In the first of our weekly in-depth pieces on an upcoming blockbuster, we speak to Sledgehammer to discover why Advanced Warfare is the most exciting Call of Duty in years.
A giant space ship is seen floating above an unknown planet. In the background, a woman eerily sings the children’s lullaby Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Suddenly we are on a tour of the ship as the song echoes down the halls. Death and destruction caused by some unseen terror fills the screen, before we’re shown rapid flashes of action and extreme violence.
This is the creepy and affecting trailer for EA’s 2008 horror title, Dead Space. A wonderful video that captured the essence of the game it was promoting. Yes, Dead Space featured violence and shooting, but it was also a tense, emotional and atmospheric game with a gripping story.
It was a product that was a far cry from other blockbusters at the time, games such as, well, I dunno... Call of Duty.
Despite this, the experts behind Dead Space, Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey, decided that’s exactly what they wanted to build.
Sledgehammer Games – the studio that the pair founded in 2009 – has been working on Activision’s mega franchise now for five years. Yet its only real credit is for 2011’s Modern Warfare 3, a game it co-developed with sister studio Infinity Ward.
But this year is Sledgehammer’s chance to show the world its true vision for the franchise. A more nuanced, narrative-driven Call of Duty with a new subtitle: Advanced Warfare.
“We had such a pleasure working with Infinity Ward on Modern Warfare 3, and that gave us a great foundation for understanding how to deliver on the epic Call of Duty moment that fans love,” says Sledgehammer studio head Michael Condrey (pictured right).
“But our time on Dead Space also gave us the opportunity to learn how to build a more subtle, emotional event. So that allowed us to bring both styles to this game, and do something cool in terms of the emotional impact of the narrative.”
Game director Glen Schofield adds: “Infinity Ward is arguably the greatest first person shooter studio in the world and we learnt a lot from them.
“We’ve obviously done things ourselves in the past, but learning the Call of Duty way was pretty important. It gave us a lot of the rules that Call of Duty has made so that we know how we can break them.”
"Working on Modern Warfare 3 taught us all of the rules that Call of Duty set - so now we know how to break them."
- Glen Schofield, Sledgehammer
We’ve heard this all before, of course. Infinity Ward felt it had created something quite different with last year’s Call of Duty: Ghosts, just as Treyarch felt it had moved the series in a new direction with 2012’s Black Ops II. They did offer something new. Yet with Sledgehammer at the helm, there’s a real sense that we may be about to see an even greater break from the norm.
Particularly after that debut trailer, which featured (amongst other things) hoverbikes, exo suits and an impressive CGI Kevin Spacey.
Explains Schofield (pictured left): “Activision said: ‘We’re giving you Call of Duty for a reason. We want your game and your studio’s style.’ It was a really proud moment for us. We jumped in and we changed wherever we could in the game.”
Condrey adds: “[After MW3] it was clear that we needed to spend the next three years to really drive innovation. That’s been one of the core pillars for our game. We’ve had three years to prototype ideas. And for the first time since Call of Duty began we have a dramatically different play experience.”
That’s right, Advanced Warfare is the first Call of Duty to have been in the works for longer than two years.
“We’ve had all that time on the creative, and to push high production values, art, content creation and so on,” says Schofield “And we’ve had the opportunity to build a new Call of Duty engine. These are luxurious that only come by having that third year.
“We’ve also had time to go through and make sure every word is right in the story.”
"It's so good to be in a design meeting and anything
that you can think of you can do."
- Glen Schofield, Sledgehammer
That story is one of the more intriguing aspects of Advanced Warfare. Call of Duty is known for its epic, bombastic plots. Yet by using their Dead Space experience, Sledgehammer hopes to bring some emotion to the narrative.
“We’ve always said that this is the next medium to tell a great story, and this is an area we hope to deliver on,” says Schofield.
Condrey adds: “We’ve also been making heavy use of the new tech, particularly the facial capture. We want to be able to show pain or anger or happiness just from expressions, without the characters saying: ‘Wow, that’s great.’ Or ‘I’m hurt.’”
Judging by the trailer, the Advanced Warfare engine appears to be a huge step-up over last year’s Call of Duty: Ghosts. The reason, according to Sledgehammer, is because it’s not worrying about making the Xbox 360 or PS3 versions. Those have been handed to developer High Moon (note: Activision has not officially announced the developer as of now).
