Activision's latest "Call of Duty" game introduced fans to an unexpected star in Riley, the now-famous four-legged hero of the first-person shooter out Tuesday.
Paws down, the breakout star of this year's "Call of Duty: Ghosts" was Riley, the adorably chipper German shepherd who fights alongside an elite squad of super-soldiers in Activision's latest blockbuster first-person shooter.
Within moments of being introduced in the "Call of Duty: Ghosts" reveal trailer during the Xbox One unveiling event in May, the pooch rocketed to Internet stardom. A Twitter parody account for the "Call of Duty Dog" was created the same day under the handle @CollarDuty, and it gathered some 21,000 followers within its first week online.
"Riley really became a meme in his own right," Daniel Suarez, vice president of production at Activision, told NBC News. "We were really struck by how much people seemed to like him. It only goes to show how much passion there is in the 'Call of Duty' community at this point."
The fact that Riley was introduced alongside Microsoft's next-generation Xbox One only helped cement the dog's celebrity status given how easily the nickname "Xbone" and a dog seemed to go together.
The dog certainly struck a nerve among the meme-friendly part of the Internet. Along with the now 29,000-follower-strong Twitter account, Riley devotees also produced numerous GIFs and mock covers for "Ghosts" riffing on the, well, dog-ness of the whole ordeal. By mid-October, the Riley-love had risen to such a fever pitch that Mark Rubin, executive producer at "Ghosts" developer Infinity Ward, felt the need to address concerns over whether Riley would die head-on, telling the Associated Press, "Everybody thinks we're going to kill the dog."
Whenever a new "Call of Duty" trailer would pop up showing the dog doing something crazy like, say, taking down a helicopter, meanwhile, the Internet would explode all over again.
"OH MY DOG," one reader exclaimed after seeing a post on the influential gaming blog Kotaku celebrating Riley's helicopter-felling achievements. "Can we play as the dog?"
Unfortunately, animal-lovers might have just gotten ahead of themselves with the thought of developer Infinity Ward reinventing the first-person shooter genre from a dog's perspective.
Ruger, pictured here in the studio, was one of the real-life dogs used to model Riley both in the "Ghosts" video game and assorted trailers and short CGI films made to promote the new "Call of Duty" game.
As many early reviews have noted, you can indeed play as Riley in select parts of the game. But he functions as little more than another high-tech tool in your arsenal of futuristic gadgets — allowing you to sneak past enemies or get the drop on them when you're controlling Riley directly from a camera mounted on his back, or simply ordering him to attack bad guys during shootouts.
"Call of Duty: Ghosts" just launched on Tuesday, so it's too early to tell if Riley fans will be pleased with the final game. But, really, whatever canine appears in "Ghosts" is only part of the story. The real "Call of Duty Dog" has a life of its own at this point.
"I hope you're all having fun playing Ghosts," @CollarDuty tweeted early Tuesday morning. "Wish someone would play with me, a game of 'fetch' would suffice. Sticks, not grenades, mind."
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.
First published November 5 2013, 2:44 PM