Call of Duty Black Ops 2 - First Look
Call of Duty Black Ops 2 - First Look
"This is Call of Duty..." is a phrase Mark Lamia - Treyarch Studio Head, and our host for this Black Ops 2 First Look - winds up using to open sentences 12 times (give or take one or two) over the course of the day. Every time I hear it after the second I wonder who he's trying to convince.
By the end of the day, I think he might be trying to convince himself.
Let's face it - Call of Duty isn't just a video game. It's almost a genre in itself. For a long time you didn't play COD the same way you played its contemporaries. In most First Person Shooters you check corners, you clear areas and if you have the presence of mind, you duck before you start firing (for better aim). In a Call of Duty game though, you sprint towards the end.
Where other games have you standing flat footed COD has you on the balls of your feet. Where Rogue Spear was a strategical shooter, and Battlefield is all about tactical options, COD abandons the concept of thinking before firing - it's a reactical shooter (yeah I made up a word).
Evolutionarily, it's worked out amazingly for the franchise - to quote Jay-Z, "Men lie, women lie, numbers don't". The 'go forward' philosophy, borrowed and twisted from the platformer, makes it easy for almost anyone to pick up and play - and once they've grasped it, they're set to play every other game in the series almost immediately.
Still, according to some analysts the series is slipping in sales over time. Modern Warfare 3 is estimated to have sold 4% less than Black Ops at time of writing. Heading to Treyarch to check out the game last week, I honestly expected to see very little which would shock or surprise me.
The first game was set during the Cold War, so I figured we'd return to the Cold War again. Treyarch didn't seem to shy away from controversial chapters in US history, so I didn't think it would be too much to think we might head to Afghanistan for some Rambo 3 style action. We'd see Call of Duty as we knew it, maybe we'd hear Sam Worthington forget how to do an American accent a couple of times and we'd all go home.
Well, I wasn't completely wrong. A portion of the game is set in Afghanistan. And it might be Sam Worthington doing the voice of Alex Mason, but Treyarch weren't 'talking about talent' on the day.
Everything else is wrong though. For starters, this isn't Call of Duty as we knew it.
Treyarch's ability to meld their fiction with history was a feather in their cap, to hear Mark Lamia tell it. It's what enamoured people with the game's singleplayer, what kept them talking about it long after they'd finished with it. They made the player tourists in time, and when they were concerned that the story might not stick the way it should, they recruited Hollywood veteran David S. Goyer to consult across the whole affair. It didn't hurt that Goyer - whose credits list looks like a who's who of comic book adaptations (including Blade and Batman Begins) - was a giant nerd. So they got him back for Black Ops 2 - but instead of simply consulting on the finished product, Game Director Dave Anthony got Goyer on from the get-go.
History is played out though. They couldn't go backwards in time from Vietnam, because as hilarious as M*A*S*H* was the Korean War wouldn't make for the blockbuster experience people want from a Call of Duty.
Instead we're going forwards in time. Black Ops 2 will be set in two time spans - part of the game will take place in Afghanistan in the late 80s, but the majority of the game will be set in the year 2025, during the second Cold War.
To create a plausible future, Treyarch started with Moore's Law - the idea that every two years or so the amount of transistors you can squeeze into a space doubles. What this means for us is that technology reduces in size over time - what this means for Treyarch is that they can - for example - shrink weapons like the US Marine Corps' 'Active Denial System' or the US Navy's Railgun down to human-bearing sizes.
They also recruited the current Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative Peter Singer to help them chart out what a future war will be over - and how it will be fought. It's not the first time Singer's work influenced video games either - his book Wired for War is a point of reference for Metal Gear Solid 4.
They looked at Rare Earth Elements as a hinging point for the next major conflict (something to play the role oil does today) and - like so many future history writers before them - settled on China (which produces 97% of the world's REEs) as the next major power and the 'cold' enemy for the game.
Rare Earth Elements are a group of 17 elements commonly used in a staggering amount of everyday equipment - everything from cameras to wind turbines - as well as in countless military applications. They're expensive to process, and recently China began restricting exports of the metals.
The production of these elements is the kick-off point for a fictional second Cold War - but it doesn't seem to have slowed down the military-industrial complex driving the United States, as they have fleets of drones at their hands.
