Call of Duty started life as a World War II shooter; from the first release in 2003, through to Call of Duty 3 and the numerous spin-offs like Big Red One and Finest Hour. It wasn't until Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007 that the series departed from the historic conflict, and aside from World at War, Call of Duty has never revisited that era. After all, how many times can one series represent the same event, while keeping it fresh and original?
The past ten years have seen the prestigious shooter visit the Cold War with Black Ops I, before jumping to the distant future with Black Ops II and III, along with Infinite and Advanced Warfare, and near future titles with Modern Warfare 2, 3 and Ghosts. WWII is the first time the series has taken a shot at the Second World War in the last decade, and given the technological advancements we've seen and how the series has evolved, as well as the community's vocal displeasure at the 'jet pack era' we've seen for the last three titles, now is the perfect time for Sledgehammer to give the Second World War another shot.
We were invited by Activision to the international review event in London before the game launched, and as a result we got an early hands-on, but also had the chance to sit down with Michael Condrey; co-founder of Sledgehammer Games, to talk about everything from the personal, emotional direction the campaign has gone to the new introductions in multiplayer. We kicked off the interview with the game in general, however, and why exactly Sledgehammer opted for the World War II setting.
"Eight years ago, we were the first new lead studio for the franchise, our first Call of Duty game was Modern Warfare 3 with Infinity Ward, so we had the opportunity to do a modern game and then a near future game," Condrey explained to us in a private room, decorated with WWII themed props such as Czech hedgehogs and fake leaves littering the floor. "Each had some really unique, creative challenges, each one of those was sort of a chance to react to fan feedback. Clearly, there was tremendous excitement for a sequel to Modern Warfare 2, so coming out of that game there was a lot of fan requests for innovation in the franchise, a new way to play. So, we spent a lot of time focusing on new innovations there and that brought boost, virtual lobby, near-future technology, a bunch of really cool things. And then again, there was a desire from fans to go back to the roots. And for us, as a studio to have that opportunity, we're storytellers and obviously, we're big into multiplayer and esports and a bunch of things that are important to our studio's pedigree."
Condrey went on to explain how going back to where the franchise began "was a real honour", then compared it to how the Dark Knight took a new take on Batman and how Daniel Craig became the new face of James Bond, to how Sledgehammer want to put a new take on World War II and the now famous Zombies mode found in most Call of Duty titles since World at War. And put a new take on Zombies they have; this time around it's dark, it's gritty, it's chock full of easter eggs, and it is genuinely terrifying. Condrey and Glen Schofield, his partner at Sledgehammer, met at Visceral Games when the pair worked on Dead Space, and it was clear from the get-go that they'd drawn from their work on EA's flagship horror title heavily for inspiration.
"You know, I think our pedigree if you will, maybe it's not the right word but our survival horror instincts and learnings from Dead Space is something we did draw on pretty significantly. There's been an incredible zombie offering in this franchise as you know, and one of the great things about working at Activision is this independent studio model means that each studio, we share common goals and we work together collaboratively and it's one community we all have to service but within each of those, each game has its own identity, and so for us we wanted to go back to the roots of survival horror.
"We wanted to scare you. We wanted to keep the construct of zombies that fans know and love, this wave based experience with exploration and easter eggs, but with our stamp, and our stamp was to make it the most horrifying zombies experience to date. And the subject matter lent to it. I think that our tie-in, I'm really excited about our tie-in with World War II, and the Monuments Men story - which is real - academics and scientists looking to retrieve stolen art by the Nazis, was a great setup. This is a group of non-soldiers, going into Mittelburg to retrieve stolen art, and they find something much worse. It kicks off this really dark and gritty, violent - violent is not the word I would use - visceral - visceral is probably not the word I'd use either - but it's a new take, and it's twisted, and I think we'll hopefully put terror into Nazi Zombies in the way that Sledgehammer's known for."
It applies to the campaign too. While previous single player modes in the series have tried to tell a touching narrative, most have fallen to the curse of being too arcade-like and while attempting to deliver heartfelt and shocking moments, they've been few and far between. Sledgehammer really went all in on making this story of one boy and his brothers on their journey to push the Axis forces out of Germany one of the most emotional and realistic narratives the franchise has seen.
"We, on Advanced Warfare, sat down with tier one soldiers, we met with the Navy Seals, with Delta, we really talked about where the military had come to and where it was going. In the modern military, at least in the US, you know they're going to a smaller force, a better equipped, more highly trained force, it's all about moving toward a super soldier, and so our story was about the technology that would come to bear over the next 30 years and how the super soldier would become a greater fighting force, a more specialised fighting force, and so it became a story of the singular soldier and his journey, but that isn't the story of World War II as you know.
"WWII was a global conflict, really fought by common men and women, and in many cases, for the allied forces they were under-equipped, under-trained, they were cold, they were hungry, they were scared. And it became about the camaraderie of the soldier and the squad. It was the individual working as part of a squad that was the hero, not an individual hero. And we wanted to tell that very personal tale and it was very rooted in stories we'd read, research we'd done, and talking to veterans. And I'll tell you, one of the things to me that I find so heart-warming is when you talk to soldiers in WWII, veterans, true heroes of the war, these men, and you can imagine putting yourself in the boots of a 20-year-old kid, frankly - they did heroic things in service of their country, but they don't consider themselves heroes at all. Not one of them thinks they are special in any way, and yet they all consider the people they served with, the company they served with as the heroes. And you'll see it, it'll bring a tear to their eye when they talk about it; 'I'm not a hero, but I served with heroes', and there's real power in that. In the selflessness, the sacrifice, in the camaraderie that is at the heart of World War II stories, that hopefully, the campaign reflected."
We also touched on some of the issues Condrey and the team ran into during their time working on the game. Revisiting such a famous and well documented period is bound to lead to some criticism for people who think it should have been represented in a different way, but Activision gave Sledgehammer three straight years, from the launch of Advanced Warfare, to work on the title and figure out all the hiccups and overcome the inevitable hurdles that would pop up over such a lengthy development period.
"You know, I think probably the biggest challenge on a three year development cycle - which is an amazing amount of time for any developer to have - when I first started making games we were making games in like seven to eight months - we were the first team to have three years at Activision, that gives you the chance to really try new things, to do some research on some new techniques, new processes, to prototype new things, to take risks, frankly. I think one of the things for us though, is it's hard to predict where the industry will be in three years. This is a very dynamic industry, from what players want to do, to what the hardware is going to allow. On Advanced Warfare, we had just launched on PS4; we had no idea that the PS4 Pro was coming at the time and all the other technological advances that were coming in three years."
"The canvas of WWII, the backdrop of WWII has been amazing; rich in stories and detail, it was a gritty and brutal war, there was a lot of history there that was amazing to work with. I think the biggest innovation that challenged us was rearchitecting multiplayer to support Headquarters; 48 players all co-existing in one space. We've never seen anything like that in WWII before or in Call of Duty before. That was a big push. And then of course bringing this asymmetrical War mode to multiplayer was a big one as well. But it's been great, and we couldn't have done it without the time that Activision gave us."