“In development you often constrain ideas – whether it’s design ideas or technology solutions – to the lowest common denominator,” explains Condrey.
“If you develop for all platforms, often it is the weakest platform that can be the constraint.
“It is the inverse for us with Advanced Warfare, where we have been designing for the highest resource, the highest-powered console generation. It has allowed us the freedom to think bigger and to go after new technologies.”
Adds Schofield: “When designers come up to me with ideas, the number one thing I end up saying most of the time is: ‘Push it further guys, come on we can go further now. It’s not big enough, we can do better.’
“It is really just a lack of limitations right now. It’s so good to be in a design meeting and anything that you can think of you can do.”
"The way Kevin Spacey delivers
dialogue elevates the narrative."
- Glen Schofield, Sledgehammer
One of the much-discussed moments in the Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare trailer was the appearance of a digital Kevin Spacey.
Spacey plays Jonathan Irons, the CEO of Atlas, which in the game is the largest private military company in the world.
“He is an amazing and talented actor,” says Schofield. “The way he delivers dialogue elevates the narrative.
“When we started writing the story two and half years ago, Kevin Spacey was the person that we had in mind when we were writing it. When you are writing a story you imagine a couple of people who would be the main characters, it is just easier to write that way. House of Cards and his other stuff wasn’t even around then.
“We shot a couple of scenes the other day, and you have this scene that is written down on paper, and when he delivers it it’s just over the top better. I was so excited by some of the scenes because he really brought it, and man I am so psyched to see it in the game.
“But he’s always been the guy man, and Activision just stepped up and said: ‘Alright, if he’s the guy, let’s go get him.’”
It’s quite a coup for Activision. Spacey is a Hollywood icon, riding high on the success of his starring role in Netflix drama House of Cards.
“It says a lot about the franchise and its place in entertainment beyond just interactive entertainment,” says Condrey.
“Kevin is really enjoying his most successful time in his career right now at least in pop culture, and he wants to be part of Call of Duty because he sees it as an opportunity to reach new fans and expand into a new type of entertainment.
“It’s a really nice moment when you see Hollywood get as excited about this space as we get about having them involved in it.”
"One of the challenges of development is how
personal some of the comments can be towards developers."
- Michael Condrey, Sledgehammer
There’s plenty more for Sledgehammer to reveal before launch, but already the game is shaping up to be one of the most ambitious new Call of Duty episodes in its 11-year history.
Will the franchises vast fanbase appreciate the effort?
Says Condrey: “There are so many fans who are so passionate about this that good enough is not good enough. I’ll admit there have been times in the past on games I have made, and I am sure Glen will share this, where I ended up not being able to see the full vision because I just didn’t have the resources. Call of Duty has the opposite. It is all about making sure we deliver for our fans.”
Those fans total in the millions and are difficult to please. They’ve all got their own ideas as to what Call of Duty is. And there’s a vocal minority that will let it be known if they’re not satisfied.
Condrey continues: “One of the challenges of development is how personal some of the comments can be towards developers. I have to tell you that developers are the hardest working people that I have ever known.
And everyone inside of Sledgehammer are pouring their hearts and souls into this thing. Their personal sacrifice in time and commitment is unmatched. I hope that this game is regarded as an amazing Call of Duty title, and that the team is recognised just for how much they wanted to build something special for the fans.”
Despite how their words may appearedesignr on paper, Schofield and Condrey are by no means arrogant. But they clearly have faith in themselves and their team.
I go back to that unnerving Twinkle Twinkle Little Star promo for Dead Space. Just a few years later, movie icon Ridley Scott would go on to create a very similar trailer for his sci-fi movie, Prometheus.
It’s perfectly possible that Scott stumbled upon the idea entirely by himself. Maybe he never saw the Dead Space trailer. Or perhaps, much like Activision, he too found the boys and girls who made it an inspirational, creative group.
“Our last two games, Dead Space and Modern Warfare 3, both won best action game at DICE,” says Schofield.
“Not too many teams can say that. We try and set benchmarks and that’s ours. Whether we win or not is immaterial. You just push yourself to be the best. We know that we are capable of greatness.”