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[Editor’s note: This article contains a few story spoilers.]

Activision Blizzard‘s Treyarch game studio is unveiling the worst-kept secret in video games today: Call of Duty: Black Ops II. But the unusual storyline of the first-person shooter and its heavy use of advanced technology, such as drones and robot-mechs, may surprise hardcore gamers.

With Black Ops II, Treyarch wants to deliver something unexpected with new twists in the fiction and a setting that takes place both in the 1980s and in the near-future of 2025 in the midst of a “second Cold War” that is about to turn hot. But the game isn’t science fiction. Mark Lamia, studio head at Treyarch, said in a briefing at the studio’s Santa Monica, Calif.-based headquarters that the story is rooted in fact.

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With the newest revelations, Treyarch is under a high-pressure spotlight. The studio is taking some huge risks that could make or break an unprecedented sales streak for the Call of Duty series, which has become the biggest franchise in the video game industry in terms of annual sales. Each new Call of Duty game is breaking sales records, but Treyarch isn’t taking its 30 million fans for granted.

“What we’ve created here is the best-kept secret in gaming because I don’t think it was what anyone was expecting,” Lamia said, speaking in a dark room lit with green floodlights, Call of Duty style. “We realized that with the fiction we created for the first game, we were just scratching the surface. We wanted to take our signature style of working with historical fiction and take it to the next level.”

He added, “On every front, the team wanted to push the boundaries. We could have done a predictable sequel. But the team wanted to push the boundaries on the campaign, multiplayer, and zombies. It’s exciting to be in that kind of environment. We were energized by the first Black Ops and wanted to carry it forward. We are being very ambitious.”

A taste of Black Ops II story and combat

The point of setting the game in the 1980s is to anchor the narrative in the first Cold War and then take the story forward into a second Cold War, presumably between the U.S. and China (although, Treyarch didn’t exactly say that). The team wanted to make the point that warfare is in the midst of completely changing thanks to the march of technology.

In a preview of the first level of the game, Lamia showed the city of Los Angeles under assault by a fleet of combat drones in the year 2025. You play a Black Ops soldier, David Mason, who is part of an escort for the President of the United States in the evacuated downtown area. The graphics look sharp, and there are a lot more things happening in the scene than you usually see in a Call of Duty game. It definitely has a more immersive visual environment. And that’s a reflection of the fact that the team pushed hard to have “PC graphics on a console at 60 frames per second.”

As the drones cause havoc overhead, the president’s armored vehicle gets attacked and flies off a double-decker freeway. Then you have to go into action, shooting drones in the air and terrorists on the ground. Your air cover is an attack helicopter, but it doesn’t last for long.

You pull out a sniper rifle and get a bid on the enemies. Your scope can see the enemies through the barriers, such as concrete freeway columns. You fire at the enemies, and the projectile appears to go right through the column, taking the enemy out. That’s one hell of a sniper rifle. You can shoot at cars and blow them up with a single shot. A walking tank, called a Cognitive Land Assault Weapon (CLAW, pictured above), comes into view. You have to attack it by shooting out the wheels in its legs. If you hold down the trigger of a gun, you can queue up more projectiles and penetrate deeper, as if it were a “charged shot.”

Once you close with the infantry, you can bring your own quad-rotor friendly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These drones automatically fire at enemy targets from above, helping you clear through waves of enemies in a short time. You can board a vertical take-off jet fighter and fly through skyscrapers, chasing after the enemy UAVs.

All around you, as far as the eye can see, Los Angeles is in ruins. Dust, smoke, and fires are everywhere. Clearly, the future is going to be very black.

Moving to a plausible near future

When you look at that scene, it may bring to mind something like Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (launching at the end of May) or Battlefield 2042. But Lamia contends that it is possible to connect the dots from the modern combat of today to the futuristic weapons. Interestingly, the fictional story of Black Ops does not mesh with the fiction of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Lamia said. The narratives are completely separate.

In this Call of Duty, the game’s story has moved on from the 1960s. The cleverness of Black Ops was that its fiction was essentially a reinterpretation of the Cold War. It had scenes that were set in Vietnam using the conventional weapons of the day. But the Black Ops teams had access to experimental weapons that were cool for gamers to use, like Dragon’s Breath shotgun shells that exploded in flames on impact. The Black Ops backdrop allows the team to create cool weapons to play with regardless of the era of the setting.

