How do you inject interest in a gaming franchise that, through annual releases, has arguably begun to lose its impact? In the case of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, you drag a major name into the fray, stick little dots all over his face, point a camera at him and hope for some action.
There is no doubt that Kevin Spacey is the star of Activision's latest shooter instalment, a series which has sold 140 million copies. There have been big names before – from actor and director Kiefer Sutherland to British star Craig Fairbrass – but bringing in a double Oscar winner shows a true sign of intent.
There had been suggestions that the popularity of Call of Duty had peaked. Industry analyst Sterne Agee predicted Advanced Warfare would sell 15 per cent fewer than Ghosts which in itself sold fewer than Black Ops II despite the franchise becoming one of gaming's most popular e-sports.
But Bret Robbins, creative director at Sledgehammer Games, says the intention with the new game was set at the start of development. “Right from the beginning, we knew we wanted a top Hollywood actor in the game, for the same reason that movies do; we wanted the best,” he says.
“Kevin Spacey is a phenomenal actor, and I’ve been a fan of his for a long time,” he says. “When we were writing the story and the character of Jonathan Irons, we actually had Spacey in mind, because we wanted someone very charismatic in that role.”
The latest game has taken three years to develop, thanks to a system in which several studios work simultaneously on the titles. Sledgehammer Games took on Advanced Warfare in 2011, straight after it had co-developed Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 with Infinity Ward. But this is the first time it has taken on the sole development of a game in the series.
“[The three-year development cycle] gave us a lot of time to prototype, experiment and try different things,” says Robbins. “While we didn’t want to completely change the game for our fans, we put a high premium on innovation. Almost every aspect of the game has some new feature or improvement to it.”
Although Robbins says experienced players will see many differences including a fundamental change in the movement controls in multiplayer, it retains its fast, frenetic gameplay. It will, he says, also appeal to new players.
“If someone has never played Call of Duty before, I think they’ll find Advanced Warfare to be pretty welcoming,” he says. “We have a great, exciting story for them to enjoy in the single-player campaign. We have some new features, like the Combat Readiness Program, which allows new players to enjoy multiplayer in a friendlier environment, so they can improve their skills.”
And of course, there is the friendly, familiar face of Mr Spacey who, thanks to the fidelity of the graphics, looks very lifelike. “The game just looks a lot better than previous titles,” says Robbins. “This required a much bigger commitment to our art department. Of course, there are also improvements to design and audio. We are just able to do a lot more on the new machines.”
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is out today
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