Say what you want about Treyarch, but you can't deny that they're always willing to shake things up. Cruelly sandwiched between the Modern Warfares, their offerings merrily mess with the formula; adding immersive, unpredictable storylines, pilotable aircraft, epic set pieces and settings. Black Ops II (or Blops 2 to its mates) is on course to be their most anarchic game to date, taking the shooty bang bang template into a new timeline with experimental futuristic gear, X-Ray sniper rifles, hovering drones, hulking war machines and, you guessed it, a deadly VTOL jet you can actually fly in singleplayer.
Black Ops II's major innovation, however, appears to be a less linear approach to the campaign. Despite promising to be "on a par" with other recent Call of Duty games in terms of length, a new selection of Strike Force Missions will be on hand to let players explore the proxy conflicts being waged alongside the main battle against Raul Menendez, giving us a choice of how to proceed. Not just in terms of story progression, but in terms of gameplay too. Thanks to a new tactical overhead view, we can control any soldier, any war machine or give out orders like a slick squad-based RTS.
Choosing between this "handful" of levels will change the way the war plays out, as well as giving us a replayable, randomised reason to revisit the campaign multiple times. Unlike regular missions, Strike Force operations can be failed outright - canonically. Instead of forcing a checkpoint restart or mission reset, failing a Strike Force objective will apparently have a major knock on effect in the in-game fiction. As a theoretical (read: very possible) example, Treyarch's Jay Puryear suggested that two nations could either end the game as allies or deadly enemies depending on your performance in a particular mission, with the results of their relationship playing out in the epilogue. Without Ron Perlman, sadly. Keen to know more, as well as to see the anticipated shooter in action, I sat down with Treyarch to watch a demo playthrough of the Singapore Strike Force Mission. The preview is Oscar Mike. It's Danger Close, even. [You're fired. - Ed]
Strike Force missions will essentially play out like multiplayer Domination matches, with two teams vying over objective zones like missile launchers, control towers and other contextual contrivances. Rather than other players, however, both teams are populated exclusively by bots who'll spawn throughout the course of the stage and react dynamically (and spawn dynamically) to the flow of battle. Treyarch have put the focus firmly on choice, which essentially means that players can control absolutely anyone on their team, including riflemen, snipers, heavy gunners, assault drones and lumbering CLAWS. Or, even more impressively, absolutely no-one at all.
The new Satellite Link mode makes this possible; a quick button jab pulls the players view out to an overhead position from which they can scroll around the map, take note of enemy positions and order their troops around with some context-sensitive commands and waypoints. Ordering specific units, particular squads or absolutely everyone under your command to move to an objective or defend a location is just another button press away, with the action resembling an incredibly streamlined strategy game. It will be possible to win Strike Force missions by exclusively using the Satlink mode, but let's face it, most players will want to get a little more personal.
Which is where Satlink demonstrates its most potent ability: to let players instantly enter the body of enemy friendly unit on the battlefield after highlighting them with the reticle.
The Singapore harbour mission showed off this new system to great effect. Arriving at the docks in order to disable a missile system surrounding a valuable enemy cargo ship, players initially control a heavy gunner who fastropes into the field via helicopter. After killing a couple of enemy infantry, however, our demonstrator nimbly entered Satlink Mode and set some waypoints for the squad to follow, ensuring that they took the path of least resistance. In order to scout ahead, a hovering Drone was the next port of call, with the player using its enhanced mobility to zip around the battlefield and assault enemy troops from unexpected elevations. Remote-controlled ground gun drones are also available to control, boasting less manoeuvrability than their aerial counterparts but dealing out powerful cannon rounds.
Noticing that a major enemy force approaching the missile launcher - a focal objective - some serious defensive firepower was sorely needed. A nearby CLAW was the solution, and the hulking mechanical quadruped provided yet another unique experience. These bruisers are slow but incredibly tough, allowing players to hunker down or inexorably press on enemy positions, using a 360 degree machine gun to mop up any opposition. Only high explosives or carefully-aimed shots to the exposed knee joints will serve to take down the CLAWs, meaning that positioning is key regardless of whether you're piloting one or fighting one. After turning the tide of the enemy onslaught, the gun platform switched from desperate defence to opportunistic attack, rallying friendly troops to its position with a simple press of the Left Bumper. Alternating between CLAWS, troops, drones and the Satlink view itself, all three objective points were eventually secured and the cargo ship brought down with a devastating air strike.
Using the Satlink will allow players to respond to the ebb and flow of battle in real time; giving orders, carefully controlling the right troops and leading from both the front and rear when appropriate. Both friendly and enemy troops will spawn into battle in randomised positions that alter depending on which objectives you move on first, creating an experience that should feel markedly different even after multiple playthroughs.
Of course, plenty of questions still remain. How many Strike Force missions constitutes a "handful?" How many opportunities will we have to choose them? Will they be randomised enough to enjoy multiple times? But one question, at least, has been laid to rest: are Treyarch just sitting on their laurels and pumping out a lazy clone?
No. From what we saw of Black Ops 2, Treyarch are about to give the Call of Duty series a shot in the arm, and one it arguably needs after Modern Warfare 3. We'll find out if they can deliver on their promises come November 13th.
I hope that someone gets the tagline reference.