There's a new developer, a new storyline and a setting 50 years in the future. With three years to create Call of Duty: Advance Warfare, developers Sledgehammer Games thinks it knows how to make Call of Duty exciting again.
It's a startling moment that helps to shake the viewer out of the malaise of E3 video game over indulgence, endless trailers, constant explosions.
A group of soldiers on a mission, blowing things up, burning things down, issuing commands, when suddenly one of them turns straight to the viewer and talks.
"Oh, hey, I didn't see you there," he says looking directly out of the screen. "Well, like what what you see? You're going to be seeing a lot more cool stuff from Sledgehammer Games. Just look at me, totally in game. Fucking bad ass right?
"We have new HD facial capturing lens-shape technology. Check out these physically-based skin and eye shaders." The soldier leans in so close his face fills the screen.
"Hell," he says, "even my pupils dilate."
And they do, tightening up to a small circle and then expanding on cue.
"The team has done well," he says. "We've got to move out. Check out more of me and my next-gen squad in action. We're going to blow you away."
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare isn't just the first Call of Duty created by Sledgehammer Games, it's also the first Call of Duty given three years to be developed, massaged and polished into, Activision hopes, a better sort of shooter experience.
What does that extra year of development mean? A lot, according to the game makers. It allowed them to completely rethink the premise of Call of Duty and give it another leap forward in setting.
The first, original, three games were set during World War II. Then came Modern Warfare and a leap into today's sort of military engagement. Black Ops delivered an experience that started in World War II, moved to the 60s and 70s and finally the 80s and 2025.
But Advanced Warfare is a deliberate, well-researched leap into what one of the creators called a world of "science future." While the game doesn't completely disregard reality, the people making it developed a story, weapons, vehicles and gear that don't exist in today's military. Most of them were created based on where military science is headed, some on predictions a bit further out than that.
In the game, players take on the role of tier 1 operators in the year 2054. These high-tech future soldiers wear jump-jet enabled exoskeletons that give them amazing strength and an array of abilities. They can climb sheer walls with magnetic gloves and a grapple line, turn essentially invisible with cloaking, throw enemy soldiers across a field and, most notably, double jump and hover in short bursts.
That last, most unlikely of the science future abilities, is the one that seems to deliver the most significant changes to the game.
With a double tap of a button, a player can double jump onto cars or low rooftops. While in the air, a click of a thumbstick while pressed in one direction slides the airborne soldier left, right, forward or backward. The end result is a character that can dance through the air, hop and hover over ground cover and deliver fire from feet above the ground.
The short demo shown to press also included a look at some of the vehicles, like a hoverbike, a hovertank, a giant helicopter and a walking tank.
Those exoskeletons don't just deliver abilities to soldiers, they also allow them to do things like attack and interface directly with mobile turrets and include small threat detection grenades that launch from the wrist. Once fired, the ball rolls to the target and explodes, highlighting all nearby enemy in a silhouette of vibrant red stripes, whether they're behind cover or not.
The demo also introduced several new weapons to the mix included more typical automatic rifles with holographic displays for ammo levels, a new class of energy-driven "beam" weapons and grenades that can be used in a variety of different ways, from explosion, to homing, to stun, with the twist of a dial. The beam weapons fire off what appears to be a massive laser ray that eventually kills an enemy soldier.
Despite how seemingly far-fetched the weapons sound, the developers insist they're all based on science ... mostly.
"The truth of the matter is everyone has a different take on what near future looks like," said Michael Condrey, chief operating and development officer at Sledgehammer Games. "To make it grounded it has to be based on research we know is happening. We are going to point to everything in this game and say if it's not already on the battlefield, it's going to be on the battlefield sooner than you know.
"Across the game, everything you've seen from direct energy weapons, to exos to smart grenades to walking tanks, those are real. I think we pushed, took some risks and maybe moved some people outside of their comfort zone, but we held to our vision. It's about having that collaborative dialog and everyone getting a little uneasy at times. But as long as it was grounded in research it was OK. So, we're not aliens, we're not time travelers, we're not teleportation, we're not science fiction, we're the science in science fiction; science future."
And the story too is based on some research, though it is not meant to be a political statement or an exact prediction of what's going to happen.
The fiction of Advanced Warfare drops players in a world that has become dependent on a private military corporation. It is the largest military force in the world. The CEO of Atlas, Jonathan Irons (played by Kevin Spacey), decides to go to war with the U.S. because he believes its leaders have failed too many times to install democracies around the world or change the global balance of power.
"I think it's safe to say that our story mode, which is going to be really impactful and driven by the narrative, is probably around the same length of what you've come to expect from Black Ops 2 and Modern Warfare 3," Condrey said. "It's almost like an alternate universe, it's based off of the geopolitical climate of tomorrow in this world but there's no reference to the modern events, it's not Black Ops."
