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Five Wishes for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (plus a Retrospective Look at Black Ops)

By now, many of you will have heard the news from other publications, but here it is: Call of Duty Black Ops 2 will be formally announced on May 1st during the 2012 NBA playoffs on TNT.  Exactly how it will be done, I’m not sure (betting on a teaser trailer), but it’s still exciting to see it return.

There’s just one teeny, tiny problem I have with the franchise, as a whole: IT’S.  NOT.  INNOVATIVE.

Every installment since Modern Warfare has been, in essence, carbon copies of the 2007 classic (and even then, some journalists complained that Infinity Ward’s masterpiece was derivative of other first-person shooters).  Same adrenaline-fueled gameplay, same linear level design, same adherence to the Hollywood Law of Massive Set-Pieces, same convoluted one-dimentional storytelling, with only minor changes to multiplayer and variation in the size and spectacle of the aforementioned set-pieces.

Black Ops, for me, was where things were looking to change.  World at War didn’t appeal to me, a narrative junkie, and Modern Warfare 2’s story was convoluted as hell (like an attempt at Deus Ex-level conspiracy, but without the freedom of choice and depth of the world to justify it).  So I went into Black Ops expecting a sh*t-storm of set-pieces and not a lot of high-quality storytelling.  I wasn’t entirely off on my assumption, at least regards to the first part (not that massive action set-pieces is inherently bad; I just want a bit more control and at least a fair narrative), but I underestimated the underlying quality of the tale Treyarch had crafted.

The story, set in the 1960s and centered around CIA and MACV-SOG  (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group) operative Alex Mason, had some interesting beats. It took the player to various military hotspots around the globe, from communist-driven Cuba to the jungles of Vietnam to the snowy summit of Mount Yamantau, Russia.  It featured hints of conspiracy, nuclear proliferation, technological warfare and even the threat of sleeper agents within the American government.

To top it off, Black Ops’ protagonist Alex Mason was truly a troubled, but well-meaning, individual and an interesting player character in his own right. He gave players a very real sense of the conflict between a person’s psychological state and their sense of patriotism, as they watched Mason descend further and further into a state of delusion.  Aiding and abetting Mason’s conflict was the patient but constant manipulation (whether imagined or real can be debated) of the terrifically acted Viktor Reznov, played by Gary Oldman.  I don’t know how many times I have quoted his oh-so-intense line, “My name is Viktor Reznov, and I will have my revenge!” in a faux-Russian accent.

Their friendship (or sham of one, if the endgame of Black Ops is to be believed) provided the fast-paced plot with just the right amount of depth, emotion and believability to give players reason to see the campaign through to the end.  Reznov truly was an enigma, being endearing and fatherly one moment before becoming cold-hearted and ruthless the next.  His undeniable chemistry with Sam Worthington’s Mason added to the globe-trotting tale in only good ways, as did Reznov’s personal vendetta against Dragovich, Steiner and Kravchenko.

So, with that in mind, I have new expectations for the sequel.  I know that this branch of the Call of Duty franchise has the potential to bring innovation to the genre; Black Ops was evidence of that.  I want Black Ops 2 to be more open, have a deeper and better fleshed-out plot and provide a more emotional experience than its predecessor. To that effect, here is my list of additions that should be made a priority (listen carefully, Treyarch and Activision):

#1- Expand on the previous game’s themes

Black Ops’ conspiratorial story had the upper-hand in terms of spectacle and intrigue.  Every new discovery during the campaign, particularly near the end of the Yamantau mission, presented a dangerous idea to those considering the consequences.  The idea that America was not only being targeted by the Soviet Union (obvious in those days), but that in this portrayal it was already being occupied by Soviet sleeper agents capable of wreaking destruction is a intriguing, if disturbing, thought.

We need more moments like that.  Granted, there are limits based on history that Activision would rather not test, but why not have a mission where civilians started acting erratically and the player must stop them from assassinating a politician, or where you have to find a dirty bomb that one of these sleeper agents has planted in a room full of unarmed diplomats? That would increase tension, provide unique scenarios which could be dynamic story moments that affect or influence later events AND force players to resort to tactics that don’t involve gunning down everything in sight.

The developer should also address the aftermath of Black Ops, where Dragovich had other plans in play (possibly involving the Nova-6 gas), Mason was still suffering from his brainwashing and the CIA was considering “burning” him as an asset (as revealed in a collectible intel file found in the game’s final mission).  Having Mason on his own, hunted by his government and still convinced that America was in danger would present an interesting scenario in which the player would take on mercenary-like activities to survive.  He would be driven by his desire to stop the Soviet Union, as well as his fear (echoed by Dragovich in his final moments) that he was responsible for President Kennedy’s assassination.  That alone would be worthy of eight to ten hours of gameplay, if it is done right.

#2 – Add innovative features to combat mechanics

This is an especially important detail for me, as it determine how willing I am to participate in the inevitable hyping of this game.  As I said, since Modern Warfare, the shooting and melee attack mechanics have remained stagnant; the guns remain generally recoil-less, the knives underpowered and rather inaccurate.  I do not like this lack of realism, for a series ironically dedicated to that very value.

