Following in the footsteps of the most successful videogame on the planet must be daunting. But there wasn’t a hint of quivering nerves at the studio of Santa Monica-based Treyarch. Just raw excitement and determination to create something special with this year’s Call of Duty.
The most recent trailer for Call of Duty: Black Ops bridges its two halves with a very serious voice uttering the line, “We live in a world where everything you know is wrong.” It’s a bold but not entirely universal statement–you probably know for a fact that trying to fist fight a shark is an objectively terrible idea–but there’s truth in that proclamation when it comes to the military history that the Call of Duty series has long steeped itself in. With Black Ops, Treyarch may not exactly be exposing all the secrets in American military history, but the developer is nonetheless focused on exploring some of the shadowy covert operations that went down during the height of the Cold War, in addition to some of the more famous conflicts of that era, such as Vietnam. The game appears to be a mixture of the frantic run-and-gun action the franchise is known for and a generous sprinkling of new gameplay options. Treyarch has plucked those gameplay options from this period in history to help paint a better picture of what went on both in and out of the public eye.
We were recently treated to a pair of demos showing two very different sides of Black Ops. The first was a slow and deliberate trek through the snowy mountains of Russia circa 1968. It began with a first-person view of a pilot boarding an SR-71 Blackbird aircraft in a dusty, windswept air force base in Northern California. The plane starts a booming sprint down the runway, the player pulls back on the left analog stick, and one flash forward later, the SR-71 is high above the earth ready to do some reconnaissance above enemy territory.
The player is shown a screen with a rough outline of a road, some buildings, and a few bright blue blips moving in a group. It turns out that these blips are actually ground troops, and it’s up to the player–sitting in an aircraft capable of flying 80,000 feet above the earth while wearing what’s essentially an astronaut outfit–to direct these troops on where to go, almost as if this were a real-time strategy game. But these commands aren’t just for show. Where you send these blips on the screen actually determines how you approach the next sequence of the mission. In a matter of moments, the game cuts to those men on the ground as they’re suddenly greeted by enemy soldiers.
This next part picked up with a first-person view of someone hiding deep in the woods under the cover of branches and leaves while a Russian patrol walked by unaware, no more than 10 feet away. The player and his squad then jumped out of the bushes–a crossbow in hand–and began moving down a steep, snowy hill. After repelling down a sheer cliffside using the two triggers to alternate holding and releasing the rope, they breached the windows of a Soviet communications station to start a good old-fashioned Call of Duty-style shootout. The breach itself was especially impressive, with the crew repelling down the outside of the window before jumping back and kicking in the windows in slow motion.
What happened next was familiar Call of Duty punctuated by shiny new ways to deliver hurt. The player used a combination of ’60s-era automatic weaponry to dispatch frantic enemies when things were hot and sniped them from afar with a deadly silent crossbow when it was quiet. One of the new features is the inclusion of alternate weapon types. In the case of the crossbow, it can fire timed arrows affixed with timed explosives. The onscreen result is an enemy stuck in the leg with an arrow flashing a bright green light for two seconds before exploding and taking out any nearby friends with him.
This Russian level–dubbed WMD–ended with the player and his squadmates escaping out onto a snowy ledge overlooking a huge abyss just in time for an avalanche to start rumbling in the distance. They dashed down the ledge but soon ran out of footing, reaching a point overlooking nothing but clouds below. With no other choice, the player took a running start and leapt from the ledge. The sound of sweeping wind quickly faded away while the main character’s heavy breathing rose. With the ground quickly approaching, the screen cut to black and the demo ended.
The second demo was a marked departure from the first. This much was obvious from the title screen, which introduced the level as a sequence called “Slaughterhouse” set in Hue City, Vietnam. The action began with the player in a helicopter above a chaotic warzone splashed with an eerie reddish hue from all the fires and flares in the area. Things got ugly in a hurry as the helicopter that the player was repelling from got shot down, sending everyone falling down into the building below.
Inside, they managed to pick up a few combat shotguns equipped with incendiary shells. This helped the crew tear through waves of enemy soldiers with fiery shotgun blasts that looked more like a malfunctioning racecar tail pipe than any shotgun we’ve seen in Call of Duty before. The rest of the action in this level was just as over the top as the weaponry. It felt a lot like an early level from Modern Warfare 2 where players scrambled their way through Iraqi buildings fighting insurgents; only this time, it was enemy Viet Cong with their sights set on both you and any civilians trying to flee the premises.
Outside, the player grabbed a radio from an injured marine and used it to call in a helicopter strike against a series of nearby buildings where enemies were terrorizing the characters from balconies and rooftops. The action moved at a fast clip, with the main character weaving in and out of demolished buildings under that unsettling red sky while occasionally stopping to call in another chopper strike. This outdoor section looked like absolute chaos, with building rubble showering down onto the streets, explosions all around, and an enemy soldier taunting you over a loudspeaker all the while.
One of the things that grabbed us about both demos was the chatter between characters. Specifically, the playable character has a voice for the first time ever in a Call of Duty game. You’re no longer playing a mute supersoldier but someone capable of chiming in with his own thoughts and ideas about what’s going down. We’re eager to see how Treyarch handles the storytelling in Black Ops, considering that Modern Warfare 2’s plot tended to veer out of control for much of the adventure–much more so than previous games.
All things considered, Black Ops looks impressive. Of course, it is a Call of Duty game, so that’s probably not much of a surprise. But the varied pacing, new gameplay features, and fresh setting make for an intriguing combination. We’re looking forward to seeing what else Treyarch has up its sleeve leading up to Black Ops’ November 9 release date.