Call of Duty: World at War might not be out until November 14, but there are still thousands of you going at it right now in the multiplayer beta. At a recent preview event for the hotly anticipated game, impressions from which you can find here, we caught up with Activision's Noah Heller, World at War's senior producer, to discuss plans for the rest of the beta, how the game compares to Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare and why four-player co-op on Veteran will be the hardest CoD experience ever.
VideoGamer.com: Call of Duty 4 is massively popular on Xbox LIVE even a year after its release, and it would be fair to say that it's down to the competitive multiplayer. Does that then lead you guys to focus more on that side of things for this game or at least consider it of more importance than the single-player campaign?
Noah Heller: It's tough. The conventional wisdom has always been that there are single-player players and multiplayer players and the two don't really meet and you just build a game that keeps them both happy. That's gone away a little bit. With CoD4 more people than ever played multiplayer and with World at War because we're adding co-op we're expecting these guys who would never even touch multiplayer will start earning experience and will start going online for the first time, and pretty soon everyone is going to be playing online. That leads to a much greater focus for multiplayer.
We sat down and we said CoD4 multiplayer is sterling, it's a wonderful experience, and we said, 'what can we add to it?', and the list is really long. It's a lot of different weapons, it's keeping some of the perks but renaming some perks but doing lots of new perks, it's different weapons and different attachments for every different race, different types of grenades, bringing back game modes that people liked from previous Call of Duties, like War, adding in tanks, adding in the ability to revive, giving you a reward when you Prestige, raising the level cap to 65 and doing a lot of different things at different levels, adding in some new kind of spoiler gameplay like nerve gas and signal flares and stuff like that, adding a squad mode, so now you can choose to be a squad leader and set a waypoint on your map that everyone can go to, and the kill streaks of course, lots of these little tweaks add up to something which feels like Call of Duty but I think it also feels like something new and different.
VideoGamer.com: Does it feel better?
NH: I think it feels much better than any Call of Duty I've had a chance to play. CoD4 is great multiplayer. CoD: World at War is its own new multiplayer and I think fans will really enjoy both.
VideoGamer.com: Will World at War take players away from Modern Warfare on Xbox LIVE, PSN and PC?
NH: My hope is it'll take players away from other multiplayer games. I have a feeling that when players want a little taste of Modern Warfare, they're going to be happy to play with Modern Warfare, and when they want some tanks and to play as Russians in a much grittier experience, they're going to play some World at War multiplayer. And I think there's room for both.
VideoGamer.com: So you don't think World at War will cannibalise CoD4?
NH: We would hope not to cannibalise it because you know honestly, they're both CoD, but I would say we tried to add enough new and different things to World at War so there's stuff for people to see and try that's really different. Some people are going to want just infantry style gameplay like Modern Warfare. And they're going to have the opportunity to play that with World at War but they're really missing a lot if they don't try Tank War or some of the battles like that. Some people absolutely can't function without a red dot scope, while some people are going to love aperture sights and telescopic sights and other things that have WWII flavour but they're very CoD. So I think there's something there for both kinds of fans.
VideoGamer.com: Tell me about the co-op.
NH: There are basically two types of co-op play: there's co-op and then there's competitive co-op. Competitive co-op is really cool. As you play cooperatively on levels you can earn points. Head shots are worth a little bit more, and then you can string together kill streaks and kill streak awards and get multipliers, like 10x, 12x, what have you, in fact you can only get to a 9x multiplier by head shots and a 10x multiplier by melee killing someone. So this idea that you're playing the level together, and you still have to rescue someone, if he dies you still have to revive him before he bleeds out, so there's that tension of trying to get each other through the level but trying to still be at the top of the leaderboard. And all the time while you're playing you can unlock challenges which earns you multiplayer experience which you can then use to be a higher level in multiplayer.
VideoGamer.com: So you'll be playing through the exact same campaign as if you had been playing on your own?
NH: Right, it's the same campaign, there are some more enemies and it gets a little bit harder. Four players, co-op in Veteran mode is pretty much the hardest Call of Duty experience you'll ever have in your life. The enemy is just viscous and accurate, and there are many more of them, and you have to not only worry about your own safety, you have to worry about your teammates. If one of you charges forward and gets hit by a tank that's it, you're back at the last checkpoint. I think co-op rewards a little bit more familiarity with the map, and knowing exactly when an enemy is going to come from what direction, while the multiplayer is a little bit more about skill and accuracy, so it's a nice little blend between the two and it's something really rewarding.
