E3 2012: Call of Duty: Black Ops [Preview]
Look, I know what you’re going to say: Call of Duty is the same every year. It uses the same engine every time. It’s hopelessly linear, and you just follow a waypoint marker and shoot some men and then there’s a bombastic setpiece and you shoot some more men, only this time you’re firing from a plane or something. And you know what? You’re absolutely right. But I like Call of Duty anyway, and I’m not about to apologise for that.
The engine rips along at 60 frames per second, which gives it a sense of pace matched by few console shooters. The setpieces are bombastic and predictable, but still impressive. The shooting feels marvellous, with guns that have heft and enemies that respond marvellously when shot. The multiplayer is at worst competent, and despite the omnipresent complaints about quick-scoping and lack of skill, it’s compelling and enjoyable. And the vaguely nonsensical techno-thriller stories are on the right side of ridiculous. So yes, I like Call of Duty, along with millions of others. If you’re reading this, I can only assume you probably like it too, even if you complain about it in public. Don’t worry – I’ll keep your secret.
With both the good and the bad in mind, the footage of Black Ops 2 from the Microsoft press briefing the other day (depicting a mission in a futuristic Los Angeles that’s under siege from mercenaries and unmanned drones) probably didn’t raise many eyebrows. Here’s the opening cutscene, with shouting and swearing and an undefined sense of urgency. Here’s the bit where everything goes wrong and huge things – in this case a highway – explode.
That’s followed by the bit where you use a piece of rather cool technology (a lock-on rocket turret, in this case) for a few seconds simply because it’s impressive, and then there’s the sniping gallery – which probably also counts as “cool technology” since it involves a sniper rifle with an x-ray scope, and it’s capable of penetrating ever-thicker cover depending on how long you “charge up” the shot. Then there’s running and gunning, and then a bit where you hop into a VTOL aircraft and shoot down some drones.
So far, nothing out of the ordinary. While the setting and the details may change, it’s still a level in which the player is led by the nose from setpiece to setpiece, pausing only to shoot some naughty men in the teeth. Some neat bits of kit are shown off, like the tiny aerial drone that looks like it’s ordered about via wrist computer, and the VTOL section didn’t look like it was on-rails (which actually is kind of impressive, if true) but it’s still fairly default Call of Duty. Fun, accessible, and probably lit entirely by explosions, but more of the same.
What isn’t “more of the same” is the other bit that Treyarch have been showing off. You’ve doubtless heard tell that Black Ops 2 will be somewhat non-linear, with the game occasionally giving you a choice of what mission you want to take on next, and your choices will both lock off other missions and change the ongoing story. Well, Treyarch have finally let the press get a look at these segments, and they’re probably not what you expected.
First off, you don’t just get a choice as to which one you do – you’re actually capable of losing these Strike Force missions but continuing with the game anyway, with the loss affecting the way the story goes. Secondly… well, they’re not default Call of Duty missions. You might even consider them “tactical.”
The mission shown, Singapore, has the JSOC task force trying to take three objectives on a dock. You start off in control of a soldier, and… then you can zoom out into Overwatch view, and order your troops around via waypoints, and if they get into a sticky situation you can zoom in and take direct control of any of them. You can call in reinforcements in the form of quadrotors and CLAWs (Cognitive Land Assault Weapons; think angry robot dogs with cannons) and then take direct control of them. You can call down airstrikes. And those three objectives? You can take them however you choose; it’s presumably possible to go straight to the farthest one, and it’s presumably possible to ignore most of the tactical stuff and try to play the levels as a normal Call of Duty map.
I’ve still got a lot of unanswered questions about these modes – primarily in terms of what your AI reinforcements will do if you’re not giving them orders, how fiddly it’ll be to try to order everyone around while still joining in with the shooting, and how enemy reinforcements work – but for a series which has, until now, revolved around leading you around like a dog, this level of potential freedom is a rather startling change.
I’m also curious about how much the actual story will change, because that’s a concept I’ve always been in love with. If it’s very much a case of the game making occasional changes to the dialogue, or picking an ending out of three based on which missions you tried or failed, then I don’t care. On the other hand, if there’s actually meaningful change, then colour me interested.
So far, then, that’s Black Ops 2: a mix of the linear, over-the-top carnage we’re used to, combined with the rather surprising (and potentially tactical) addition of more free-form selectable missions. It might be worth keeping an eye on this one closer to launch even if you’ve finally given up on buying the annual Call of Duty instalments, if only to find out if these curious extra mechanics are a game-changer or merely an extra level of spectacular fluff.