Call of Duty: Finest Hour is a World War II-inspired first-person shooter in which you'll assume the roles of six different characters as you progress through Russian, British, and American campaign missions. The game is being developed for all current-generation consoles at Spark Unlimited, a company that comprises some 30 members of the original Medal of Honor development team. We recently had the opportunity to speak with four key members of the Spark team about its current project. These members included: Scott Langteau, COO and producer; Jack Grillo, audio director; Jonathan Gregerson, art director; and Dave Prout, lead artist.
GameSpot: How is development going? What exactly is the team working on, mostly, right now?
Scott Langteau: Development is progressing very well. We are working on testing and focus group feedback, fixing bugs, and focusing on all of those last-minute adjustments. After over two years in the making...we're thrilled Call of Duty: Finest Hour is almost in the hands of gamers everywhere!
GS: What's been the biggest challenge in achieving the level of graphic quality we see in the game across the various platforms?
Dave Prout: In constructing the epic scenes and battlefield environments in Finest Hour, we set out to put a special focus on 3D composition. To really excel at this, you need the flexibility to have lots of detail all over the screen in any direction, which poses significant technical challenges on the current generation of hardware. With the smallest memory budget the environment team has ever had on this sort of project, we needed to come up with new ways to break up the world that [would] make the player's world come alive, and [we needed to] deliver the epic scope and cinematic effect [typical of a Call of Duty game]. Fortunately, we delivered these technical specs early enough to our exporter and graphics engineers to get some basic tools that gave us the flexibility we were looking for. But it still required a lot of manual work on the artists' end to make it happen. And that's one of the things we're most pleased with. [There are] lots of distant vistas dressed from foreground to background; [we] staged character-dominant scenes with custom lighting setups; [and we] utilized the basic foundation of light and shadow as our approach to visual design--all of which provides a fresh, powerful backdrop to the intensity and action that fills the screen from one side to the other, from Stalingrad to Tunisia [and] all the way to Aachen.
Jonathan Gregerson: I think that getting the right balance of volume and quality was the biggest challenge that we had from the art side in Finest Hour. The sheer number of features that we were going to need to host in the battles, such as Stalingrad or Aachen, for example, required a large number of art assets that had to be designed for efficiency, as well as [for] complementing the totality of the other visuals the player would experience. While our designers were challenged with finding the right balance between artificial intelligence-driven gameplay and scene-driven gameplay, our challenge, from the art side, was more about where to put our emphasis and what to allocate more memory to--[especially] when so many things are fighting for that 6MB or so of memory you have to work with.
In the past, some of the games that we've worked on have had the advantage of being more linear, and, as a result, lighting and staging (things that are very near and dear to us) were less complicated, because the player path through a level was simplified. In Call of Duty: Finest Hour, I think that our challenge was to attempt to create the richness of these worlds and the experiences we wanted to re-create while being able to provide multiple well-staged experiences--regardless of the player path--that would have the biggest experiential impact possible. This about killed us...but we're still here...and can't wait for players to give it a go.
GS: The Making Of video talks about the level of detail in the sound production. What sorts of things has the team done? And what benefits can fans look forward to with the audio and sound in Finest Hour?
Jack Grillo: Early on in production, I spent a lot of time doing various field recordings. I went to battle reenactments, held a number of actual weapons-recording sessions (where we recorded everything, including shooting into sides of beef to capture impacts), and usually even took the field-recording equipment with me on vacation. So, for example, the snow footsteps and body falls in Finest Hour are from a trip I took to Big Bear Lake in California last winter. I try to record everything for each game I work on from scratch, because that gives me a unique palette to work from. Of course, I made extensive use of prerecorded sound effects libraries [as well]. But wherever possible, I recorded the sounds for Finest Hour myself.
During production, the engineering department made every effort to expose the sound implementation to the audio team (which consists of Caleb Sweazy and me). Oftentimes, a sound designer's responsibilities end when the raw sounds are delivered, but I find that approach to limit the quality of the sound considerably. Russ Bernau, our audio engineer, created a number of custom tools that allowed my team to experiment with sound implementation across all categories (weapons, footsteps, backgrounds, dialogue, etc.). Being able to see the process through (creating sound, implementing sound, testing in context, starting from scratch), I believe, is essential to sound design for compelling and exciting video games--like Finest Hour.
The music was composed and recorded later in the process. This allowed our composer, Michael Giacchino, to study Finest Hour in a (close to) complete state [to] create music that fit everything, moment to moment. He used an 80-piece orchestra and a 50-piece choir, resulting in a score that is powerful, emotional, or suspenseful, depending on the specific moments. This enables us to capture that cinematic effect from start to finish [to] really draw players into the roles they'll [assume] and the experiences they're in store for.
