Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Michael Condrey interview

  • 12/10/2014

One of the biggest success stories of the last generation of consoles was Call of Duty.

The franchise broke game sales records every year since 2007, until in 2013 Grand Theft Auto V mopped the floor with all competition, including the somewhat disappointing Call of Duty: Ghosts.

This year, publisher Activision is eager to set a new standard and reclaim the throne as the biggest-selling annual entertainment product with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. It is the first in the series to be developed over three years instead of the normal two, and the first to come primarily from developer Sledgehammer Games.

Advanced Warfare is based in a frighteningly realistic near-future setting with Kevin Spacey lending his likeness and acting chops to the lead role as Jonathan Irons, the man in charge of the world's most powerful private military company.

All aspects of the gameplay have been impacted upon fairly heavily by the introduction of an exoskeleton; a high-powered, future-tech device that allows soldiers to jump and slide greater distances and unlock new special abilities such as a temporary partial invisibility.

Recently I caught up with Sledgehammer co-founder and co-studio head Michael Condrey to find out what will set this Call of Duty apart, what Spacey brings to the game, what's new with multiplayer and if that terrible practice of quick-scoping is back.

Getting Kevin Spacey onboard is a big deal. I've been a fan of his since Se7en and The Usual Suspects and I have to ask: what was he like to work with?
I had the pleasure of meeting him and working with him a few times. I can tell you he is smart, funny, charming, charismatic and all of those things. It's amazing to get an actor of that calibre interested in the game and then watch him bring performances to life. He raised the bar of everyone around him, not only the other actors in performance capture like Troy Baker, but he raised the bar of our talent - the writing staff, directors to really capitalise on what is really a remarkable performance. When he gets on stage and he turns into Jonathan Irons, he brings that 20 years of acting like what you remember from the '90s, and it's super impressive. I think it's going to shine in the campaign.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare screenshot

I work at a mainstream TV network and non-gamers there have been quite impressed seeing Spacey in the game with his full likeness. Are you using him to bring in a wider, more mainstream audience?
We started this three years ago before House of Cards kicked off. Now we're about to release Advanced Warfare and House of Cards season three is about to launch, I think a lot of people who maybe aren't gamers will be forced to take a look at Call of Duty and recognise that this is pretty mainstream. You're right and it is exciting for us to have it, we've never worked with an actor of this calibre before. And to be using James Cameron's Avatar motion-capture technology, you know that it actually is Kevin Spacey performing directly into the narrative. It's powerful.

The story deals with private military armies in a contemporary setting and the very first video released for Advanced Warfare was a mini-documentary that featured an ex-Blackwater guy. This is a very real current world issue that is concerning and morally complex. Was your team cautious in creating a fun entertainment product around something that is so troubling in the real world?
As a Call of Duty fan, the series has always resonated with me because it's ripped from the headlines. Thinking back to when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was released, on BBC and CNN you were watching AC-130 attacks over Baghdad. At the same time, you were playing a very realistic depiction of that in the campaign of Modern Warfare. When talking about the conflict of tomorrow, we started by going to the Pentagon and getting some great military advisor support. We asked them what they really believed was going to happen, what the military is preparing for. They don't talk about the most likely outcome being the rise of China as a superpower, or the resurgence of Cold War Russia. They talk about what happens when a private military corporation has access to the latest technology, the latest training, and are able to be bought by the highest bidder? They're independent of values or a nationality. It's a very provocative sort of subject matter and we did want to explore that. We did want to touch on the subject of what happens if Jonathan Irons, the most successful man in the world who controls a free-standing private military, what happens if he takes that and moves from profit to policy, wanting to reshape the world? We thought that would resonate and hopefully fans feel that. It's a provocative storyline.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare screenshot

This is the first Call of Duty title with Sledgehammer Games as the primary developer. What's going to set a Sledgehammer Call of Duty apart from a Treyarch or Infinity Ward Call of Duty?
At Sledgehammer Games, we're fans first. This is an amazing franchise that's been around for over a decade and we were fans before we became developers five years ago. As fans, we have an opportunity to make some changes, to put our mark on it. There's a storytelling focus in the game that is big for us, at Sledgehammer we have a focus on narrative that I hope will shine. That focus is married with, to be frank, a generous gift of time from Activision. Having three years to make the game allowed us to take some risks and try out things that were maybe more ambitious than [other developers] had time for in the past. So we're very excited to see how fans react to the narrative in the story mode, I think we brought something special with Kevin Spacey's involvement. And of course we're taking some bold chances with the exoskeleton and changes to player mechanics. I think we've made some pretty fundamental changes to the multiplayer.

