Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Interview

Call of Duty is primarily known for its influential and immersive single-player campaigns, but its multiplayer components are also some of the most popular on the market. For Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat (PC, PS3, X360), series creator Infinity Ward is back in the driver's seat, shedding the exhaustively explored World War II setting in favor of a fictional but realistic modern-day storyline.

During a recent Activision-held event, I sat down with Infinity Ward's lead character artist Joel Emslie to talk about the game's multiplayer, which has an Xbox 360 beta program coming soon, as well as single-player.

Shack: What would you say have been the big goals for multiplayer this time around?

Joel Emslie: One of the big goals when we began this project--well, what was great was having a team that stuck around for the next project. When you do that, you have a lot of experienced people who are really familiar with what we're trying to achieve. What that meant was we went right into Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare with multiplayer. Day one, we were sitting down with multiplayer, putting modern weapons into the experience. What you get at the end of this project--or in the beta, for that matter--is something that's been being tweaked and tested for what's two years if you add it all up at this point.

What that brings is a really polished feel on all the weapons. The first thing was just getting modern weapons in. The second thing was going into ballistics--what you see in the world, what give a weapon its character. An MP5 is a lightweight weapon, it's tactical, it's designed to not punch through walls. When you bring that to a multiplayer game, you have to read your environment. We play with that a lot. Soft cover and hard cover, and all the aspects of that. It makes for a real dynamic battlefield going in as a player.

You can jump right in and fire a weapon, but the more advanced people will start learning about their weapons--"I'm going to bring an MP5 to a close-combat situation, because I don't have to punch through this," or "I'm a support gunner, I need a heavy caliber to punch through these walls and support my team." We experimented with that for the past year.

Shack: What are the big changes to classes for Modern Warfare?

Joel Emslie: You play the game, and after about four rounds you unlock Create-a-Class, and that's designed to kind of ease players into it. The hardcore players are going to get it really quickly. The new players are going to ease into Create-a-Class. Once you get it, you start unlocking weapons to put them into your arsenal. You have five class slots, and you can go into each slot and start tailoring it to your gameplay. What we've seen around the office--because we've been playing a lot of it--is people tailoring different classes to environments or gametypes.

I might have a sniper class I like to use in a wooded environment. I'd have different perks. Perks enhance your character's abilities--not to an unrealistic level but to where you can really get some fun out of it. For example there are a couple perks that might be good for a sniper class, like iron lungs, which allows you to hold your breath for a lot longer than normal. Then extreme conditioning allows you to sprint longer and further. It really advances the multiplayer experience to the point where, I've been playing this game for almost two years, from the beginning, and it's really gotten its legs when we added Create-a-Class. That was about midway through the project. I've been playing with it for quite a while, and I still really haven't unraveled all the different options. You put these things together, and find that they work in different situations, and there are so many different options.

I have yet to find the perfect recipe. [laughs] What the classes and perks do is explore the multiplayer differently each time. You can really experiment. With the weapons, the more you use it, you can unlock different attachments for it. If I'm using the AK, I'll use a silencer, and what that gives me is a powerful rifle that doesn't show up on radar. It becomes extremely tactical. When people are using the headsets, we get really tactical, calling in stuff on the map and putting people on rear security. You start using these tactical add-ons, so the weapon doesn't show up on radar, or you don't see the muzzle flash, or you're using illuminated sights because it's a dark environment.

Shack: Are classes persistent from game to game?

Joel Emslie: Yeah, you not only keep it, you can name it. I have a class where I have an M4 with little attachments, and the guy is kind of stealthy, and I like to call it SEAL, like a Navy SEAL team. You really take ownership of your classes, and they're saved to your profile. When the other gamer is killed by you, they're going to see what you killed them with, the different mixture of perks. It's useful, because when I'm getting handled by someone, I want to see how they're doing it. Not only do I see their gameplay from killcam, I see what they're using on me, and I can try it out myself.

Shack: Is there an element of balance, with experienced players retaining the perks they've unlocked?

Joel Emslie: There is an element of balance. There are three slots for perks, and certain perks you can't stack together. The perks are in different categories and you can only have one from each at a time. Initially I was really concerned as a gamer about balance with the perks stuff, but the way it works is that these categories balance things out, and you don't get these ridiculously unbalanced characters.

Shack: So, just to be clear, everyone can always have three perks, but the more you play the more potential perks you can unlock?

Joel Emslie: Yes. In each category you'll unlock more, and some weapon attachments, like a grenade launcher, cost two perks.

Shack: What kind of gametypes will we see?

Joel Emslie: I can speak on what's in the beta. There's a hardcore mode for the highbrow gamer. I've had a lot of fun with it. It's a bare-bones realism mode. The weapons are very effective, there's zero HUD. We listened to gamers [who created similar mods on PC] by putting it in the game, and giving it to them off the shelf. Hardcore mode can be layered over any gametype.

