Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 might just be the biggest game of E3, but this hands-on is absolutely the most difficult piece for me to write. I'm completely unfamiliar with not only Black Ops, but the Call of Duty franchise in recent years. What I can say straight away though, is that for a franchise known for continually stepping up the action, the intensity, the adventure, Black Ops 2 is true to form. If there was a quantifiable measurement of badassery, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 might break the scale.
In the back of Activision's E3 booth we were shown two different demos, the first was a playthrough of an attack on LA that you might have seen during the Microsoft E3 press conference. The second was a live demo of the new Strike Force game type, which is wildly different than anything you've seen in Call of Duty. This new mode is said to have dramatic consequences in the single player campaign, potentially leading to different endings.
Los Angeles Undone
If you had the opportunity to watch the Microsoft press conference at the start of E3, you've likely watched everything I experienced in the first demo I was shown. For those of you unfamiliar, here's the premise: a cold war between China and the United states culminates in the attack of Los Angeles. The enemy has "stolen the keys" to the unmanned (ie robotic) army of the United States, thus we've come under fire from our own drones, automated weapon systems and the like. Things are bad, but they're only going to get worse.
You take control of David Mason, son of protagonist Alex Mason from the original Black Ops. He's currently under orders to protect the President of the United States, but as usual takes up a more general mission of kicking ass and taking names. After the vehicle you're delivering the President in wrecks, Mason takes control of an anti-air unit and destroys a number of drones bearing down on his unit. Don't let me forget to mention, each sequence is book ended with explosions and cinematic events -- all in first person.
At this point Mason is offered a choice, to either snipe from or rappel down a destroyed bridge. We're told these options, which allow you to focus on gameplay styles you prefer, will be prevalent throughout the campaign. Mason decides to snipe using a power rifle that shoots through environmental objects. He clears enemies, leading his ground squad through a gauntlet of flanking enemies and then rushes to join them.
What follows is more standard FPS action, thought with a few new additions that weren't shown in the Microsoft demo. Mason jumps into a big semi-style truck, plowing through enemy vehicles, falling overpasses and the like -- this doesn't last long though as the truck is rammed and Mason has to carry on on foot. A number of unmanned gyrocopters support you from above as you progress in and out of city buildings. The fight culminates with taking down a few walking tanks with a series of grenades. Jets are crashing, foreign leaders are dying, and then a building topples and Mason is forced to pilot a jet -- his first flight ever. Don't worry though, the flight computer will do most of the work.
Much like shown in the Microsoft demo, it's hard to tell if the following jet sequence is on rails, if the player has some control over movements, or simple aiming. Either way, Mason is able to tear through a variety of helicopters, ground vehicles and then finally a small fleet of rocket firing drones. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is certainly stepping up the cinematic intensity of the franchise. While the title will also flash back into the 1980's for what's said to be about 1/3 of the game, the majority will take place in this near future 2025 city warfare.
Command a Strike Force from Above
At this point of the demo we were shown the new Strike Force mode. The demoers told us that there will be multiple Strike Force maps in the campaign, each of them coming at a pivotal turn in the story. Should you succeed or fail could have drastic consequences on the story. However, they were unclear on whether this means there will be multiple endings or if it will simply alter gameplay in a myriad of ways. It's also worth noting that Strike Force will be available outside of the campaign, likely as a standalone experience where you can compare your efficiency and score with your friends.
On to gameplay! Strike Force begins with with an over-the-top view of the battle field. Don't worry, this isn't a completely strategical mode, there's no pause feature as far as I can tell. Through this "Overwatch" mode, you can order your myriad forces to various capturable objectives on the map. It's not as simple as point and click, of course, as if you plan on succeeding you'll have to "drop in" to any member of your squad and win each engagement yourself. This includes your standard soldier, helicopters, drones or even the robotic walking tanks.
As the match progresses, each side was reinforced with a variety of allies. The trick here being that in order to defeat certain enemies, you'll be able to switch to an ally more appropriate for the encounter. Of course, you can always man up and try to solo the mission with a single soldier. Good luck with that!
The match ended as the player managed to capture each of the objectives, which in this map happened to be air defense turrets. With these disabled, air support is able to destroy a nearby docked ship. Whatever the ship's cargo might have been, you won't be seeing it pop up later in the campaign due to the mission's completion.
To be frank, and I don't mean this in a negative way, but Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 looks like more of the same Call of Duty gamers have all come to expect. Black Ops 2 is being sold on a new, fresh sandboxy approach to gameplay including the Strike Force gametypes and Snipe vs. Rappel style path options in the campaign. These choices seem less like "sandbox" features than ways to streamline your experience. Close combat specialists can now ignore sniping sections of gameplay, and can treat Strike Force as simply extra lives, as opposed to a strategic sandbox experience. Is there the potential for an actual strategic experience? Maybe, but I certainly didn't see that in the demo I was shown.
That said, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 really shows that Treyarch is now king of Call of Duty. Black Ops was almost an experiment, meant for Treyarch to adapt to Modern Warfare's popularity. Could a second studio recapture what Infinity Ward did with Modern Warfare? Black Ops' release left a resounding maybe in many minds. With Black Ops 2, it feels like Treyarch is really beginning to embrace the cinematic first person gameplay Modern Warfare capitalized on, but with their own personality and style -- and zombies. Keep in mind, that's just the single player campaign too. Expect Treyarch to build a multiplayer experience like Call of Duty has yet to see to complement their single player.
Treyarch's Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is coming to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Wii U and Wii starting November 13.