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First Looks: Call of Duty Black Ops 2
You might be forgiven for thinking that you don’t really need a preview of Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Isn’t it just the same old stuff as Black Ops and Modern Warfare 1 to 3, but with a soupcon of sci-fi twist? Well, from the footage shown at Microsoft’s E3 Press Conference, that was our first impression too: here’s another stroll through funnelled levels, popping bad guys at they stick their heads out of cover and watching as a lot of things explode with minimal levels of interaction.
Want heavily-orchestrated, cinematic firefights? You’ve got them. Want a turret section where you shoot at enemy drones? You’ve got it. Want a chance to deviate from the path that’s already been established, or a game where you’re not simply following some guy with a follow beacon attached? Sorry, we can’t help you here.
However, with a bit more time behind closed doors at E3, that first impression is beginning to change. It’s not that Black Ops II is a vast departure from the Call of Duty formula, but it’s a game that shows an awareness of the criticisms of Black Ops and Modern Warfare 3, and a willingness to take a few risks this time around. Whisper it, but Black Ops II might be the most interesting Call of Duty since the first Modern Warfare appeared five years ago.
The interesting bits start with the plot. Black Ops II takes place over a period of fifty years, with two storylines that follow the genesis of a new villain during the 1970s and 1980s and his attempts to trigger a new world war in 2025. The hope is to make the narrative more engaging, and to make the antagonist, Raul Menandez, more than just another cackling terrorist to be gunned down.
While you might be horrified by what he does in the near-future sections of the game, you’ll at least understand why he does it, What’s more, the story branches. We’re given to understand that levels and outcomes will differ depending on your performance in certain scenarios, and on which characters you let get killed and which you save. We’re promised that these won’t be superficial changes, either, but changes that will affect the whole way you experience the game.
More importantly, though, this is a Call of Duty that wants to give the player a little more choice. We’ve seen two chapters of the game in action. In the first, David Mason, son of the Black Ops’s Alex Mason, is charged with getting the president to safety in the midst of an assault on downtown Los Angeles.
It’s typical, breathless Call of Duty stuff, with helicopters crashing everywhere, enemy troops spilling from trucks, ready to be gunned down, and the most interesting aspect the use of drones on the battlefield, both against you and under your control. One segment has you tackling stumpy, tank-like walkers with a grenade launcher, while another has you guiding tiny aerial drones with the aid of a wrist-mounted remote control.
It’s spectacular, albeit predictable stuff, but even here there are signs of a desire to open out. At one point you have a choice between sniping at enemy troops from a damaged bridge or grapelling down to engage them at close quarters. Meanwhile, a section where you fly a futuristic VTOL fighter turns out not to be yet another turret sequence, but a proper flight sequence where you have a degree of freedom to zip around the Los Angeles sky. We’re told that you can fly anywhere you want within the confines of the area, though failing to focus on the objective at hand will lose you the mission.
It’s the second mission that proves really interesting, however. Named Strikeforce, it’s one of a selection of missions that will enable you to leave the game’s traditional first-person combat and take a more strategic overview of the battlefield. You have a time limit and a series of objectives, and it’s your job to make sure you complete them, in whatever order, before the time runs out, You can send in troops or drones using the overview UI and play the whole mission from that point of view, or switch instantly to any unit’s first-person view and lead the charge physically as you might in any regular Call of Duty scenario.
Or for those who really don’t want any strategy, you can play the whole mission as a straight FPS. We wait to see how these exercises in tactical action work out in the finished game, but they show a willingness to push the boundaries of what Call of Duty can do. Plus, you can actually fail these missions, leading to more of the branching that we spoke about earlier.
It’s easy and not-a-little fashionable to be cynical about Call of Duty, and Modern Warfare 3 pushed the orchestration so hard that at times it felt barely interactive. With Black Ops 2, however, we have a Call of Duty that seems to want to push things further. We just hope the final game measures up.
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