The new game has some scenes in the 1980s, but it moves on to a near future where a terrorist leader has hacked into America’s military systems and hijacked an entire fleet of drones. The leader, Raul Menendez, sends them to destroy American cities such as Los Angeles and then threatens China, triggering a potential global war that can only be headed off by black operations operatives.

“China and the U.S. are pawns in a larger end game for the villain,” said Dave Anthony, game director at Treyarch.

The flashpoint for the conflict turns out to be a bid to corner the market on rare earth elements, which are 95-percent controlled by China. If we’ve fought wars for control of oil supplies, then it’s not so crazy to think we would fight for rare earth metals, which are a key part of the electronics food chain and a subject of trade disputes. Those rare earth elements are also the root of all of our military electronics equipment.

The original Black Ops debuted in 2010, and its story borrowed elements from brainwashing-themed movies, such as The Bourne Identity. But it had enough new elements to be more than a knock-off. In fact, the story of the game was its strong suit. The narrative had so many vast conspiracies, hallucinations, and double crosses that you didn’t know what the truth was at the end. It focused on black ops units that developed up with their own weapons, such as a crossbow grenade, and operated behind enemy lines.

Black Ops and other Call of Duty games distinguish themselves by being movie-like in their portrayal of intense combat moments. In the last Black Ops game, you had to jump off a cliff to escape an avalanche. You as the player are put in the most intense situation, and you have to fight your way out of it. But the fans like the series because it also feels real as if you were in the middle of a modern combat battle.

A story that comes from current headlines and experts

By moving into the future, Treyarch’s game designers have a chance to be a lot more creative. And after eight previous installments of Call of Duty, that’s what gamers want.

But the ethos on the design team was to create a scenario for a global crisis that was entirely plausible. The team includes experts such as screenwriter David Goyer, retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Oliver North, and robot warfare author Peter Singer, who wrote Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. Hank Keirsey, a military advisor for past Call of Duty games and a former Ranger, also offered advice.

North, who was the intelligence officer caught up in the Iran-Contra affair, briefed the design team on covert operations. He talked about real missions where he had fake passports and was making deals in hotel rooms with third-world dictators. He talked about making illicit cash drops and other secret missions.

Singer, now a senior fellow at The Brookings Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., briefed the team on drones, robots, and the future of warfare. He said that everybody would be fighting in the future over rare earth elements.

“We create fictions, but then set them in the real world where you brush with real historical figures,” Lamia said. “Singer really showed us that we were only scratching the surface of what we should be thinking about in the future. After listening to him, we have never been able to look at the world the same way again.”

Drones are us

The future, of course, has cool weapons. Among this awesome arsenal are a currently experimental microwave heat-ray gun and a self-guiding bullet. All of these weapons are in development. With the scenes set in the 1980s, you get to see the weapons of the old days, and then you can see how they compare to the weapons that change war in the future. He showed them just how lethal battles would become.

Another weapon is the quad-rotor drone with an on-board camera. Such drones already exist, and they’re becoming a bigger part of America’s military muscle. The Central Intelligence Agency has waged a secret “drone war” against Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and other countries. Wayward UAVs are also in the news: pilot error may have led to a drone falling into the hands of Iran.

Drones are even being integrated into civilian air operations. Ground-based robots are also an increasingly significant part of the military’s future, according to Singer. With all the news about Anonymous and hacking, it’s entirely plausible that a terrorist could launch a cyber attack that takes over a fleet of robots.

In the near future, the designers also extrapolated about the continued growth of China’s military might.

Bringing old characters back

In the first game, there were memorable characters such as Viktor Reznov, the hero of the Soviet Union. The fate of these characters is ambiguous. Anthony said, “Reznov is a figment of your imagination, or is he?” That’s a reference to the fact that Alex Mason, the American hero of the first game, may have entirely imagined his helpful Russian sidekick.

In the first Black Ops, Anthony approached Goyer, a Hollywood screenwriter who wrote The Dark Knight and Batman Begins. The idea was to beef up the storytelling talent on the team.

