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."
Of course, Headquarters and War are two of the biggest additions to the multiplayer this time around. War promotes playing for the team and not worrying about your solo performance, while Condrey told us that Headquarters was inspired by his love for World of Warcraft, and the community interaction players would experience outside of questing and adventuring. He also explained that this has essentially been a six-year project, so where that could take us in another three years when the development cycle rolls around again is an interesting thought.
"At the end of Modern Warfare 3, if you think about where your character, your avatar, your personality in multiplayer was expressed, it was little more than just a gamertag and a rank and a KD. Your lobby had no expression of your character or your accomplishments, so this has really been a six-year journey for us, to bring your Call of Duty character to life. People spend hundreds of hours investing in multiplayer, multiple prestiges, and we wanted to reflect that in a digital avatar that was sort of a prized possession if you will. And so, in Advanced Warfare we brought your character to life for the first time, we rewarded you with loot and a virtual lobby that gave you a place to show off. Which was great for us, and we think it sort of transformed how you felt about the lobby, the intermission screens, and the ability to really showcase your soldier. But that was just a springboard to where we wanted to go. And that was a true social space where you could show off and be rewarded and compete in new ways, and the analogue for me is more maybe my experience when I used to play World of Warcraft. You'd be out questing and doing your things and building up your characters but then when you went to the cities, and you saw the community together and you saw them interacting in different ways, being social, duelling, showing off their rare gear, just sort of operating like a community off the front lines, that was really inspiring and we hope that's what Headquarters will become for this game."
War mode on the other hand, is a more narrative focused multiplayer mode, where you really have to work together with your team and utilise a range of equipment and weapon types to succeed. The objective is the priority, and games can range from five minutes if you're successful on the first stage as the defensive side, to 20 minutes or more if it's a tight-knit affair. It's a fantastic place for new soldiers to get started with WWII, as your solo performance matters a lot less if you can support your team by doing the objective; building a bridge, placing satchel charges on walls, escorting the tanks, etc.
"War mode we're really proud of and fans obviously are really excited from the beta and from E3. We've got three War modes coming at launch, and more to come over the season ahead, so we're putting a big effort into that. It comes back to that similar question about the difference between a common soldier in WWII and a tier one super soldier. In multiplayer in Call of Duty, traditionally it's very much a lone wolf experience. You're focused on your performance, your KD, your scorestreaks, and even in objective modes, largely, at least the way I play, I'm optimising for my KD first, and my team second. We wanted to capture a true spirit of teamwork because again, it comes back to how WWII was fought."
"We wanted to have the feeling of roles and role players, and so this asymmetrical linear sort of narrative-driven experience is meant to put you in the heart of this conflict between axis and allied, and force you to work together in a different way, and not focus on your KD. In fact, we don't even expose your KD to you in War because it's more about the success as a team and the success of a team working together strategically. And I'm sure you saw, for your average team, I don't know if it's the same for you two but for your average players, you can't win if everyone is running airborne, or if everyone is sitting on the fringes sniping, you have to have your fast-moving objective guys that are popping smoke, you need some guys sitting back on over-watch to cover the bridge. Hopefully, and I think it does, capture that spirit of working together in a new way in multiplayer."
We asked Condrey what his thoughts are on the situation, along with whether he's going to stick to creating solid single player experiences alongside the multiplayer portions, or if he'll follow the crowd and divert more resources to multiplayer gaming.
"You know for us, we're storytellers at heart, and hopefully you've seen that in all three modes. Obviously a big push on campaign, even War mode and the narrative layers that we've brought into War mode, Zombies. So we're storytellers, and the thing that I love about working on Call of Duty is that each mode, in many ways could be its own game. I mean this is a massive offering for fans, right? It's a rich, robust game, there's a lot of content to get here, and so yeah, I think that's what makes Call of Duty special. Whether you're a multiplayer guy who plays campaign somewhere down the road or vice versa, or a Zombies guy who dabbles between, being able to tell that narrative is important to us. I think for us obviously, the season of content and everything we're doing for multiplayer and esports with Ray and the guys and what's coming with Zombies is crucial. We know that people invest many many hours in multiplayer, but at the end of the day, I think that our narrative is important to us as well."
As expected, Sledgehammer's focus for the foreseeable future is on the season of content for WWII, and we, unfortunately, couldn't sway Condrey into spilling the beans on their next major project. When asked though, he took some time to reflect on his history in game development, and how things have changed over the years.
"We're focused first on November 3rd. And its incredible right, I feel old every time I talk about the good old days - not the good old days, because we're in the good old days now - but the old days of game development, when you finalised the game and you put it in the box, you were done, right? That cycle has changed dramatically; we will be listening to fan feedback, and watching what happens all the way up to November 3rd. We will be updating daily when we first launch because it's awesome when we launch, but it's also taking a game that has 500 developers looking at it every day, and now millions of people playing all at once, and you learn some new things. So, we will be actively working on live updates, and then obviously we've got a robust season of content ahead. You know, that's also a very ambitious part of development and in many ways, the first part of that season is often the hardest because your team is still focusing on the main game, you're tired right? Then immediately you have to start working on the next content. So, it'll take us a little while, it's really about making sure that launch goes well and then the year ahead and the season of content, the esports season, kicks off successfully, and then probably a little rest and some sleep, and then we'll start trying to figure out what comes next after that."
Condrey ended our chat with some tips for new players. Although, take these tips at your own risk... he didn't drop too many kills when we played against him!
"It's a good time to be coming back to Call of Duty; boots on the ground, it's strategic, it's familiar, whether it's your first Call of Duty, or your first World War II Call of Duty, we've spent a lot of time making this very approachable. I think for a first-time player, really spend some time in Headquarters. Headquarters is meant to be the onboarding experience, the fantasy of enlisting in World War II, it's where you have your competitive firing range, so you can really get to understand your weapons and how they work. There's 1v1 which gives you a chance to test out, there's scorestreak training where you can test all the scorestreaks. We have this R&R tent, the theatre where you can go down and pick up tutorial videos and curated videos from the community that can teach you... and then jump into War because there's a role for everybody in War. You don't have to be a highly proficient twitch shooter to support your team. You can really play your role there. That'd probably be my tips for new players."