We hear a lot about “the best of both worlds” – brains and beauty, wealth and happiness, strength and speed, youth and wisdom. The same applies to our psyche as gamers: When we play a game at 60 frames per second, we want it to look fantastic; when we play a game that looks fantastic, we want it to render images and events faster than the eye can see.
Some of this helps explain the loathing for the graphics of Call of Duty. The best-selling first-person shooter on the market – which has released a new iteration annually since 2006, rotating between developers Infinity Ward and Treyarch – routinely wraps itself in the flag of 60fps and blisteringly paced shootouts, and yet naysayers will castigate its visual prowess at the release of every screenshot or trailer. Now Treyarch design director David Vondehaar has decided to weigh in.
Mostly with confusion. Although Call of Duty: Black Ops II runs on the same proprietary engine developed by Infinity Ward for 2007’s Modern Warfare, Vondehaar expressed his belief to OXM that the engine has adapted well. Regarding criticism to the contrary, he reasons that attacks on the game’s graphics are slightly misguided:
“Anybody who comes at the engine needs to remember it’s the 60 frames they love in the first place. And we can make it beautiful – that’s through years and years of working with the engine, improving upon it and improving the pipeline and improving our approach, our lighting rendering.”
But exactly how much work – or, perhaps a better word, progress – the engine has seen throughout successive Call of Duty titles remains a tenuous issue. Improvements to lighting and texture and polish have almost never been discernible between one game and the next since Modern Warfare, and the final-build footage released for Black Ops II has made clear the engine is showing its age. Not for withering but for lack of keeping up. Vondehaar, however, doesn’t understand the perception that the billion-dollar franchise is loosing its sheen.
“People like to talk about the engine, but the truth of the matter is that this isn’t like something that was invented six years ago. At this point that engine doesn’t resemble anything like [our current] engine – we’ve ripped out the UI system, the rendering and the lighting are all new, the core gameplay systems are all new.
“To me, it’s like I never really understood. It runs at 60 and it’s gorgeous. What exactly is there to be upset about with the engine?”
Vondehaar’s notions don’t come as a surprise; they’re similar to Treyarch head Mark Lamia’s comments this May stating Black Ops II doesn’t need a new engine. It was then that Lamia, slightly more understanding of the criticism, compared the current engine to a remodeled house: “You might even go as hardcore as replacing the plumbing” (a reference to the new lighting system in Black Ops II), but “you don’t tear out the foundation.”
Indeed, there are many ways Activision and Call of Duty have benefited leaving “the foundation” where it lies: cost cutting, simplification, and the consistency of their loudly-trumpeted 60fps mark. At the same time, though, those who play 30fps shooters like Battlefield 3 and Halo and Gears of War, caring little for (or not even noticing) the difference, have likely come to appreciate the extra special-effects panache.
Perhaps in the next generation both ends of the visual/gameplay spectrum will be easier to attain. E3 2012’s sampling of next-gen tech demos placed a great emphasis on both fidelity and real-time flexibility. For the purposes of the present, however, it underlines one of gaming’s great debates:
Ranters, graphics or frame rate: which do you value most? Do you think Call of Duty is hindered by its focus on the latter?
Call of Duty: Black Ops II releases on November 13, 2012 for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360, and November 18th for the Wii U.
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