Call of Duty: World at War
Huddled in a back room of the white-washed and elegant Cathedral of Saint Vibiana on the edge of Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, I'm struck that this is a highly atmospheric setting in which to be taken through Activision's major titles for the months ahead. Undoubtedly the title with the biggest weight on its shoulders, after the run-away success of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007, Call of Duty: World at War is perhaps Acti's most pivotal release in the series to date, and a key one for intermittent developer Treyarch. Rich Farrelly, creative lead and Noah Heller, senior producer, join us in this cellar-like back room with a balmy evening party chattering away in the garden outside.
Gentlemen, why would you want to go back to World War II after the critical acclaim of CoD 4's departure from that conflict?
Well, we're not really going back to the same WWII; that's how we look at it. For Call of Duty: World at War, we wanted to do a different kind of WWII. The gloves were off. We wanted to make the best action game within the WWII environment. We came up with something that feels very different, I think you can see that from the images and trailers. There's a more serious atmosphere; its intense. Add to that the fact that we wanted to go to the Pacific. This has never been done. It opens up all kinds of gameplay possibilities. The Imperial Japanese forces; guerilla tactics used; its all entirely new. This makes for new gameplay never seen in any Call of Duty regardless of the time frame.
How interactive and destructable is the world of World at War?
What we focussed on was environmental destruction. We wanted you to be able to use flame throwers and flame tanks to destroy the natural world around you. We wanted it to have gameplay applications. So if an enemy is hidden by heavy cover you can still remove this obstruction. This focusses on natural scenery. You can also destroy other aspects of the environment, walls, incidentals, depending upon the accuracy of missiles, grenades, that kind of thing.
When did you begin work on the new game?
We started this right after CoD 3, about November 2006.
Does a two-year development cycle help you, versus a one year scheme?
Does it help us!
Its more than twice as good, lets put it that way. It is critical for us to be able to have time to get things right. We've had two years, and we've also had access to the Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare game engine, to work with on all gaming platforms. We could also move on from the PS2. Leave the current-gen behind and focus on next-gen. There were huge benefits. We're doing our best work right now.
How much collaboration is there with Infinity Ward?
We started working with them from the beginning, we've met several times, there's a lot of exchange.
Do you keep each other on your toes?
Absolutely. We're part of the same company, but at the same time we're separate studios. They're making their game, we're making ours. What's great is being able to leverage their technology. But, you know, we're trying to make the best game we can regardless of other studios. We have our own standards. The tech is great, but as far as the two studios go, we don't work on the same game. It takes everything we have to make the best game we can.
Do you feel pressure from the success of CoD 4?
Well, there's an incredible amount of pressure of course, but we're up for it. We've had two years to work on this project, this is the first time some of the developers here have had that long to work on a game. We thrive on this kind of competition.
Anyone who's trying to do their best work, applies their own pressure any way. We know that game is out there. Its awesome. We want to make sure that everyone who plays our game thinks the same thing.
Is the Pacific the only backdrop to the action?
Theatres. There's a Pacific theatre, but we also have a European theatre too. In the European theatre you'll play as the Soviet army. In World at War you'll spend part of the time in the shoes of a Russian soldier. A lot of the action will take place in Germany... and eventually Berlin.
Are you worried about revisiting the European theatre?
The team are trying to focus on portraying the war in a different way to games before it. This is just not the same as past Call of Duty titles. Nothing is sanitised; this is a more intense experience. It'll be pretty gritty and intense when you're riding with the Russian army against the Germans. But we've plenty of action beyond Europe too. In the Pacific, we've been working on the AI for the Imperial Japanese army. Some of the tactics they used were pretty 'up close and personal' at times, and there was no way we could not portray that intensity. These guys had a very different culture. Death in battle was honour for them, and they didn't expect to come out of their fight alive.
Unlike the Germans who, when surrounded, would surrender then hope to be put in a prison camp and eventually return to their farms, the Japanese army would come at you. They would feign death; the marines couldn't even count on bodies being really dead. They had to put holes in these guys. When surrendering they would come with grenades. There's the 'banzai' charge, with family swords of course. These tactics make for a more gritty, brutal kind of game which we're not shying away from.
What can you tell us about the multiplayer side of things?
Competitive multiplayer is a key feature for us. We've been working on a full XP system. We've introduced a lot of new weapons; we added a lot of new elements to the multiplayer environment. The mode is a lot of fun, and we're adding plenty for players to think about.
We've started from an excellent place with multiplayer - and we've built on it. There are new weapons, challenges, and more. We're keeping what worked, and then there's tanks; other vehicles. Players will have more freedom; there'll be lots of options.
On the co-op front we'll have different combinations of online and local players. There will be a competitive element still, we want to capture some of that competitive online feel from Call of Duty 4. We have a really complete experience.
What can you tell us about the story?
We're not telling the story in the same way as other games previously. I can't go into too much detail. But there's an emphasis on characters. At one stage you'll play as a US Marine, voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, which is pretty cool. We're also going to have other great talent behind both the Marines and the Russians, bringing the narrative to life in new ways.
Telling the story has also changed. This is more than standard mission briefings. Instead we've gone for a new approach, our creative director has been working really hard. I can't give away too much yet, we're also integrating co-operative play in a plausible way, ensuring that however you're playing the experience will be immersive.
With that, other interview stutters to an end, as Treyarch's creators are ushered out and the assembled press begin flapping shirt collars and considering the free bar teasingly placed mere feet from the door.
We'll bring you more on Call of Duty: World at War, in the coming months.