Ever since Activision took the Call of Duty franchise to a yearly release schedule, it has felt more like two franchises in one rather than a cohesive whole. While that's not a bad thing as it ensures variety, it does mean that Call of Duty fans may find themselves favoring one series over the other. This year's hype may belong to Modern Warfare, but come November, it'll be time to pass the torch back to Black Ops.
Developed by Treyarch, Black Ops II is a direct sequel to 2010's Black Ops. While some of the narrative takes place in the past, the bulk of the story in Black Ops II is set in the near future.
Going with the premise that technology and automation would see increased usage in our military, the future as envisioned by Treyarch is one in which soldiers stay out of harm's way. After all, why send in a grunt when you can send in a drone to do the job? All in all, it's not that far off from today's military, so it's a believable premise. Of course, controlling a drone wouldn't make for an interesting game, so enter evil hacker man. The U.S. military network gets hacked, and suddenly, all those neat digital toys that were supposed to protect us have been turned against us.
The hands-off demo we saw at the Activision booth started off with an extended version of the demo that was shown at the Microsoft E3 2012 Press Conference.
Things kicked off with a high-intensity escape from LA in an armored vehicle. Your team was tasked with escorting the President to safety while terrorist drones were attacking from all directions. From what we could gather, the goal of the terrorists was to eliminate all of the G20 leaders who were in town for a summit. Not very original, but it makes for a good story.
Treyarch showed it still has the chops for a good cinematic moment as things shifted into slow motion when a helicopter exploded in front of the truck, which promptly crashed. The others in the group took off with the President, while the player hopped onto the back of another crashed vehicle and used the roof-mounted Stinger missile launcher to take out some attacking drones. It's a small moment of action, but it set the pace for the demo.
As the President and her escorts make their escape, the player ran to the edge of an elevated highway. Here, various icons appeared, indicating options such as snipe and grapple. Grabbing the sniper rifle revealed another icon, protect, which showed up on the President. A sniping sequence with a sweet X-ray scope followed, before it was time to grapple down and regroup with the others. A combat sequence on the street highlighted the use of cover, as both the player and enemies hid behind disabled vehicles. Those same disabled vehicles soon became obstacles after commandeering another truck. Crash number two, and our hero is knocked out again.
After waking up in a daze, the scene was that of another urban gun battle. We got to see some of the new tech in the form of a ground-based, four-legged, all-terrain drone. It appeared to be armored, but explosive rounds took it down quickly enough. The action moved indoors, inside a mall, with smart use of cover still being required for success. Back outside, it was time for another cinematic moment as a skyscraper came crashing down in front of the group. This also meant getting knocked out for a third time.
Aside from being amazed that our hero could still walk (apparently there is no such thing as a concussion in the future world of Black Ops II), the next portion of the demo was behind the controls of an F/A-38. We saw some air-to-air combat against drones before the plane locked onto a collision course. The action certainly looked exciting, but we've not much faith in the hero's ability to operate any sort of vehicle without crashing.
The second half of our Black Ops II demo centered around a new Strike Force level. Part of the single-player campaign, Strike Force levels are designed to give the player the ability to command and control everyone on the battlefield, sandbox style. You have the option to zoom in all the way and take control of an individual unit or pull back all the way to watch over the whole play field.
For the demo, the mission objective was simple: Take out three laser defense systems on a cargo ship docked in the harbor in Singapore. With the defenses gone, an airstrike can take out the ship.
One neat thing about Strike Force is that when you are pulled all the way out, you can set waypoints and give orders to the troops on the ground. In some ways, it looked more like a real-time strategy game than a traditional Call of Duty game. Even enemy units were visible. Units available for manual control included regular solders, the four-legged drone walker seen earlier and a flying drone armed with a machine gun.
Gameplay-wise, we're told that what happens in Strike Force has an impact on how the story plays out. Rather than replay a Strike Force mission until you win, the game takes the outcome into account. Lose a key mission, and it'll change the story in certain ways. Win the same mission, and different things will happen.
Currently, Strike Force levels are only contained within the single-player campaign, though a Treyarch rep at the demo said they are looking at building a separate Strike Force gameplay option. If it happens, it would give players the ability to replay Strike Force missions outside of the campaign, with the ultimate goal being to compete on score. The zombies are also confirmed to return in Black Ops II.
Stretching across the globe from Angola and Afghanistan to the Cayman Trench and downtown Los Angeles, Call of Duty: Black Ops II is shaping up to be just as impressive as its predecessor. It also appears as if Treyarch is trying to expand the experience a bit, rather than simply give us more explosions and more guns. It's going to be a long five months.
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