Conflict is a business and the infantry is mechanised in Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Conflict is a business and the infantry is mechanised in Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare
s ince the metric system’s introduction in 1799, every industrialised nation in the world bar one has adopted it as its official – if not always universally implemented – system of measurement. The United States is the outlier, so implacably resistant to change that even the glowing displays of the hoverbikes in Call Of Duty:
Advanced Warfare’s 2054 measure speed in miles, not kilometres, per hour. Some things never change, after all. You can give this series a new developer, a new console generation and a rocketpropelled jump that can launch you over a building, but in almost every way that shows on an E3 stage, Advanced Warfare is still Call Of Duty, implacably resistant to change. “It’s a constant push and pull,” Brett Robbins, creative director at Sledgehammer Games, says. “You don’t want to break what you think is successful, but you have to deliver something new. It’s a battle. And it’s a huge creative challenge, especially this many entries in. The franchise is about great cinematic experiences, and we don’t want to lose that.”
It’s been called The COD Problem: the need to innovate, but in increments small enough not to alienate the largest and most dependable fanbase in games. Every year, millions turn out to play a new Call Of Duty, and while the series has changed beyond recognition since its WWII origins, the things that make Call Of Duty what it is now are practically set in stone. Every year brings a new tune, but the beat is the same.
“I think calling it a checklist is too prescriptive,” Sledgehammer studio head and
“You don’t want to break what you think is successful, but you have to deliver something new”
co-founder Michael Condrey says. “There are clearly some values that this franchise has been built on: the hero’s journey, 60fps, high production values, amazing multiplayer, plausibility… But I believe that innovations can happen. Innovations in the player movement set are really exciting and transformational to how we build levels. The ability to go vertical, to jump multiple storeys, to approach a battlefield from above rather than from head on… In singleplayer, you can see that change; now imagine what that brings to multiplayer.”
t he change Condrey describes is clear, even within the boundaries imposed by COD’s values. Advanced Warfare’s campaign plays out over a period of eight years, beginning in 2054 when US Marine Corps Private Mitchell is injured on duty. Rendered unable to fight in a conventional way, he signs on with private military company Atlas and is carried into battle by the EXO exoskeleton system, which increases his speed, strength and his moveset for navigating a battlefield.
“It made a lot of sense,” Sledgehammer CEO and co-founder Glen Schofield says. “The military is experimenting with powered exoskeletons right now. Guys can carry 400lbs on their back. For us, it brings some major new mechanics and variety [to] the levels. We have a boost jump, a new type of cloaking, a grapple zip-line, magnetic gloves, and you’ll even be able to hover in some places. The heart and soul of the game, and the advanced soldier, is the exoskeleton.” In the first of Advanced Warfare’s demo missions, a car chase across the Golden Gate Bridge terminates in a crash and a sustained shootout as Atlas forces advance on terrorist operatives. Ruined vehicles litter the bridge, forming an assault course for Mitchell and the tier-one Atlas forces to navigate by rocket-jumping over flipped buses and boosting into cover. When the terrorists deploy drones, Mitchell tears a door from a car as a shield. When enemy forces become overwhelming, Overdrive effectively slows time as Mitchell’s reaction times are boosted to Max Payne levels.
The fight ends with the capture of an enemy van moments too late. Controlled remotely, it opens and deploys explosive drones, which sever the bridge’s suspension cables, causing it to collapse upon the US aircraft carrier sailing beneath. It’s almost the perfect COD moment – as spectacular as it is absurd – but this, says Schofield, is the kind of scenario the team has spent three years researching alongside a team of experts.
“I started thinking about Fleet Week – this week-long thing where they have 50 to 70 ships in the harbour,” Schofield says. “I talked to a military adviser, who said, ‘That would be the perfect place [for an attack] if you could actually take the bridge.’ So one of our other guys works for the government trying to find vulnerable places in nuclear plants, and he was able to get us in touch with a structural engineer. At first, we were thinking, ‘Well, we’ll take the towers out.’ They said, ‘Yeah, good luck. Those things are
“We have a boost jump, a new type of cloaking, a grapple zip-line, you’ll even be able to hover”
solid.’ They said that if you cut the big cables, [then] that was the way to take it down.”
The fiction’s plausibility is crucial. Yes, something like the EXO suit has already had a starring role attached to Matt Damon’s body in Elysium, but Advanced Warfare has no space city or cancer cures. Even 40 years from now, it has to feel like a particular kind of reality – exaggerated and heightened, but contextually appropriate.
“With three years of research, we’ve gone deeper than we’ve ever had the luxury [to] before,” Condrey says. “We’ve had more military advisers, more historians, more futurists, and they keep sending us material and news stories all the time. Japan is working on a space elevator right now. There’s a team in Russia building a plan
to mine the moon. You tell that to fans or non-fans and they say, ‘Is that science fiction?’ But that could be three years from now. It’s all closer than we think.”
