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Let's Talk About the Future of Call of Duty

Sharper graphics. Branching campaign. Open-ended level design. This isn't the Call of Duty sequel you were expecting.

Downtown Los Angeles in 2025 looks... well, pretty much the same as 2012 LA, really.
Downtown Los Angeles in 2025 looks... well, pretty much the same as 2012 LA, really.

Mark Lamia is starting to freak me out.

He's telling me about the future--or, specifically, he's talking about the future of warfare and how that plays into the scenario they're building for the campaign in Treyarch's next release, Call of Duty: Black Ops II. After talking to P.W. Singer, an author and director of an institution that gets paid to worry about such things, the team at Treyarch is building a plausible version of the year 2025. By spinning out from today's ideas about how wars are fought and the resource struggles likely to be causing problems by then, much of the next Call of Duty game is concerned with China's hold on rare earth elements, the 17 elements that go into making all sorts of modern devices, from your iPhone to the batteries in today's hybrid automobiles to, well, all sorts of high-tech military items. In fact, it's not hard to conduct a headline search or two and discover all types of talk about China's stranglehold on these increasingly vital substances, and it's even easier to find people talking about the eventuality of a new Cold War rising out of all this. And that's today. By 2025? Well... like I said, Treyarch's argument sounds pretty convincing.

It's funny, because I was prepared for this trip to be a sad confirmation of my expectations with regards to the future of the Call of Duty franchise. Or, more specifically, my interest in the future of the Call of Duty franchise. Over the past couple of years, Activision has published Call of Duty games that are positively competent. Fine games if you're into that sort of thing, but the last couple of years have really left me wondering if I was still a part of that group. It wasn't until I started thinking about writing this story, for example, that I decided to finally toss Modern Warfare 3 back in to download all the maps and stuff that had come as a part of the Call of Duty Elite subscription that I definitely wasn't using. And as far as the actual gameplay and multiplayer is concerned, I suppose I'm still on the fence. But after hearing Treyarch's pitch for its story and the sorts of things the studio has planned for Black Ops II's campaign, I'm definitely excited enough to look forward to seeing how the next chapter from Frank Woods, Alex Mason, and Jason Hudson. Their story, though, will play out in the 1980s.

The bulk of Black Ops II will put you in the boots of David Mason, son of Alex Mason, who ran the show in the previous game. The younger Mason is hunting down a bad guy by the name of Raoul Menendez, who first started stirring up trouble when Reagan was in office. The game will open with David Mason heading to a CIA facility known as "The Vault," where the agency keeps people who are too important or crazy to be walking around the streets. It's here where Mason finds Frank Woods and confronts him about his and Alex Mason's past with Menendez. This sends the game flashing back to "old" Cold War as you'll see 1980s Afghanistan and other hot spots that show you what the original Black Ops crew did after Vietnam. Rather than giving you all of the '80s stuff up front, the game will flash back and forth between the past and the future, where Menendez has become the type of action movie villain that would take control of the entire US drone fleet and turn it against both us and China.

Protecting the President.
Protecting the President.

So what will warfare look like in 2025? Well, for starters it'll look a whole lot nicer. Treyarch has put in a lot of work on the renderer, and overall, the whole game looks a lot sharper and more detailed, while still running at 60 frames per second. Facial animations looked especially nice, better showing off some of the performance capture that the team has been doing, which includes mocapping horses for that '80s Afghanistan level. But there are plenty of more futuristic things to deal with, as well. In 2025, unmanned drones will apparently rule the battlefield, giving you more targets to shoot at that aren't just your standard soldier. In the downtown Los Angeles level that was shown, Mason went up against the CLAW (Cognitive Land Assault Weapon), which looked like a big, bear-sized robot with a turret mounted on its back. You'll be able to get in on the action, too, by deploying quadcopters with extra-mini miniguns mounted on them. You'll be able to order your drones around a bit with new squad controls. Grenades also look a little different, so in Treyarch's future you'll be launching grenades out of an arm-mounted cannon.

