Thursday, November 8, 2012

Preview: Call of Duty: Black Ops 2

There's something that you should know about me, dear reader, and it is something that may colour your opinion of me. I'm often known for my controversial opinions about the video game industry (Majora's Mask was better than Ocarina of Time!) and, when it comes to Call of Duty, I tend to get a lot of sideways glances when I say what I actually think:

I don't like Call of Duty. At least, not anymore. There was a time when I loved the Call of Duty franchise and would buy every game released, but that time has since lapsed. And it's all Activision's fault.

It's not the game itself that I dislike; it's both the release calendar and the publisher's attitude towards it that irks me. I am a big proponent of the "quality over quantity" method (I would much prefer things in small batches if that means each portion is fantastic), however Activision -- and, indeed, many of the big publishers -- seem to prescribe to the opposite, churning out the same title year after year as they chase the almighty dollar. Hell, Activision has hired not two, but three different development studios to work on Call of Duty games, just to ensure they can pump out a title a year.

Rant semi-done, I am prepared to put most of my feelings aside as I write this preview for Black Ops 2, simply because what I have seen of the game thus far has actually piqued my interest. It may feature bombastic setpieces that would put Michael Bay to shame but, dammit, that's what I used to love about Call of Duty to begin with! Could this be the Call of Duty title to bring me back into the fold?

Anything I Should Know First?

Black Ops 2 is the third big entry to the franchise for developers Treyarch, following their sophomore-attempt-turned-bestseller Black Ops. It also marks the first Call of Duty title to be released since the tainted project that was Modern Warfare 3, after the huge legal dispute between Activision and the founders of Infinity Ward (creators of Call of Duty), Jason West and Vince Zampella.

You might say they engaged in legal "warfare".
OH-HOHOHO! No? Alright, fine...
Back in early 2010, Jason West and Vince Zampella were accused by Activision of fostering the idea of leaving the publisher, meeting with executives from rival publisher EA. Because of this, Activision fired West and Zampella, an act that brought many staff at Infinity Ward to quit and follow the founders, many of them holding lead positions and having been there from the formation of the company; this forced Activision to recruit Raven Software and Sledgehammer Games, two other subsidiaries of Activision, in order to finish developing Modern Warfare 3 for it to be released on-time.

After having been let go, West, Zampella and about half of the Infinity Ward employees (including some who had not yet left the company) countered with allegations that Activision had not paid Infinity Ward the proper amount of royalties for the blockbuster hit Modern Warfare 2, a title that broke many records for first-day and first-week sales. This allegation was followed up with legal action, as West, Zampella and the Infinity Ward Employee Group sued Activision for the total sum of the royalties owed. West and Zampella also sued Activision for the rights to the Modern Warfare branch of the Call of Duty franchise, an act that would leave Activision without half of their best-selling franchise. Activision filed a countersuit against West and Zampella, claiming they owed the publisher for "breach of contract and insubordination".

After a long and drawn-out legal process, during which Activision attempted to add EA as a defendant in their countersuit (basically for trying to "poach" Activision employees), the parties in question met an out-of-court agreement in the middle of 2012. No one is exactly sure what sort of terms West and Zampella reached with Activision but the two parties have gone their separate ways and moved on. West, Zampella and the group of employees who left Infinity Ward founded their own company, Respawn Entertainment, and signed on as partners with EA shortly after the mess began. They have been working on a new title to be announced in 2013.

Anything Else?

With Infinity Ward somewhat in a state of disarray after the departure of half the studio, who knows what might follow Black Ops 2? Activision has been adamant about releasing new Call of Duty games every year but, with most of the lead developers leaving the studio (including Robert Bowling, the Creative Strategist of Infinity Ward), Treyarch may step forward and take the lead as primary development studio for Call of Duty. Only time will tell, I suppose!

What Do We Know?

You know those flying spycam things? Yeah, now
they have guns on them. Spy-guns.
The problem with writing previews for Call of Duty games these days is that each game only has a single year to be advertised, so the teams tend to focus more on development as opposed to marketing. Call of Duty has already established itself as a successful franchise that sells record-breaking numbers year after year so they don't need to worry about selling people on the product; because of this, there isn't a lot I know about Black Ops 2 that most other people wouldn't know already. That being said, I'll still relay what info I have; hopefully someone will find it useful!

First off, Black Ops 2 will feature multiple characters in their own campaigns that jump around in time, something that has become a staple of the Call of Duty franchise. The game will be split between at least two campaigns; the first will bring the return of Black Ops protagonist Alex Mason during the tail-end of the Cold War, fighting proxy wars for the United States. This will take the player to places such as Angola, Afghanistan and Central America, and will establish the rise to infamy of the game's antagonist, a terrorist by the name of Raul Menendez.

