Call of Duty: Why Sledgehammer’s Vietnam Shooter Was a Good Idea

New ideas aren't always $$$ ideas, but in this case of Call of Duty, something new is just what the Vietnam medic ordered.

Last week, we got a glimpse at concept art for a Call of Duty game that will (probably) never see the light of day – a third-person shooter set during the Vietnam War that was to take a darker, grislier look at war. These pieces of concept art come from the very talented Eddie Del Rio

After Sledgehammer showed Activision a 15-minute playable demo back in 2009, the project seems to have been put on hold indefinitely (if not completely cancelled).

When the legal battle between Activision and Infinity Ward — makers of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and its sequels– broke out, co-founders Jason West and Vince Zampella took about half of the developer’s staff, leaving Infinity Ward understaffed with a 20 month deadline to create the third installment to their hit shooter series. Understandably, Activision asked Sledgehammer to stop their work on “Call of Duty: Vietnam” and help Infinity Ward finish Modern Warfare 3, which was released in 2011.

Still, three years later, Sledgehammer Games didn’t reveal their new Vietnam game, back on schedule — their labor of love. 

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Call of Duty‘s latest is Advanced Warfare, a game that I dare call cookie-cutter. Sure, there are hoverboards and interesting robo-suits, but it’s still the same high-adrenaline, explosion-laden game we’ve been playing year after year.

The change of direction is suspect albeit typical. Activision has a formula, and it has worked. Convoluted single-player campaigns haven’t been enough to knockdown CoD from its throne. Since 2007, the franchise has reigned as THE mulitplayer shooter on consoles. So big is its influence that other big multiplayer shooter franchises, such as Halo, have made attempts to mold their games into the Call of Duty formula.

But if one thing is certain in the gaming industry, it’s that the new becomes old rather quickly.

(I previously wrote about Sledgehammer’s opportunity to deliver a unique CoD experience. And then I laid out my expectations.)

Activision seems to have fought off old age by releasing yearly installments of Call of Duty — first by two studios, and now by three. Some of the yearly installments have been fantastic — World at War and Black Ops are exceptional — while others have begun to reveal the uglier side of saturating the market with one franchise — Ghosts, for example.

Most likely, hardcore fans of this series won’t see a problem with Advanced Warfare, and they shouldn’t. You have to stick with what you love. But the alarms have gone off for followers of the larger genre. If the shooter genre continues to take after its champion, pretty soon there won’t be anything to play but Modern Warfare clones.

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Titanfall, which was made by guys who worked on the first Modern Warfare, is ironically an exception. Although the gunplay is pretty familiar, the mech battles and parkour elements are a refreshing addition to the genre’s overly-used formula. 

We could use more new. That’s why the concept of “Call of Duty: Vietnam” is so exciting.

Sledgehammer co-founder Glen Schofield, who was previously the general manager at Visceral Games, shared that there were even moments in the unreleased game that were comparable in tension with what was seen in Dead Space, which Schofield helped develop.

Though there isn’t a whole lot of information available on the game, just the little that was pulled from Schofield indicates that this Call of Duty game was going to explore something not commonly explored by shooters that just aim for the highest kill count and biggest explosions – the fear that soldiers feel on the battlefield.

The game would’ve taken place during the not oft-mentioned battles in Cambodia and Laos. The dense jungles and brutal guerrilla tactics meant that the threat of death was always lurking, and could be just inches away, totally unbeknownst to soldiers. This was an opportunity to examine the damage that war does to the human psyche. It’s no secret that the men that served in Vietnam came back mentally scarred on many different levels, and this game appears to have been trying to present that alongside the violence, which is generally carried out without consequence in video games. 

“Call of Duty: Vietnam” was shaping up to not just be a unique Call of Duty game, but a unique game in a genre that has reached narcoleptic levels of tired. 

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[Related: The 10 Best Call of Duty Multiplayer Maps of All Time]

The industry as a whole has missed out on a game that could have pushed the shooter into new territory; territory that could see a genre that is so often disconnected from the realities of war and violence finally address it up close and personal.

“Call of Duty: Vietnam” could have shown other developers that shooters don’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, all about the shooting. While Spec Ops did address the tolls of war on the human psyche, it lacked the clout of the Call of Duty series. It didn’t have a chance or the exposure it needed to get other developers on board with the idea that a game about the effects of war can be successful and should be made.

“Call of Duty: Vietnam” could have taken survival horror and put it in a real-world context, where fear comes not from a lurking monster out of science fiction, but from the enemy soldier crouched in the bushes, waiting to claim your life. Call of Duty is in a position to lead by example in a good way, and sadly, that opportunity is being squandered so that Activision can keep lining their pockets.

The irony is that the last time Activision decided to try a bold, new direction for the franchise, it was an insta-hit.

We’re talking Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, of course. Setting the newest installment in a series, which traditionally took place during World War II, in a modern day conflict was an absolute risk. But it worked. Activision eventually went out on a limb and released COD4, and look where the franchise is today as a result. Call of Duty would’ve seriously lost some juice by now (and it has, in my opinion), if it hadn’t been for their unique approach a few years back. Now Call of Duty is the standard by which all other first-person shooters are measured.

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There’s a point here: the biggest winners in the industry, both critically and financially, are the ones that break the mold and try something new. “Call of Duty: Vietnam” was, indeed, trying something new. For one, the number of Vietnam-era shooters could be counted on your fingers. Secondly, how many shooters out there really try to instill a sense of dread and fear? Coming from the guys that brought Dead Space to us, this could make for one of the first shooters to present a realistic representation of the battlefield.

Activision has three developers working on Call of Duty games now. Infinity Ward and Treyarch have settled into their own takes on the series. That means Sledgehammer has the time to tap into the third-person shooter demographic (there are people that don’t like games in the first-person perspective) without risking their entire franchise. And if it doesn’t work out in the end, there will be a new one following year to satisfy the purists.

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