Activision has formally unveiled Call Of Duty: Black Ops II, set for release on November 13, with developer Treyarch pledging to "push the boundaries" in the latest installment in the all-conquering FPS series.
The game's campaign will be split between the mid-1980s and 2025, when a second cold war has broken out and battlefields are filled not with the endlessly respawning grunts of CODs past but unmanned drones, from the rotorcopters seen in leaked screenshots to the hulking, tank-like Cognitive Land Assault Weapon (CLAW). The multiplayer, however, will be set exclusively in 2025.
In a first for the series, Black Ops II will feature a branching narrative, with the storyline changing according to player choice and, at times, skill. Fail to protect a friendly NPC, for instance, and the game's narrative will change tack rather than presenting players with a mission failed screen and a reload to the last checkpoint.
Another new addition is Strike Force mode, which breaks up the campaign with an RTS of sorts that sees Black Ops squads travel the globe completing various missions. Players can switch between control of each soldier and drone, or play as a general, pulling the strings from afar thanks to an aerial camera which shows the whole battlefield.
Strike Force further reflects Treyarch's bid to make a Call Of Duty campaign that is built to last for more than the isolated, week-one playthrough of its predecessors' singleplayer modes. Players will be asked to choose from one of several Strike Force missions, with the others locked away and only accessible on subsequent playthroughs.
It wouldn't be a Treyarch COD, of course, without zombies, and according to our friends at CVG the success of Black Ops' Rezurrection DLC has seen the developer given free rein to do as it pleases with its signature gametype. It'll run within Treyarch's improved multiplayer engine, meaning it can handle eight-player co-op and double the number of shuffling undead.
While the studio is of course staying tight-lipped on specifics until its E3 unveiling, Black Ops II's multiplayer mode will also be tweaked. Treyarch has, CVG says, been influenced by eSports, struck by the three million minutes of gameplay footage watched online every month. More social features are promised, too, presumably guided by the success of Call Of Duty: Elite, the stat-tracking service that amassed a million paying subscribers in just six days. Elite 2.0 is expected to launch alongside Black Ops II in November.
Studio head Mark Lamia told VentureBeat: "What we've created here is the best-kept secret in gaming because I don't think it was what anyone was expecting. We realised 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."
Plenty of new features, then, but is this really the "meaningful innovation" pledged by Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg in February? While Strike Force is an interesting addition, we can't help but think of the tower defence minigame in Assassin's Creed: Revelations, which ultimately proved an unwelcome, enforced distraction. A branching storyline may well stimulate repeat playthroughs of the campaign, but ultimately Black Ops II's chance of success will be measured by the state of its multiplayer mode.
A shift in focus away from ground-based human warfare towards unmanned drones will require a new approach to balancing the game's multiplayer. Will the rotocopters, CLAWS and UAVs be killstreak rewards, or available throughout? Will they be controlled by players, or automated?
More to the point, is this what the Call Of Duty audience really wants? Judging by the recent day-long blackout organised by players dissatisfied with Infinity Ward's lack of fixes for Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer issues, all the Call Of Duty userbase asks for is a fair, finely balanced, twitchy arcade shooter that works as it should. We'll know more when the multiplayer mode is unveiled at E3.