“Goyer was on the top of my list, and I never thought in a million years we would get him,” Anthony said.

Goyer was a big fan of the game, and he agreed to work on the second game as well. He wanted to emphasize the returning heroes such as Frank Woods (pictured right), who was supposed to be dead. He comes back as a key character. Other important figures coming back include Alex Mason and Jason Hudson. These characters show you the experience of war in the first Cold War.

Anthony said, “We wanted to rewrite the rules of how we are going to do storytelling in Call of Duty. Having David on board from the start of this one gave me the confidence to do that.”

The counter the heroes, the writers created a new, memorable villain in Menendez. During the first Cold War, you see how this monster is created, Anthony said. Then you learn a lot more about the villain, almost to the point of sympathizing with him, Anthony said. In 2025, you then see what the monster is capable of doing.

“Welcome to Raul Menendez in Black Ops II,” Anthony said.

One thing that will matter more in this game is player choice. You can decide which heroes and enemies live or die. Based on your choices, you may go on certain missions, but the results will change the new missions that are available to you. Your choices as a soldier will affect the course of geopolitics. It isn’t just a linear story with a linear campaign. The story branches in different directions and is replayable with different results.

Strike Force mode and other features

The game also has a new mode for fighting. Strike Force Mode lets you manage a Black Ops team from a commander’s point of view. At any given time, you can switch from one soldier on the team to another.

This was demonstrated in the second mission in the game. Set in 2025, you play soldier David Mason on a mission at the Keppel shipping terminal in Singapore. You can be the commander and see the battlefield from above (also called overwatch mode). You can see your soldiers thanks to data fed to you by your drones and sensors. You can see your team about to run into trouble and then direct them down a different corridor.

“This is something that we have never done before,” Anthony said.

“It’s now a non-linear battlefield,” Lamia said. “You will get to certain points in the game, with the second Cold War playing it out. You will have options in the campaign to make a decision to go into one area or another. Once you make a choice, you go in. From a story view, you can have a success or failure. Depending on what changes affects the geopolitical arc of the game. You can go back and replay because it is a sandbox mission. It is different every time.””

You can play the whole mission as commander, or you can jump into the role of a shooter on the ground. You can become a quad-rotor drone and shoot enemies from above, or you can hop into a CLAW, which is like a big robot mech. The battle unfolds in real-time and the gameplay is fluid. You can switch from one soldier to another in the middle of a firefight and outflank the enemy. As commander, you can call in an air strike or some extra drones to tip the balance in favor of your ground troops.

“You could just drop into a level and play as a soldier,” Lamia said. “You can play boots on the ground or be an assault sentry drone and take out some heavy machinery. You can reposition the troops as commander. Play inside the CLAW. You could play the entire level in overwatch mode. All the toys of the battlefield are at your disposal in Strke Force mode.”

The game will also have a world where you can fight zombies using various modes beyond the wave-based attacks. You can play the zombies game in cooperative mode, and it’s essentially a second game within a game.

“We were able to turn it into its own co-op mode,” Lamia said. “The fans loved it. We made more of it. It’s going to be its own game that sits on the Black Ops II disk with its own new world.”

But Lamia didn’t reveal much more about zombies.

Multiplayer

David Vonderhaar, design director for multiplayer, said that the team wanted to push the boundaries in online battles where players fight against other players.

But multiplayer details are being saved for future events. The multiplayer modes will include zombie combat.

Wrap-up

Rumors about Black Ops II were the source of intense speculation. One of them that had a ring of truth was the leak of an image of a quad-rotor drone, hinting at the near-future setting of the game. Another rumor suggested that China was one of the locations in the game. Some of those rumors were not so far off the mark. But the Treyarch team is obviously pleased that not all of their secrets spilled. The biggest surprise is that they decided to completely overhaul the game rather than deliver a standard sequel.

Overall, I’m intrigued at the game. I’ve only seen two levels, though. I’m not sure I’m going to like some of these weapons, which seem too powerful. But the enemies are going to be tougher, and so, I can see situations where those weapons are going to be useful. And I’m excited to learn that it won’t be the same old game and the gameplay will be a lot different from past Call of Duty titles.


Check out our other coverage of Call of Duty: Black Ops II:


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