It's easy to understand how someone can look at a brand new mobile game carrying the name of one of the world's most popular video game franchises arriving completely unannounced and think "cheap cash-in". Members of Activision's Blast Furnace mobile studio say that's not the case with Call of Duty: Strike Team.
Following this morning's release of the first-person shooter/top-down tactics hybrid and my subsequent dabbling, I got a chance to speak to key members of the team behind the surprise game — a team with too proud a pedigree to be working on some throwaway knockoff title.
Mark Washbrook, Blast Furnace studio head, spent years at Rockstar London, working on games like Manhunt and Max Payne. It was due in large part to that experience that we've heard next-to-nothing about Strike Team until now.
"Quite a lot of the guys in the studio worked at Rockstar, and in that environment everything you work on is top secret. There's an absolute code of combat that you do not speak about your title outside of the office. The thing of value to us is that this is a thing you pour all of your time, your love and your and energy into, and you don't want to see that go out prematurely."
The result is a rare occurrence in the game industry — a big-name game slipping out without months or years of trailers, screens and teases. "This studio and the title has been one of the best kept secrets I've ever been involved with. All of the sudden unannounced we're out there, and everyone can see it. After a lot of hard work working on the title, it's a very exciting time."
Along with the ex-Rockstar London crew, Blast Furnace has assembled some of North London's top development talent, including folks from Rockstar Leeds, makers of portable Grand Theft Auto titles, and Team17, the studio behind the beloved Worms series.
Since being renamed from Activision Leeds, Blast Furnace has spent the past year toiling away at what it hoped would be an authentic Call of Duty experience that also makes the best of touchscreen platforms, hence the dual nature of Strike Team.
"It's a great responsibility to do a title like this," said Washbrook. "It's one of when you design a game for handheld, you design it specifically for handheld, and you use the special qualities that that device brings. We wanted to do something that really used the best of what the tablet and iPhone can bring to you and still retain the core essence of what makes a Call of Duty game."
What they've wound up with is pretty much just that. The first-person aspects feel very Call of Duty. This is helped by the fact that a writer who has worked on several of the console entries was handling writing, while weapons and sound effects were mined from console developers to ensure the game's authenticity.
"And then we spent literally weeks playing the console version side-by-side in first-person view to make sure we got it as absolutely close as we could and as authentic as we could," adds Washbrook.
The game's lead designer, John Dennis, explained that the team painstakingly sutdied every aspect of the shooting experience, from aiming and firing from various cover positions, to the way each weapon rises after firing.
And then there's the top-down elements, where the touch screen interface really shines. This mode gives players total control over their team. They can issue orders individually or in a group, and they have a better overview of the battlefield. It's quite nice, and in certain situations its more satisfying that first-person shooting.
"We're still undecided about the 'best' way to play the game," said Dennis. "A studio making Call of Duty, there's a lot of Call of Duty fans on the team, and those guys are like, 'It's first-person all the way', while the more casual players, more mobile players are more 'No no, third-person rules!."
"It's not some sort of lazy port, you know — 'here's some stuff we found lying around and we made a mobile game of it.'"
Still, it all comes down to personal preference in the end — Dennis said there is no right way to play.
"We didn't want to make the game so black and white that you had to be in one or the other. We set up situations in the game where we think it's more effective playing it one way or the other."
With four hours of gameplay spread across multiple missions, multiple difficulties and challenge modes, Call of Duty: Strike Force might seem a little light for a $6.99 mobile title, though Blast Furnace has plenty of updates in mind, though post-launch support does depend on how the initial release is received. Will console and PC Call of Duty fans accept this mobile offshoot?
"What we're hoping is that people will play it and give it a chance," said Washbrook. "You'll always get people that don't like the stuff that you make. That's fair. We just ask they give it a chance."
Adds Dennis, "It's not some sort of lazy port, you know — 'here's some stuff we found lying around and we made a mobile game of it.' This has been a very hard-working team working for a long time to try and deliver a quality experience."