Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a true sequel in every way

The worst kept secret in gaming lately is that Treyarch has been working on Call of Duty: Black Ops II. You knew it, I knew it, everyone knew it. That said, they’ve done a pretty good job of keeping the details of the game under wraps. And now that we’ve seen it, I’m betting that it’s probably quite a bit different from what anyone was expecting. 

Treyarch says that they didn’t want to just make a sequel. They wanted to push the boundaries, knowing that they only scratched the surface of what they’re capable of with Black Ops. So they took it to the future. To 2025. Get your hoverboards ready, folks.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Developer: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
Releases: November 2012 

Black Ops II is a direct sequel to Black Ops, meaning that they’ve taken their finely crafted historical fiction and have pulled it into this next game to create a huge time-spanning narrative, stretching from the Cold War era in the late 1980s to their new fictional cold war, taking place around 2025. Treyarch’s game director, Dave Anthony, once again sought assistance from Hollywood’s David Goyer, writer of Batman Begins, Dark Knight and the upcoming Superman: Man of Steel film, for the story. They teamed up to craft this multi-generation story starting some 18 months ago, and they’re finally ready to show a bit of it off. 

The full details on how this will all work out are still scarce, but we do know that you’ll play as characters from Black Ops in this sequel. Contrary to popular belief, Frank Woods is still alive, and you’ll see some of the story through his eyes. Note that somehow he is alive in both time periods of the game, too. Alex Mason, the protagonist of the first game, is also back, and you’ll play some segments of Black Ops II as him. In the game’s future 2025 setting you’ll play as David Mason, Alex’s son.

Treyarch assures that this future world was built to be plausible. They worked with 21st century war expert Peter Singer, the author of “Wired for War,” to get a solid view of what future warfare might look like. What they learned is that robotics and drones would play a big part in future war, and that Moore’s Law would figure heavily into how weapons will change. Singer also shared a vision of what future global tension and conflicts might surround, and it is not oil. 

Rare Earth Elements are just now becoming newsworthy. Some 17 metals make up these elements, and they’re used in the creation of many key technologies in our lives, including mobile phones, tablets, and computers. They’re also key in the creation of new energy technologies like hybrid car batteries and wind turbines, not to mention in future war applications, like stealth tech, laser guidance and drones. As it stands now, China mines and controls 95 percent of the world’s REE. Just last month President Obama announced a challenge with the World Trade Organization along with the EU and Japan against China for recent export restrictions on these valuable minerals. Treyarch has crafted their story for future global tension around this potential issue of the throttling of these elements.

In the bit of story we were able to witness, this cold war gets hot when villain Raul Menendez creates the first spark. Melendez manages to break into the military infrastructure, digitally hijacking America’s remote controlled robots, drones, missiles and other military intelligence. Through this hijack he is able to send our own drones into many major American cities, including Los Angeles, where the President is. David Mason, son of Black Ops‘ Alex Mason, is there on assignment with the President, and quickly finds himself fighting through the war-torn city.

The demo opens to the President, Mason and other soldiers in a vehicle, speeding down L.A.’s freeways as it’s being attacked by low-flying drones. They’re working to get her to a shelter, but vehicle fires, gunmen, and chaos from the city evacuation are making it difficult. Fire and explosions are also hindering progress, but they’re nothing compared to the downed helicopter that takes out part of the freeway bridge, sending the convoy vehicle tumbling. 

The first-person gameplay starts here, with Mason crawling out of the wrecked vehicle, jumping over debris and immediately into a vehicle-mounted turret to take down incoming drones. Barely escaping before this vehicle tumbles over the edge of the broken bridge, Mason immediately starts sniping distant attackers, providing cover for the President and her escort team. Being a future rifle, the scope lets Mason see through walls and automobiles, and the energy pulse gunfire can actually penetrate these surfaces to hit the enemy behind them if charged long enough. (Your days are numbered, campers.)

Later in the stage Mason finds himself in downtown Los Angeles, which has been transformed into a war zone, apparently waking up from a blackout. He comes to just in time to see a policeman ripped apart by machine gun fire from a quad bot with a machine gun on its back. This walker goes down after a few hits with explosive rounds, but a truck comes crashing through some of the wreckage to release even more of the same bots into the area. Mason makes his way into a shopping center near the Staples Center and convention center, fights his way through heavy fire, and makes his way out the other end just in time to see the 110 building come crashing down on its side, causing a quake-like rumble throughout the city.

Now all of downtown is on fire, and the visibility is low due to smoke. Mason finds a jet and climbs in to continue his mission from the sky. In the jet, Mason hovers up and flies out to take down drones from the sky, firing cannons and missiles as he weaves through Los Angeles’ skyscrapers. He does his best to fly down the streets to provide cover for the President’s convoy, but soon finds that he has to take the jet into high gear to chase down attackers. Things seem to be going well until he collides with a drone, sending him out the cockpit in a parachute.

As mentioned earlier, in the background of this hijack attack by Melendez on America is a cold war with China. The situation becomes even more complicated when he decides to redirect the attacking drone fleet to China’s major cities, effectively using these powers as pawns for his own endgame. 

The downtown Los Angeles demo for Call of Duty: Black Ops II is easily one of the most impressive live gameplay demos I’ve ever seen. The action and tension never stopped for a second; I actually felt stress in my neck and upper back from just watching! There was a nice variety of gameplay that flowed from one type to another, but it all was paced so beautifully that it didn’t seem segmented. It was big, loud, cinematic and thrilling — and we’re only talking about 15 minutes of play here.