Of course, a Cold War is a war being fought through means other than military action - and while I'm sure some people would enjoy a game involving complicated economic maneuvering (EVE players, I'm looking at you) most people expect both action and military in a COD game.
So instead, the direct conflict comes by way of one Raul Menendez. Our hosts play his role close to their chest, except to tell us that he will exist in both the 1980s and 2025 parts of the game - and that we'll get to see (through the eyes of Frank Woods - your partner in the first game) exactly what makes a man a terrorist.
The Mason connection is still there - in 2025 you play David Mason - codename Section - the son of everyone's favourite accent-slipping brainwashed action hero Alex Mason.
When our first glimpse of the game kicks off we get a very brief look at Section - though he's a bit busted up. We join our new protagonist partway through the game, sitting in an SUV alongside the President and what I presume are her Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The United States' drone fleet has gone rogue - the result of some deft hacking by Menendez - and is attacking Downtown Los Angeles. Anyone who has been to Downtown Los Angeles is probably not terribly concerned (it might be an improvement) - but it does pose some risks for Madame President and the others in her car.
Things explode in slow-motion, cars flip and fall down places and suddenly our SUV ride has come to a stop. So far, so Call of Duty, right? Section climbs from the car holding a gun which looks decidedly modern (as in, not futuristic) and wondering when I'm gonna see some pew, pew, pew, if you get my drift.
The President is still alive so it becomes our mission to escort her to a safe area. I'm sure gung-ho action heroes don't think this way, but I also think that if you're escorting the President somewhere you probably get to stay in the safe area when you get there, which is a bonus.
We move down the road as a group, making sure the POTUS is protected as we do until we reach a gaping chasm in the road ahead - basically, one of the many highways (freeways, they call them) in LA has collapsed upon another.
This is where things start to get a little different. Icons flash up on the screen - Mason can either Snipe enemies and provide cover fire from above, or he can escort the package down ziplines to the road below. It's a gameplay choice in a modern COD game. I'm flabbergasted.
Our 'driver' for this demo chooses to snipe, and we finally get to see a futuristic weapon that isn't a flying robot of death (which is admittedly pretty futuristic). We have a scope which can see through walls - and a weapon attached to it which can shoot through them. The weapon uses electronic ballistics tech - similar to that used in the Brisbane based project named 'Metal Storm.
After making sure our team has cover we zipline down ourselves - and we get to keep the insane sniper rifle. We return to our regularly scheduled programming - the game becomes the traditional COD style shooting gallery again (with an excellent sci-fi feel) - as we move along once more.
It's business as usual for a while - though the recreation of LA is quite impressive - until our group is confronted by a walker drone called a CLAW. A quadrupedal platform stacked with guns and explosives, it presents a significant threat. The key to destroying it winds up being destroying its legs and attacking it from behind - a similar tactic to any decent mini-boss.
Here the robotics elements of the demo ramp up fully - Mason takes command of a squad of quadrotor drones (think the Parrot AR Drone, but with guns), directing them to attack certain areas both for suppression and elimination purposes. When I saw it my mind immediately went to what I thought were wistful dreams of squad direction... more on that later though.
In true COD fashion the action continues to ramp up - just when you think it's peaked it climbs a little further - until suddenly a pilot is required for an F/A-38. A VTOL capable aircraft - similar in concept Britain's famous Harrier Jump Jet (or more recently the F-35B) with automatic targeting systems, it's apparently easy enough for Mason to jump in and fly.
Hovering through the skyline of LA, the sequence is reminiscent to piloting a helicopter in the first Black Ops game. Mason uses it to kill enemies on the ground - but when another battalion of drones flies into the airspace the jet engines sweep backwards and thrust the jet forward with a surprising amount of speed. And the player is controlling the jet. Flying the jet even.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is going to do something they didn't even let you do in Battlefield 3's singleplayer.
Make no mistake - the game doesn't suddenly turn into DCS: A-10C Warthog or something. It better resembles the 'Dogfight Mode' from the latest Ace Combat game - but it didn't look 'on-rails' during my viewing. Basically, it's impressive as hell. Who doesn't like the idea of flying future planes?
The playthrough ends when a motherf***ing building starts falling on Mason - and I'm wowed enough already. Treyarch aren't finished there though.