There are no sudden cataclysms or technological advances over the next 40 years in Advanced Warfare’s timeline. Instead, technology has moved on at a steady pace: batteries have greater capacity, power is largely provided by fission and fusion, and an AK-47 kills people as effectively in 2054 as it did in 1949. The basic business of putting an explosion behind a piece of metal and propelling it into a target has changed little, but the means of identifying targets has. Sonar replaces night vision on the EXO suit, and smart sights identify threats and highlight them on your HUD. Vehicles will change, too. Advanced Warfare has hovering bikes and tanks, mobile barricade systems, one-man armoured tanks and six-legged walking armour, which Schofield conceived and Condrey mocked until the pair visited NASA, where a similar design has been prototyped to mine asteroids. “I gave him so much crap over it,” Condrey says. “It felt too science fiction to me. Yet every day we find out this stuff is real.”
EMP, homing and scanner grenades are new weapons in your arsenal, disabling enemy EXO functions, chasing enemies down or painting targets in augmented reality, respectively. Directed energy weapons are again ripped from technology today. Lasers and railguns mounted on battleships are miniaturised and placed in soldiers’ hands, used to melt drone armour or propel a sniper bullet at seven times the speed of sound.
It’s the aircraft carrier’s industrial-sized railguns that KVA forces are looking to seize after collapsing the Golden Gate Bridge and immobilising the ship. Following the west’s legacy of greed and exploitation of smaller Middle Eastern and African nations, soldiers from Eastern Europe and across the exploited regions form an anti-west faction to defend those nations’ interests. The KVA’s zealots go quickly off the rails, however, pursuing their objectives through attacks on civilians, making them the primary antagonists.
At Fleet Week, an entire carrier group is the KVA’s target. In the second of Advanced Warfare’s demo missions, the fight continues as Atlas forces climb down the ruins of the bridge and battle on the carrier’s deck, where the ship’s arsenal is being directed at the fleet. It’s an open map with multiple enemy-controlled railguns to jam, making for a largescale twist on Call Of Duty’s classic destroy-the-AA-guns template. Much of the deck has been smashed by falling stone and steel, but it’s still full of elevated landing pads and towering vantage points that can be navigated with the EXO boost jump, letting you take on
the guns how you please. There are more missions, or parts of missions, like this: combat ‘bowls’ into which enemies pour while players improvise their path through.
“We’ll give you options,” Schofield says. “[In a mission from the trailer], you can run and gun your way down the street, or you can jump in a one-man tank, or use a mobile barricade. We allow you to do multiple things [with your EXO suit] in a level, and you have to allow the player the freedom to do those things. I remember a game by Rare, Jet Force Gemini, and just the amount of work it must have taken to make those levels playable with three characters. That’s the way you have to think about some of these levels if you’re going to have multiple mechanics and give players choice.”
“If we’re going to have a level that’s very linear and cinematic and fast-paced, I want to balance it out with a level that has a lot of openness, exploration and player choice,” Robbins says. “In the campaign, we bounce back and forth so you’re getting different experiences. There are some that are still fairly traditional and there are some that are pretty different in the way they’re structured, [but] you’re always going to be on our script, and you’re going to be hearing our story, which is – if we do our job right – going to be a great story, and we want you to hear it.”
Playing to a script is COD’s way, of course. “Let’s say you’re talking to Kevin Spacey,” says Schofield. “We don’t want you bouncing around the world while turning invisible.” But here that script has more room for improvisation. An Advanced Warfare level could be torn straight from the series’ level design handbook, but the EXO suit changes the tactics. As Atlas forces assault the deck, say, they take to the high ground to get a clear
“It felt too science fiction to me. Yet every day we find out that this stuff is real”
angle on the battlefield before dropping into the ship’s lower levels and using marker grenades to tag enemies in cover.
Fighting deeper into the ship, the mission turns linear when the Atlas operatives take over the bridge and turn the railguns against the cargo ships the KVA have used to stage their assault. “Talking with our military futurists, right now we’re very concerned by weapons being built that will fit inside cargo containers,” Schofield says. “Everything from how the bridge goes down to using cargo ships as a weapon is all based on stuff that we’ve researched. I know it’s kind of a weird genre, but I like to think of it as a believable near-future story, and not really, say, sci-fi.”
t he original Sledgehammer mandate was to create a story-driven COD – something like Dead Space – and while that project was cancelled in favour of what became Modern Warfare 3, the notion has survived to inform Advanced Warfare. “The creative team here deconstructed Call Of Duty cutscenes to figure out how we make this an opportunity to tell a better story,” Robbins says. “They came back and said, ‘Look, cutscenes in Call Of Duty [have] been largely mission objectives over pretty graphics.’ “
“Going deeper than that,” Schofield says, “let’s say a loading cinematic was a minute long… [then] we would find that 45 seconds of it would be trying to tell you the objective, and then 15 seconds at the end was the story. After 30 seconds, players can skip it, so they were actually missing the story beats. They would come back and say, ‘Your story sucked.’ We’re not blaming them; we’re saying we have to find a way to keep them engaged and [to] want to watch the rest of the movie.”