OK, what's the other big knock against the Call of Duty franchise? Seriously, when you're on a message board talking mess about it, what's the thing that everyone brings up? Right, the scripted part where it's totally on-rails and almost completely out of your control. That part is also being addressed in a few ways, which means that Black Ops II will have a branching campaign with multiple outcomes--or at least varying shades of a similar outcome. It's hard to get a read on how different things will actually be in the final game. Some of these changes are extremely simple--for example, the Los Angeles mission has two on-screen icons at one point, allowing you to either rappel down from a broken freeway to help cover the President as she makes her way through an increasingly-hot battlefield or you can choose to stay up on the freeway and snipe as the rest of your crew covers her escape. That sniper rifle, by the way, can see targets through walls and penetrate cover via a charged-up shot that expends more ammo than a standard shot.

That's a minor change, obviously. But it gets bigger. Things you do in the game will impact the overall state of the United States' cold war with China as well as the level of success that Menendez achieves. Some of these changes will be choice-based, but others will hinge on player skill. The clearest example of that on display to us was a Strike Force mission, which takes the campaign in a pretty different direction. These missions are attached to the story, but put you in the role of a team of SEALs who are out to capture a set of objectives. How you achieve these objectives is sort of up to you, giving the game a bit of a sandbox vibe, but overall it looked like a multiplayer sort of map overhauled to give it a set of single-player objectives--points that need to be captured, and so on. If you like, you can stay in the role of a soldier and run around, just like any other Call of Duty game. But you can also pop out of that soldier and get above the battle in "overwatch" mode. From above, you can order your forces around the map like a mini-RTS or pop into any unit to take direct control. This means you can directly control quadcopters, assault drones, and other non-human units. If the unit you're controlling is destroyed, you'll have to find a new unit to control and play continues as normal. But here's the catch: if you run out of units, you fail the mission and the action continues on. Those SEALs didn't capture that objective, and that will have some sort of impact on the overall story. You'll certainly be able to take multiple attempts at the Strike Force scenarios in case you want to ensure a specific outcome, but the idea of hitting a fail state and continuing onward is pretty exciting. At the very least, it's definitely not something I was expecting to find in a Call of Duty game.

An unfriendly robot.
An unfriendly robot.

When you finish the campaign and see "your" ending, the game will give you some sort of indication as to the points in the game that put you on that course, with the goal being to drive people to play the campaign more than once to see what changes if you play it differently. Again, this isn't the sort of thing that is completely foreign to video games, but in the context of a Call of Duty game, it sounds pretty cool. That Los Angeles level also has you freely flying a VTOL jet in jet mode above downtown LA as you attempt to keep the hacked drones off of the President. It doesn't look like the sort of thing that turns the action into a full-on flight simulator, but it definitely looks more dynamic than some of the diversions that have popped up in previous COD games.

So what about the multiplayer? Other than confirming that all the MP will be set in 2025, they're not really talking about that right now. But the goal for the multiplayer team is to revisit every single system and rebuild any that need rebuilding. This sounds like it could be more than the typical annual shift in how the progression works and what sort of perks you can equip, but it's hard to say. The team is attempting to build a multiplayer game that allows the people who just want to get in and shoot stuff up with their friends to have a good time without alienating the budding professional crowd that wants to shoot people in the face at MLG events. Combat Training will return and Zombies will also return as its own full mode.

Without more hard details on how the multiplayer mode is coming along, it's hard to know if Black Ops II will recapture the hearts and minds of lapsed fans like myself. But I can definitely say that I'm very interested in seeing how Treyarch's campaign ideas play out. Unsurprisingly, we'll all be able to find out in November... assuming that some fiendish villain hasn't taken over or our own unmanned Predator drones and bombed us all back to the Stone Age before then, of course.

Hear more about the game and my trip to Treyarch in this podcast we recorded!

Jeff Gerstmann on Google+