What's the first lesson you should take from this picture?
Never bring cavalry to a helicopter fight.
The second major campaign will cast David Mason (Alex Mason's son) as the main protagonist of Black Ops 2; David's campaign will take place in the near future (2025, to be exact) where the United States and the People's Republic of China have entered a new Cold War. Menendez reappears and tries to take advantage of the heightened tensions between the two superpowers by inciting conflicts that require them both to get involved and act against each other. Presumably, it will be the player's job to stop the two nations from attacking one another directly and bringing on mutual assured destruction.

From what we've seen of the gameplay, we can expect much of the same shooting galleries that Call of Duty is famous for. That being said, there do appear to be a number of interesting additions, mostly in the form of new gadgets and weapons to be used. The gameplay showcased at E3 2012 featured aerial drones that can be directed by the player to eliminate targets, jets that can hover in place (similar to the Harrier jump jet), powerful rifles with high-intensity thermal scopes and missile-launcher pods that can target multiple enemies at once, among other quasi-futuristic technologies. Also on display was the updated graphics engine, showcasing the city of Los Angeles being blown apart at all angles. Check out the video below:

Also announced is an aspect of the campaign known as Strike Force missions; these missions will give players choices to make, creating branching storylines that can alter the way the game progresses. These choices are shown briefly at the beginning of the above video, giving the player the choice of either sniping from a perch or engaging in up-close combat. However, the Strike Force missions will feature much larger choices to be made, evidently, and will have an impact on the ending of the game. They will also feature immediate consequences for failure, including if you are KIA; the character that died will be permanently killed and any future missions with that character will no longer be available (which implies that there will be more than just the two Masons featured as playable characters). It is a very interesting tactic to take with a single-player campaign and, frankly, is probably one of the most ingenious ideas I've heard for a first-person shooter in quite some time.

"Two tickets to North Dakota, please." "Braaaaaains..."
"... We'll catch the next one."
As with every Treyarch release, the Zombies mode returns, this time being expanded and much larger than before, even including a Campaign mode that seems reminiscent of Left 4 Dead. For starters, the popular mode will support up to 8-person co-op, as opposed to the four-person from previous installments. Even more exciting is that Zombies will be broken into four distinct game modes: first is Survival, which plays exactly like the Call of Duty Zombies everyone knows and loves; Tranzit, a mode which people believe is the Campaign mode mentioned above, where players must work together to gather resources and use a bus to move between different maps; Grief, where players are broken into two teams of four, one team playing survival and the other team controlling zombies (which is identical to Left 4 Dead's Versus mode); and the recently announced Infected mode where, if a player is killed by a zombie, he will return controlling a zombie and attempt to kill the other players.

Treyarch has also done some retooling of the multiplayer side of things, changing the way "Kill Streaks" are earned (they are now called "Score Streaks" and do not rely entirely on earning kills), revising the way players can create their own custom classes, removing the popular "Wager Matches" entirely, and adding new features such as "multi-team" games where players are broken into more than just the typical two teams (a feature largely popular in Halo multiplayer). Treyarch is also trying to get involved in the competitive gaming market, adding a feature that allows players to livecast their gameplay to the internet in a manner similar to what professional Starcraft and League of Legends players do. This will allow players at home to get more involved in the e-sports market and possibly even make it big themselves.

And I Care Why?

I'm not sure legs make getting around easier than treads, but
damn if that thing doesn't look cool!
It is evident that Treyarch has been putting quite a lot of work into this next installment of the Call of Duty franchise. With the development of the Zombies mode and the inclusion of the Strike Force missions, Black Ops 2 looks to revamp the tried-and-tested formula that Call of Duty has prescribed to for so many iterations -- and I'm happy because of that. Too long the Call of Duty franchise has rested on its laurels and simply churned out carbon-copies of previous iterations of the series. It's about time that one of the many studios that works on Call of Duty did something new and exciting with the franchise -- and Black Ops 2 looks to do just that.

Last Remarks?

Even despite my animosity towards Activision and my general apathy towards the work of Treyarch, I have to admit that Black Ops 2 has piqued my interest. Perhaps it's simply because I'm a sci-fi nerd and this game partly takes place in a future setting, or perhaps it's because of the innovation with the franchise I used to love, or perhaps it's just because I haven't gotten enough explosions in my system lately. Whatever the case may be, I'm pretty excited to try it out and see what sort of fantastic setpieces we have in store for us.

Dallas H. will be our Call of Duty correspondent for the next few weeks so stay tuned for some thoughts -- and possibly even video -- from his travails through Black Ops 2!

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