On the cab ride over to Treyarch in Santa Monica, California, with some of my fellow Aussie journalists for our Call of Duty: Black Ops II event, we joked about what we thought we’d see in the presentation. A few guesses arose, such as Sam Worthington’s in-and-out US-to-Aussie accent, at least one epic helicopter crash, sniping, and lots and lots of explosions, of course. We all had a bit of a laugh knowing full well the translation to our guesses was that we were basically in for more of the same.
That’s not to say that more of the same is bad, it’s just that as Call of Duty reached the peak of entertainment success, it also appeared to reach the peak of its stride. Despite my adoration for the narrative in the Modern Warfare series, we never really saw anything new there beyond a refinement to the story’s delivery, and an ever-expanding multiplayer that also felt like it had a cadence all its own. Black Ops then, was essentially similar in most respects, though it’s arguable Treyarch lacked the storytelling capabilities to pull off the narrative heist they planned with their Cold War-era tale, though they did deliver the series’ best multiplayer offering yet. And zombies. They brought us zombies.
We also knew we were going to see Black Ops II, though Treyarch studio head, Mark Lamia himself joked at this when he first addressed us, offering that they were there to tell us “about the worst kept secret in gaming today”, a statement that garnered a few chuckles from the intimate crowd gathered in their presentation theatre. What we weren’t prepared for was his follow-up statement:
“But what I’m going to tell you about [Black Ops II] is probably one of the best-kept secrets in gaming today.”
He didn’t immediately go into what that secret was, rather we were shown a powerpoint presentation that listed a number of mission statements for their sequel. We saw things like “Rich Bed of Content”, “Scratched the Surface” and “Desire to Push the Boundaries” in relation to the team’s goals for Black Ops II, but it was the cryptic, yet revealing “Setting + Story + Narrative = FUTURE” that caught everyone’s attention. Not initially because we thought they’d take their story into the future, more that we thought they were going to focus more on what they got wrong from a storytelling perspective in the first Black Ops and that, for them, the aforementioned mantra was a means to deliver the best Call of Duty narrative yet.
We were half right.
So the big secret is, of course, that Treyarch is taking players to the year 2025. A future where a new Cold War threat has emerged between the US and China, and where battlefields are no longer formed over oil skirmishes, but rare earth minerals. Lamia admitted early on in his presentation that believability for their setting had to come heavy-handedly, and so they drew inspiration not from science-fiction, but rather the technology of today and the theory of Moore’s Law, which dictates that every 18 to 24 months processing power is going to double (this hasn't been disproven yet). Moreover, the real-world headlines of today, some of which they revealed to us in the presentation, and were only a month old, offer the geopolitical backbone for their Cold War setting.
Renewable energy has replaced the burning of fossil fuels, leading to a technology surge where semiconductors are essentially the oil of the future. These are constructed using rare earth minerals -- deposits of super-rare minerals from asteroids hitting the Earth over millions of years -- and currently China has the only active rare earth mineral mine in the world. Australia and the US are rich in deposits of the semiconductor ingredients, but we refuse to mine for them, leaving China as essentially the only global supplier for what the team envision will become the reason behind conflicts in the future.
Much of this is based on the explosion of smartphones and their global demand (a lot of which is emerging from China which has the fastest growing middle class in the world), all of which are built using rare earth minerals. But it’s also military advancement that feeds the industry’s unparalleled growth allowing for an ironic, at best, point of conflict in that powering this “military advancement” requires the very thing the military is essentially used for. Whichever way you look at it, Treyarch’s foundation is a believable one.
To carry out the feat of creating a “future history”, rather than just a sci-fi story, the team brought David Goyer back on board (fresh off writing Superman: The Man of Steel) to pen the 40-odd year spanning narrative, while consultancy on many of the game’s deeper nuances is being handled by PW Singer, author of “Wired for War” and Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, which is essentially a Pentagon thinktank, as well as Oliver North (ex-black op, covert ops) who spoke to them about first-hand experience with his operations during the height of Cold War tension in the 80s, including a cited tale of sitting at a table across from Manuel Noriega, and negotiating with him while undercover. Suffice to say, at this point in our presentation, Treyarch has dotted every i and crossed every t, leaving us confident they’ve built something special with Black Ops II.
So what we know is that the game will take place during CIA-driven black ops in the 80s that will feature both Sam Worthington’s character from the first game, Alex Mason, and the once presumed dead Frank Woods (portrayed by James Byrnes), and the year 2025 where you’ll play largely as the son of Alex Mason, David Mason. The two periods will be very different from one another, with the 80s portion centering around events in Afghanistan, which was being controlled by the Soviets at the time (the CIA was also supporting the Taliban who were rebelling against Soviet occupation), while 2025 will focus on the rise of Raul Menendez; a multilayered, heavily humanised villain bent on bringing the US and other world powers to their knees. He does this, as Lamia so articulately explains, by “stealing the keys” to the US’s drone fleet and turning them against themselves.
