After I ask Infinity Ward executive producer Mark Rubin what it is about Call of Duty: Ghosts, exactly, that is innovative, he makes a "hmm" sound and thinks for a while.
I can tell he's toiling over his answer - not that he can't think of anything that's innovative about Ghosts, the next game in Activision's gargantuan first-person shooter series, but because he finds the term somewhat problematic.
"That's always a tough one," Rubin tells me, bleary-eyed and exhausted after hours of back-to-back interviews at yesterday's Call of Duty: Ghosts multiplayer reveal event in LA, "because we have to innovate within our realm. Other games innovate within their realm. Other games have added stuff that we've had in our game for years. And we'll do the same. So innovation becomes a weird word when you say it that way.
"I was toiling with the idea of what some gamers might think about it, which is, show me something I've never seen before. Anywhere."
The reaction to Ghosts' multiplayer reveal, from what I've seen, has been mixed. The impressed point to the new Squads system and its associated game modes with pleasant surprise, and nod in excitement at the prospect of dynamic maps with their traps and destruction. The unconvinced suggest Squads mode is nothing more than a noob-friendly experience and, therefore, not worthy of further investigation, and believe the dynamic maps idea is too little too late, particularly now Battlefield 4's "Levolution" appears to be doing mid-match mayhem on a much grander scale.
Whatever your reaction, most agree that Call of Duty: Ghosts' multiplayer looks a lot like the multiplayer in past Call of Duty games, even with the addition of mid-match map-destroying orbital strikes and collapsing gas stations. Having played Ghosts extensively yesterday, I can say it feels a lot like the multiplayer in past Call of Duty games, too.
But is there more to Ghosts than meets the eye? Rubin casts his mind back before continuing. "If you remember, when Modern Warfare came out, one of the big, innovative changes, if you want to call it innovative, to Call of Duty was adding a progression level and adding perks. The word perks, which is used in a bunch of games now, came from Modern Warfare.
"We look at Modern Warfare as one of the biggest changes to Call of Duty ever. And what we've done with this game is go back and tear apart every system and rebuild it in a way we feel compliments our philosophy for this game."
"We look at Modern Warfare as one of the biggest changes to Call of Duty ever. What we've done with Ghosts is go back and tear apart every system and rebuild it in a way we feel compliments our philosophy for this game."
Infinity Ward executive producer Mark Rubin
Highlighting his point, Rubin points to Ghosts' new customisation system, or, as he puts it, "the idea of customising your character to not just who you want to be but how you want to be". There are over 20,000 possible combinations. You can change your soldier's head, body type, head gear and even - shock horror - sex. That's right, kids: for the first time ever in a Call of Duty game, you can also play as a female soldier in multiplayer.
As for perks, Ghosts features a new system inspired by Treyarch's Pick 10, used for Black Ops 2. You're allocated a budget of eight points to spend on perks. Every perk has a set point value from one to five. So, you can choose four perks, each valued at two points a piece, or eight perks, each valued at one. You can choose to get rid of your secondary weapon and equipment, and in so doing increase your budget to 11.
"I would say that's innovative," Rubin says. "The problem is fans will be somewhat cynical and say, 'You've been able to create characters since EverQuest 1!' Well, yes, but not within Call of Duty. So, is that innovation? It's a new feature within Call of Duty. Maybe that is innovation."
Is it unreasonable, I wonder, for people to expect the developers at Infinity Ward and Treyarch to provide something they've never seen before not just in Call of Duty, but in any game? Given the rigorous annual release schedule set down by Activision for the series, is it impossible?
"I don't think so," Rubin counters. "We're always looking for the best thing for the game. We don't grade things on whether we think they're innovative or not, necessarily. We just say, 'Is this a cool feature we think is fun to play?' And, 'Is it making the game better?' If it does, let's do it.
"We don't say, 'Well, so and so did something like this once before. That's not innovative or whatever.'
"It's a tough one..."
Ghosts' dynamic maps include player set traps, destruction and map-changing events. The Odin Strike, for example, reduces the Strikezone map to rubble.
Rubin has another think about the innovation question. Eventually, he mentions Squads.