And there's some cool little hidden features in co-op. For instance, in the Eviction level, there's a speaker that's broadcasting German propaganda and if you shoot the speaker you get 500 points. So there are lots of little hidden things like that that you just have to uncover by being familiar with the level. And then finally, we're not really talking about them just yet, but we do have a concept called Death Cards, and by finding Death Cards in various levels you'll be able to unlock new methods of co-op gameplay.
VideoGamer.com: Like what?
NH: So there's... I'm not allowed to talk about them yet but there's a lot of really cool stuff in there!
VideoGamer.com: Halo 3's four-player co-op was great fun but even on the hardest difficulty setting four human beings could breeze through it. Is that something you were aware of?
NH: It's something we're very very aware of. We wanted to make sure you could play it with four friends and still have a challenge. Now it's very hard to balance a game for four human players and not be unfair about it. We can't make enemies take three or four head shots to die, that's just no fun. But what we did do is we increased the AI count, the enemies on screen, to the absolute maximum. We took every possible road we could take to increase the AI so that you could have as many as possible running when you're doing four players. They're going to be a little bit smarter, you're probably more likely to run across enemies that have sub machine guns or faster firing weapons, and in general the thing about playing four person co-op is if someone dies you have to revive them, and so a lot of times you'll be playing on Veteran with four-players and you'll be crawling on your belly just trying to stick the morphine in the guy to revive him, and then you'll take a bullet through the eyes, and so now the third guy from the back has to come crawling on his belly and hopefully he'll revive you in time and then all of a sudden an artillery shell hits and blows you all up and you're all back to the start again. Playing the game on Veteran is something that we do a lot in the office now and have a lot of fun with. I'm not going to say it's as hard as I'd really like it to be because I wish we could make the enemies so intelligent that they really knew that four people were playing and they treated each differently, we did want to make sure it's a really gratifying co-op experience. The whole game except for a rail level and a sniper level is playable co-op and we wanted to make sure each level you'd want to play again and again.
VideoGamer.com: We spoke to Cliff Bleszinski regarding why he isn't doing four-player co-op for Gears of War 2, and he said that "once you start with three or four players the game is no longer about the narrative, it's about shooting shit", and Halo 3 suffered from that in that nobody knew who the other two characters were and they didn't feature in cut scenes or the story and were just lost. How have you got around that problem?
NH: I guess that's where CoD has a little bit of an advantage, because it's always been about camaraderie, and it's always been about, 'OK, all of you together, we're taking that hill'. Now we're still going to tell the story through the main character's eyes, but the main character is just an average Joe, on the Pacific side of things he's Private Miller, he's Dimitri on the Russian side of things. You're going to have three other people with you if you're playing four person co-op, and they're just taking the place of what we would normally fill in with just other soldiers that were there to die and go alongside with you. The main characters are the same. They're still going to reference Dimitri or Private Miller specifically and tell that story but also our feeling is that the person who's going to play co-op, they've probably played through the game once in single-player, especially to unlock all of the levels, they probably understand the game from a single-player perspective. They're still going to get to see the same cut scenes and the same moments. But there's nothing special that's like the commander says, 'the four of you, now we''ll take that hill'. That wasn't worthwhile for us. We focused more on making a CoD experience for each level. So we took some of the levels, broke them open and made different paths so that co-op people would have a chance to flank while someone else assaulted the front, and that was where we spent our development time.
Really I think the story still holds up. But if you're looking for the true CoD: World at War story, that is a single-player flavour. There's no way to get past that. One of the levels we didn't choose for co-op is an introduction to your Russian commander which is a sniper level, crawling through the streets of Stalingrad. Obviously it wouldn't really make sense to do that as a co-op level, because all of a sudden it would be like, 'you three also hide in the streets with me'. So where it didn't make sense from a story perspective we didn't do it, but anywhere in the story where we would normally have what we call red shirts, just soldiers who are with you to do or die, we now let those be replaced with human beings, and that just fits for CoD, it's just something about probably the way we do battles.
VideoGamer.com: You're now doing a multiplayer beta. What do you hope to get out of that?
NH: The beta is coming pretty late for us, but we wanted to give something that was a little bit more polished. We're doing a lot of back end optimisations right now. If we find something from a balance perspective that's egregious obviously we would look at seeing to fix it, but this is more about learning lessons, learning what people think about the balance so that we can support the title for a long time to come. We're very interested in doing things like map packs and stuff like that for the future.
