Black Ops 2: 7 things we learned from the new demo
22nd May 2012 | 19:00
Referring to Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 as 'Post-Modern Warfare' might be an obvious play on words, but it's a pretty tidy summary of what Treyarch's latest entry is all about.
Although only nine years separate the events of Modern Warfare 3 and Black Ops 2, the political landscape in 2025 is light years removed from the one Captain Price smoked goodbye too at the end of MW3. Black Ops 2 explores what would happen if America had its own technology turned against her - a doomsday scenario that's framed perfectly by the opening scene, which shows downtown Los Angeles being decimated by a swarm of angry flying drones.
We've just come back from LA ourselves, where we swarmed around Black Ops 2 director David Anthony's head like an angry drone, peppering him not with bullets but with probing questions about the latest entry in the Call of Duty series. Here's what we discovered...
1. The sci-fi plot is grounded in reality
We wouldn't leave it too long to book that fortnight at Disneyland if we were you - Black Ops 2's apocalyptic vision of the future could very well come true.
Despite the futuristic setting Treyarch believe it's important for Black Ops 2's storyline to remain feasible. To this end they've enlisted a man named Peter Singer - a senior defence expert for the Brookings Institute - to help predict the future for them.
The Brookings Institute is essentially a high-level think tank for Washington - whenever the president is concerned about a geopolitical situation, he (or indeed she - in Black Ops 2, the president is a lady) has boffins like Singer on speed dial.
Treyarch asked Singer to outline what he thought the world's superpowers would be squabbling over in the year 2025, and his answer would go on to dramatically shape Black Ops 2's storyline...
2. China is the new Middle-East
By 2025, oil will be yesterday's news. Instead, wars will be waged over what is known as 'rare earth elements' - a set of seventeen chemical elements which are used in the production of pretty much any modern piece of technology you care to mention - from nuclear batteries to the smartphone in your hand.
Now, consider that a country such as Iran currently controls 10% of the world's oil reserves. Now consider that China controls over 95% of rare earth elements. With that in mind, it's easy to predict that it'll be bombs over Beijing rather than Baghdad in 13 years' time.
According to Anthony, the ball has already started rolling. "Watching the news, you see President Obama saying he's taken a case to the World Trade Organisation against China because he doesn't feel the way they handling rare earth elements isn't fair - that they're strangling American commerce. And I look at our script and it's all unfolding before our very eyes!"
3. Black Ops 2's bad guy is from the same stable as Heath Ledger's Joker
That's right - BLOPS 2's antagonist Raul Menendez comes from the pen of David Goyer, a Hollywood screenwriter who has worked on films such as Blade, Jumper and Batman: The Dark Knight.
Obviously Goyer can't take all the credit for creating one of the most compelling film villains of all time (Heath Ledger's gloriously twisted performance is arguably what really brings the Joker character to life), but it's a hell of a thing to have on your CV, and no mistake.
Goyer has an aggressive, crude, pulpy writing style and although his previous foray into video game screenwriting (with Black Ops 1) was somewhat hit and miss, Treyarch believe that Goyer has outdone himself this time with Menendez. Anthony went as far as to say that Menendez has the potential to be one of the most iconic gaming villains of all time. How so? Click the next page...
4. Black Ops 2's villain isn't really a villain. Kinda.
"Look at what makes an iconic villain" begins Anthony when we quizz him further on Menendez's character. "Look at somebody like Tony Soprano. He's the main character of the show, but he's a villain. You can understand who this guy is as a human being; you can relate to him. You find yourself doing that, then the next moment you see him doing something so far outside the realm of anything you could ever see yourself doing".
The most memorable baddies, Anthony argues, are the ones which create an emotional dissonance - one moment you empathise with them, the next they do something so unspeakably evil that it leaves you feeling emotionally torn and distant.
"To understand most villains in real life" continues Anthony, "you have to realise they don't see themselves as villains. They really don't. They see themselves as heroes".
Black Ops 2's storyline will play heavily on this emotional conflict. "I think you'll be pretty surprised by who Raul Menendez is" Anthony claims. "Not just as a villain, but also how you feel about him, because at the end, when you replay it, you'll see another perspective".
5. You can fail your missions
In certain Black Ops 2 missions, failure is an option. Not a very desirable one, but an option nonetheless.
The missions in question are the new 'Strike Force' maps - open-world sandbox levels which play out a little like a giant offline game of Domination.
The stage we were shown took place in a Singapore shipping yard, where the goal was to capture and control points of the map within a twenty minute time limit.
There's a strategic element, too. At any point during the fight, you can leap out of your soldier's body and zoom out to a screen where you can take control of various drones. Useful, because as ever your squad finds themselves heavily outnumbered.
If you fail to take control of the map within the allotted time, you fail the mission but the game continues regardless. In practical terms, this means that for the first time in a Call of Duty game we have branching storylines and the possibility of multiple different endings. But as we discovered, this isn't the only way you can shape the Cold War...
6. Your teammate's lives are in your hands
Black Ops 2 addresses one of the biggest problems we've always had with the Call of Duty series - namely hat you've never really had any control over who lives and dies on the battlefield.
Battle-hardened veterans of the series know the score - the lead characters are invincible bullet-sponges, while PVT Schmoe and the rest of the expendible crew will drop to the floor if anyone even so much as points a gun at them. Well, while we still don't fancy PVT Schmoe's chances of making it to 2026, we're happy to announce that the story-critical soldiers are far more brittle this time.
"When you get to the end of the game we're gonna make it very clear to you the different things that could have happened" Anthony explains. "We're gonna make it clear that if somebody died, that that person could have survived. We're gonna make it clear that the Cold War with China was lost or didn't go well - but that wasn't necessarily the only outcome.
"We're gonna make it clear that Raul Menendez succeeded or failed at certain things owing to your actions. So when you get to the end of that game you're probably gonna want to replay it to see how things could have changed if you'd have played in a different way. So you guys could be talking to each other about Black Ops  and you could be saying: "remember when Frank Woods did this in the level?" And you'd say: "What? He's dead!" These kinda things are going to happen; you'll have these conversations about Black Ops 2. I think it's going to be a really interesting experience for people..."
7. At some point, you'll be the villain
If a player is to empathise with a villain, might he or she need to be the villain? "I would say if you're able to develop an emotional connection with the villain in a story, that is absolutely what you need for this villain to resonate" replies Anthony. A-ha! We knew it!
"You just saw LA - that's a fair ways into the story. At this point, LA has almost been totally destroyed as Menendez has taken control of the entire US drone force. You see China's in the middle of this war watching the scenario unfolds, then all of a sudden half the drone fleet changes course and starts heading for China. The entire world is in complete turmoil, Menendez is in the middle of it - the main thing for me and David was breaking the player's expectation"
"At this point when you finally get your head around the story, we turn the tables again. I can't tell you how, but this is the point in the story where it gets interesting.I would say if you're able to develop an emotional connection with the villain in a story, that is what you need for this villain to resonate. That is what Black Ops 2 is going to deliver."