Black Ops 2: The "most provocative, shocking" Call of Duty yet
10th Jun 2012 | 13:00
After closing out the Microsoft conference with the total and utter annihilation of Los Angeles (don't worry, Californians: it won't happen for another 13 years), it's easy to think Black Ops II is just another explosion-packed round of Call of Duty mayhem. Well, it is - and it isn't.
After sitting through an intriguing behind closed doors demo, we grabbed director David Anthony to talk branching storylines, Strike Force, villains and much, much more...
Black Ops 2 marks the biggest switch in the series for some time in terms of setting and gameplay types. Who did you have to convince at Activision in order to take it in a different direction?
Good question! I can tell you this - and it sounds like a cliché - because you always hear people say, "Oh the publisher was so supportive!" but, honestly, in this, they genuinely were. Because they understand that, at Treyarch, what we always try to do is ask: "What are the reasons that people are going to come back and play this game?" You have a lot of choices when it comes to entertainment these days and we take that very seriously, and we want to make sure that we give people experiences that they haven't seen before in the franchise. That was really important to us. So, when I go to Activision and I say that, they're very supportive of that. So, in that respect, it was actually kind of easy.
The key mantra from the start was: surprise. We want to surprise people at every step of the way while they're playing this game. Break expectations. When they're playing this game, whether it's from a story point of view, character development, gameplay types, the actual structure of the campaign itself - just when people think that they're starting to get to grips with it, we like to pull the rug out from under them a little bit.
So was that mantra you talked about - of wanting to surprise people - borne out of any internal worries that, with a series as big and as popular as Call of Duty, there might be danger of fatigue creeping in?
I can honestly tell you that, at Treyarch, we don't spend any time thinking about what's going on in the outside world, either in terms of the industry, or other franchises. We have a tremendous amount of respect for other game developers out there - and we like them; we have a lot of friends in a lot of different developers - and we know we're always going to be up against top class games. But I just focus the team on one thing: making a better game than we made last time. And ever since we've been working on Call of Duty, I think that's what we've done.
And Black Ops 2 is no exception to that?
Black Ops 2 is no exception to that. I have never been so excited about a Call of Duty game. I feel like I'm talking in clichés again - but I mean it.
Watching the demo at the show, it seemed obvious that one of the things you are going for with Black Ops 2 is a greater degree of freedom for the player. Because, if there's been one criticism of Call of Duty, it's that it can sometimes feel like a haunted house ride, with things popping up for you to knock down. Can you talk a little about how you took on that challenge?
I'd love to. So, in the previous games, there's never really been a concept of failure. I mean, you can fail to get to the end of the level, but the failure has no consequence. You'll keep trying and keep trying and keep trying, and eventually you'll get through it. With Black Ops 2, it's going to feel completely different. You'll be playing one of our Strike Force levels and, whether you succeed or fail your mission in that level, will have consequence in the game. So we have this whole geo-political Cold War going on between American and China in the future of 2025, and your performance in those Strike Force levels will actually influence the outcome of that conflict. We spend a lot of time making sure that those outcomes are meaningful.
Now let's look at the branching storyline aspect. I wrote that story with David Goyer, who wrote Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, he's just finished writing the next Superman movie, and was an amazing guy to work with. It really was an incredible opportunity for us to work with a guy of that calibre. And, with the branching storylines we wrote for the game, as you're playing, you're going to get to the point where you start realising that what you're doing has a material impact on the life and death of significant characters within the story. Like, you could have someone on your squad, who is a very key member of that squad, who may live or die depending on what you're going to do. We like to create these emotional conflicts within the story.
Can you give an example of that?
Okay, let's say you're on a mission, and it's very clear to you what your mision objective is, but you see your friend in trouble. Say you've got Sergeant Frank Woods over there, and say he's going to get killed, right? But your mission isn't to save him, it's to go and do something else. In that instance, you've got to decide: do I let him die, or do I carry on with my mission? These are the kind of conflicts we put into the game. They're choices.
So, how could a choice affect a Strike Force mission as opposed to a choice you make in the campaign?
In Strike Force, let's say you're not doing so well and the balance of power is shifting towards China. That's not good for America. And let's say, within the game itself, it swings the other way and the Cold War is starting to edge towards some kind of resolution; you might be getting some sort of cooperation from China that may actually help you later in the game. This is what we're trying to do. We're trying to make (decisions and consequences) meaningful. It's not just a story box that needs to be checked - you know, if you do that then China win and that's it. We're actually trying to feed the way you play back into the game, so that the way you play becomes significant.
But how does that actually feed back to the player? Say, you've done well in Strike Force, does that mean you might, for example, get some extra reinforcements in campaign? And if it does, how do you actually communicate that?
What you realise, as the story unfolds, is that you've got this conflict between America and China but, underneath this, there's actually someone else. There's this villain, Raul Menendez, and he's a whole other story, which is fascinating in itself. He's pulling the strings a little on both sides. He doesn't have America or China's interests at heart, so when you realise this, you start to think to yourself: "Okay, maybe I'm going to need China's help." So, in that respect, (he) becomes very significant in terms of how that conflict is going, and how you approach certain things.
