The Call of Duty: Ghosts demo shown at E3 is all spectacle. The three snippets of missions—two of which are embedded here, while the other was shown exclusively to press—are interactive narratives in which every player action is prescribed by environmental cues and a hushed voice saying "wait" and "now." Every step forward and every meaningful use of a weapon is done on command and only when commanded.
Activision is advertising a war movie we can interact with as long as we don't make meaningful decisions, as play-by-numbers as the opening scenes of Tomb Raider. Perhaps, like Tomb Raider, Ghosts will eventually let us loose, but so far it appears to trust Riley, the player's dog companion, to run without a leash more than it trusts the player. It is pretty, though, and the goal of these demos is to make sure we know it.
Activision is still calling Ghosts' engine a "brand-new next-gen engine," though it's not "brand-new" as in "entirely new" or "from scratch," but an upgrade new enough that the company is comfortable labeling it as such. It is certainly an upgrade—Ghosts' set-pieces are massive and intricate, and little details and imperfections permeate the environments. It can sit comfortably at the Crysis table.
In "No Man's Land," embedded above, we witness a massive, crumbling crater which I'd love to explore. Instead of exploring, however, the player never leaves a well-defined track. He uses a tablet connected to a wireless backpack strapped to Riley to guide him toward enemy patrols and clear the way with vicious leaping jugular attacks. Good doggie.
The sequence could be interesting, but there's no discovery or decisions to make. You're told exactly what to tell Riley to do, undermining the novelty of controlling a dog.
The "Into the Deep" demo below goes the same way. It's a gorgeous diving simulator, something I'd love to explore with an Oculus Rift, but we don't witness anything that could be called exploration. It has tense moments—the claustrophobic goggles and sonar pings yank at my nerves—but the the only thing the player is really in danger of is not following orders. I was surprised he didn't ask for permission to be crushed under sinking debris.
To Ghosts' credit, the very last moment hints at a scene in which a swarm of divers must be dealt with, hopefully on our own terms.
The exclusively-shown demo, "Federation Day," is the same deal: a stunning scene which would be welcome in any Mission Impossible film, but one with negligible player freedom. It begins on the roof of a skyscraper. The player and company swing past a backdrop of fireworks to the glass wall of another building, then repel down it, shooting unaware guards through the windows. Wait for him to go to the kitchen. Now. Pew Pew . OK, back to the other room. Wait. Now. Pew Pew .
There's a tense moment when the player, after entering the building and hacking into its power system, must hide uncomfortably close to a passing patrol. The last soldier in the group stops. He turns. He sees you. And then the tension plops to the floor along with the curious soldier, who's been silently executed by your squadmate. It then occurs to me that the soldier didn't see the player at all. He was looking into that hiding spot because it was the only possible place the player could hide.
What if the player hadn't followed instructions and slipped into darkness? Would there have been a shootout? Would the whole level happen differently from there on? I hope that's the case. It would be cynical to assume these demos represent Ghosts in its entirety, and these are the questions we'll be asking Infinity Ward going forward. But this is the game Activision is advertising. It treats the player like a scripted entity, a vessel for narration set along the same unchangeable path as the non-playing characters.
Ghosts' art direction, modeling, animation, sound design, and technical achievements rival the best accomplishments in those categories. With great writing, it might have an exciting campaign with surprising narrative twists, and we've now seen examples of the dramatic, catastrophic destruction of its sets—something that's fun just to look at. I'd like to know, however, if Ghosts ever becomes a game, with systems to be manipulated and rewards to be earned through creative play, or if it is entirely an exercise in following orders.