Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare – The Promise of Innovation

Sledgehammer Games is joining the Call of Duty franchise, and their first effort looks to be bringing innovation to the table.

Another year, another Call of Duty, but maybe this one is different. It’s being built by a studio, Sledgehammer Games, that has never been at the helm of its own game before, and what we’ve seen of Advanced Warfare shows quite clearly that some of the most basic gameplay elements of the franchise have been altered after a decade without much significant change. Now we have jump packs that let us, you know, jump really high (a la Titanfall), for one thing, plus some other enhancements that the new exosuits will grant to players.

Two of the missions I saw on the E3 show floor also put a heavy focus on vehicle combat — one has our heroes chase a van through the streets of San Francisco, with much collateral damage, and the other had a lengthy escape from a remote “bio lab” (that’s what that level was called) in an armored vehicle with a big turret on top that you get to shoot. Call of Duty is no stranger to that sort of thing, but it’s rare for Activision to emphasize it so heavily.

But more than that, Sledgehammer promises to bring significant narrative innovation to Call of Duty as well, though that’s more difficult for me to quantify at this point based on the three Advanced Warfare missions I’ve seen thus far. But here’s what we do know.

AW will feature a protagonist, named Mitchell, who is silent when you are controlling him but who will have a voice in cutscenes, which is a bit of a middle ground between the completely silent hero of Ghosts and the very talkative (and screamy) player characters in Black Ops 2. We also know that the big level shown at the Microsoft E3 press conference on June 9, in which Mitchell gets his arm torn off, takes place pretty far into the game — it’s after the other two missions I saw, and those were described as being in the middle of the campaign.

Finally, Sledgehammer has said that Mitchell joins up with villain Jonathan Irons and his PMC Atlas, but in the levels I’ve seen Mitchell is fighting against Atlas soldiers. So the implication is there’s a bit (or a lot) of a HAWX 2 thing going on, where you start out with a PMC but then abandon it when it begins waging war against the USA and her allies. Letting you fight for the bad guys is always interesting for a minute, but it’s rare for a game to stick with that (hi, Crackdown), and it doesn’t seem as if Advanced Warfare will for all that long.

I’ve been told privately that we haven’t been shown any of the best stuff yet, but also that Mitchell losing his arm is a hugely important character moment for him in the text of the story — that would be extremely obvious in any other media but you never know how much weight a game will give to these sorts of things. But in on-the-record conversations there is a severe lack of detail in regards to what exactly Sledgehammer is doing with the story that is so allegedly innovative.

In speaking with creative director Brett Robbins E3, I got more inferences and assurances, all kinda vague even while being exactly the sort of thing I want to hear when I’m talking with a developer about game narratives.

“There are certain things you can do, with the structure [of Call of Duty games] that’s already in place, that are new and different, and finding those is the challenge,” Robbins said. “I feel like we’re doing our own thing. This is a Sledgehammer game.

“I consider us storytellers. I think that’s very important.”

Robbins discussed, within that context, that they are no “reinventing the wheel” on how to tell a story in a game, but within the existing game storytelling concept they’re making a point of developing characters and the world and communicating events as you’re playing moreso than leaving the story stuff in cutscenes.

“There are certain things you can do, with the structure that’s already in place [for Call of Duty], that are new and different, and finding those is the challenge,” Robbins said.

But right now, it’s still hard to know what they found. Perhaps the innovation is more fundamental than the branching plot of Black Ops 2, and thus more difficult to describe in conversation without reading the script aloud. It could also be, as an Infinity Ward staffer told me at E3 2013 when I asked why they wouldn’t explain the basic premise of Ghosts, that speaking in vague terms without communicating much concrete information is simply “how you market video games.”

I don’t even mind vague terms, usually, because I think we usually get too much information about games before we play them. But in a business constantly claiming innovation without delivering it, I tend to want some proof when folks starting throwing that word around.

I didn’t get any proof from Sledgehammer. That doesn’t mean they’re lying or overpromising, but it does mean I get to be as skeptical about it as I want to be.

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