The shooter genre is probably the most competitive genre going, and seeing some of the E3 shooters in action, we've been struck by how incredibly violent they are. Do you ever worry that violence in games, and particularly in shooters, means nothing anymore?
Let me tell you something: the team and I never do things that are gratuitous for the sake of it. I really don't want to do that, because I don't think there's any emotional or dramatic impact to that, other than the shock value of it. So we generally try to steer away from that kind of stuff.
In terms of Black Ops 2 being violent, what's interesting to me is that it's different to previous Call of Duty's. In those, 95% of the time you were up against humans, and human vs human is just about as violent as it's going to get, right? In Black Ops 2, you're actually going to spend a fair proportion of the game fighting against machines. We're offering a different kind of experience, one that previous Call of Duty's have never really engaged with before.
The flipside, we guess, is that shooting men, even if only digital men, arguably feels more visceral than shooting robots. Is it hard to push that same kind of feeling when you're fighting mechanical enemies?
If you've seen anyone sitting down and playing these Strike Force levels where, for the majority of the time, you're fighting machines, I don't think you'd be asking that question. These guys are really immersed.
These levels are like a sandbox. And imagine being thrown into the sandbox, with all these tools at your disposal: you've got soldiers, you've got these quads flying in the air, you've got these things we call the 'Claws' - which are huge quadripeds that have got these massive gatling guns on them, and which will blow the hell out of anything that strays into their path - we've got Automated Sentry Drones, that are just fast and lethal and destructive... it's very engaging.
And presumably all that kit's going to find its way into multiplayer as well?
Ha! Well, we're not talking about multiplayer right now. Nice try.
One of the interesting things at the Sony conference was the announcement of the Vita Call of Duty game, Declassified. Have you seen that and, if so, how it's coming along?
I don't know anything about that version of the game.
So there's not a direct relationship between Black Ops 2 and Declassified?
I can't comment on anything like that.
Okay. So, going back to the campaign then, given that the levels will now be more freeform, how difficult is it for you, as designers, to plan and execute those famous COD beats when you're not meticulously funnelling players in a certain direction? And how do you ensure the game maintains that familiar COD feel?
Well, the thing I'm most excited about, and why I was so happy to create this new experience for Call of Duty, is that it's actually a hybrid. You actually get the best of both worlds. We're not throwing the epic, cinematic experiences away. Did you see the demonstration of the Los Angeles level? That was probably a decent example of those big, intensive experiences.
However, we've actually found a way of crafting those branching storylines on top of that, and integrating the Strike Force levels - which give you a completely different gameplay experience on top - within that. The way we've done it with Strike Force is we've kind of peppered it throughout the campaign experience, so it keeps feeling fresh at every point. One of the key things about the Strike Force levels is that we want you to feel that one level is different from the one you played before. So, not only are they sandbox levels, but they're going to feel different to play - and they're going to need a different strategy to beat them.
But does it become increasingly difficult, given how widely copied Call of Duty's been across the board, to come up with fresh ideas for the series?
That's a really good question, because it's something that challenges us all the time. Let me tell you how it started on Black Ops 2. Actually, it started when we were on Black Ops 1: I was sitting in a room with David Goyer, and we'd just finished working on the story, and Black Ops 1 had gone into submission. I hadn't had any time off at that point - I mean, normally, at the end of these projects, I just want to get the hell out of there! You know, go and live somewhere else for a month, because these things are pretty tough to deliver. But, we were so excited about all the things that we could do with (Black Ops 2) that we actually went straight into it at that point. We were figuring out the story for Black Ops 2 in the September, October of the year Black Ops 1 shipped; even while we were still working on the thing!
We figured out what the hooks were going to be, hooks that would offer the player something different that they haven't experienced yet in Call of Duty. And way back then, we were already thinking about branching storylines, about Strike Force, and - what I haven't really talked about - the villain.
This guy is going to be something like you've never seen. One of the amazing things about working with David is, he created Heath Ledger's Joker, one of the most compelling movie villains off all time. Right at the start, we sat down and thought: "How can we make this character someone different that people haven't experienced before?" And it's been so exciting: when you create a compelling villain, you need to understand who he is, as a human being. It's like when you watch a TV show, like The Sopranos - the main character of The Sopranos is a villain. But, you know, you watch it and you become invested in who he is as a human being.
The best villains you always have some sympathy with...
That's right. One minute, and this is where the conflict comes, you find yourself sympathising with them, and the next they do something so far outside of the realm of what you, yourself, could do or even support, you're conflicted. That's Raul Menendez, the villain from Black Ops 2. You're going to go on this rollercoaster ride with him. You're going to understand who he is as a human being, you're going to understand why he's doing what he's doing, and I'm not saying you're going to agree with it, or how he's doing it, but this guy you'll definitely understand on a human level.
One of the things that was good about Black Ops 2 was the mystery of it - the numbers, the twist at the end. Are you working to the same kind of template here? Are there going to be big narrative twists?
Obviously I can't give anything away, but I can tell you, absolutely, that Black Ops 2 is going to be the most provocative, shocking, engaging story that a Call of Duty player has ever seen. I am very, very proud of how hard the team has worked, and how the game has turned out, and I can't wait for the fans to get hold of this thing.