I never thought I would say it, but Activision gets it. To the dismay of many in the industry, the Call of Duty franchise is now synonymous with the concept of annual updates. Every time a new version comes out, the masses not only flock to the stores (which is a good thing) but they also become extremely vocal about just how little the game(s) have changed and are quick to point out the lack of progression that each installment features. While it is still early on and there are plenty of months of development left to go, this year appears to be different. What I witnessed last week in the form of a 2-level demonstration of the campaign is merely a small sample of what Treyarch has planned for Black Ops 2, but something tells me those disparaging voices are going to be silenced this year.
As Activision Publishing CEO, Eric Hirshberg said himself when presenting the game to a gathering of gaming media last week in Culver City, CA, Black Ops 2 represents a bold new direction for the series. The game still has quite a bit of way to go in terms of its development, as it isn’t due out for another 6 months. Even at this stage though, what I witnessed at the press briefing was enough to convince me that the Call of Duty series is far from hitting its peak; while many will argue that the series is on the decline, I am convinced that it hasn’t even seen its pinnacle yet.
This year, the game is back in the hands of Treyarch and after finally knocking one out of the park with the original Black Ops, they are eager to build on their current momentum. Activision appears to be eager to let them do it to, as they are giving them some leeway to take the series in a bold new direction: the future. Historically, the Call of Duty series is one that has rooted itself in fictional depictions of real world events and scenarios; that all ends here. This year, the series is headed into the future, 2025 to be exact.
The future of war is on auto-pilot
Don’t be put off by the concept of a futuristic game like I was when I first heard of the plot; we aren’t talking about lasers and hovercrafts here. The concept of the “future” is represented by the automation of the world’s soldier. Technology has become not only a tool for you, but the thing that drives it. The common belief has become that the best soldiers are manufactured, not born. No longer do human troops populate the battlefield as they have in the past; now the skies are filled with automated drones which reign down fire (bombs) on their targets. The footsteps that can be heard on the battlefield are usually those of motorized, walking talks and sentries.
As Woods explained in the reveal trailer for the game a few weeks ago, the concept of an unmanned army is a great one... until someone else has the keys. What happens when our enemies take control of our own automated forces and turn the guns on the United States? That is exactly what is happening in Black Ops 2, and it will be up to you, and millions of other players around the world to show those who wish to destroy our country that the best soldier(s) are those who are born and bred, not produced off of an assembly line.
The game will start in the 1980‘s showing the birth of a new breed of villain: Raul Menendez. A child of the cold War, both literally and figuratively, Menendez is hell bent on bringing the U.S. to its knees. He has a plan to do so and it involves using our own troops, which are now automated, against us. Luckily, there are still soldiers in the world such as David Mason, son of the last game’s Alex Mason, who are willing to take to the battlefield and fight for the country they love.
After being given an overview / synopsis of the game’s story, as I have just explained, those in attendance at the event were treated to two levels of the campaign, as played by one of the game’s designers on stage. The first level, which depicted the beginning of an all-out war in Los Angeles showed that despite the advancement of the technology present in the game (fictitiously) this is still a Call of Duty game at heart. Fans of the is taking series will feel right at home although there will be plenty of new toys to both play and contend with. The second level, entitled “Singapore” was meant to both show off the concept behind the game’s new Strike Force missions and show that Treyarch is taking the gameplay of the series and turning it on its side, in a good way.
The City of Angels has gone to Hell
As I said previously, the first demo level took place in Los Angeles during the year 2025. As David Mason, players assume their role as a part of a military convoy transporting the current President of the United States out of the city as Menendez has started his assault on the nation.
It is clear from the start that the modern-day soldier has some fancy new tools at his disposal as Woods checks the status of their position on an LCD screen embedded on the forearm of his sleeve. the technology isn’t overly gaudy and looks completely believable. As the convoy begins to cross and already crowded bridge that is eerily similar in look to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, all Hell breaks loose. Within a matter of seconds, drone assault planes begin laying down fire all around.
Cars are exploding, the roadway is shifting, and your convoy is struggling to stay on solid ground. It isn’t long before Woods makes his way out of the vehicle and takes to the fight back to the enemy. It is at this point that it becomes clear that despite the futuristic environment, this is a Call of Duty game. As expected, the rest of the level will play out as if it were a montage of the biggest action scenes from all of the various Summer blockbusters wrapped into one. Your journey will drive you through a variety of gameplay sections: standard run and gun, NPC escort sections, and the Treyarch-patented vehicle integration.
The weapons aren’t as futuristic as one would think, consisting mainly of higher powered versions of modern weapons. The sniper rifle used during one portion was powerful enough to shoot through concrete barriers and pillars to hit targets detected by the thermal scope(s) on the other side. What is technologically advanced is your enemy. While you will see a variety of human foot soldiers making a move toward occupancy of our nation, it is their robotic arsenal that takes the spotlight. One of the most interesting enemies is that of a four-legged, robotic tank, slightly smaller than a mid-sized car. These walking cannons are as intimidating as they are dangerous. Also, it is worth noting that your standard weapons aren’t going to do anything against them, or any other armored enemy for that matter.