That burden rests on Kevin Spacey,
The Last Of Us and Bioshock Infinite voice actor Troy Baker, and the next generation of performance capture. Schofield agrees cutscenes were out of style for a long time, but Sledgehammer looks to the likes of The Last Of Us as evidence that it’s possible to draw players in with an involving story and an old-fashioned cinematic. “The kind of acting [we can capture] nowadays, even in scenes he’s not in, Kevin has elevated our other actors,” Schofield says. “And everybody wants to see great actors act.”
Spacey’s Jonathan Irons founded Atlas to help in war-torn African nations, but his power has bred ambitions for conquest. The KVA also started out as a multinational force that opposed aggression, only turning to extremes as its enemies grew stronger. There’s a moral ambiguity to the game’s characters and factions, which feels new for what’s often seen as a brainless series. “I just think there’s such an opportunity to grow these characters in a way that you haven’t seen in this franchise before,” Robbins says. “And there was really no reason not to. Just because it’s a military shooter doesn’t mean you can’t have these phenomenal, memorable characters.”
Players will spend eight years in the boots of one soldier (“I’ll admit I’ve had a hard time bouncing between five different characters across seven missions,” Condrey says), fighting alongside a multinational Atlas force. British operator Gideon, played by
“Just because it’s a military shooter doesn’t mean you can’t have these phenomenal characters”
longtime videogame and TV actor Gideon Emery, fights at Mitchell’s side throughout the San Francisco missions and is the star of a lengthy walk-and-talk in the opening of a later Detroit mission.
Having been evacuated due to a biological attack, Detroit’s citizens now live in an Atlas-guarded camp at the outskirts of the city, which Mitchell and Gideon pass through on their way into the powerless and pitch-
black centre. The glare of floodlights gives way to total darkness, and powering it all is a new engine developed in-house at Sledgehammer, although what the studio means by ‘new’ in this context isn’t what the Internet means when it complains about the old COD engine. There are, says Condrey, lines of the old engine’s code still in Advanced Warfare, just as there are in most studios’ engines entering a new generation, but enough has been built from scratch to make it almost unrecognisable. “We have new rendering, animation, physics and audio systems. This is Sledgehammer’s new COD engine,” Condrey says. “The new tech that is driving our lighting and rendering engine couldn’t have happened on last-generation [machines]. This is only possible now.”
Sledgehammer set its sights on nothing short of photorealism for Advanced Warfare, and has managed to achieve it in many of its unprocessed in-engine shots. “We can take some of our shots of levels and they look
“There are places – not everywhere – where we’re not going too crazy and it’s like, ‘Is that a photo?’”
real,” Schofield says. “There are places – not everywhere – where we’re not going too crazy and it’s like, ‘Is that a photo or not?’
“The big difference,” he explains, “is that now we have material artists. Their job is to make the materials real. Now we have real chrome, not a painted silver texture that kind of looks like chrome; this is chrome, with all the properties of chrome. We have rubber, stone, asphalt. Now every texture has to have a material, so that when we light it, it behaves like it’s real.”
Art design in a physically rendered world is no longer about adorning maps with painted approximations of real materials. In Advanced Warfare, the surfaces are created more with maths than they are with artistic sensibility. As the studio moved over to the new system, many of the team’s texture painters struggled to adjust. “Last-generation [artists] would paint a texture, look at it and say, ‘That looks like the right colour; that looks like dirt; that looks like concrete,’” art director Joe Salud says. “But now we use this thing – it looks like a stapler – that measures exactly the specular responses [of a surface], then we measure the base colour so we can get these results that are more scientific. Then we developed our engine to take all that information and output it. But artists [like to] paint, and there was a point where the most senior artists were having the hardest time adapting, because they had been doing it that way for ten years. Everything had to change, from the code to the pipeline to the process to the artists. It took a long time, and literally it was almost like a revolt [for a while].”
The artistry comes in with postprocessing, lighting and something not too far from Hollywood set design. In Detroit, the Atlas team proceeds on hoverbikes into the empty, unlit city, where only a lowhanging moon illuminates the city’s industrial ruins, with all of it framed to present the perfect postapocalyptic vista. As the soldiers hunt for a KVA cell, they venture into the city’s manufacturing heartland and the game turns into one that’s part stealth and part survival horror as KVA forces hunt Mitchell through the gutted structures. The mission ends with a scripted chase through the city as the KVA drive the Atlas troops back to the camp, where forces wearing the heavyweight version of the EXO suit return fire on the KVA with dual-wielded LMGs.
