"The team's work can speak for itself, so we're gonna jump right into the game. We're gonna take you to a weapons manufacturing facility deep behind enemy lines in the Soviet Union. This is WMD."
After this brief introduction by Treyarch's Mark Lamia at an event in Los Angeles earlier this month, I was treated to a first look at the annualized, even-year Call of Duty production by Treyarch. Amidst all the legal posturing, accusations, departures, hires, and general unpleasantness (read all about it), Call of Duty: Black Ops is nearing the end of its two-year development cycle and heading toward a November 9 release date.
While Black Ops isn't the next "Modern Warfare" game, it is a modern warfare title. The seemingly short jump from World War II's 1940s setting to the Cold War in the 1960–70s might not sound like much, but it's brought Treyarch's game into the modern era in a big way. The demo starts with a pilot -- decked in full pressure flight suit, appearing more astronaut than aviator -- climbing aboard a massive SR-71 Blackbird, a "strategic reconnaissance aircraft" built in 1964 and a fabled "black" project.
In the air, the Blackbird provides reconnaissance for a ground patrol en route to the Soviet weapons facility -- think of the AC-130 missions in Modern Warfare, without the actual shooting. After spotting some enemies approaching the ground patrol and, uh-oh, stopping just short of its position, the player jumps into the perspective of one of the ground troops gathered in a nondescript shelter. You're instructed to exit through the rear of this house and take cover -- the snow-covered environment provides plenty. As enemies walk just past you (Worst. Guards. Ever.) you and your squad run toward a guard house, taking down enemies stealthily.
As you approach the edge of a cliff, you hitch your line to the railing and thus begins one of the more impressive segments of the demo: the rappelling scene! The camera maintains the first-person view, and a narrow depth-of-field keeps your attention focused on your body as you push off the wall, release some line and swing back in. As a testament to the tricky nature of this segment, the demo guide accidentally drops too fast, killing the soldier and restarting the scenario.
Moving along, you engage in a shootout with a welcome new addition to the Call of Duty arsenal: the crossbow. A silent killer, the arrows can also be augmented with various tips. (Exploding crossbow, anyone?) Another scenario offers a combination of rappelling and breach tactics: rope down the wall and kick your way into a room packed with enemies. A slow-mo treatment gives you the upper hand and provides an impressive cinematic flair. A quick run through the rest of the level (avalanche!) gets us to the demo's final punctuation: BASE jumping. Fade to black.
"As an elite group used by the CIA for covert missions, you have unparalleled access to classified information and the best weapons and equipment to carry out your missions," Lamia explained. "In our next level, you're going to be thrown into one of the bloodiest battles of [The Vietnam War], the Battle of Huế City. This is Slaughterhouse."
The Slaughterhouse level has that classic Vietnam War feel, except for the ridiculous fire-blasting shotgun your soldier carries. I thought the Call of Duty series respected realism and -- what? You say there's YouTube videos of this thing? It's called the Dragon's Breath? Well ... I stand corrected. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Your mission begins at night in a Huey helicopter, as you rappel into the city. Of course, helicopters are good for three things: aerial transportation, blowing stuff up and being blown up. The latter happens thanks to a well-placed enemy rocket just as you rappel down into an urban battlefield; a setting not unfamiliar to those who've played Modern Warfare. In addition to the aforementioned Dragon's Breath ammo, you can mark targets on buildings and have one of the surviving helicopters dish out extreme firepower.
When the level was over, Lamia took the stage one last time. "We intend to deliver an intense single-player experience with Call of Duty: Black Ops," he said. "The game's going to also feature it's own distinct multiplayer and co-op modes, and while the specifics regarding these modes aren't being revealed tonight, I can tell you in regards to co-op that it's a unique online co-op mode with up to four players online and two players local splitscreen, and it will have its own unique gameplay."
Will it be enough to put Treyarch's odd-year Call of Duty contribution on the same hallowed ground as Infinity Ward's celebrated Modern Warfare series? It's too early to tell, but with a new setting, some new gameplay variety and stellar production values, Black Ops looks like Treyarch's strongest contribution to the franchise yet.