11 PREVIEW: Call of Duty: Black Ops II

While people may be heard saying they have “genre fatigue” from military shooters, sales figures don’t reflect it. Nonetheless, Treyarch is strongly pushing the innovation barrow with a speculative, not-too-distant future setting, new mission designs and a more customisable multiplayer experience. The first Black Ops was praised for its narrative and robust multiplayer, and if the sequel can keep it up, Activision may well pull yet another rabbit out of the hat.

Like the original, Black Ops II pursues multiple narrative paths: one follows US proxy wars across the globe (notably Central America and Afghanistan) with our known protagonist Alex Mason, and also introduces and develops the game’s arch villain, Raul Menendez. The second timeframe (narrated by Black Ops’ Frank Woods – hang on, didn’t he die?!) takes place in 2025, where economic and trade conflict between the US and China over “rare earth materials” has led to tensions that are being exploited by Menendez to create a military conflict. The high-tech motifs of the game are drawn directly from real life, which means that Black Ops II takes the game into the real present and near future in a way we haven’t seen in the franchise.

Locations are central to the game’s aesthetic, and a near-future Los Angeles as the scene of major conflict brings speculations of world conflict home for Americans. This is an interesting trend (see Homefront and Rainbow Six: Patriots), and it will be great to see how it plays out. As we have seen with Spec Ops: The Line, there is mild controversy about depicting Dubai in a near-future conflict, and although there is seems to be no such squeamishness in the US, the theme does touch a raw nerve and the cultural reception will be a good one to watch. It’s one thing to play a game where Middle Eastern countries are torn apart, but residents of LA who see their home city rent by conflict may feel a little more ambivalent about it.

[img_big]center,9361,2012-06-05/3593Singapore_Sparks.jpg,Black Ops II: Singapore Strike Force Mission[/img_big]

For some the narrative and locations may be sufficient to carry the game, but I suspect that most players will be looking to the game itself. The real-military FPS gameplay will resurface to cater for core fans of the series, and we will see some new vehicle components, since apparently the future contains robots, unmanned aircraft, and jet fighters. Nonetheless, the range of vehicles also goes backwards: we have seen sequences where horses play a prominent role, which allowed the team to show off some impressive animations.

Perhaps the major innovation, though, occurs by eschewing the strict linear mission design of the FPS formula in favour of branching missions. These so-called “Strike Force” missions can be selected by the player and revolve around assets such as vehicles. This is reminiscent of Mass Effect 3’s mission structure, whereby the outcomes of individual missions tie into a larger overall plot. Indeed, these missions will introduce finite resources in the form of platoons to be used in each mission, as well as permanent death (yikes!). The outcome of the strike force missions will influence the trajectory and outcome of the whole game, hopefully enhancing campaign replayability.

Strike Force missions have been billed as genuine sandbox experiences emphasising player autonomy in mission completion given a certain set of tools. For example, “Overwatch Mode” allows the player to have an overview of the entire battlefield, manage the squad and select any soldier from the whole team to zoom into and play. It is also possible to deploy and control unmanned vehicles as the mission develops. This introduces the potential for tactical gameplay, although developers are also at pains to emphasise that those looking for a more traditional COD playstyle will also be well served.

Multiplayer is also set for a shakeup: developers have talked about the new “create-a-class” component, which allows players to pursue their own styles and interests in more detail than squad multiplayers have previously allowed. For example, the game will have a 10-point allocation system where guns, attachments, equipment, perks all take up take up allocation points. This allows players to choose their loadouts in much more customisable ways. This could be an interesting nod to RPGs and their fusion with shooters in successful newcomers like Borderlands. Zombie mode will also return, with more expansive maps and options for players to have a fuller experience rather than a bolt-on novelty.

[img_big]center,9361,2012-06-05/3594Singapore_Focus_Fire.jpg,Black Ops II: Singapore Strike Force Mission[/img_big]

Treyarch is clearly trying to breathe new life into the Call of Duty franchise with a variety of different strategies. A new timeframe, locations, branching sandbox campaign elements, a new stock of vehicle types, and customisable gameplay styles in multiplayer suggest that the vision here is to appeal to newcomers to the franchise and those who want a more dynamic, innovative shooter experience as well as to enhance the appeal to the series’ core fans. Whether or not the final product survives that tightrope walk remains to be seen.

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