One of the major criticisms levelled at publisher Activision over its multi-million dollar Call of Duty franchise is that it lacks innovation.
Also, water is wet.
Realistically, and from Activision's perspective, there's simply no reason for a known entity such as Call of Duty to continually reinvent itself in the manner of a confused teenager when it's readily apparent exactly what kind of game the majority of subscribers are happy with. Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops and Modern Warfare 3 all featured, to an extent, pretty much what was expected of them. This is why they were hugely successful titles.
Rather than continue the trend, bump Activision's share price a few percentage points and keep twenty million gamers happy, Black Ops 2 instead promises to ditch the present-day dusty, overcooked Middle Eastern-inspired combat for a split timeline featuring content from the 1980s ahead to the year 2025. It's one of the few times the franchise has dramatically altered its setting. The change is comparable to 2007's startlingly good Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, where the battles of World War II were swapped for killstreaks and airstrikes – a move that created one of the best multiplayer shooters ever made.
It's too soon to talk multiplayer for Black Ops 2, however the campaign content on show in Los Angeles last week revealed substantial information about the new direction developer Treyarch is exploring.
Call of Duty relies on identifiable villians, so this time the evil Menendez has entered the scene to taunt players with his plans to take over the world. By appropriating the technological means necessary to hack into, and directly control, the United States' arsenal of advanced weaponry – specifically unmanned drones – Menendez has forced US commanders to wage war on their own hardware. And by the year 2025, that's a lot of hardware.
For operative and all-round American hero Mason, the immediate goal is to protect the president from the endless swarm of drones intent on destroying everything in sight. Riding shotgun in the presidential limousine, Mason witnesses thousands of drones laying waste to downtown Los Angeles, their computer-coordinated attacks precisely targeting buildings, freeways, helicopter gunships, armed vehicles and soldiers alike. It's a landscape utterly ruined by an overblown military budget with inadequate security measures, but for now, Mason's only objective is to ensure the president survives another day.
As should probably be expected, the freeway ahead of the presidential convoy is rendered impassable by a timely drone attack, prompting Mason to seek out a nearby SAM turret to dispense some retribution. By hovering the targeting system atop bunches of drones, each are highlighted in red before multiple missiles can be fired simultaneously before individually seeking out each aircraft. Any that fail to be targeted correctly then seek out the SAM position, leading to a hair-raising scramble to manually shoot these attackers before the next wave of drones appear.
After successfully swatting these threats, Mason finds himself in the perfect vantage position to use a newly acquired sniper rifle to dispatch soldiers from Menendez's army. This is the first real show of force using conventional weapons, and it seems a decade of technological advancement has made quite an impact. Literally, in this sense, as the electronically-discharged bullets crash through concrete walls and the sides of steel trucks. The scope shows the targets in infra-red, and for the most part, they're fish in a barrel as Mason repeatedly locates and knocks off unsuspecting troops.
Moving into the detailed Los Angeles downtown area, Menendez's invading army has appropriated red semi-trucks to transport troops. Several of these charge through intersections before offloading dozens of armed combat-ready soldiers, setting up the kind of signature street-to-street combat Call of Duty fans will feel at home with. Bullets fly, explosions rip through buildings and the debris of war lies everywhere as Mason struggles to protect the president from all attackers.
It's not just the enemy that have access to drones either, as is demonstrated by building to building combat where small remotely controlled airborne vehicles are unleashed to clear out entrenched enemy positions. Whether or not this kind of combat will become commonplace by the year 2025 is irrelevant; Treyarch once more want to suspend disbelief by presenting their own grim interpretation of the state of the world, and in any case, such futuristic robotic equipment could provide a fascinating twist in whatever multiplayer eventuates.
The final showdown in this demonstration consists of an area located near the Los Angeles Convention Centre; perhaps the first time a pre-E3 media event has actually shown footage from a video game depicting the very location E3 is held at. A futuristic fighter jet stands idle amid the chaos as our hero climbs aboard, takes the controls and uses the vertical take-off ability to head for the skies in order to destroy as many remaining drones as possible.
From here, it's more Star Wars than Call of Duty, as the jet is piloted between burning skyscrapers and allied aircraft, and utilises a similar lock-on mechanic to the SAM turret from earlier in the mission. Dozens of drones are destroyed using the battery of missiles as the jet traces a path around the warzone, and the action only suspended when (in true Call of Duty style) the screen cuts to black after an enemy missile lock leads to an emergency ejection.
It's easy to conclude then that the campaign is unlikely to miss the mark. Futuristic it may be, but there's no doubt that the stylistic fundamentals are in place for a blockbuster that will likely up the ante from all previous campaigns, if for no other reason but to show off the creative license afforded by the new time period.
But for a combination of innovation and new gameplay direction, it may well be the Strike Force levels that offer the most value come November. Activision was keen to show a teaser sample of this all-new mode set in Singapore. Starting in a third-person aerial view, players can view the map and identify hostile targets, then switch to the perspective of a drone aircraft, or the first-person perspective of a player.
A player may find themselves hemmed in with an enemy's armoured drone bearing down on them, in which case it will be necessary to dispatch an allied drone to destroy it, as infantry bullets have no effect against such a well protected target. However, should it be necessary to take out several enemy soldiers hiding behind a container in a derelict shipping yard, it could be preferrable to switch back to first-person mode and throw a few grenades before storming their position. The Strike Force mode provides players with multiple paths to achieving their desired outcome.
It's analogous of the franchise as a whole. Call of Duty is too large to merely reinvent itself each year, so any changes are likely to follow exactly the kind of sideways path Treyarch is exploring with Black Ops 2. It's about diversification without alienation, offering new experiences without diluting the old, and always, always remembering that the spirit of any Call of Duty experience involves massive set-pieces, huge explosions and outrageous plot twists.
Activision's CEO Eric Hirshberg claimed last week that Black Ops 2 is the "most ambitious Call of Duty ever"; with the dust settling on the first media preview event, we're inclined to agree.