In Ghosts, you can spend Squad Points to create a squad of up to 10 soldiers, each with its own unlocks, loadouts, appearance and Prestige. As you play each of these soldiers you earn XP. Once you earn enough, that soldier Prestiges, but unlike in past COD games, this time you get to keep everything you've unlocked. So, 10 soldiers and one level of Presige per soldier equals 10 levels of prestige.
The Squads game mode can be played solo, co-op or competitively, and is based around the idea of taking the squad you've created in multiplayer and using it to compete against the AI or other players. Importantly, your progress in Squads counts towards multiplayer, so you earn XP and rank up by playing the mode.
The AI that controls your squad mates and enemy squad soldiers is, Rubin says, more lifelike than ever before. They'll even corner camp and jump shot. And here's where it gets interesting: your loadout choices govern how your soldiers behave, so, for example, if you equip one of your squadmates with a sniper rifle, he or she will act like a sniper.
Although Squads weren't playable at the multiplayer reveal event, I like the sound of the gameplay modes that support them. There's the typical four-player wave-based mode called Safe Guard, inspired by Survival from Modern Warfare 3, but Squad versus Squad and Squad Assault feel fresh. With the latter, you, or you and your mates, join forces against an offline player's squad. The game matchmakes you against squads made by players around the world, or you can choose one of your friends' squads to assault. You can challenge these offline squads with five other players or go in solo with five of your squad members. There's a hint of Call of Duty Manager to the whole thing.
"Some of the stuff we're doing with Squads is actually really innovative," Rubin says. "You're going to create a squad, you're going to choose the loadouts that squad is going to use, you're then going to choose the map and the mode your squad is going to defend, and then other people in the world are going to matchmake up against your squad, or your friends are just going to pull you out of their friends list and take it on. And, have it be an offline experience.
"In other words, I'm now actually gaining XP and being notified when someone's attacking my squad, and interacting with a game that's in play while I'm offline.
"That could be considered brand new. I'm not sure anyone's ever done that before."
"Some of the stuff we're doing with Squads is actually really innovative... That could be considered brand new. I'm not sure anyone's ever done that before."
Rubin, as you'd expect, whispers words of hyperbole when talking about Squads, but within the confines of Call of Duty it's revelatory. Not only does it provide an opportunity for less skilled players to climb the progression ladder without venturing out into the intimidating world of competitive online, it adds a new layer of strategy that is not determined only by the typical reflexes-based, fast and frenetic COD gameplay - the magic gameplay formula that has propelled the series to the top of the charts.
For Rubin and Infinity Ward, innovation is the collection of features. It is a combination, not this or that. It is Squads, customisation, dynamic maps and, of course, Riley the dog, who in multiplayer is a Kill Streak. The developers will hope all this together will be enough to satisfy those who long for Call of Duty's next Modern Warfare moment.
For publisher Activision, there's more to consider. Boss Eric Hirshberg took to the stage during the MP reveal event to insist COD is more popular than ever, with 10 million unique players daily. To me his proclamation felt like it was a reassuring follow-up to his recent admission that pre-orders for Ghosts were way below those for Black Ops 2 at the same point last year. Hirshberg blamed the lack of pre-orders on the upcoming transition to next-gen consoles, a point based on the belief that customers are yet to decide which platform they will play the game on, but I wonder if that tells the whole story. Is Ghosts doing enough to excite the existing COD fanbase, let alone lapsed fans?
"We've done Spec Ops and we could have gone that route of just doing that again, but we wanted to find something new for the player to do, something different that they hadn't seen before."
During his on-stage speech Rubin proclaimed Ghosts "the biggest overhaul of multiplayer we've done since the original Modern Warfare", and he reiterates this at the end of our interview.
"If you define Modern Warfare as a sub-brand and Black Ops as a sub-brand, then this would be another sub-brand," he says.
"That's one of the things that led us to changing so much this time around. This multiplayer, obviously we're not going to change that magic formula, but we have changed so many of the systems.
"And not just like, oh, we have new weapons or new kill streaks, but in how you move through the world. All the new ways the animations work and the sound, the whole new audio engine...
"It's a really new, new new new new Call of Duty that still has that magic formula."
This article is based on a press trip to Los Angeles. Activision paid for travel and accommodation.