where you gasp in joy, or your jaw drops open. Instead, you’ll notice a moment here or there where things look almost uncanny, or you’ll get a sense of seeing more detail than you’re used to perceiving. Everything moves very smoothly.
It begins to sink in slowly, and soon you begin to pick up little details and effects that may not have been possible on existing hardware. It’s subtle, but there is a distinct difference. Welcome to the next generation?
More real than real
After watching a brief tech presentation and a few game play samples I sat down with Zach Volker, the animation lead on Ghosts. “One of the things that affects us is we doubled the amount of joints in our face, so we get better fidelity to match the extra geometry,” he told me when I asked how the new engine changes his day to day work. “A lot of the heavy lifting is picked up by the asset team, the character models are ridiculously high resolution, the gun models are ridiculously high resolution, as you saw.”
“The environment art, there is a lot of extra workload there, just because you have the ability to make everything look so nice,” he continued.
Of course, all that needed detail creates more work. I asked if the new engine requires more time to put into each piece of the game.
“It does. It really does. If you look at developing a character, if a character has a much higher level of detail in its mesh, it’s going to take longer to model,” Volker explained. “If you have the option to have a new skin shader, it’s going to take longer to add that and tweak that. We’re also asking for something new. It really does impact working time.”
I asked for a ballpark for how long much longer a character model would take to create in this engine, versus the previous Call of Duty titles. It was hard to nail down a precise amount of time, but he estimated around 50% more time to create a model.
There are some aspects of the new engine that looked even more impressive when we were allowed to peek behind the scenes. The engine allows the number of polygons to increase “exponentially” as the models are brought closer to the camera. So when your character pulls a gun in close to sight down the barrel, everything still looks perfectly smooth, with beautiful curves.
During one live demonstration they turned the wireframe on so we could see the amount of polygons in a gun model during a normal scene, and then they pulled that model close to the camera. We watched as the polygons split and multiplied, until there was just a dense web of lines. It all happened with no hit to the frame rate, and the process was smooth and subtle. Once you see this process in action, it’s hard to unsee it, and even harder to go back to previous games in the series.
Same game play, more details
Still, I’m a graphics geek, and I know what to look for. Will your average gamer care? How much better can these games look?
“We’re definitely going to hit a wall, and we’re getting closer to it with every generation. I mean, there’s reality, and I couldn’t make that look any better if I took a picture of it,” Volker agreed. “That’s reality, but that’s not what we do. At Infinity Ward we try to do what we call believability. We all know that a Pixar film looks beautiful, and yet we know that it’s not realistic. We want to make things beautiful, even past that the point that it’s realistic. If it’s believable, and beautiful, than we’ve done our job.”
“We look at realism as a reference point. We say that this is real, and this is nice, but can we take it further? Can we make it look even cooler than real?” he continued.
You see these “cooler than real” moments in the game play demo we were shown. It all makes sense in a sort of Michael Bay way, with set pieces and explosions set up to look amazing while your playing, even if sometimes the action doesn’t make a ton of sense. Still, an underwater section, complete with tense stealth moments and beautiful lighting effects, looks significantly better than anything we’ve seen from th series thus far.
Still, this just changes how the game looks, not how it plays. Volker spoke candidly about this topic: Don’t think about the new engine in terms of changing the game so many people love, think of it as technology that allows the game’s visuals to catch up with the experience that’s already there.
“We as a studio have never felt that tech has limited our ability to innovate on the game play. It has limited us in the ability to immerse the player in those game play moments,” he told me, choosing his words carefully. “We’d say that was a really cool experience we had, but maybe there weren’t as many characters on screen as we’d like, so it felt a little flat, or maybe the effects just weren’t as strong because we didn’t have enough processing power. Rarely does it stop us from innovating on the game play, what it’s allowing us to do is add to the immersion of the game play.”
Now they can layer on the affects, add more soldiers to a battle, and increase the believability of the environments, while keeping things running at 60 frames per second. “The filters, the lighting, the texture effects with the displacement mapping with the HDR, it’s going to kiss those game play moments we work on, and bring it to a whole new level,” he said.
I went back over my notes from the tech demos and game play we had been shown at the event. The new engine definitely allows for a nice jump in graphical fidelity and animation quality; everything onscreen had a more solid, physical presence. There was also little issue with the uncanny valley. It’s also clear that the core game play the series is known for will remain intact, which is something that should please the legions of Call of Duty fans.
Right now the tech isn’t changing the game play of what is arguably gaming’s biggest franchise, but it’s making it look a whole lot prettier. We should have some video as soon as it's sent from the Xbox event.