After all the rumors and leaks, it's finally official: Treyarch is at work on a sequel to Black Ops, due for arrival later this year. This sort of news isn't exactly shocking, of course, considering that Call of Duty has long been one of those annualized series where gossiping about the next game is a bit like spreading rumors about tomorrow's sunrise. But just because the existence of Black Ops II is a foregone conclusion doesn't mean that the content of the game is on that same level of predictability. In fact, the team at Treyarch has got quite a number of tricks up its sleeve for this upcoming first-person shooter. The core action is very much Call of Duty, but the overall package might just surprise you.
It's set in the future and the past
The Call of Duty franchise has always been fond of the idea of dual protagonists, whether it was alternating between two separate theaters of war in the World War II days or two different elite tactical units in the Modern Warfare franchise. Black Ops II is out to do the same thing, but with one very different twist: instead of being separated by geography, the playable characters are separated by decades of time.
One half of the game picks up immediately after Black Ops, with you following the journey of Frank Woods, who, as luck would have it, didn't quite die at the end of the last game. Whether he's riding on horseback alongside mujahideen during the Afghan Civil War or off pursuing Russian secrets in some other corner of the world, Woods' adventures will take him through some of the later stages of the Cold War.
The other half of the campaign, though, kicks off in the year 2025, when advanced weapon technologies rule the day. This half of the campaign is filled with drone warfare (you can hack and deploy drones in the heat of combat), robotic quadrupeds roaming the battlefield, and fancy weapon systems that let you do some pretty crazy stuff with your basic firearms (like hold the trigger longer for a charged fire). Even subtle things like the general aesthetic of the heads-up display or the style of the music have a more futuristic feel to them.
If done right, this type of setup could make for a very interesting experience. There's going to be a lot of contrast between the tone and technologies of these two halves of the campaign, and bouncing between the two could be a lot of fun. Treyarch is keen to stress that it has done this to examine some distinct historical parallels (the old Cold War with Russia and the new one with China), which could be interesting if the thoughtfulness that goes into that premise isn't overshadowed by sheer chaos and spectacle--something that's always a risk when it comes to storytelling in Call of Duty.
It has branching storylines
Call of Duty games have long been this industry's go-to example for linear storytelling. Once you have finished the mile-a-minute campaigns, there has never been a tremendous reason to go back and play through the story again. With Black Ops II, however, Treyarch wants to give you some control over how the story progresses and thus add a reason to go back and experience different events. It's doing this through a combination of old-fashioned decision-making and allowing mission failures to alter the story rather than simply lead to a game-over screen. Did you manage to kill that one antagonist before he got away? Did you successfully protect that VIP? Instances such as these (if not these examples specifically) can occasionally lead to different outcomes depending on how well you do.
Ideally, this method of storytelling will be more nuanced than just "kill all the men, get the good ending" versus "kill most of the men, get the slightly worse ending." We're hoping to see more moral gray area, where you are given the chance to make difficult decisions that alter the game on top of how you perform in battle. This sort of narrative system has the potential to seriously alter how you experience a Call of Duty campaign, and we're hoping that Treyarch can pull it off in a meaningful way.
It's occasionally a real-time strategy game
Treyarch is working on a new game mode for Black Ops II called Strikeforce, which is the studio's attempt to add a more hands-off, sandbox experience for players who want to run-and-gun on their own terms. What Strikeforce does is drop you into a large environment with a number of AI squadmates (sadly, this mode isn't co-op) and then give you a series of objectives spread throughout the map. It's basically the game giving you a bunch of space, a bunch of toys, and a bunch of enemies to take care of how you see fit.
The novel bit is that you don't have to play as the foot soldiers on the ground. You can bounce out to a sort of all-seeing-eye camera that lets you quickly scan across the map and issue orders to the troops on the ground. And since this is the year 2025 (the supplementary game modes like Strikeforce and competitive multiplayer all stick to the future), you can also issue orders to drones, and even play as them from a first-person perspective (including air and ground units). The whole thing is basically Call of Duty's version of a toy chest come to life. You can either pretend to be each little unit on the ground, or simply play out the entire match as the disembodied overlord looming over the battle, telling everyone what to do and where to go.
It has a villain Treyarch wants you to care about
Think of all the things the Call of Duty franchise has done well over the years: the sensation of being in the middle of a chaotic warzone, the terrific feel of the weapons, the exciting (and occasionally eccentric) set pieces. With this next game, Treyarch is hoping to add "interesting and multifaceted villain" to that list.
While the studio isn't going into too much detail about this antagonist's identity, they did mention that they'll be using the full span of the campaign--both the past and future--to establish the villain as a young man, show his descent into evil, and reveal the full extent of that trajectory come 2025. To help build this villain, Treyarch has been working with screenwriter David Goyer, whose credits include Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Remember Heath Ledger as the Joker? That's the sort of lightning Treyarch is hoping to bottle up with the help of Goyer.
Game director Dave Anthony explains it like this: "If you look at a show like The Sopranos, the main character is essentially a villain. Not only a villain, but a cold-blooded murderer. But you're presented with somebody that you actually understand as a human being and empathize with. And then suddenly you'll see them do something that's so horrific that it puts you in a real conflict. That's the approach we're taking with the villain of Black Ops II."
It's more influenced by e-sports than you think
With last year's Modern Warfare 3, Infinity Ward made the call to forgo LAN support. It was a decision that led competitive gaming leagues like MLG to drop MW3 from the pro circuits. Treyarch's approach to e-sports couldn't be more different. Black Ops II multiplayer design lead David Vonderhaar says that tailoring their game to resonate with the e-sports community is a huge goal for Treyarch. "E-sports has a really big influence. It helps us envision ways we can make the game for a competitive mindset, so there's elements of e-sports directly influencing the game design in multiplayer," says Vonderhaar. "But what's also really fascinating is e-sports as a spectator experience."
"The theater was fantastic, millions of people making millions of videos. But what's also fantastic is all these people who watch games get played. I just read this stat a couple days ago: 3 billion minutes per month of people watching people play video games. Three billion minutes! I'm thinking, man, Call of Duty could be 3 billion minutes if it was fun to watch. So this is impacting the game design. Making the game fun to watch is a big part of our agenda."
You can expect to see Black Ops II hit stores on November 13. Stay tuned for more coverage once next month's E3 rolls around.