If the developer is planning to go with the “rogue agent” approach, then this is the perfect opportunity to change that.  Mason, if he is the protagonist once more, could resort to using second-hand weapons which require constant tuning and make-shift repairs (Minigame? Menu-based system!), allowing for him to customize his gathered weapons, a la multi-player, with recovered parts.  He could interact with the environment in various areas – a cottage, for instance – and pick up an object to use in close quarters (a brick, a kitchen knife, a plank of wood) if and when he is desperate.

Even if this different approach isn’t being used, don’t keep the combat mechanics stagnant.  Have the player take on the role of soldiers trained in close-quarters combat, activating quick-time events against enemies; increase the amount of recoil on the guns to build tension and have players actually improve their aim through learned compensation; reduce the amount of ammo available and add a weight mechanic based on your weapon loadout (can be player-chosen or pre-determined) to emphasize strategy and careful movement. Including any of these would make Black Ops 2 an instant improvement over its predecessors, where gameplay is concerned.

#3 – Make levels less linear

A huge sticking point for critics, the most common complaint one hears from fans about Call of Duty is that the level design is too linear, focused on a simple ‘Get from Point A to Point B’ formula, with intermittent breaks for shooting gallery-esque firefights and intense set-pieces.  The simple solution: go in the other direction.

Again, I bring up Deus Ex as an example, quite simply because it is a better representation of innovation in its genre than Call of Duty, and it is not even strictly a first-person shooter.  The 2000 classic introduced branching paths, multiple-choice scenarios that affected the narrative and various gameplay options: stealthy approach, hacking your way through security, or going in guns-ablazing.  Call of Duty has been known for the latter for quite a while, and this is the problem.

We, as gamers, want the ability to choose how to approach a situation.  If they do decide to keep elements of linear level design for this installment, then they should at least include multiple paths and options to approach the gunfights with more-than-adequate stealth and tech-based mechanics for non-violent players.  It might upset the long-time faithfuls who enjoy the endless shooting, but it will definitely add some depth the series needs.

#4 – Add more variety to missions

While fans may protest this and claim this to be blasphemy, hear me out.  Black Ops included vehicle segments in its missions, from an armed river boat to a stolen Soviet military helicopter and even an SR-71 Blackbird in a reconnaissance segment.  It had the typical ‘Point to Point’ objective system, with some interesting narrative sequences strewn in (zip-lining into an enemy compound, parachuting off Mount Yamantau, walking through the Pentagon for a hallucination-filled briefing by JFK).  I want to see this expanded on, for the sake of the paying fans.

Let’s see a mission in which the player infiltrates a Soviet compound covertly, without support, aboard some sort of military freighter.  Or, for instance, a scenario in which you must extract an assault team in a helicopter under fire.  Even a mission where you play as a civilian, perhaps one surviving a disastrous event or being responsible for it, would be refreshing.  Let’s see something that shakes up expectations.

In addition, reducing the number of action sequences and set-pieces would make room for more suspenseful, emotional-stirring moments where the player could feel fear or tension.  Call of Duty 4 succeed largely because of its tense campaign sequences, such as “All Ghilled Up”, where then-Lieutentant Price and Captain MacMillan snuck into Prepyat, crawling through Ultranationalist-guarded fields.  Black Ops 2 would benefit from similar sequences, creating a true emotional connection between the player and the game.

#5 – Create more interesting, likable characters

Lastly, but certainly not least, the detail that will seal the deal for me: a relateable cast of characters who are properly developed.  Black Ops was, for all of its strengths, lacking in characters we cared about; Bowman and Woods had similar, outspoken personalities and I had little attachment to them when their sudden but brutal deaths came to pass.  The narrative was held together by Mason and Reznov, the latter of who was the real show-stealer.

For Black Ops 2, I would truly appreciate the developers putting time and care into fleshing out the remaining or new characters’ back-stories and motives for their actions (their ‘Call of Duty’ as it were), lest we suffer another Shepard situation.  Modern Warfare’s Price and ‘Soap’ MacTavish are referenced often for a reason: they’ve got enough personality and wit to be somewhat endearing.  We as players like to care about the situations that we are experiencing; all I ask is that the developer make it a little easier to do so.

So, with that, I bid you adieu until tomorrow.  Keep an eye out for more news on the Call of Duty front, and keep reading, gamers.

Update (May 1st) – Well, it’s official: the video game industry and I are not on the same page.  According to a leak, Black Ops 2 is to be set in the near-future (further forward than the Modern Warfare games), the setting having been described as a “21st Century Cold War”.  [Sigh].  C’est la vie.

Also, for those who are curious, and I know there are people who have checked out this article out of that curiosity, the games that will feature Black Ops 2’s debut, to be broadcast on TNT, will be the Boston Celtics vs. the Atlanta Hawks game (Eastern Conference) and the Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Lakers game (Western Conference).

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