This article first appeared in PC Gamer Magazine issue 364 in December 2021, as part of our “DNA Tracking” series, each month we delve into the lineages behind iconic games and studios.
The submersible’s headlights illuminate the rusted sides of the tanker as you swim through the underwater Brooklyn battery tunnel with the Delta Force. The logo for Schofield and Condrey Construction Ltd has two faces, a fictitious company that has actually gone out of business. But there’s no time to linger: a Russian submarine is waiting to be requisitioned in New York Harbor, and Modern Warfare 3 will let you fail by falling behind.
Most people won’t know that the two faces belong to Sledgehammer Games co-founders Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey. When it debuted at the heart of the world’s biggest entertainment venue, the brief publicity was all the studio could get — and had a huge impact on the finale of Modern Warfare’s Water Cooler campaign trilogy.
This is not a game Sledgehammer is supposed to make. Made up mostly of Dead Space veterans, the studio was founded inside Activision to work on a third-person COD spinoff titled Fog of War. During the US’s infamous entanglement with Vietnam, it’s easy to imagine how it could apply the developer’s claustrophobic experience to Cambodia’s narrow tunnels. But after just a few months of development, the crisis hit Activision. Infinity Ward’s Jason West and Vince Zampella left the company in extreme heat to make Titanfall – a large part of the Modern Warfare 2 team went with them.
Infinity Ward left a large hole in the side, and the sledgehammer filled the gap. After two acclaimed leaders and storytellers left, two more came in. Chauffe and Condrey took over the baton with the aim of tightening up the “rough” story. Modern Warfare 2’s campaign is full of great Bond moments — snowmobile jumps, slum roof chases — but in pursuit of a bigger explosion, Infinite Ward seems to have the writers concussions. The Modern Warfare 3 team responded by reducing the number of playable characters and forming an alliance with the elusive Russian ultra-nationalist Makarov.
What they didn’t do was cut back on exaggeration. Modern Warfare 3 treats Europe’s oldest city as a big toy, knocking down the Eiffel Tower and filling the London Underground exclusively with terrorists in order to escape the subway accident that makes Skyfall’s equivalent seem bland. At times, this leads to an ugly tone—it’s hard to laugh out loud in a blockbuster that treats sentences like “All the civilians in the Louvre are dead” as background radio chatter. But the best set pieces stick to landings because they are paired with moments of intimacy. You can’t help laughing with glee as an American soldier leans his body against the wall of a cargo plane, dodging your dinghy into the cargo hold as enemy ships explode around.
Ultimately, the failure of Modern Warfare 3’s succession cannot be blamed on Sledgehammer. Infinity Ward has escalated its “behind the headlines” premise to World War, and even Captain Price couldn’t get the Genie back in the bottle. However, Sledgehammer has done a miracle – serving the most acclaimed developers in the FPS genre with such flexibility that no one even noticed the shift. Players won’t really feel the absence of West and Zampella until Call of Duty: Ghosts.
When that disaster struck, Sledgehammer took the chance it had, and then some: taking ownership of a new Call of Duty subseries. Calling it Advanced Warfare is a statement of intent. It would be the first COD with a clear purpose in years, underscoring America’s growing reliance on private military companies. What if, it asks, creative differences lead to a coup by a US-funded but stateless military?
Unfortunately, Sledgehammer chose Kevin Spacey to embody the threat of the PMC – what was once a prestigious cast is now a black label for the game. But Advanced Warfare’s many performance-capture scenes anchored its tantalizing premise, allowing Schofield and Condrey to live out their dream of a story-first COD—where moments of spectacle are accentuated by the downtime in between. Also, these are places where you want to spend your free time. One of the missions, set in the duck-egg blue dome of Santorini, is a shocking reminder that this blockbuster has the power to take you to some of the most beautiful places in the world, if only to hunt down terrorists.
The failure of Advanced Warfare is design. Even though it’s so linear for a Call of Duty series, it’s best viewed as an interactive theater, and this entry is pretty restrictive – its failing state is quick and frustrating if you dare to poke your rifle out of its allotted path. To make matters worse, the QTE that ended Modern Warfare 3 proved ominous, predicting a sequence similar to the command-follow game Bop It!. It’s only during the campaign’s final mission that Advanced Warfare’s skin begins to feel like a vehicle for freedom and expression.
World War 2.0
These mistakes were largely corrected in Sledgehammer’s Call of Duty: WWII. In a sense, it’s a step backwards—not quite as bold in concept as High Warfare, leaning toward the familiar image of D-Day and the exchange of fire in the French countryside. But it’s not so much a soft reboot of the original COD as the first Medal of Honor – embracing espionage through core penetration, which requires you to remember your files.
Combat is also reminiscent of classic PlayStation shooters – offering enemies a series of shocking animations that make encounters hopeless and combative. Best of all, Sledgehammer folds everything back into the squad – cancels health regeneration and pushes you to seek medical kits and ammo from your AI teammates. This mechanical investment can quickly lead to an emotional investment.
Since then, both Schofield and Condrey have left Sledgehammer — the former is now working on the spiritual successor to Dead Space, while the latter has set up a new studio for 2K. Dozens of developers followed them out the door, and for those who remember Infinity Ward’s exodus, it felt as though history might be repeating itself.
To repeat: Sledgehammer’s new Call of Duty Vanguard is a post-WWII story about the search for Hitler’s fictional successor. The message seems clear: When history comes out again, it doesn’t have to happen in exactly the same way.