Back in Black

The original Call of Duty: Black Ops took a risk with the franchise by inserting players into a new conflict for the series—The Cold War—and changing up its storytelling mechanic to where most of the game actually takes place via flashbacks. Much like the rest of the franchise though, Black Ops was a huge success, and the new characters introduced resonated with gamers everywhere. So where could Treyarch go from here with their next chapter in the Call of Duty franchise? Well, if the original Black Ops was a change of pace, then Black Ops 2 looks to take the franchise and turn it on its head (in a good way).

The story of Black Ops 2 looks to take place in two main conflicts—the first of which is The Cold War of the 1980s. With talks of Iran, Afghanistan, and Ronald Reagan’s STAR WARS program permeating the culture of the time, you will once again work with Alex Mason and Frank Woods. Yes, Woods is alive and well (and being played by James C. Burns again) as we find that Mason’s unstable mental state had him believe Woods was dead in order to carry out his Manchurian Candidate mission. In the game play demo we saw, we briefly were introduced to what Black Ops 2’s Afghanistan would look like—along with being graced by Woods’ distinct attitude as Mason and Woods rode on horseback (with realistic horse movements as Treyarch went as far as to mo-cap some thoroughbreds) through the Afghanistan desert, working in the best interest of the time for the United States.

The other conflict will not take place in the past or even modern times—but in the future of 2025. There, you will play as Alex Mason’s son, David, who has followed in his father’s footsteps as an ass-kicking soldier supreme who has to stop a ghost from his father’s past—Raul Menendez—from ruining America’s future.

“While playing the game, you’ll see through the eyes of Alex and Frank how this monster is created in the first Cold War,” explains Black Ops 2 Director Dave Anthony.  “Then, in 2025, while playing as David, you see him again and you actually experience what this monster is capable of. While working with David Goyer [writer of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight] on pushing the story and re-writing the rules on the story telling aspect of Call of Duty, the first place we really looked was the villain himself. We wanted to create a human being—not a two-dimensional character. The best reference I can probably give you is if you look at a TV show like The Sopranos, where the main character of the show—Tony—is a villain. He is a cold-blooded murderer; he does things we in our right minds would never do. But, you find subtle layers of understanding of who he is as a human being. You find yourself empathizing with him on many different levels—it puts you in a real conflict. So we have that side of Raul Menendez, and working with David Goyer on this—the man who wrote Heath Ledger’s Joker—you can imagine how far Menendez will go. It’s been very exciting because we’ve been working on this character non-stop for 18 months and I can say that Raul Menendez will be a very memorable character for you.”

Continuing with the two conflicts aspect of the game, Black Ops 2 is really centered around two things: Player choice and parallels (beyond just the father-son relationship of Alex and David and a villain’s past and present). And it wouldn’t be a Call of Duty game if there wasn’t a conflict with global ramifications throughout. So, the first big parallel is that—much like how the 1980s were about oil and stopping the spread of communism—the Cold War of the future looks to be similar.

Doing extensive research and bringing experts on future warfare in like P.W. Singer of the Senior Fellow Brookings Institute (to add to Call of Duty’s go-to-guys on warfare Lt. Col. Hank Keirsey and Col. Oliver North), Black Ops 2’s geo-political conflict revolves around REEs—Rare Earth Elements. REEs are important because they power the laptop you might be reading this on, the iPhone you use to call your friends to talk about this preview with, or the flatscreen TV you’ll end up playing Black Ops 2 on—and 95% of the world’s REEs are currently mined in China. Electronics manufacturers are at the mercy of the world’s most populous country, and a country which could cripple the economies of many other countries if they so choose because of it. The demo we saw of Black Ops 2 hints that they might do exactly that, as REEs make everyone forget all about oil.

In terms of player choice, there are now branching paths in the middle of chapters—similar to what you might see in Gears of War, where you can choose to go down different paths with your character and see the same conflict from different angles. The example we were shown was where David could choose to take a sniping position on an L.A. freeway and cover his troops as they moved through some rubble below, or lead the charge himself and take the lead. Same conflict, two completely different points of view—an element which could give some great replay value to the campaign.

The most thrilling new aspect of Black Ops 2 may be the technology though, both in-game as well as the stuff that actually powers that game. In terms of gameplay, the demo we saw had David firing a sniper rifle with specially-charged bullets which could actually fire through concrete as thick as L.A. freeway support columns. And, we knew where to fire those specially-charged bullets because of the special X-ray-like scope attached to the gun. As David then wove his way through Los Angeles—the target for one of Menendez’s attacks—he took control of a small squad of Quad-rotor drones that he commanded through an area in a fashion similar to how Commander Shepard commanded his team in Mass Effect 3.

