It's All About the Ops-tions (E3 2012)
Treyarch is looking to "rewrite the rules" for Call of Duty with Black Ops II. It is clear that the so-called "off-year" developer wants to become the primary custodian of the series by introducing new gameplay options and alternative game modes that push the series out of its annual release rut.
Indeed, it's a crucial time for the Call of Duty franchise. Sales are still at unprecedented levels, but looming litigation between publisher Activision and former employees of Infinity Ward, the waning popularity of Modern Warfare, and stiff competition from EA and Ubisoft have left the king of the FPS in a precarious position.
While I have enjoyed all Treyarch-developed titles in the series (for a time, Call of Duty III was something of an obsession of mine), it wasn't until the success of Zombies in World at War and the outstanding multiplayer of Black Ops that the developer was finally able to step out of Infinity Ward's very long shadow. In a curious turn of events, it appears now as though Treyarch has been given the keys to the COD castle by Activision, and it will be interesting to see what the talented team of developers can do with them.
Can Treyarch deliver yet again the definitive shooter experience Call of Duty fans expect? From what I've seen at E3 2012, the answer seems to be both yes and no.
Since the resounding success of Zombies, Treyarch has toyed with other secondary game modes, like Undead Ops and Easter eggs such as the classic, text-based adventure Zork, to bring more to the Call of Duty formula than just campaign and multiplayer. Despite their best efforts, the studio has yet to create a standalone game mode as excellent as Zombies. This could change with the introduction of "Strike Force" ops.
Strike Force is a new game mode outside of the campaign that has players switching between ground, drone, and "quad" forces on the fly through a mechanic known as "Overwatch." With a touch of a button, players can survey the battlefield from a bird's-eye-view. From there, they can then intuitively marshal troops into strategic positions in order to take the three key objectives marked as A, B, and C. Once the overall strategy is put into place, players can "hot swap" to a specific unit to take the fight directly to the enemy, switching back and forth freely between engaged elements and Overwatch. The frantic "Kraken" level on display at the Activision booth looked truly fun, nicely highlighting the new mode's potential as a game-changer.
Multiplayer and Zombies modes for Black Ops II were not on display at the event, but the developers promised the team was hard at work on making both just right. What was shown, though, was an extended look at the battle for Los Angeles portion of the single-player campaign, called "Section," teased in the reveal trailer. Here, innovation in game mechanics is also being brought to bear. Rather than railroading players into a specific course of action, the story mode will be accentuated by "non-linear sandbox missions." Granted, the term sandbox is a bit of a stretch, as it calls to mind the pure freedom of games such as the GTA and Elder Scrolls franchises. Still, there is at least a modicum of choice for players during missions. The example demoed at E3 was the option to rapel down from a crumbling freeway to get into the thick of the fighting, or to make use of the height advantage to snipe baddies from a distance. I asked if more branching scenarios would become readily available throughout the game; unfortunately, Treyarch is not prepared to reveal everything just yet, but these choices are said to impact the way missions, if not the game, play out.
So far so good, right? Not so fast. The "enhanced" COD game engine being used to develop Black Ops II is not particularly attractive. Explosions are chunky, textures are flat, edges are jagged, and characters are limned by a crude black outline. Perhaps more worrisome than the imperfect presentation is the over-the-top action, even for a Call of Duty title, that completely eschews plausibility. The futuristic setting has ratcheted up the "cinematic" feel, but there seems to be an emphasis on style over substance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the FA-38 hybrid fighter jet segment that does away completely with friendly fire and the laws of physics. On the ground, things fare much better, but you'll still be able see and shoot through robust cement columns.
Despite a lot of clever innovation and an emphasis on player choice, I wasn't wowed by Black Ops II at this early stage. Instead of getting answers, I'm left with more questions. Has COD's hot iron been struck a bit too often? Is the game too strictly themed and not nuanced enough at this juncture. Could the novelty of the futuristic setting already be going the way of the World War II shooter? We won't know for sure until the controllers are in our hands, but here's hoping the multiplayer and Zombies modes do a better job of getting our trigger fingers itchy.
Cutting his gaming teeth at Aladdin's Castle and on the Commodore 64, JC entered into video game journalism in 2008. Helping run GameDynamo as its director is both a dream and a rewarding challenge.
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