A three-year development cycle and a focus on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One has given Sledgehammer time for miniature revolutions, both in gameplay and among its art team. For the first time since Call Of Duty 2, the game is built with new hardware in mind – another Activision studio is producing a 360 and PS3 port. For the first time since Call Of Duty 2, then, the shackles are off, redefining even the most extreme and bombastic Call Of Duty set-pieces.
“I remember saying, ‘Do you think we could blow up the Golden Gate bridge?’” Schofield recalls. “On [prior-gen hardware] we’d have thought, ‘Yeah, probably. Well, the aircraft carrier would have to be fogged out, and we probably couldn’t do it in daylight.’ Developing [for PS4 and Xbox One] pretty much said to us [that] we can do anything we want. There were just no constraints – that was so big.”
“That was liberating,” Condrey says. “The opportunity for each discipline to build these new engines for audio, physics, lighting, rendering… It’s allowed us to take chances, take risks and invest in R&D that we wouldn’t have been able to do if we had been strained by worrying about the [prior-gen] version. We had to get the team to embrace the fact that they didn’t have to say, ‘We can’t do this on last-generation [consoles].’ In fact, whenever that was the answer, we immediately said, ‘No, focus on the potential of the next gen.’ That allowed us to do things on bigger scales, with larger levels and higher degrees of resolution and density. It’s awesome.”
“We knew the fidelity was going to be a lot higher,” Robbins says. “We knew we could do bigger scenes, show bigger areas, have more combatants… The obvious stuff I think we delivered on. But beyond that, we
Sledgehammer is pushing at Call Of Duty’s unwritten laws in new ways, but some things just can’t change
still have to make a great shooter. And it has to be a great Call Of Duty.”
It’s that final point where some players will sign out, but where others will be thrilled. Sledgehammer is pushing at Call Of Duty’s unwritten laws in new ways, but some things just can’t change. The bikes hover and the tanks walk at speeds measured in miles per hour, travelling down roads designed to lead players through the kind of thrill ride Call Of Duty has owned for the best part of a decade. It’s a ride many have taken ten times already, even before exploring the expansions and DLC, but for 40 million players it’s a ride worth taking again. “I think there’s something as a Call Of Duty fan that I’ve felt for a decade, and it’s a love for a really well-crafted Call Of Duty experience,” Condrey says. “I think the next-gen [consoles] allow us to deliver that experience to a higher fidelity in a more interactive and innovative way. As a fan, I absolutely think that’s something players want. I think you have to balance that with innovating in a way that people think is new and interesting that they haven’t seen before, but, to me, when I think of the great levels in Call Of Duty that stand out, a next generation execution on a feeling like that… I want that as a player.”
Kevin Spacey stars as Atlas CEO Jonathan Irons. The actor’s scenes are being filmed with him in a capture suit and Spacey appears in-game with his performance recreated at an unprecedented level of fidelity for videogames
FROM TOP Creative director Brett Robbins; Michael Condrey, Sledgehammer’s head and co-founder
ABOVE Sledgehammer insisted that the Advanced
Warfare screen you see here was grabbed in a documentary style, a far cry from the conspicuously doctored, explosion-filled shots of previous reveals.
RIGHT The game’s co-star, British special forces operative Gideon, functions as something of a guide, explaining the complex politics and history of 2054. He also swears a lot
Glen Schofield, co-founder of Sledgehammer and the studio’s chief executive
AdvancedWarfare gives you most of the abilities of a Crysis Nanosuit – speed, strength, cloak – but with none of the enhanced armour. Veteran difficulty will still be a meat grinder
Advanced Warfare’s costume work operates at a level of detail that we suspect few will notice. Still, when photorealism is the benchmark, every part of every object needs to stand up to intense scrutiny
Stealth and flanking works when there’s room for it. A fourth mission, shown to us confidentially, demonstrates the full suite of the EXO’s stealth capabilities and the power of the new engine to pull visual tricks on players expecting the dubious backdrops and skyboxes that propped up a generation of shooters
The hoverbikes are another piece of futuristic military hardware bearing the same ‘miltech’ look that art director Joe Salud finds so compelling. With hard angles and oblique surfaces, it’s a look that’s wholly functional but lacks conventional elegance
ABOVE Chaos hits the streets of Lagos. Advanced
Warfare’s sprawling multinational story takes players on a tour of the few locations Call Of Duty has yet to blow up.
RIGHT The heavyweight version of the EXO suit turns a man into a slow but powerful walking tank. It’s used to guard outposts, not fight in frontline combat