There are many ways to define games - to fit them into little containers so you can describe them quickly to someone - but one of my favourites is the 'Sandbox' vs 'Theme Park' comparison.
Sandbox games are those that at most give you some broad objectives, but are primarily focused on letting you play the way you want. Theme Park games are designed to give you a ride (or a number of rides). Minecraft is probably the easiest example of a Sandbox game, but the idea applies to Skyrim, EVE Online or even COD Multiplayer - essentially it's a philosophy which states that the player makes their own fun. Call of Duty singleplayer is probably the best example of a Theme Park game traditionally, but you can expand the concept out to something like Left 4 Dead or Chrono Trigger.
Black Ops 2 will have sandbox gameplay in its singleplayer as well. I'm not sure why it will - but if I had to guess, it'd be because nobody told them they couldn't.
This gameplay will come by way of the new Strike Force missions - a set of special ops missions which exist outside of (but intrinsically linked to) the core storyline of Black Ops 2. As you play through the game you'll be presented with Strike Force missions, and your success within them will apparently alter the course of the war outside. Obviously this isn't very 'Sandbox'-y - that comes in the actual mission itself - what's important here is that the game will apparently play out depending on your success (or lack thereof) in these Strike Force missions.
So while they're introducing a 'do whatever you like' mission style to Call of Duty, they're also introducing win/lose conditions which alter how the story plays out? You're beginning to see why Mark Lamia needs to convince himself that 'This is Call of Duty' right?
The mission itself is dramatically different to what we're used to in the series as well. The easiest way to describe it is to have you imagine a multiplayer map - one with three Headquarters objectives available at once.
Let's use Scrapyard from MW2 as our base - but with Sub Base's visual style (ramped up to look visually 'current'). It's a wide, open map, and the player starts in one area with a squad of men. The objectives are spread out evenly across the map.
Thanks to the sandbox philosophy at play, you can attack any of these objectives in whichever order you choose. You can go to C first, or B last, or... you get the idea. A marginally open map doesn't really make a game "Sandbox" though - no, this comes in the actual gameplay itself.
Instead of you and your gung-ho team of super-soldiers running directly at your objective as quickly as you can, you're able to choose a number of different things. Lamia is keen to assure us that the player can play this as they would COD if they wanted - but that would be a mistake.
Strike Force should be played more like Rainbow Six - you're controlling the entire squad through an Overwatch style interface, mapping out where your guys go, but you can swoop in and inhabit the body of any member of your team on-the-fly.
So instead of running at the objective, you take on the Overwatch interface and issue commands to your team, telling them where to go and what to do. When you think they need some of your assisted aiming help, you swoop into their bodies like Azazel in Fallen and you use them to kill everyone.
If being people isn't enough for you, the Strike Force force gets access to drones of their own - you can command these drones if you want, or you can straight up become them. The drones available in the mission we saw included the four-legged CLAW and the QuadRotor hovering drone, plus one extra six-wheeled minigun platform.
This sort of thing - quality squad commanding - has all but died out in first person shooters these days, and you can bet your arse I didn't think I'd see it return here in Call of Duty.
If you do fail you're not locked into that result - you're able to try the mission again until you get it right, apparently - which I personally think is a mistake. As mentioned before, how the player fares through this mission will apparently alter elements of the story - though because it's tied to win/lose states people who don't consider failure an option might never see any difference in their narrative (unless we deliberately fail). Obviously mass-market-appeal considerations require them to allow people to try multiple times, but it diminishes the concept of consequence to a degree.
I'm an unabashed Call of Duty fan - I've never tried to hide it, and I never will. More than that though, I'm a shooter fan - pointing and clicking at guys on a screen really gets my **** going, if you know what I mean. So I wasn't incapable of seeing the potential for stagnation in my favourite console shooter.
Hell, heading to this First Look presentation I was bracing for the worst. To say I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw is a gross understatement - Black Ops 2 is going to blow minds. On top of all the additions described above Treyarch will once again add Zombies as a full-fledged part of the Black Ops 2 experience. And you're smoking crack if you think it won't have multiplayer - though they weren't showing it off yet.
Treyarch has never been afraid to stray from the script when it comes to Call of Duty games, but from what I saw - maybe they should be writing it.
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