Garnering legions of fans tends to wedge a franchise right between those that crave more of the same content, and those that loathe its existence. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is in the same spot, but developer Treyarch is looking to create some wiggle room between the two camps in its next contribution to Activision's billion dollar franchise.
At Treyarch's office in Los Angeles, company boss Mark Lamia steps into a darkened theater filled with journalists. He's chipper, excited to finally talk about the game his team has been slaving over for more than a year. Despite a tightly constructed marketing schedule, the secret of Black Ops 2 was hard to contain; its existence began to leak in January.
"Let me introduce you to the worst kept secret in the game industry," Lamia says as he walks in front of a giant screen embellished with the sleek Black Ops 2 logo. The walls around the screen are lined with concept art, some of it modeled after surveillance photos from in-orbit satellites, but all with a futuristic tint to them. "Saying that," Lamia continues, "we think what Black Ops 2 is about is one of the best kept secrets in the industry."
Gallery: Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (5/1/2012) | 7 Photos
As implied by the early marketing, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 thrusts the franchise into the near future. But this isn't Halo or Battlefield 2142 – this is a future that isn't as far off as we may think, and it's not the period of time gamers will be visiting when the game launches this November.
"This is a direct sequel to Black Ops," Lamia says, adding that one of the central characters from the previous installment, Sgt. Frank Woods, is alive and well in the sequel. Rather than lead off from the previous game, Black Ops 2 will feature two distinct time periods: the 1980s vintage Cold War, and a grounded future in which the United States and China are embroiled in a new Cold War. The idea, Lamia admits, is to show some parity between both periods and allow players to get a better glimpse into the characters involved. Technology and the reasons for battle change, but the objective remains the same: win at all costs.
In Black Ops 2 players will play as former protagonist Alex Mason in the 1980s, and as his son, David Mason, in 2025. The two periods are entwined with the return of Woods and a new villain, Raul Menendez. The story arc spans the Mason family and Woods, and plot out the rise and fall of Menendez. Working with David S. Goyer, who helped co-develop the story for The Dark Knight, Treyarch has decided to shine a more detailed light on its villain. Players will see the breaking point for Menendez in the 1980s to better understand his motivations for terror in the future. We see a man go from good soldier to bitter terrorist, and his story is as important to the entire plot of Black Ops 2 as any other character we meet. "It's a character study. It's a story about these characters," Lamia explains to me later.
It's Menendez's actions that throw the United States and China into a chaotic war. A cyber attack cripples the China Stock Exchange, which leads the country to horde a precious material that is making headlines in real life today.
Though control of the world's oil reserves continues to be the source of tension today, the future battle for resources in Black Ops 2 revolves around Rare Earth Materials. Rare Earths are a combination of minerals used to create everything from smart phones, laptops, and earth-conscious, wind-powered generators. It's also a central component in the creation of weapons: guided missiles, drones, and more rely on these rare earths.
President Barack Obama was recently in the news stating that the U.S., European Union, and Japan will bring a case against China to the World Trade Organization because of the nation's export restrictions on the material. China, according to multiple reports, produces over 95 percent of all rare earths. In Black Ops 2, the stock exchange incident, which traces back to the United States, offers the perfect excuse for China to keep the materials to itself.
Remember those 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books? That's sort of the idea we have here.- Dave Anthony, Game Director
According to Lamia, Black Ops 2 comes from a team that has worked together for an extended period of time, where comfort levels and success allow them to challenge assumptions and deliver something they believe can push the franchise forward. This leads to one of the most interesting changes since Infinity Ward took the franchise to the modern era: branching stories.
Throughout the campaign, players will be given the choice to take part in 'Strike Force' missions, with a key objective that can shift the landscape of the greater battle between China and the United States. Sometimes multiple missions will be available, but only one can be selected. Based on the success or failure of these missions -- and you can actually fail to accomplish your objective -- the campaign story will change. There are also choices within levels. In a mission shown at the event, players were given the choice between covering their team with a sniper rifle from a perch, or hitting the ground alongside their squad. According to Lamia, player choice can also lead to the death of key characters during the campaign.
"Remember those 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books?" game director Dave Anthony asks the room, "that's sort of the idea we have here." It seems crazy Treyarch would spend time and resources to create levels players may never see during a single playthrough, but it's extraordinarily ambitious and an idea that intrigues me.
Setting the majority of the game in 2025 doesn't mean Treyarch will showcase a war of laser guns and giant mech suits. The conceit in Black Ops 2 is that technology has continued to grow and the military has better embraced the use of drones on the battlefield. Many of the concepts featured in Black Ops 2 are taking existing technology and increasing its ferociousness, or shrinking it down to size.
In another mission, Los Angeles has been ravaged by unmanned attack drones. David Mason and his partner, Harper, are tasked with escorting the President of the United States when their convoy is attacked by a fleet of these drones. Here we're introduced to a new piece of gear: a scope with the same ability as the full-body scanner found in modern airports.
"The military has something like this now, except it's this huge rig on a truck," Lamia tells me, describing an area scanner that takes a three-hundred-and-sixty degree image, revealing everything within nearby structures and underground. It's this giant prototype that has been shrunk down into the scope in Black Ops 2, allowing players to see through structures and spot hiding enemies. It's certainly future technology, but it could be within the realm of possibility in the next decade.
Former Pentagon employee and author Peter W. Singer, whose book Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century outlines the military's change in attitude toward unmanned technology in recent history, is helping Treyarch keep the future setting grounded in reality. "In some cases he told us we didn't go far enough," Lamia explains after I ask him about concepts that seemed too futuristic to be included in the game. But will war ever escalate to call for the amount of drones and machines seen in the Black Ops 2 trailer? "When U.S. forces went into Iraq, the original invasion had zero robotic systems on the ground," Singer wrote in 2009's Wired For War. "By the end of 2006, it had reached the 5,000 mark and growing. It was projected to reach as high as 12,000 by the end of 2008."
To keep things even, and to show off the near-future technology Treyarch has added to Call of Duty, Black Ops 2 multiplayer will take place exclusively in 2025. Though the developer wouldn't go into detail on the franchise's most important component, game design director David Vonderhaar noted it was important for the team to strip the entire multiplayer down to the most important pieces, to ensure Black Ops 2 would have the "best gameplay system that you can have, period." Two multiplayer maps were shown: a destroyed downtown Los Angeles map called 'Aftermath' and a map called 'Yemen,' set in a deserted island town. A more detailed multiplayer reveal is expected later this year.
Zombies, of course, will also return, but those are timeless creatures. The only shred of info revealed for the returning mode is that Treyarch will now present it within the multiplayer engine, making it easier to take advantage of certain elements found in that mode.
Call of Duty detractors may complain the series hasn't evolved enough over time, but Black Ops 2 may change things. The developers at Treyarch, from what I've seen, are doing what they can to make this a unique experience for fans – and perhaps garner the interest of people outside that huge group. The studio certainly has the ability to rise to the challenge, so we'll be keeping a close eye on Black Ops 2 as the game's November 13 release date inches closer.