An In-Depth Look at Call of Duty: Black Ops II @ E3 2012
Like most games journos we had a pretty good idea in advance of E3 as to which games were high on the list of must-see, must-cover, and the newest entry in the Black Ops series was naturally high on the list not just because it is a killer AAA title, but because it represents one of the game series that is setting the standard for realistic game play in the FPS genre. In many respects there are elements to the game that almost feel like you are watching a movie -- but a movie in which you are a character, and you act as well as witness all that is taking place around you! By the time that the game finally arrives in November of this year, gamers will already have a pretty good idea of how they plan to spend their weekends for the month of December, we're just saying...
The basic premise of the CoD series tells the story of Special Operations soldiers as they work through a mixture of time lines -- one set in the 1970s through 1980s and the other in 2025 -- during which Alex Mason returns as the protagonist in the Cold War section, while Mason's friend and colleague Frank Woods returns to narrate the story into the 2025 section of the game. One of the primary focuses for Black Ops II is the story of the rise to infamy of the game's primary antagonist, Raul Menendez, with all of this spanning a game world that includes multiple sites in Central America and Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, as well as modern settings for the new Cold War -- Cold War 2.0? -- between the United States and China.
The 2025 section of the game largely focuses upon Alex Mason's son David as the protagonist, and documents the struggle between China and the United States following the Chinese ban on the export of rare earth elements following a cyberattack that crippled the Chinese Stock Exchange. This is very significant largely due to the fact that the nature of war as we know it has changed, and in place of the traditional troops in trenches and patrolling convoys we face a world of cyberwarfare, unmanned and robotic vehicles, and the sort of push-button approach that has speculatively been near the cutting edge of the military kit being invented today.
We couldn't have a Black Ops game without there being an antagonist bent upon widescale bloodshed and world domination, and in the case of Black Ops II that antagonist is Menendez, who is attempting to bring the two world powers off of a Cold War footing and onto a hot shooting-war footing by inciting conflict between the two in a number of ways.
A new element has been introduced into the games -- called Strike Force Missions -- which factor heavily into the branching storylines. These special missions offer players the opportunity to make different choices during the campaign -- bearing in mind that in addition to its branching storylines, the player choices in the game have definite impact on how the story plays out and what the player will be doing and facing as they play through the campaign -- and choosing one of the missions has the effect of locking out others missions and game play elements!
Through the Strike Force missions, gamers are allowed to control a number of different strategic assets, including unmanned aerial vehicles, fighters, and military robots, and introduces a new consequences system in which player death on missions does not end the game or result in a checkpoint reload! In place of the old-style of play the campaign simply continues, with the death recorded as a loss and the basic story proceeding without that character in it!
Not only can the decisions -- and the outcome of battles in which the player dies -- have a shaping effect upon the campaign, it also can change the way that Raul Menendez proceeds with his plans, adding a level of dynamic mystery to the game that will come as an eye-popping surprise to most hard core series fans. Our hosts at E3 indicated that this is representative of things to come and the future of the modern story-based FPS genre... And lest you think that those alterations to the game simply represent the basic flow of the story, at the end of each game the player will be shown what could have gone differently as the alternate realities are unfolded for them, providing another opportunity for them to smack their head and say "If only if..."
The Multi-Player Reveal Trailer featuring an in-depth look at some of the stand-out elements that assures us that the newest offering in the Call of Duty Black Ops franchise has remained true to form despite its innovation-rich alterations.
Black Ops II is the first game in the Call of Duty series to feature a completely futuristic setting along with the traditional look-back past settings, and as a consequence is also the first game in the series to include speculative and high-tech future weapons -- and how cool is that?! We have already commented upon the branching story lines, but it should be emphasized that this approach to the campaign and story mode has the effect of adding a deeper sense of immersion, and the changes that include real consequences for both failure and success represent a game-changing element this time around.
There was a mixture of impressions to be had at E3 this year, starting with the big-screen presentation that was offered at the press briefing, at which an interesting premise was offered that suggests that hackers are a bigger threat in this war-torn future than at any time in history real or imagined. The briefing presentation largely included the same segment that we would, later the next day, experience on the show floor as part of the hands-on demo.
The hands-on demo took us through a scenario in which an attack on the Vice President and leadership has forced the unit to serve as protection and escort to a safe zone in the city, and along the way we got to experience the more traditional human-aspect of conflict and war, with the automated elements largely consisting of the airborne units that were attacking us. That was cool though as it provided us with the opportunity to experience some of the new kit, including a sniper rifle that shoots through concrete columns!