Up until this point, death in the Call of Duty titles has had little meaning or significance, as players could simply restart after dying to try to complete an objective. This changes with Black Ops II, as your performance in the game will influence the story in meaningful ways. Studio head Mark Lamia explained that main story characters, squad members, and villains will live or die depending on what you do and how you perform. Your choices and mission performance will directly impact the ending, having some effect on the cold war between America and China. Lamia says that everyone will get different results, and in the end they’re going to show you how things could have been different. 

You’ll guide the narrative through your decisions and performance in a new type of level called Strike Force. These levels turn around the classic CoD structure, bringing sandbox-style missions to the mix. In between standard story missions, operations will inform you of other conflicts that need Black Ops attention, and you’ll choose from several of these Strike Force missions to proceed. In these, your success or failure will have some effect on the underlying cold war story. This means that it’s entirely possible to completely fail the mission and have the game’s story continue. As mentioned earlier, you’ll find out in the end how your performance might have changed the outcome of the cold war.

These sandbox-style missions are unique in that players are able to approach the objectives in whatever way they’d like. They’re free to use whatever troops, weapons and methods that are presented to them. If a player wanted to oversee the level as a general the entire time, they could, but a player that would rather play it just as they have with every other Call of Duty, with gun in hand, could just as easily. Either way, the results of this mission will affect the geopolitical arc of the game.

A play-through of one of these stages had a team taking out cargo on a Singapore dock by hacking into a defense system. Using the overhead command view, the player was able to jump into any player or vehicle on the play field, doing whatever was needed to complete the mission. There was a constant flipping between soldiers, small remote bots armed with machine guns, flying drones, and a larger robot, leading up to being able to call in an air strike to destroy the cargo and complete the mission. What’s interesting is that if any one solider or drone were to be destroyed, the player could “go into” another to continue the mission. If all play possibilities are exhausted, the player fails the mission.

Treyarch is not quite ready to talk full details on Black Ops II multiplayer, but Design Director David Vonderhaar was on hand to tease with as many tidbits as he could. The multiplayer will take place in 2025 exclusively, and Vonderhaar says the motivation for that is purely gameplay. They’re thinking about how future technology will apply to weapons, attachments and killstreaks, but now also to robots and drones. He says that this new technology has opened up some creative possibilities, letting them do things they would have liked to before, but couldn’t justify. 

Vonderhaar also stressed that eSports is a big agenda for Treyarch. They want the game to be as competitive as possible as the culture moves into the mainstream. They also realize that making Black Ops II enjoyable to watch as a spectator is important. Finally, clean, efficient social media tools have influenced the way the multiplayer team thinks about interfaces. It sounds like we can expect concise menus with high visual impact in multiplayer. 

Oh, and zombies are coming back. No details were given, but we were told to expect even more ways to play zombies. We’ll hear more on this at later date, says Treyarch.

Black Ops II is shaping up to be the best looking game on consoles. Dan Bunting, Director of Online, showed off some impossibly beautiful stage examples in a presentation. He says that their goal was to bring PC quality graphics running at 60 frames per second to home consoles, and if these stages were any indication, they’re going to knock that goal out of the park. Through revamped systems and improved pipeline processes, a coastal island off in Yemen looked photorealistic. Bunting showed off new lighting engine abilities that permit very natural looking bounce lighting in dark areas, with lights shining through windows and doorways realistically. The new lighting along with new texture blending techniques made for remarkably detailed surfaces, like sand that had blown into the cracks and crevices on a cobblestone street. HDR techniques had sun glaring on the side of a weapon, and water looking hot white from the sun.

For a contrast, a close-up look of war-torn L.A. was also shown. High-resolution textures made for some incredibly detailed rubble and wreckage. The texture blending technique made the toppled over skyscraper look eerily real, with its contorted rebar and crumbled walls strewn everywhere. The detail packed into each scene was almost overwhelming. 

Just as impressive is the new animation technology the motion capture team is using for Black Ops II; new technology allows a degree of motion capture so detailed that a comparison video of the same performance using Black Ops‘ tech looked primitive. The new tech is so good that raw capture data applied to a model looked much better than the old techniques after a week and a half of tweaking. One especially impressive demo showed a female making a video call to a loved one, with the camera close to her face. Realistic movements like brow quivering, lips sticking together, and eyes tearing up were easily noticeable. In the pursuit of convincing performances they even brought in a horse to the mo-cap studio for capture. Seeing a finished cutscene from Black Ops II really brought it home: they’ve left Uncanny Valley far behind, and now nothing is standing in the way of full cinematic immersion. 

Visiting Treyarch’s offices, I could feel it: This team is fired up. It was clear that creative forces are working every angle to make Call of Duty: Black Ops II something so much more ambitious than its predecessor. It all centers around a huge, multi-generational narrative with branching story lines, and it’s paved with their famed super-cinematic gameplay, and the all-new Strike Force sandbox-style levels. And the twist is that it’s all set in 2025, which is just futuristic enough to be believable, but not so much that you’re being hit over the head with off-the-wall sci-fi. It’s running at 60 frames per second, looking and sounding better than anything in recent memory, and it’s packed with new weapons, mechanics, enemy types and gameplay experiences that takes the franchise into brave new territory.

Treyarch is clearly excited about what they’ve created, and after seeing it for myself it’s safe to say that you should be, too.

Dale North