It’s hard to look at the basic plot structure for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and not see some sort of overarching political message. This is a game that imagines the year 2025 where autonomous and remote controlled drones have become a ubiquitous part of war. As the lead voice in the game’s trailer puts it, “technology got stronger while we got weaker.” When antagonist Raul Menendez takes control of our drones and turns them against us, the human side of the formula seems substantially outmatched.
Meanwhile, in the real world of today, drone warfare is coming under increasing attack both from a legal and moral perspective. By limiting the personal risk to remote-operating soldiers, and by giving the military the ability to conduct “targeted killings” from across the globe with limited oversight, drones are already changing the way we think about traditional armed conflict. The obvious message of Black Ops 2 seems to be that these rapid changes to the basic nature of war might not be entirely positive.
Treyarch Studio head Mark Lamia, insists that his team “wasn’t going after any sort of political stance” in focusing on drone warfare in Black Ops 2. That said, he sees the game’s plot, in part, as a classic, cautionary tale of the unintended consequences of technological advancement.
“We do follow current events as part of our research,” Lamia told Ars. “What we’re trying to do is look at a situation that there’s a prolific rise in the use of drones, and it’s not science fiction, it’s actual reality. We’ll oftentimes look at a piece of history, and there are consequences to certain actions. We’re trying to also realistically and practically create a plausible fiction for the future, so I don’t think we can move away from that.
“In fact, one of the things that came out of our research, when we were talking to Peter Singer.. he also said ‘Hey, look, there’s also these other consequences, and all of this is moving much more rapidly than we have been anticipating.’”
Just because the world of Black Ops 2 is “plausible” doesn’t mean Treyarch is a total slave to realism, however. Lamia said he sees Black Ops 2‘s imagined future setting as “absolutely a piece of fiction… grounded but also fantastic at the same time.” And he doesn’t want an obsession with real-world limitations to get in the way of a fun game.
“We are trying to make a piece of entertainment, but also an enjoyable experience,” he said. “We’re not trying to give anybody a history lesson here, we’re trying to create a piece of entertainment. But part of our brand of entertainment—you can’t deny the fact that we look at history for sources of inspiration. So while the future hasn’t yet been written, we tried to approach that with a respect for history.”
While Activision’s early promotion of Black Ops 2 has so far focused exclusively on the game’s single-player mode, Call of Duty is a series that probably sees at least 90 percent of its total playtime devoted to its insanely popular multiplayer mode. I personally know a lot of players that ignore the campaign entirely and simply treat the game as an excuse to shoot their friends in the face in large groups.
Lamia said he hopes players who might usually ignore the single-player components of Call of Duty will be attracted to the more open approach they took to the campaign this time around. It includes more elements of choice in sandbox-style levels rather than a linear march forward towards a set objective. This is particularly apparent in the new Strike Force levels, where players will be able to switch between controlling a number of drones and personnel on the fly as the game progresses.
A short, hands-off demo of one of these Strike Force levels led by Activision did indeed seem to mix up the standard, linked shooting galleries of recent Call of Duty campaigns. The demo showed the player first leading a team of soldiers on the ground, then switching to an overwatch mode to provide cover from the air. When an armored walker encroached, the player hopped over to controlling a nearby tank to blast through, before taking over a walker himself to lay down some machine gun and grenade fire, finally calling in an air strike on the target shipping container.
“To your readers who might say, ‘We know what a Call of Duty campaign is like,’ I don’t think that’s what they’ll be experiencing with this game,” Lamia said. “I think if you get Black Ops 2, you’re going to want to play the campaign, because it’s not the same type of campaign… If you haven’t played a Call of Duty campaign in a while, I’m looking forward to getting players back in and playing the campaign.”