I think in the beta you're getting Team Deathmatch, Free-for-All, and Team Tactical. Team Tactical has two different game modes. I don't know how much detail I'm allowed to go into, but it's a bit of highbrow gameplay. It's objective-based. It'll have something tentatively called Gridiron, with a bomb in the middle of the environment--or, actually, it might have good old Search and Destroy, from Call of Duty 1 and 2. One team has a bomb, and they have to go set it in target points.

The perks we've added have made that situation really interesting. Using the C4 perk as a defender, you can go in and lace the target with C4. Being able to sense bomb movement is a perk. Then there's a UAV, and if you kill three people in a row in Search and Destroy, you can get eyes on the enemy. You really want to use those perks to get tactical. The game has an element of information warfare. It can be highbrow, or you can just go in and kick ass.

Shack: When will you guys be launching the beta?

Joel Emslie: Very soon. This month, I believe. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: I played a few rounds, and all the ambience and overall environmental realism was extremely impressive. Can you speak on developing that, or how your role ties into it?

Joel Emslie: My role as an artist in multiplayer is to really go into the characters and make their silhouettes read well. It's a modern warfare game and everyone is wearing camouflage, but as best we could we worked to get these different character classes to feel right. You select a certain type of weapon--assault rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns, support weapons. What we tried to bring to the character design side is a visual appearance to go with that. If you look at a heavy gunner, he's a little bit stockier; snipers are a little lean.

The thing that I'm really excited about as a player and an artist--and a sniper player--is our sniper class. What you get in wooded environments is you choose a sniper rifle and get a ghillie suit. I spent a lot of time, in a selfish manner, taking the ghillie suit, putting it in the grass, and making sure you couldn't see it. We worked really hard on that. We had it in single-player, and that was great, but in single-player you're not playing against warm bodies on the internet. The two vary a little bit. Ghillie suits are designed to blend into particular environments, so you've got a different ghillie suit in single-player, and tailor-made suits for the different environments in multiplayer. That's for wooded and grass. Realistically, you don't want to see a ghillie suit running around in an urban environment.

Shack: A lot of video games are fantasy environments, and you guys have obviously done a lot of historical work with Call of Duty. As an artist, how is it different working on highly realistic modern day environments?

Joel Emslie: I was with Call of Duty 2 from the beginning, and I really got to appreciate World War II and the historical significance of that, and that was exciting. The difference with this project is that, as an artist, you get gear and people that are fresh off the battlefield. I get to go talk to Marines and see how they put their kit together, or how they wear their dogtags. They have a very unique look to everything they do. I got to talk to guys who had IEDs explode nearby. For me, that puts a personal note on all the work we're doing. I want to give these guys characters that represent them the best way we can. We really paid close attention to details.

It's a video game, and it's entertainmenet, so to a certain extent we stretch silhouettes here and there, we make guys a little bigger, but for the most part you're really getting an authentic feel of a soldier. It was really interesting to see that. It was a very different experience for us.

Major Kevin Collins was awesome, and all his guys. They let us hang out with the tank battalion and go over the Abrams with a fine-toothed comb. Everything you see in the game on the tank is ripped right off a real tank. They were really adamant about getting "Warpig" on their tank. [laughs] One of the tank commanders came up to me and he said, [gruffly] "You better put 'Warpig' on your tank." [laughs] He was very serious about it. Now, Warpig is the star of the show.

Shack: Even aside from the historical change, you guys went with a somewhat different direction on the single-player, with approach to storyline. Anything there you'd like to speak on?

Joel Emslie: One of the things I'm really proud of is we brought some great evil guys to the table. We put a lot of thought into them. It comes down to character design. It's a very robust story this time around, and I've gotten a chance just recently to go all the way through the game. The story is really good this time, the pacing is really right on. We have these main characters on both sides, friendly and bad, and the bad guys you really want to hate and take them down. The guys that are with you, you don't want to see anything happen to them. It really adds a lot.

Shack: That's a new thing for Infinity Ward, having an invented plotline.

Joel Emslie: Yeah, it was very challenging. We want to be respectful, so we decided to make it as realistic as possible, but we tailored the story to our style of gameplay, and it really worked out well. I'm a big multiplayer guy, but the single-player has a lot of goodies. The voice acting is amazing, and the music is incredible. I can't say who it is, but man, they really brought it.

I got to watch the designers go back to their roots Call of Duty 1, and see what worked well there, and the pacing really turned out well.

Shack: How much were you trying to hit on or avoid drawing from current political situations in the Middle East region, where some of the game takes place?

Joel Emslie: I don't think anyone went in trying to go into that. Politically, I think the game is just really about good clean fun and staying away from that. Everybody has enough of that in their real lives--even the Marines. These guys like to play our games. The game is meant to be as respectful as possible, but give a really compelling story you can take hold of and believe.