The game's story starts with a completely new slate for the franchise, there are no returning characters or characters related to any from previous Call of Duty titles, said Glen Schofield, chief creative officer and co-founder of Sledgehammer Games.
"We wanted to just start new and start fresh with a clean slate," Schofield said. "We went in there and designed characters with personalities. We wanted them to be like the television characters you see today, something people can connect with. We have someone as iconic as Kevin Spacey playing in it and Troy Baker."
The decision to stick to the punchy, short length of previous Call of Duty campaigns was driven by the story the team wants to tell, Condrey said.
"I don't want a 20-hour, 70-rated experience," he said. "I'd much rather have a much shorter experience that is amazing through and through. It's about delivering on quality and delivering on narrative and taking you on a journey."
Work on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (originally codenamed Blacksmith) started shortly after Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 launched in 2011. And soon after, the game was already hitting some turbulence.
"One of the design goals that we've talked about, that we've rallied the team behind was: When everyone played Modern Warfare 1 it was like, ‘Wow, all of a sudden you're in the boots of a modern tier 1 operator'," Schofield said. "And so our goal was to shift the game to feel like now you're in the shoes of tier 1 operator 50 years in the future. That was our design goal."
As a group, the developers and executives decided that the game should be set 50 years in the future, Schofield said. "That was the time period that we focused on," he said. "What that meant to each and every person was a little different.
"I remember one of our first meetings, they were like ‘Wow, you guys have gone way too far."
It was a game that didn't look and feel like any of the Call of Duty games that came before it, and that made the executives uncomfortable. But over the course of the three-year development, those same people came around to the ideas and weapons used in the game. To win them back, the team had to walk them through the thought process.
"It was about sitting down and going, ‘Hey, this is based on research.' And starting to educated people," he said. "And then we prototyped a few things. You can see something in a drawing like a walking tank and go, 'That's too far out there.' But when you see it walking realistically and the dust is coming off and putting it in context with a city that people understand. Then it's much easier. It's all about context."
To come up with their ideas, the team worked with futurists, consultants and even a guy who works for the Department of Defense making predictions for them about the direction the military and its weapons are heading.
It's rare for a franchise as storied, popular and profitable as Call of Duty to get a chance to be something different, to take some chances.
But that's what happening with Advanced Warfare, developer Sledgehammer has been asked to try something new. "Our style is a little bit different than other studios, we're always trying to push the boundaries," Schofield said. "We can have a clean slate on this one, the company and [Activision CEO] Eric Hirshberg have been behind us the whole time and they wanted to try something fresh."
Condrey calls it a new era.
"We call it a new era for four reasons," he said.
It's the first time a new studio has been put at the helm of the game in a decade. It's also a new era for the hardware and technology, something that is inspiring the team to "squeeze every bit of horsepower" out of their in-house engine. The game will have a new era for the campaign (something they haven't said much about yet.) Finally, Condrey and Schofield say that the exoskeleton-fitted advanced soldiers are going to create a new way to play Call of Duty.
Watching it played, it's obvious that player movement has been reinvented and, with it, battlefield tactics. The notion of cover will change dramatically once you have soldiers who can pop into the air to shoot down on you. And the ability to air dash side-to-side, forward or back means that open battlegrounds essentially now have two layers to worry about.
"One of the opportunities that three years gave us was the opportunity to take some risks," Condrey said. "Activision was fully supportive of the need to innovate and new ways to play. We heard that loud and clear coming out of E3. Within the first six weeks of pre-production on Blacksmith, we came across the exo and the boost jump and what it brought and that was the catalyst to really deliver some game changers I think.
"It's a Call of Duty, but it's a new Call of Duty. That hands-on experience is different."
Why the push for innovation after a run of so many successful shooters?
The two didn't say, but it could be tied to the reception that last year's Call of Duty, Ghosts, received.
There is a problem with trying to tinker with Call of Duty's formula for success: there are a lot of fans of the franchise and they have certain expectations when they go out and buy a Call of Duty title.
"We love our fans," Condrey said. "There are lots of voices talking about what they want. But how do you innovate, but no alienate?"
It was a process of give and take, Condrey said.
There were a lot of things that the team held their ground on, he said, and some things they came to realize were straying into science fiction, not science future.
"We had a teleportation grenade prototype early on in the game," he said. "It was pretty fun, it also broke some systems. But then we stepped back and thought that there was no research, no science to support that it was coming. So we cut it."
That innovation in the game was also driven by the knowledge that a lot of things are changing very quickly in the game industry.
"There's the new Oculus, other VR, the indie stuff," he said. "I think we have to innovate, if we don't have real change for fans in the next three years we'll be in trouble."
The Sledgehammer team believes that fans are pulling for them, that they're willing to give them a chance in this, their first unassisted Call of Duty.
"We haven't reached the goal line yet, we need to push hard to get there," Condrey said. "Until then it's pedal to the metal. We feel pretty proud with what we've done, but we're not finished yet."