With large groups of remotely controlled drones attacking us -- and the city in general -- we found ourselves manning a Hummer-mounted smart weapon that launched clouds of deadly mini-missiles, which we used to remove the threat overhead before providing sniper cover using that amazing sniper rifle equipped with a scope that can see through solid concrete and ammunition that can shoot through it, before finally rappelling down the shattered freeway overpass and making our way to the relative safety of a concrete canyon in which a VSTOL aircraft was forced down after its pilot was wounded, we take control of the fighter and using it, provide air cover for part of the evacuation route.
The scenario that we played through was a desperate struggle to navigate through the wartorn streets of LA -- which was somewhat surreal since part of the route took us past the hotel that we were staying at for E3! It seemed that the strength of the weapons that the enemy was using was far beyond anything that we had ever seen before, with drones being able to literally knock down skyscrapers, and set the air around us on fire. Climbing into the cockpit of the VSTOL fighter -- an aircraft that we have never flown before but whose flight computer apparently makes it easy enough so that anyone can fly one --
and we have to admit that the flight dynamics were very forgiving, though the point to that part of the demo was not so much to showcase the flight simulator built into the game but rather the tremendous offensive and defensive capabilities of the VSTOL fighter, of which there was plenty.
All the while we were using the plane to shoot down the enemy air units its computer was talking to us, telling us what we were facing, and even offering tactical suggestions, which we have to admit was pretty cool. But then we are talking about an FPS game series that pretty much helped define the word "cool" in that genre, right? Considering that the release of the previous title in the series -- Call of Duty: Black Ops -- was widely received with a low muttering whisper that the game was derivative and consisted of recycled mission elements that suggested perhaps it had reached the end of its run, these new elements and the new focus in Black Ops II should instantly put to rest all of those concerns!
Perhaps the most intriguing element to this new CoD world is the nearly overwhelming sense of chaos that was taking place around us as we played. Now understand we are used to a certain level of chaos in a CoD game -- that is what the fog of war and the sound of combat is for -- and the use of that confusion and excitement as an element of game play is again nothing new, but the environment that we experienced in the demo of Black Ops II takes all of that to whole new levels, and even though we were blown away by and excited for this new entry in the series, in the back of our minds there was this nagging voice wondering how in the hell they were going to top this next time around?!
Behind the Scenes with Trent Reznor & David S. Goyer - Official Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Video
Whenever you find yourself playing the traditional FPS genre there is always a sense of fitting in to the environment, finding your balance with the other characters, and establishing the balance between covert and overt as you work your way through immersion and begin to find your place in this new and violent world. With the previous games in the series that often took the form of lowering your heart rate and sneaking through the bush, but that is not the approach that we found here -- which is not to say that there will not be elements and environments like that in the game, remember we only got to see and play through one of the missions -- but this new focus on ramped-up action and its collection of in-your-face oh-shit moments certainly presents a new energy and focus to the series.
The presence of so many remotely controlled enemy units, who exercise so effective an attack strategy against us was, surprisingly enough, able to resist the practice of deploying the main character as a bullet magnet, so that sense of quiet desperation that often dominates games in the FPS genre was happily absent here -- and a good thing too because the sheer number of enemies on the screen at any given moment would have required us to adopt the character call sign Swiss Cheese if we had been set out as the sacrificial bullet-magnet lamb, we are just saying...
In the months following the game's unveiling at E3 2012 we have had several opportunities to experience some additional content thanks to the developer and publisher, and much of the additional information that has been offered (most of which we cannot actually talk about yet) serves to illustrate that in spite of the new focus, new elements to game play and the campaign, and the exciting new story line, this is still a CoD game, with all of the cool strategic elements that we have come to expect from that franchise.
While much of the focus of the demo and trailers that have been released is squarely on the story and campaign elements of the game if you are worried that it has somehow strayed away from the multi-player side you will be pleased to learn that it plays as significant and important a role in Black Ops II as it has in the previous titles.
Treyarch confirmed during the presentation that the Zombies mode will return for Black Ops II, having its own dedicated campaign and something of a mini-story to it... Zombies featured in Call of Duty: World at War and Call of Duty: Black Ops, though not quite as prominently as it seems they will appear here. The fact that the Zombie Mode in CoD2 includes multi-player elements is good news for fans of that twisted, flesh-crawling perspective, and you will be happy to know that the developer confirmed at the show that the game will support 8-Player co-op Zombie action -- which is twice the undead co-op play of the previous titles in the series!
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is set for release on 13 November 2012, with versions for Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and the new Wii U, and while we have seen plenty it should be safe to say that we can expect a few more reveals prior to the game hitting its release date.