You say fundamental changes to the multiplayer - how dramatically different is it for Call of Duty fans?
We've preserved what's made Call of Duty great. It's got the core foundation of great, intuitive controls married with 60 frames-per-second, low latency gameplay. I was a big fan of the Pick Ten system of Black Ops II, developing from that we've built our Pick Thirteen system. But then there are big changes like the introduction of loot. The loot system is a huge, new system for Call of Duty. The virtual lobby is also new. For the first time ever you also have the chance to really, truly represent your character in-match and in the lobby. We have the virtual firing range, customised score-streaks - we threw a lot at this one, there really is a lot in there. It's been a challenge because we want to innovate in a massive way and thrill fans, but not alienate them by breaking what makes Call of Duty great.

I'm very happy surface-to-air missiles are back -

I took down a UAV with one in my preview, after sorely missing them in Ghosts. Another problem with Ghosts, indeed a problem with most Call of Duty games, is how quick-scoping can ruin multiplayer. What do you think of the issue?
Haha, well, quick-scoping is a controversial one, as you probably know. We spent a lot of time focusing on game balance. We're calling this the most customisable Call of Duty experience to date, you can really customise your play-style a lot. But at the core of it, Call of Duty is meant to be about skill, rather than an overpowered create-a- class. We've spent three years focused on that. So a player that has perfected play as a sniper, we want to allow that to be a really fulfilling experience, equally balanced to someone who has spent time perfecting their ability to use an assault rifle, a SMG, a shotgun or whatever. We want to provide a tremendous amount of choice, so you can play your style, which is probably somewhat different to mine. But it's the skill that makes us different, not the selection. Does that make sense?

It does, but I think you're saying quick-scoping is in the game?
Well, that comes down to your definition of quick-scoping.

That's hard because different people have different definitions for quick-scoping!
That's exactly right. Let me put it this way, sniper classes are not going to be overpowered relative to their peers. The ability to master a sniper rifle and be great at it will be equal to the ability to master any other class. We've done some things to make sure snipers are not able to take advantage of their properties - for example, there are attachments based on weapon classes that are specific. The ability to quick-draw with an assault rifle is important, but you don't want to have the ability to quick-draw with a sniper rifle because that lends itself to being a faster, quick-scope model. We spent a lot of time trying to focus on it so I think sniper class players will find that it's a really rewarding experience, but it won't be over-powered relative to their peers.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare screenshot

That sounds like a fair way to do it. It is frustrating playing against snipers in past Call of Duty games when you see their killcams and they've one-shot killed you but the crosshairs weren't even on you.
Well I tell you it'll be really interesting, curious and fun to see how players use the movement set now. You now have the ability to boost, dodge and slam. I'm sure people will get really proficient with snipers, but you've got more ways to move and can move faster than ever before. The evasive manoeuvres in this game are incredible; it's like a dogfight now. Two people will be engaged in combat and they'll boost in the air, try and dodge and get a beat on each other. It's remarkable. Catching a person in the air with a sniper rifle, I think that will be very challenging, but very satisfying.

What else is especially satisfying in Advanced Warfare multiplayer?
We have a new weapons class called directed energy which is cool. Also, the heavies, the XMG. There's a mode called Lockdown and when you play it with the XMG or exo-machinegun, which is like akimbo LMGs, you're throwing more lead down-range than ever. You're super inaccurate and your reloads are super slow, but in Lockdown mode you essentially use the power of your exo to lock in, and for a moment you become like a turret. It's a ton of fun.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare screenshot

This year we've had Titanfall, Destiny and Wolfenstein: The New Order as great first-person shooters that have made it clear we're in an exciting new era for the genre. What is going to set Advanced Warfare apart from those others?
That's a great question. I'm a gamer and just a fan of great entertainment. I'm excited for all the great games that have come before us and the games coming after us. So to just be talked about alongside those games you just mentioned is a great honour for us. But Call of Duty resonates on such a massive scale and the things we were able to pull off with the support of Activision, you'll see... it's the most creative and ambitious game we've ever made. When you combine the world-class campaign that with a multiplayer experience that is broad, deep and has all these new innovations, and on top of that we have co-op. Few games can offer all of that. I made Dead Space previously and that was a single-player-only game. Now you're also seeing multiplayer-only games. But to see something that can offer the scale of quality and production values of our campaign, along with co-op, multiplayer, clan wars and the app, and deliver it all on such a social scale - I think the full package is pretty hard to beat.


Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is released November 4.

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