“The worst-kept secret in gaming.”
That’s what Treyarch’s Mark Lamia said about Black Ops II, and it’s easy to see why. The fact that the annual franchise appears around about this time every year (and then goes onto a November release) is hardly breaking news anymore, and every single gamer on the planet expected a new Call of Duty, even if it wasn’t a sequel to Black Ops.
But despite the leaks and the rumours, there was still plenty to see that nobody could have seen coming. Mechanised tanks, drones, horses – and the promise of a story that spans two very distinct time zones has masses of appeal that should hopefully go some way to silencing the doubters. Of which, as with any game series of this scale, there are plenty.
The main villain this time around, Raul Menendez, appears in both the late 1980’s (as the Cold War ends) and in the near future – 2025 to be precise, and just as another Cold War is kicking off. And as you’d expect, Mason is back from the first game – and Black Ops II will detail what happened to the player character: what was real, and whether or not he really killed you know who.
But in 2025, as China continues its hold on the Earth’s resources (the game has a focus on Rare Earth Elements, a currency that China already holds 95% of) it’s Mason’s son – callsign Section – you’ll be controlling, as he comes to term with events in the past and how they’ve spiralled into what’s happening in the future.
The level shown (and featured in the trailer) is called Aftermath, and centres around an enemy takeover of the US’s drones. The story is written by David Goyer, who hand a hand in two recent Batman films, and so if nothing else we can expect a meaty bad guy in Menendez (remember Joker?) and hopefully – this time – someone more than a figment of the player’s imagination.
The near-future tech is particularly interesting, one upping Ghost Recon and offering the likes of unmanned quadrotors and those Big Dog-esque tanks (called Cognitive Land Assault Weapons) that you’ll have seen in the trailer – and controlled by the enemy they’re twice as scary. But it’s the way that Treyarch are pushing the game tech that should really set Black Ops II apart from the earlier Call of Duty games – and it’s fair to say they’re trying.
Firstly, the single player story is branching, and somewhat non-linear, with your actions having long-term repercussions throughout the rest of the plot. It’s not possible to see exactly what that might entail from a single level preview, but we’re hopeful that – coupled with the fact that you can (for the first time) fail a level and still progress the exposition – this could be very exciting.
Then there are the Strike Force Operations, a much more open-ended, strategy based series of missions that let the player decide how they want the level to run. You can control individual players, the drones, or even play top-down and oversee everything. At any time, impressively, you can zoom down to soldier level and take direct control.
Visually there are updates, too, although it’s clear the engine is starting to need a little smoke and mirror to get the most out of it. Treyarch promise HDR and bounce lighting and self-shadowing on the main characters, and on the 360 at least, the frame rate still holds at 60fps with masses of detail and a new technique called ‘reveal mapping’.
And whilst Treyarch aren’t talking a great deal about multiplayer yet – apart from confirming that all modes will be set in 2025, there’s going to be lots and lots of content and that they’re going to really push the e-sports angle, age-old favourite Zombies will have its own distinct section, be based on the multiplayer engine and be big this time around.