I detect more than a bit of Dead Space in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare - and I'm not just talking about the Ishimura reference. But to Sledgehammer co-founders Michael Condrey and Glen Schofield, who while at EA-owned studio Visceral created the science-fiction horror series, this doesn't seem like a thing.
During a behind-closed-doors presentation this week I got a good look at Advanced Warfare's campaign and, through that, a sense that some of Dead Space's better ideas have made their way into the first Call of Duty in recent memory made with the luxury of a three-year development period.
One of the smartest things about Dead Space was the way it stripped away almost all the heads-up display elements you see in most video games in favour of an augmented reality system that put key information, such as ammo and the map, inside the game world. Advanced Warfare does exactly the same thing.
In Advanced Warfare, set 50 years in the future, playable character Private Mitchell sees his ammo count as the player does: via a digital overlay projected onto his gun. When looking down its iron sights, another digital overlay displays the ammo count, and warns you when it's nearly time to reload.
In Advanced Warfare there are different types of grenades, as there are in all shooters. But here your grenade includes a digital image overlay that displays its type and you cycle through them as Mitchell prepares a throw. When a threat grenade explodes, for example, it sends out a pulse that scans the area for enemies. Those detected show up in the HUD as red outlines. Your Exo suit's visor is capable of a variety of vision modes, including one that lets you see outlines of friendly soldiers who are using stealth.
There's more. At points in the campaign you see a map of the area, which is, again, a digital projection set inside the game world. You'll see advanced GPS and communication systems used to display objective markers, helping the player work out where to go. And you'll get mission updates beamed in as videos that run in real-time for the player, and Mitchell, to see.
This is all very Dead Space, but Condrey and Schofield play down the comparison, saying the augmented reality and the de-cluttered HUD were inspired by real-world technology Sledgehammer reckons will be commonplace on the battlefield of the future.
"We appreciated the cleanliness of the screen," Condrey says of Dead Space. "There's no floating compass in the real world, so why when you play a first-person shooter do you always have a little compass floating in the corner? But through things like Google Glass and augmented reality that we know are coming today, a heads-up display is real. It's real technology. Tesla has just announced a prototype of, basically, Iron Man's 3D UI.
"So we know on the battlefield of the future soldiers will have all this information instantly available through their visor. That was a great opportunity to de-clutter the screen and give more real-time information to the player in a way that felt natural."
Augmented reality plays a big part in the look and feel of Advanced Warfare, but the Dead Space effect extends into other parts of the game, including the tone and pacing of some of the missions.
I'm not saying Advanced Warfare has horror elements, and neither is Sledgehammer, but it's clear the developer has tried to switch things up a bit by increasing the tension at certain points during the campaign. One level, which we've seen but are not allowed to discuss directly, is designed to make the player worry about what's around every corner. It puts the squad in an enemy environment that's as close to creepy as Call of Duty gets, dialling down the action but dialling up the atmosphere. The score does that scary screechy thing, too - another nod to Dead Space and Visceral Games, whose audio was so expertly crafted.
"We like to change up the pacing wherever we can," Schofield says. "Veterans told us being in a battle, there's a lot of adrenaline, but they also talk about being scared. What is around the corner? You don't know. That's one of the things we tried to get in this level. It's a different point of view. The mood and pacing is completely different."
"There's definitely a Sledgehammer Games style and stamp," Condrey adds. "Activision encouraged it. They said, take some risks and put your mark on this franchise. Dead Space and even the Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare level 'All Ghillied Up', which was just about the pacing and the more subtle nature of how to shock and surprise a player - we were inspired by all of that."
And rounding out the list of things about Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare that rekindle memories of Dead Space is the new upgrade system. At the end of each level you spend points earned on the battlefield to upgrade your Exo suit. You can improve its strength, for example, and reduce reload time. "It's like a mini skill tree," Schofield explains. "It's really light, like what we did in Dead Space."
For me it's clear that Dead Space's spirit lives inside Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, but the question is, how much of a difference does it make to the traditional fast and frenetic Call of Duty gameplay? Those who jump immediately into competitive multiplayer won't give a damn about mission pacing. For them the likes of weapon damage and spawn points are king.
Activision won't talk about multiplayer until around August, as is tradition for the cadence of Call of Duty's PR beats. But we can imagine the biggest impact on gameplay will be made by the Exo suit, which grants players, for want of a better term, super powers.
There are many Exo mechanics: the Exo hover, the Exo climb via magnetic gloves, the Exo push, the Exo grapple zipline, the improvised door shield and the already discussed Exo cloak, but the one that might have the biggest impact is the Exo boost - what amounts to a double jump.
Sledgehammer says the addition of the Exo boost affected the design of Advanced Warfare's levels. In fact they were built with it, and the other Exo mechanics, in mind. "It's still Call of Duty, but it feels different," Schofield says. It's funny. Double jumps in FPS games are in vogue: Respawn's Titanfall has one. Bungie's Destiny has one. Now, via the Exo suit, so does Call of Duty.
Also new for COD are vehicles you have actual control over. This sounds ridiculous to highlight, but in past Call of Duty games vehicles moved about on rails as you blew everything in sight into bits, so I'll put vehicles you control down as a cool new feature. We saw this in action in the Bio Lab level, set in the forests of Bulgaria. Towards the end of the mission you get to pilot the hover tank, which has a missile launcher, an anti-personnel cannon and an EMP blaster at its disposal. The hover tank is very loud, and every bit as overpowered as it sounds.
Then there are the weapons. This is Advanced Warfare, so there are a lot of sci-fi guns, including directed energy weapons (laser guns, to you and me). Some of the grenades look like fun, too. The smart grenade hovers in the air for a bit, detects an enemy then flies towards it before exploding. And the mute charge is worth mentioning because I quite like the idea: it removes the sound from a localised area, enabling a safe stealth kill even when enemies are nearby.The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt review Wild at heart.
Condrey says Advanced warfare's new mechanics, such as the Exo suit, make for "the most dramatic change in how you play Call of Duty in the last 10 years". It's a bold claim, and one I'm not yet entirely convinced of yet, but that's mainly because all we've seen so far is the campaign. The Bio Lab level demonstrated many of Sledgehammer's new ideas, but it was still quintessentially Call of Duty single-player. The first section of the level sees you follow a friendly soldier with a gruff English accent. You end up doing that breach through a door thing that slows down time. And halfway through you rappel off a cliff face. And of course you shoot lots of bad guys. Lots of them.
Despite it reminding me of Dead Space - a game I loved - Sledgehammer's campaign presentation actually made me more excited for Advanced Warfare's competitive multiplayer. I imagine the Exo suit and its different powers will do more to refresh competitive Call of Duty than the inevitable introduction of slightly different progression and slightly different perks and slightly different modes. What if I can Exo push a vehicle to create moveable cover for my team-mates? What if I can Exo jump up to the top floor of a building to surprise a camping sniper? What if I can Exo zipline away from another player who's got me cornered? And what if I can Exo punch another player off of the map? Now those really would be "dramatic changes".