This set-up leads to the very first portion of actual gameplay we saw, which featured the hijacked drones attacking LA in droves
. David Mason is riding protector with the US President (a woman in Treyarch’s fiction) while also helping thwart the attack and generally just fight back. One of the predictions I made early on the piece, came true within the first two minutes of gameplay as a helicopter came crashing down in front of the vehicle Mason and the President are in. It’s a spectacular crash made only possible by years of crashing choppers in the franchise, but is also a scripted means to get Mason to his feet to fight enemy one-on-thousands. A few new details emerge, such as branching tactical decisions in the single-player narrative. You can now issue commands for a support squad, and here is was either Mason repel down from the overpass he’s standing on, or pick up a sniper rifle and offer support for the rest of the team as they push on.
Fantastically, this idea apparently crops up often during your adventure, regardless of the period, is only one way the team are trying to mix things up for a series that has almost become a paint-by-numbers affair. It’s all still very binary, but welcome nonetheless.
Using the sniper rifle also gave us a glimpse at how some of the futuristic technology will work. The weapon itself no longer relies on gunpowder, but rather an electrical discharge (thanks Australian weapon design) which means you could, with the technology, fire millions of rounds per second. Here, the power is harnessed to allow Mason to shoot through thick concrete walls and other objects (Lamia jokes that this weapon will be hell on campers in multiplayer), taking out the enemy as his team tries to get the president to Downtown LA. It’s all super-chaotic, though a wrist-mounted computer allows him to survey the area and make snap decisions (think of it as an iPhone on your wrist, only thousands of times smarter and more powerful). Around him and his team, semi-trailers plow into other vehicles, bodies drop from the cross-fire and the drones overhead continue to make a robotic dogfighting mess.
What immediately jumped off the page here is that this is still a Call of Duty game, and everything, as always, is amped up to 11. Explosions litter the landscape, while LA’s already usually murky skyline is littered with the dust and debris of conflict. Buildings are all futuristic-looking, but in a believable and sensible way. As the team push on, a new enemy appears on the form of a quadruped dubbed the “Claw”. This “mech” is a remotely controlled, heavily armoured tank of the future, and it takes more than a few rounds to take it out. Thankfully overhead, vertical take-off planes of the future (FA 38s) can be called in for fire support to help take these mechanical monsters down. Our educated guess is that these bad boys will likely appear in multiplayer as some kind of killstreak reward in at least one tier.
Other mechanical allies join the fight as the game’s battlefield is swarming with quad-rotored AR drones. These little guys are also packing heat and can be sent into areas ahead of your own advancement tagging and firing on enemies to give you the tactical advantage.
But the final piece of the single-player puzzle came when Mason actually jumped into the cockpit of an FA 38 to protect the president, now aboard an escape vehicle to get out of harm’s way. This sequence looked cool, but gave little in the way of awe being that it was just a simple escort objective that looked like it was on-rails. My disappointment vanished though, as our demo controller backed away from his protection duties to take to the Downtown LA skies for some actual dogfighting of his own. Later in my interview with Mark Lamia, it will be revealed that when you have control of this vehicle for this dogfighting sequence, the sky’s literally the limit. It’s not on-rails at all and you’re in absolute control of the jet’s faculties, leaving me pondering the potential for some FA 38 action in the multiplayer space. Our demo ended with a giant roar though, as if some monster let out its final breath; a huge building toppled over and smashed down onto the field of battle making some sort of metaphorical impact on both the field of battle, and the series itself, leaving us breathless and wanting more.
Beyond the single-player campaign though, which is always the main focus at these early unveilings, Lamia talked a little about multiplayer and even demoed a new game mode for us called Strike Force. This will be something of a meta-game, where you’re tasked with an overall military objective, replete with mini-objectives riddled throughout the battle space. The cool element here is that you can literally inhabit anything on the field that is on your side - soldiers, mechs, drones - you name it, you can control it. These are also sandbox environments where you can attack each objective in any way and order you like. You can even control the entire battlefield as a general overlooking the entire level from a theatre-of-war perspectve. We’re told the successful completion of these missions will have a narrative effect on the single-player campaign, not too unlike the meta game added to Mass Effect 3, though this actually looked far more engaging.
As for multiplayer, the entire experience will take place with the toys and setting of 2025, leaving a lot to the imagination. It’s probably the boldest move the team has made yet, and evidence Treyarch has essentially been left with the keys to the franchise. Of course, no Treyarch Call of Duty would be complete without Zombies, and Mark made a point to let us know it’s back in full force here, complete with co-operative play, bigger and better maps, and that it would be running off the multiplayer engine to keep the entire experience within the one lobby. We also had a brief look at a few multiplayer maps (Yemen being a stand-out), though they weren’t at all populated and it was essentially a developer camera fly-through. The team has done an outstanding job grabbing more oomph out of the CoD engine, and while I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see them build a whole-new engine from scratch to bring the series up to speed with some of its rivals, it’s looking like it’ll be the best visual entry in the series yet.
By and large though, what I saw instilled me with hope that this series doesn’t need to be the paint-by-numbers affair it feels like it’s become. And taking as bold a step as to take things forward some 12 years (for us), while maintaining a solid sense of realism and sustainability in the suspension of disbelief department is a testament to how much Treyarch not only love working on this franchise, but also want to prove themselves to the masses. Here’s hoping that with the keys to franchise, they drive it forward into the future.