But you aren’t the only one in control of fantastic technology like spy drones outfitted with weapons as Menendez and his group obviously know a thing or two about hacking government equipment. Aside from these aerial drones, there were also ground drones called C.L.A.W.s that reminded me of AT-ATs from The Empire Strikes Back—another loose parallel to Reagan’s STAR WARS plan perhaps? So, aside from terrorists, David now had to contend with these unmanned drones that are more deadly accurate than a human could hope to be. And, because they don’t think like humans, they have a completely different A.I. pattern for you to contend with.

Another gameplay parallel we saw—and this one was more in line with the Black Ops series itself—was David having to fly what was referred to as an FA-38 VTOL (vertical take-off and landing). That such a plane could exist in 2025 is possible due to fact that the military is currently testing an F-35B VTOL manufactured by Lockheed Martin. Once airborne, David must shoot down a series of drones and the task itself that might remind some players of the Vietnam helicopter mission with Alex and Frank from the first game. That entire sequence though ended up playing out completely differently, as you might imagine the differences between a 1960s helicopter and a futuristic super-jet. 

Going back to the technology behind the game, I think players will be surprised at what Treyarch is getting out of their engine this time around: Their goal is 60 frames per second, and PC quality graphics on a console. A high bar to set indeed, but I would love to see if the team can pull it off. What we did see though was a pair of incomplete multiplayer maps dubbed “Aftermath” (urban area) and “Yemen” (rural area) that really showed us what they were trying to do to reach those goals, as different parts of the maps were in different stages. More complete parts had “reveal mapping”—a technology new to the series—which gives crevasses and cracks in the ground or walls a more sensitive, detailed, and realistic-looking texture to them. We also saw examples of brand new lighting schemes and particle effect, which included bounce lighting and self-shadowing to really emphasize the realistic qualities of light that are being added to locations.  I think the most impressive thing about these maps were how different they looked compared to anything we’ve seen before in the Call of Duty multiplayer.

“You’ll notice a lot of the areas you walk through are very distinct and unique spaces on the maps,” says Dan Bunting, Director of Online for Black Ops 2. “In ‘Aftermath’, I started in an empty parking lot and then moved into a parking garage, went into a destroyed street, through a fire escape tunnel, and ended up in a hotel lobby. We intentionally do this. Its important to us as designers that we design maps that are easy to understand and that players have a sense of space. As soon as they spawn in, they know where they are. They need to be able to call out to their teammates things like ‘There’s a flag carrier in the lobby!’, for example. It’s not just about communication though, it’s about how the maps flow. There’s always a learning curve when you first start off on a new map and we want to decrease that as much as possible. The fastest way to learn is by having very distinct spaces.”

Clearly, it wouldn’t be Call of Duty without its multiplayer—and it wouldn’t be Treyarch if the “Zombies” mode didn’t return. Thankfully, fans everywhere will enjoy shooting zombies once again, as that mode has been confirmed for Black Ops 2. The folks at Treyarch didn’t want to go into much detail beyond that, but Game Design Director David Vonderhaar did give us some interesting tidbits on what the team is aiming to do with multiplayer overall.

“When we knew for sure where we were going with the time period, and what the game was supposed to be like, it actually opened our eyes up to thinking very critically about challenging what assumptions we had been making about how this game should work, extending the systems that we have, and just what cows are sacred. Did the game have to work the same way it did last time just because it’s a sequel? We asked ourselves this and with many of the game’s core systems like create-a-class and kill streaks, we pulled all these things back to where they started from and asked why do we have this particular perk that acts in this particular way? Are they good? Are they bad? And we really just focused in on three key things on the design side. First, we wanted to create a healthy amount of balance. Like with the Ghost perk. It prevents you from being seen by UAVs. But that’s something that is just on/off. You can’t tune something that is just on/off. So we needed to put ourselves in the best position to where this content is tunable. Then we looked at progression.  Going from when you first pop that disc in to what for many people becomes 40, 60, even 80 hours of game play time. But most importantly, we focused in to make sure that players had the most diverse amount of game play. We challenged ourselves when it came to game play style and as long as we could keep coming up with counters for the most insane game play style then we’re confident we’d create this wide range of game play that appeals to the largest range of people possible.”

Of course, what better way to provide gameplay diversity than with a brand new mode? Strike Force Campaign is a mode that has some real-time strategy elements to it, where you can jump into the shoes of any character or drone on the field, or pull back to a satellite-like image where you can point out posts and command your troops to move where you want them to. And—depending on how well you do or do not do—the following missions and mission options could be drastically different. Again, strong player choice and replayability is being offered here, and Strike Force being its own special campaign adds a lot more meat to the game as a whole as it hits an entirely new demographic with the real-time strategy aspect.

All in all, I do not think I could have been more blown away by the demo we saw and the effort that Treyarch is pouring into this title in every possible aspect. And honestly, this is the most excited I’ve been for a Call of Duty game since the first Modern Warfare. From the parallel moments in history to the new player choices, game modes, and fantastic looking futuristic weaponry and combat, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is something that all gamers, not just fans of the franchise, should be keeping their eyes on as its November release steadily approaches.