Call of Duty has finally washed its hands of the far future, ejecting from Infinite Warfare's glistening cockpit and plunging headlong into the barbed wire thickets and bullet-churned foxholes of the 1940s. But given that Call of Duty is already the War To End All Wars, reshaping periods and places to fit its own, ageless and perpetually revisited strain of corridor shoot-out, what does a return to World War 2 actually mean in practice? The resumed brownification of video game visuals aside, it means the end of the series' brief, torrid love affair with powered exoskeletons and cybernetic enhancements, initiated by Advanced Warfare in 2014. Exosuits remain the fashion elsewhere - consider BioWare's Anthem, in which mechs surge like dolphins through the foliage of a collapsed Earth - and it's possible that 2018's Call of Duty (Black Ops 4, presumably) will bring them back into play. But Sledgehammer's decision to clear the table of cybernetic enhancements is a pivotal moment for a trope that has given rise to some powerful experiments.
I've been thinking a lot about guns for the past few weeks. More specifically, I've been thinking about bullets, and how many of them we spray into the digital ether at this time of year, when the big beefy action games turn up on schedule for the Christmas market.
We're going to be reading - and indeed, probably writing - a lot about PC optimisation over the next few days, but for every negative, there tends to be a positive, and we wanted to show that key developers are pushing the boat out to bring us some decent PC work. When we looked at the computer version of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare in last week's Face-Off, we were impressed with the ease with which we could attain the 'proper' Call of Duty experience - 1080p at a highly consistent frame-rate with lavish quality settings. A typical enthusiast gaming PC - featuring something like a Core i5 quad-core processor paired with a £150 graphics card like the GTX 760 - is capable of excellent results.
Having touched on Advanced Warfare's campaign yesterday, it's perhaps the multiplayer mode that represents the bigger hold over the Call of Duty series' fans. After seeing the PS4 struggling to hold 60fps at points in solo play, and with Xbox One's image quality diminished by its dynamic resolution, one question remains: does the single-player mode's performance profile have any bearing on online competitive play?
Right off the bat, we can confirm that while we do see the Xbox One version creeping to a full 1920x1080 resolution in the campaign's less taxing scenes, the same is not true of multiplayer. When pixel-counting screenshots gleaned from all 13 available stages, the 1360x1080 resolution is a constant fixture. Even with non-intensive, small maps featuring no players on-screen, the Xbox One refuses to increase its native frame-buffer dynamically based on load. Meanwhile, the PS4 remains locked at full 1080p, just like its campaign counterpart.
By matching shots at spawn points, the impact of this resolution differential is clear to see. A cut-back framebuffer on Microsoft's hardware causes foliage elements - grass, trees and so on - to appear aggressively filtered and upscaled, while the PS4's visual make-up remains crisp and defined throughout our testing.
After a spell in development lingering at 882p and 900p pixel-counts, it's now confirmed that the Xbox One version of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare uses a
">dynamic scaling model
- rendering at resolutions between 1360x1080 to the full 1920x1080, depending on the intensity of the in-game action. As announced by Sledgehammer co-founder Michael Condrey during a Reddit AMA, this marks a stark upgrade over the console's 720p delivery in Call of Duty: Ghosts, bringing it much closer to the crisp, native 1080p image enjoyed on PlayStation 4. But with its resolution in flux, just how well does image quality fare on Microsoft's platform in comparison? And just as crucially, how does performance hold up between the two?
The future, it seems, is now. When Modern Warfare impressed upon the world the grittiness of combat, its pin-sharp shooting smartly muddied by the sociopathy of its soldiers as they went about their wetwork with the glib efficiency of plumbers, its dust settled across an entire generation of shooters. Call of Duty moved on from one extreme to another, ending in a tangle of late Brosnan histrionics that reached a nadir with last year's Ghosts, while elsewhere the war has moved on to far-fetched sci-fi fantasies such as Titanfall or Destiny.
As played at this year's Gamescom and EGX on Xbox One, multiplayer in Advanced Warfare is a very different beast to the work-in-progress Seoul campaign mission shown at Microsoft's E3 event. Set across a broad rotation of maps, from the snowy Biolab complex to the futuristic gloss of Defender, it's clear changes were needed to boost multiplayer performance above the variable 30-60fps seen in solo play. But in the visual sense, what has changed in order to hit the all-crucial 60fps target, as demanded by the series' competitive players?
Glen Schofield is a tank of a man. The kind you'd expect to make floorboards quake, the type of person you'd conjure up in your mind if you were ever asked to picture the talent behind Call of Duty; strong, direct, American. And he makes his entrance into Sledgehammer Games' presentation theatre on an oversized scooter, playfully crashing into colleague and studio co-founder Michael Condrey, waving to the room with the sunbeam smile of a children's entertainer. Maybe he's not quite what you'd imagine of a Call of Duty developer after all.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare's marketing tagline is "power changes everything". That's not just about Kevin Spacey's all-conquering private military corporation in the game's story. It's about the multiplayer, too.
PS4 and Xbox One launch title Call of Duty: Ghosts arguably didn't do enough to show the next-gen difference. Even with tricks such as dynamic lighting and tessellation to show for the generational leap over the last-gen releases, the Xbox One's flat 1280x720 output remains a sore spot in image quality comparisons - and while the PlayStation 4 hits genuine 1080p gold (once patched), frame-rate issues and tearing stand at odds with the fluidity of earlier games on Xbox 360. But more important than the basic rendering metrics is the feeling that Ghosts iterated upon the existing formula as opposed to offering an authentic next-gen vision for the series. With the full unveiling of Advanced Warfare at Microsoft's E3 conference, do we now at last have a sign of true progress in the Call of Duty franchise?
I detect more than a bit of Dead Space in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare - and I'm not just talking about the Ishimura reference. But to Sledgehammer co-founders Michael Condrey and Glen Schofield, who while at EA-owned studio Visceral created the science-fiction horror series, this doesn't seem like a thing.
Perhaps Sledgehammer Games is making a technological statement with the reveal of its first solo Call of Duty title. The recent release of the new trailer - brought forward in the wake of an unexpected leak - is all gameplay, captured from the Xbox One version of the game. This may come as something of a surprise bearing in mind that last year's COD was at the centre of the Resolutiongate debate, running at just 720p on the new Microsoft console, compared to the native 1080p of the PS4 build.