VideoGamer.com: Given the timing of the beta there won't be much time to react to any problems you find.
NH: It's true but the back end optimisations we can do because we use DemonWare which is Activision's back end, and those are actually significant. Every day goes by and we say, 'this many concurrent users, they're hitting our stat site like this, this is how they're hitting our security gateways or what have you', that actually teaches us a lot.
VideoGamer.com: What are your plans for the beta?
NH: Right now there are three maps and right now the level cap is at 11, but sometime soon we're going to raise that probably to the 20s or so, and we may raise it to unlimited before the beta ends just so people can really try everything out.
VideoGamer.com: I'd imagine the game is almost finished if not finished already. When are you looking at going gold?
NH: Pretty soon. It's out in mid-November. We were just kind of putting the finishing touches on it last month, now it's more about managing the beta and making sure everything is fitting together the way it should. But we're pretty much at that point.
VideoGamer.com: So how does it feel? This is the first time you've had two years to do a CoD game.
NH: You saw us a good couple months ago and we were saying, 'thank goodness we finally had enough time to make a game'. We stood back now and I like to think it speaks for itself. It's a pretty polished game and it has a lot of heart in it, and I think people that play it will genuinely see the effort that went into it, and that's rewarding for us. It's been a crazy and humbling experience but we're very grateful we've had the time to work on the game and we're grateful we can turn around and tell our bosses, 'look what we can do when we have the time to do it, look what we can create'. And that's humbling.
VideoGamer.com: Is it the game that will convince the cynics about your credentials as a development studio compared to Infinity Ward?
NH: Infinity Ward is a great studio and there's always going to be great studios. I think that the game will speak for itself and it will show people that we're a serious studio that people should take notice of. I'm not going to compare us to Infinity Ward but I will say that everyone who is involved in the CoD brand holds it to the highest degree and we feel like we're finally approaching the bar that we needed to approach, and that's a significant thing for us. So when it comes to the time for us to make our next game, or even when it comes time to make the next map packs or anything else connected to this game, we're going to know that that bar is set pretty high.
It was hard coming out to see people six or seven months ago and say, 'we know the bar is set very low, let us convince you why we can raise the bar', but we'd much rather know that the bar is high and have to meet a new bar. Basically I think we're happy to say the game speaks for itself and we hope when people look at future Treyarch games they'll say, 'you need to give us a game as good as World at War'.
VideoGamer.com: What are your DLC plans for World at War? You've mentioned map packs but can you go further than that and perhaps add to the campaign?
NH: We're not announcing anything specific yet but I will say we're going to support this game very aggressively. We're definitely looking at doing things other than traditional DLC. We're definitely looking at supporting it for a long time to come because we're really proud of it. There will be a few surprises, but you're definitely right that we're going to do a few things off the beaten path.
VideoGamer.com: Adding to a campaign isn't something we're used to seeing in terms of DLC for first-person shooters. Is it technically possible?
NH: One of the wonderful things about co-op is there's no such thing any more really as just here's the single-player game and it never gets touched again. I can't confirm anything we might do, but the idea of adding new online co-op missions is definitely something that's been discussed a lot. And if co-op proves to be very popular then I'm sure the demand will be very high for it.
VideoGamer.com: Can you give the fans any indication of how long they'll have to wait after release for the first batch of DLC?
NH: I'm not allowed to say anything about that but I will say that fans of this game will not be sorry for the amount of support we give it, because we're intending to really support it. We've people working on it right now, and believe me those are very tired people.
VideoGamer.com: Are you thinking about your next CoD game?
NH: Oh no. We're still thinking about this CoD game. There are people way above my head that are thinking about the next CoD game and at some point they'll come to us and talk to us about it perhaps.
VideoGamer.com: Are you guys getting tired of doing CoD games, would you like to try your hand at something else?
NH: Oh no. We love CoD. CoD has grown as a brand. It used to be here's a rar rar WWII game and now it's about a soldier's story, and we're pleased to make any game that tells a soldier's story.
VideoGamer.com: What did you think of the latest Brothers in Arms game?
NH: I can't make any comment on a competitor's game. I can't give you anything on the record, I'm sorry. I will say we're proud that we were able to do some storytelling with our game and I hope we show we can tell a different story than the traditional WWII story.
VideoGamer.com: Thanks for your time.
Call of Duty: World at War is due out for Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii, PS2 and Nintendo DS on November 14.