How Sledgehammer is changing the tone of 'Call of Duty' and trying to make a shooter that's more intimate, vulnerable and emotional
How Sledgehammer is changing the tone of 'Call of Duty' and trying to make a shooter that's more intimate, vulnerable and emotional
After months of speculation and leaks that turned out to be entirely accurate, Activision has confirmed that the next Call of Duty – the 14th game since the original in 2003 – will ditch the futuristic warfare that has defined the series and polarized fan opinion for the past three years, and return to the era that made us all fall in love with it. The emphatically titled Call of Duty: WWII will be released on November 3, and is a strong statement of intent from developer Sledgehammer Games that it wants to hit reset on what Call of Duty means to players.
Set in the European theater in the later part of the war, it sees a squad of young, inexperienced soldiers in the 1st Infantry Division storming the beach at Normandy before making their way through occupied France, to Belgium, across the Rhine and into Germany.
Although still six months from being finished, Sledgehammer showed some near-complete stages of the game to us during our time at the studio in late April, including a frenetic recreation of the 1944 Normandy landing, and the Battle of Hürtgen Forest – the longest battle on German ground during the war, and the longest single battle the US Army has ever fought. History buffs may know this as the battle in which the Germans fired artillery into the treetops, detonating them and shattering the trees causing tremendous damage and loss of life from the resulting splinters.
Both scenes served as a dramatic examples of what the studio is striving for, and provided a brief, very carefully-curated glimpse of a new flavor for Call of Duty that is firmly rooted by the studio's dogmatic approach to presenting something more realistic than we've seen from the series in the past.
What do they mean by "back to its roots"?
"The first time a lot of us played Call of Duty it was a World War 2 game, so what we're doing here harkens back to the early days," says Glen Schofield, co-founder and general manager of Sledgehammer Games.
When the original game was released in 2003, it was a dramatic departure from the majority of action games or first person shooters. Rather than casting the player as a lone hero, it tackled the nature of World War 2-era combat in a much more authentic way. Objectives weren't achieved by an individual running in and saving the day – it was about being a small part of something much larger. From what we've seen at this early stage, it would appear that's the spirit that Call of Duty: WWII is trying to recapture.
Sledgehammer Games' last release was 2014's Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, an ostentatious futuristic take on the series set in the mid-21st century that tackled private military organizations, bio-weaponry and augmented soldiers that wore exo-suits giving them superhuman powers. It was well-received, with a Metacritic score of 83, but it was the first Call of Duty game in years that saw fewer sales than that of the preceding year. Although it was the best selling title of 2014 – selling nearly 22 million copies – that was down nearly a third on 2013's (somewhat inferior) Call of Duty Ghosts, in part, no doubt, because it was the first game for a while to be designed specifically for a new generation of game hardware. There was speculation at the time that the appetite for the series might have peaked. It was followed by two more futuristic shooters: 2015's Black Ops 3, developed by Treyarch, and last year's Infinite Warfare from Infinity Ward – infamous for its reveal trailer being one of the most disliked videos of all time on YouTube (it currently has 3.5 million dislikes). Both games were successful, but the 300-strong team at Sledgehammer was already pushing forward with something new.
"We knew there was a big fan desire to take Call of Duty back to its roots," says senior creative director Bret Robbins. "We'd come off Advanced Warfare and we all really wanted to do something a bit different. We talked about it a lot, and going back to World War 2 just felt like the right thing to do. It wasn't an order from above that we had to do it, but we knew the fans would be happy, and the company was happy, so we jumped in."
By the time WWII is released, it will have been in development for three years. Alongside the usual production that goes into making a game, a lot of that time has also been spent exhaustively researching the war and working out how to best convey its drama. "We quickly realized how enormous this conflict was," Robbins says. "It was completely overwhelming. We decided to tell that traditional American squad story. It was an effort to focus things."