If you are going to win this war, you are going to have to be a master of your environment. The Los Angeles level showed, above all else, that the world that encompasses the battle is now as important as the weapons themselves. You will need to utilize all of the different aspects of your environment such as triggering explosions from parked cars to take out concealed enemies. Another impressive section showed the ability to knock signage off of a freeway interchange to take out the troops hiding below. These are all option tactics of course, but they are there and it opens up the battle in a million different directions.
The mission also gave us a glimpse at one of the new toys in your artillery: parrot drones. That is right, Mason can call in and control a small, floating artillery squadron which can be used as his personal cover fire. With a quick switch of your weapons, you were able to switch to a marking / targeting mode where you could paint enemies and areas for your drones. It is like having your own squadron to lay down cover fire for you at will. It is a nice addition and something that looked like a blast to have control over.
Speaking of sections that looked like a blast, this wouldn’t be a Treyarch game without the inclusion of vehicles and this level alone had a nice variety of them. In addition to manning anti-air turrets and leading the charge of a convoy of trucks through crowded streets, the level we were shown also featured an escort mission through the streets of downtown Los Angeles with you behind the controls of a FA-38 jet. Sure it is crazy and over the top but it looks like a ton of fun and is extremely thrilling; the escort mission doesn’t last long though and before long an all-out dogfight breaks out over the cityscape.
Strike Force is about more than choice
The truth is, the L.A. level showed that this patented Call of Duty at its best; the second demo level, Singapore, showed everyone that the series is not only capable of evolving but is doing so in a major way this year. Singapore represented the first example of the game’s new Strike Force missions. These missions are going to be used to branch the story of the game off in different directions. At various points in the campaign, you will be given the option to choose between multiple missions; depending on which missions you choose, the story will progress in different directions. In addition to that, your success or failure on the selected mission will also take things in different directions.
Not only do these levels have an impact on the storyline of the game but they also bring in a completely new level of interaction to the series. The Strike Force missions will introduce Overwatch mode to Call of Duty which is unlike anything that fans have seen in the series before.
Overwatch mode is a way for players to take total control of the battlefield. The missions will start out like a standard, run of the mill CoD level, but with a simple press of a button on the controller the game will pull back and give you a complete view of the area. At this point, the game becomes a pseudo RTS-style game. You have the ability to view the entire landscape, including all of your troops and enemy squadrons, as well as the ability to queu up commands for your various units.
If you want to, you can play the entire level in this top-down mode, making it feel more like something akin to Tom Clancy’s Endwar that the sequel to Black Ops. There is a full list of options at the bottom of the screen which allow you to market targets, issue instructions such as laying down cover fire, flanking a squadron of enemies, or clearing a path towards your objective(s). As interesting as this sounds, the coolest aspect is the ability to switch in and out of this mode at will.
At any moment during the use of Overwatch mode, players can select any troops on the field and assume control of them from the standard CoD perspective. Perhaps the best comparison is that of the method of hot-swapping used in the console versions of Battlefield 2: Modern Combat. If you recall, players were able to switch between any characters on their team at will as long as they were within the sight-line of your current character. In Overwatch, if they are on the battlefield, you can take control in an instant.
Think about the options this opens up for players. If you don’t like the positioning of a squad covering your crew, simply switch to them and either reposition them in a point-and-click fashion or take full control of them and fine-tune their positioning yourself. Is there a certain enemy troop causing your squad issue, perhaps a sniper? Then simply take control of another character on your side of the battle with better positioning to take him out. The mode allows you to, literally, take full control of the battle; I am talking from every perspective and vantage point imaginable.
To give you a better idea of how this looks visually, imagine using the theater mode from the previous couple of games in real time during your game. That is sort of what it looks like; you have the ability to change the various views and maneuver the camera at will to give you a better view of the landscape. It is an ingenious implantation of in-depth controls and options into what is traditionally an action oriented game. The best part is that it works, even in the early stages of development that it is currently in.
Plenty more to come
Before I knew it, the demonstration was over. Although it was brief, it was enough to convince me that this year’s edition of the game will be different than everything that preceded it in the series. Activision and Treyarch both recognize that it is time for the series to evolve and they are doing everything possible to see it through. The public will get their chance to see what we saw at E3 in a couple of weeks. It is unknown at this time if if will be shown in the same manner it was for us (demonstrated) or available for the attending public to play.
Unfortunately, none of the Treyarch or Activision staff in attendance were willing to talk about anything outside of these two campaign levels. We were promised that details would be revealed later this Summer regarding both the multiplayer and Zombie modes of the game. Teases were given for both though. The multiplayer modes are supposedly being rebuilt from the ground up with the concept of both Call of Duty Elite and eSport leagues in mind. Zombies on the other hand was billed as being basically a game within the game, featuring both its own full campaign / story mode and multiplayer options for up to 8 players.
Even without seeing either of the companion modes of the game, what I have seen of the campaign is enough to sell me on the new title. I am one of those who was starting to grow tired of the formulaic enhancements that the series has been receiving year after year. It is time for something dramatic to alter the Call of Duty landscape, and Treyarch may have found it with both their change in setting and the introduction of some interesting new gameplay modes. Just wait until you see it for yourself; you will be impressed.
Activision paid for travel and lodging expenses for this press event held in Los Angeles, which included a presentation of the game(s).