It seems something of a contradiction to be surprised by the announcement of a new Call of Duty game, but I nevertheless found myself genuinely delighted by the Treyarch’s announcement of Black Ops 2, the sequel to the only Call of Duty game I have ever finished, and the only one I ever truly enjoyed.
The first Black Ops was something of a major departure for the Call of Duty series, being the only “AAA” FPS to be released with its feet set firmly in that most delicate and dangerous of political conflicts, the Cold War. While the game hardly inspired the stealthy, subtle action the title hinted at, it nevertheless delivered a fantastic whistle-stop tour of all the Cold War highlights worth paying attention to. From the Bay of Pigs in Cuba to a base camp invasion in Vietnam, Black Ops picked up the history books and ran a highlighter over the more action packed areas of the past 50 years.
Which is why I find myself both delighted and a little bewildered by its impending sequel, a near future sci-fi big boom bonanza. Don’t get me wrong, the fact the series is avoiding going back to, of all the dreaded things, the ridiculous “present day Russian terrorists” plot is a more-than-welcome change in my book; the ham-fisted nature of Call of Duty’s politics is more than a little offensive to those with any semblance of political know-how, but this new iteration seems entirely out of place under the “Black Ops” mantle. Sure, it’s canonically a sequel, drenching itself with references to the first game and even building off the hinted, sinister ending sequence, but the game so far looks like it couldn’t be more different from its predecessor. Gone is the exciting road trip through history, replaced instead with the hypothetical ramblings of Hollywood directors and Treyarch’s bumbling writing team. It looks more like Metal Gear Solid 2 than the next installment of the Cold War themed Black Ops.
It’s still an exciting if slightly worrying proposition. This seems to be a built-from-the-ground-up Treyarch game, something I’ve wanted to see from the team for a while; they’re a talented bunch, producing the “only good film game” in Spiderman 2 and are incredible at working to the deadlines they’ve always been given. However, Treyarch are, for want of a better term, clumsily ambitious. Black Ops had its problems, and Black Ops 2 seems more than eager to mimic them. Treyarch don’t seem to understand pacing, making every moment a 9/10 action sequence instead of a “planned graph” of peaks and troughs. From these early trailers they seem more than happy to hurl themselves at this sort of thing again, filling the trailer with all manner of whizz-bang explosions, as well as showing off the huge variety of vehicles you’ll inevitably control. It’s all very well empowering your player with super-slick set-pieces, but sometimes you need to strip the player’s power and make them vulnerable. The closest Treyarch got to this in Black Ops was a frankly stunning level set in a Russian Gulag, where the player starts with no weapons and must try and escape the brilliantly realised hell-hole. Sadly, within minutes of starting the level players are given a gun, evaporating the fear almost instantaneously as the once intimidating guards become just another target in a Gulag themed map. I can only hope the team realise their mistakes in this regard, but I have little reason to believe this is the case.
While it’s true that Treyarch need to learn how to pace themselves, there’s still no denying their expertise at the flashy set piece is only rivaled by Naughty Dog (the ¬Unchartered series) and their sister studio Infinity Ward (Modern Warfare). Black Ops had bombing runs, burning jungles, arctic combat and a fantastic gas mask level that flipped the game mechanics on their head. The game screamed high octane action, and now that Treyarch are free to write their own big moments instead of looking at the history books one can only salivate at the prospects. While there’s still a concern lingering as to how many of these set pieces Treyarch will cram into their next game, the idea of controlling the machines of future wars remains a salivating proposal. If there’s one thing you can trust Call of Duty as a franchise to do it's to deliver those awe-inspiring set-pieces that set it apart from the competition. I have every faith in Treyarch to deliver these kinds of moments, with or without the help of a history text book.
The only bit that’s got me worried is that, even with the restrictions of history, Treyarch still managed to over-blow Black Ops simple conspiracy story line, taking a rather cool twist and leaning far too heavily on it. Now that they don’t even need to rely on reality for their bullet points I have a horrible feeling their “clumsy ambition” will make Black Ops 2’s plot a heady mess of clichéd ideas. They’ve already dropped that most asinine of future soldiers survival dreams (“After making all that tech they realised, they still need men like us”) and have more than hinted at basically stealing the plot line of Metal Gear Solid 4, albeit the Cliff Notes version. If Treyarch don’t have anything new or clever to say about the impact of future warfare you can bet that Black Ops 2’s plot line will end up being a whistle stop tour of other people’s sci-fi worlds. Perhaps that’s what it has in common with its predecessor...