"We're following a squad in the first infantry," says studio head and Sledgehammer's other co-founder Michael Condrey, "but we're telling a global and diverse story. We're telling the story of the men and women who fought. You'll experience the war through the eyes of the French resistance, through the British and Canadian troops. You'll play women hero characters in every mode of the game. You'll see a diverse ethnic cast throughout the game."
It's about the common man, not super soldiers
"We want you to feel very different than we have in previous games," says animation director Christopher Stone. "In Advanced Warfare, we wanted to make you feel like a superhuman. You had the exoskeleton, you could jump over buildings and throw guys through walls. With this, we're really on the other side of things. Here, the player character is vulnerable. He struggles to reload his weapon, he dives in the dirt to avoid fire. He hides from gunfire instead of just charging head on.
"Making you feel different as a player has been a challenge," Stone continues. "You're not some 'Tier-1' soldier here, it's been very different for us to piece it all together. We have all this content and all these learnings that we've built up over the years on the advanced soldier, and coming into this project on day one, we had to tear it up and throw it away."
A big shift happened when it came to presenting the other soldiers on the battlefield using motion capture performance. "Our stunt team are ex-military," Stone says. "They're on the stage on day one, and they have their gun up like a pro. I had to tell them to forget everything they know. Forget that they know how to stack up on a door, forget that they know how to take everyone down. That's not who you are in this game. We've done maybe 8-9,000 mocap shots while making this game, and they were all about portraying a much more vulnerable soldier – someone that's scared, and someone that's not afraid to hide. Someone that doesn't want to fight."
Part of this is recognizing and portraying the differences in weapons, equipment and experience in World War 2. "Weapons weren't used the same way back then," Stone says. "SEAL team guys today have a very squared up stance. They're very strong, very accurate. And, really, that's because they have body armor now. They can take a shot to the chest. In World War 2, they had these 70 pound backpacks and they were trained to make the thinnest profile they possibly could so they were the smallest possible target. We had to take all of that into consideration."
It's more about character than plot
"Our story is much more character-focused," says Robbins. "The big moments fall flat if you don't care about the guys you're with. The climax of our story lives or dies on how invested you are in the characters. That's a huge risk and it's something that video games sometimes struggle with."
Advanced Warfare had some memorable performances, particularly Kevin Spacey who chewed his way through the scenery as principal bad guy Jonathan Irons, but it was far from subtle or nuanced. "We wanted great characters, a great world, and really, the guiding principles were the same," says Robbins. "The difference comes from trying to make something more authentic and real. Advanced Warfare was all from our imaginations. This is much more research driven, and we're trying to be respectful here."
"There are sections of levels where your problems can't necessarily be solved with a gun," says narrative director Scott Whitney. "There's a psychology we wanted to capture that's just fighting for your life. A lot of shooters are a power fantasy, but this is about survival. No supermen. No superheroes."
A more intimate and vulnerable Call of Duty
The first-person shooter genre has evolved considerably over the past few years. After spawning the more deliberate and contemplative "walking simulator," it's now re-absorbing ideas from it. "Firewatch is one of my favorite games," says Robbins. "Gone Home was great. Games are growing up and the audience is sophisticated. More and more, they expect a good story. Not just from blockbusters but from indies [as well], and the whole genre is being pushed forward. Virginia is another good example. I definitely looked to them for inspiration and for techniques. We're not shy about taking our time with the story. We want something meaningful and a bit deeper. You need that kind of quiet to balance the crazy. You need both or one will go flat without the other. We've learned from those other games and tried to infuse that into ours."
If the thought of Call of Duty – easily the most bombastic game franchise in the world – name-checking the likes of Firewatch and Gone Home is enough to induce a spit-take, note that six months out from release, the studio is only so far showing very carefully packaged set-pieces to give a taste of what the game will offer, and they're as explosive and frantic as they ever were. Top of that shortlist is the recreation of storming the beach at Normandy – a brutally violent battle that hasn't been attempted in a video game since Call of Duty 2 in 2005. Still, a more measured pace is the goal.