The benefits of this kind of detail are hard to specifically point out. I sometimes play games where the sound feels superimposed or disembodied from the characters or events in the game. In Call of Duty: Finest Hour, we use the sound to help each event feel natural, or organic, to the gameworld that we've created. The weapons should feel right, the bullet impacts should scare the player, and the dialogue should be real. For me, the best way I know how to achieve these goals is to work long and hard, paying special attention to the details along the way.
GS: From a weapon-recording shoot-out in the field early on, to the in-house sound studio that you use, how does this translate into a more immersive or compelling experience?
JG: Unique sounds tend to help each event feel unique. Sounds tend to get imprinted on the audience, along with the accompanying visual elements. When I hear a sound for the first time, it belongs to the exact moment I first heard it. The unique sounds captured for Call of Duty: Finest Hour have the effect of immersing the player, because these sounds don't exist anywhere else.
There are moments during production where the game design or event is solid, but the sound is just starting to get implemented. Often, I'll use temporary sounds just to get the idea across or to experiment with the implementation process. During those moments, the gameplay is there, but it isn't just the way I want it just yet. Once I've added the final sounds, especially those created from our unique recordings, the game itself seems to take on a new life. Once this process has settled for a few days, I tend to forget about all the details involved in the level, and [I]concentrate on the overall experience. Using unique recordings has the effect of making each moment of Finest Hour feel less like a bunch of visuals with supporting sound and more like a comprehensive event. Overall, the player is compelled to believe that each moment of Finest Hour is actually happening.
GS: Walk us through the sound production on a title like this. How does it mirror the overall game-development production?
JG: The audio team is involved in the overall development production from start to finish. Because sound reacts to the visual elements of the game, we often have to adjust our schedules and deliveries based on the current state of every other department's progress.
The first chunk of time during production is spent working with the designers to help plan our approach and generate lists. We also spend this time working with the engineers to plan our implementation tools and [to] work out the technical details. Next, we go out and record as much as we can so that the game, like Finest Hour, contains as many unique sound elements as possible. After that, we edit the global sounds (weapons, footsteps, bullet impacts) so that every level, regardless of its development state, can start to come to life. All the while, we're working with the designers and animators to list the run-time dialogue, and [we] implement temporary sounds for unique sequences in the game. As the level environments become available, we create the background sounds and make plans for how the music will be implemented. Next, as the missions get closer to being done, we record and implement the final dialogue. Finally, at the end of the project, we implement the final music and mix all of the sounds, in-game, to make sure each mission feels just right.
GS: As far as gameplay goes, we've read about single-player features. What can you tell us about multiplayer?
SL: We have online multiplayer for the PS2 and online and system link play for the Xbox. We've worked with a developer in the UK, named Kuju, on multiplayer to provide gamers with a chance to play both traditional deathmatch and team deathmatch, as well as objective-based team modes, including capture the flag and search and destroy (where one team attacks [in an] attempt to destroy strategic targets while the other side defends). We also support voice chat on both platforms.
GS: We've seen the demos of the Russian missions. What sort of experiences are players in store for in the other single-player campaigns?
SL: Well, the British missions are a blast too. Literally. One of the game's key non-player characters is named Sgt. Bob Starkey, and he's your commanding officer among your PPA group. The PPA (or Popski's Private Army) grew out of the LRDG (Long Range Desert Group) in North Africa in order to be a paired-down, fast-moving, "get in, sabotage it, and get out just as fast" group of commandos that were a great detriment to Rommel's tanks and fuel supplies. This "tough as nails" character is played by AC/DC lead singer Brian Johnson--and he's fantastic. He came in and rocked the recording studio (via his acting) like few "actors" we've seen. He was a pleasure and brings some fantastic life to our missions in North Africa.
Not to be outdone, the American campaign is really captivating in a variety of ways also. We have a mission in Aachen, Germany (the first major German city to fall to the Allies), that is really special. The mission's name is "First City to Fall." It's different, because, as [an] American infantryman, your job is to work your way through town--alongside your column of Sherman tanks--while protecting an M12 (a 155mm Howitzer), as the Germans try to eliminate it with their heavy weaponry. The Americans had to bring in the M12 because the buildings were so strongly constructed that the tank shells were literally bouncing off the buildings. In order to flush the Germans out, we needed a little extra muscle (and the M12 provided that). So this mission has both infantry and vehicles combined, along with the tremendously destructive power of the M12, [which is] unleashed on some poor, unsuspecting buildings in Aachen.
GS: Thanks for your time.