Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Call of Duty’ returns with new twists

The developers of Call of Duty: Ghosts have drawn up a game-changing battle plan for the billion-dollar video game franchise.

Out Tuesday for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U and PCs ($60, ages 17-up), the military fighting game has a globe-trotting storyline penned with the help of Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Traffic). The post-apocalyptic near-future tale – the U.S. has suffered a devastating attack – plays on family ties and introduces a loyal and lethal secret weapon: Riley, an attack-trained German Shepherd.

A new Call of Duty also means a new iteration of the crazily-popular online multiplayer game mode. This year's model has an improved character customization scheme with 20,000 combinations. For the first time, you can create a woman soldier – a nod to the growing female player base. In a new squads mode, you can match up against computer-controlled opponents to improve your online skills. And an entirely new mode, Extinction, lets four players work together to fight off an alien invasion.

STORY: More on multiplayer

Publisher Activision and main development studio Infinity Ward made the right move shaking things up a bit, says analyst P.J. McNealy of Digital World Research. "You always have to take risks to avoid franchise fatigue, and new stories are needed," he says.

Timed to the game's launch is a new mobile Call of Duty app for Android, iOS and Windows 8 devices that lets players customize characters and track progress in a Call of Duty Clan Wars metagame.

Call of Duty has been reliable for Activision. Each of the last four annual releases have surpassed $1 billion in sales with more than 20 million copies sold each.

Even though Ghosts may not be the top-selling game of 2013 – that honor will go to Grand Theft Auto V with 29 million copies shipped already – Ghosts will scare up huge numbers. "This franchise has been the biggest and best franchise in this console cycle," McNealy says. "The huge sell-in numbers for (GTA) bodes wel! l for (Ghosts) coming in north of 25 million units."

However, Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter projects that retail sales will dip as much as 10%. And the arrival of new consoles later this month from Sony and Microsoft could, he says, "hurt sales initially, mostly because of the drain on wallet share." Ghosts is also available on the PlayStation 4, out Nov. 15, and the Xbox One (Nov. 22).

Many Best Buy stores will begin selling the game at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday and stores in West Los Angeles and Minneapolis will have Infinity Ward developers on hand for special events. Retailer GameStop expects 200 or more customers at most of its more than 4,000 stores for midnight sales events. Ghosts "is on track" to be the most-reserved game in 2013 for the retailer, says president Tony Bartel.

A screen shot from the video game 'Call of Duty: Ghosts,' out Nov. 5, showing the canine companion, Riley.(Photo: Activision/Infinity Ward)

Developer Infinity Ward dropped the Modern Warfare universe of its three previous games. The plot follows what's left of the special forces including the player's character, Logan, his brother and their father, a commander. "We added a very strong family element," says the game's executive producer Mark Rubin. "That experience of how that plays out for you as a player really adds a new story depth."

And players will also get a canine's eye view of the action when they deploy Riley in the game. Two Navy Seals-trained German Shepherds were used in motion capture sessions to create the in-game dog's natural moves. It worked so well that Riley evolved "from an auxiliary role to more of a teammate," says animator Zach Volker.

In the making of the video game 'Call of Duty: Ghosts,' two trained German Shepherds were used in motion capture sessions so that animators had realistic movements to assign to the in-game dog, Riley.(Photo: Activision/Infinity Ward)

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