"In anything like this, you need time to breathe," says Schofield. "We're being strategic with our breathing points, though. We have excitement, stealth, and then we take a breath, but we tell more story in the game, rather than cut scenes. That way we can really bring out the personality throughout the whole story."
Though reluctant to share specifics, Schofield does mention one aspect that will punctuate the action. "A slow moment might be a platoon's first interaction with an African American platoon," he says. "That's a powerful moment in the story. Powerful stuff is said. Now look, we're not doing anything controversial for controversy's sake, we're just telling a story – but throughout the whole thing, we're always striving to make things authentic. You're going to find that there are lines here that in today's world will make you tingle a bit. Racial slurs, and stuff like that. We're not trying to offend anyone; we're going to tell it the way it was."
Schofield and Condrey pushed their team from the earliest days of the project to try and do something that took cues from war movies that dealt with very human issues. "If you look at Big Red One or Hamburger Hill or, hell, even Hacksaw Ridge, they're all telling small stories," says Schofield. "You know that the backdrop is the big story, it's World War 2. Hacksaw Ridge is basically the story of the dude and his relationship with the platoon. That's what we strive to do."
Historical research – an increasingly important part of game development as studios bring ever more real experiences to life – was key to ensuring that the game struck the right tone. "We all know the basic story of World War 2, but when you look at the battles, you learn so much about how brutal it really was," says Condrey. "It all started with the team doing research. We brought in speakers to speak to the team. We worked with world-class military historian Martin Morgan, who is the curator of the World War 2 History Museum. He told us all these profoundly moving stories of sacrifice and atrocities and heroism. From the beginning of the war to the end, this whole thing affected millions of lives. We really wanted the game to get in touch with the personal stories."
Multiplayer will be revealed at E3 in June
All of this emphasis on constructing a more emotionally-driven personal story in the campaign mode doesn't mean that Sledgehammer is shifting its emphasis away from Call of Duty's most enduring element. At this early stage, the team is hesitant to say much about its plans outside of the fact that it will be revealing the multiplayer gameplay at E3 in June. Schofield and Condrey are reluctant to talk on the topic, but did cautiously reveal a little of what they have planned.
"We'll have a ton to share at E3," says Condrey, "but we can give you a rough idea of a framework of what's to come. First up is this idea of divisions – you enlist with a division, and it's going to be behind what's fundamentally a new way to approach create-a-class. Then we have this new mode we'll be talking about called 'War' which is totally new for Call of Duty, and it's a true Axis versus Allies narrative-driven multiplayer mode."
While the team is extremely vague about what this actually means, Condrey did elaborate a little on the fact that it will highlight stories from both sides of the conflict. "What World War 2 offers us that other Call of Duty games haven't, is to be in the heart of these iconic battles," he explains. "Imagine, for example, [the campaign's] invasion of Normandy that we've shown. It's very clear what needs to happen. The Allies have to take the beach, they have to destroy the pillboxes and they had to move inland. The Axis, on the other hand, have to defend the beach – and if they get overrun, they have to pull back and move inland. So the idea is that you'll be able to see a battle from two different perspectives. It's asymmetrical, linear, and objective based."
No one on the team would go into any more detail on the subject, but it sounds a lot like the kind of structure we're seeing more and more in contemporary shooters – whether that's Walker Assault in Star Wars Battlefront or the way that Operations in Battlefield 1 funnels players' attention towards specific tasks.
The team also teased the new "Headquarters" feature, which they claim is "a pretty radical transformation" of the game's social space. Though not confirmed, the hints dropped indicate that it's akin to the Tower in Destiny where players team up and interact. They also promised co-op specific missions that would tackle a narrative different from the single player campaign. "We've got something special with co-op," Schofield says. "Very much a Sledgehammer thing. Original story, dark, new enemy – we can't wait to show more."