Call of Duty has always embodied the quintessential stereotype of video games -- seemingly aimed directly at the classic "white 20-something male" demographic -- even if that stereotype has long since been proven dead and moot. Heavily armed, high-tech soldiers from America's armed services (and those of our allies), running around racking up kill streaks and interacting with the world through the language of destruction. Toys for the boys.
But the latest entry in the series, this fall's Ghosts, makes a few changes to the Call of Duty toybox. The manly men of the series will be joined by both a non-human character -- a German Shepard named Riley, who instantly became an Internet meme at his debut during Microsoft's Xbox One announcement event -- and non-male characters. While the former plays a major role in both the campaign and multiplayer modes of the game, so far we've only seen women as an optional character skin for multiplayer.
And that's literally all women are in Ghosts: A cosmetic change. "In terms of mechanics, female characters only differ from male in that we've added some special animations," says Activision senior producer Yale Miller. "As far as hit detection and hitbox, will [women] have an advantage? I know there are guys with other games who say, 'Well I need to play as a female character because they're harder to hit,' -- and no, that won't be the case here.
"They can do everything we can do," he told me in an interview at Activision's Ghost multiplayer review event. "Most times better," he added, laughing.
Which is as it should be. Ghosts doesn't make any real distinctions between male and female soldiers: They share the same skills, the same physical capabilities, the same physical resilience. They're definitely not meant to be eye candy, either, as they come decked out in the same bulky BDUs as their male counterparts. I built a custom female character out of curiosity and had exactly the same experience as I did with a male avatar (I died pathetically and frequently); the only difference is that instead of controlling some beefy meathead, I was playing as a woman who looked for all the world like Corporal Ferro from Aliens. Which, let's be honest, is rad.
The prospect of handicapping female characters never came up over the course of development, Miller says. "I don't think it was ever discussed, 'Should they have specific characteristics?' We want people to be able to play as whoever they want to play as. Women are in combat. For character customization, it seems like a no-brainer to [add females]. At the end of the day, [Infinity Ward] is going to do what's best for the game -- but no, that never came up."
That same egalitarian sense extends to Riley as well. While players can't control the dog directly -- "You get a killstreak and your character whistles and Riley comes in," explains Miller -- he becomes a normal element of the battlefield. And that means, somewhat surprisingly, that Riley can die. "He'll take bullets and die like anything else," Miller confirms.
Of course, Miller is speaking of the multiplayer portion of the game here; "I get more questions about 'You better not kill that damn dog!' than anything ever," is all he'll say about Riley's role in the campaign. But Riley serves as a perk, similar to drones and other supplemental combat tools, and he'll stay in play until either he dies or the player does. Sometimes beyond: "After you die, sometimes he'll be able to take out the guy who killed you," Miller adds.
"The way Riley works is if an enemy comes within range of you -- even if you don't have eyes on the enemy -- he'll start to growl. So he's kind of an early warning system. If someone fires on you and they're within a certain radius, Riley will go after him. It's much more complex than that, but that's the basic view of how his AI works."
Riley's vulnerability actually comes as something of a surprise, as video games tend to be squeamish about depicting harm to animals. Take last year's Mark of the Ninja, for example: Players really had to work to take down human opponents non-lethally, but when it came to dogs you could only stun them; the only way to kill a dog was to cause an enemy to gun it down. Being able to take down Riley directly flies very much in the face of video game trends.
Miller stands by the team's decision. "There may have been conversations about [whether or not to allow Riley to be killed], but I wasn't involved in them. In the end, it's a video game.
"The truth of the matter is, there are dogs in combat, and there are dogs that get wounded, and it's a reality. So shying away from that... are we trying to make the game totally realistic? Absolutely not! But all the Riley stuff really came out of initial talks with the SEALs and actual service dog handlers and understanding what the dogs do. It made sense.
"And there's nothing more satisfying in the game when your dog gets killed and you take down the guy who did it and earn a "best friend" badge. You're like, 'That's right! That's what you get for killing my dog.'"
I wouldn't suggest that the addition of women and dogs to the Call of Duty universe represents some kind of significant sea change for the series, but it does reinforce the developers' intention to deviate from expectations with Ghosts. These new options come in addition to the campaign's story, which sees America devastated under the heel of a foreign conquerer and forced to fight back with ragtag rebel warfare -- quite the change from the series' standard fare of the U.S. as a superior military power.