Ahead of the world reveal scheduled to take place tonight during the NBA Playoffs, Black Ops II has already been confirmed as the next game in the Call of Duty series. This was expected to be the case at least as far back as February, although we now have some firm details we could only guess at previously.
It has since been pulled, but for a brief period of time the U.K. website for Black Ops II was online. A November 13 release date was listed alongside a description that fills us in on the basic setup for the game: “Pushing the boundaries of what fans have come to expect from the record-setting entertainment franchise, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 propels players into a near future, 21st Century Cold War, where technology and weapons have converged to create a new generation of warfare.” A few screenshots were leaked (via Kotaku) as a result of the site’s premature launch giving us a look at the quadrotor seen in an FPS Russia video the official Call of Duty site has been linking to recently. The preview image for tonight’s reveal trailer on YouTube, which was uploaded privately and could not be watched, shows skyscrapers burning in the background in a scene that would not have been out of place in Modern Warfare 3.
This is a significant departure from what Treyarch has worked on in the past. Call of Duty started out as a series focused on World War II; when Infinity Ward moved beyond that setting and into the present day, Treyarch’s biannual releases stuck with WWII for a bit longer before moving into the Cold War. It was presumed by many that Black Ops, given its success, would receive a numbered sequel set sometime during the Cold War, perhaps in the 1970s. Leapfrogging Modern Warfare and setting Black Ops II in the near future — the FPS Russia video notes technology like the quadrotor could be seen a decade from now — blurs the line between the two sub-series.
With the games from both developers running on the same engine, it’s not as if they play any differently on a basic level. The major distinction between the two series, setting aside (and the elements that come along with that, like the weapons at players’ disposal), has been Modern Warfare‘s cooperative Spec Ops mode and Black Ops/World at War‘s Zombies mode. It’s smart to trade the modes off from year to year so neither wears out its welcome as soon as they would if they were seen annually, but I don’t think either is enough to warrant the continued existence of the two sub-series if Black Ops is no longer going to be set several decades earlier.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun jokingly referred to the new game as Call of Duty 9: Black Ops 2: Modern Warfare 4 earlier today, and it does sort of feel that way — unless Black Ops 2 is set significantly further into the future than the early info suggests, Activision runs the risk of blending the two sub-series together to the point where ‘Modern Warfare‘ and ‘Black Ops‘ no longer mean anything. The leaked screenshots hardly make it look as if BLOPS II is the futuristic space game there has been talk of for years
The consistency established within these sub-series would appear to be gone. Are Black Ops games now going to jump around with the time period they are set in, or are the next few locked in to near-future settings? Does Sledgehammer‘s action/adventure game return and take the Treyarch games’ former position as the Call of Duty sub-series set in the past? There are a lot of questions that now emerge with Activision straying from its existing model of Treyarch developing games set in decades past and Infinity Ward taking on the modern era. At some point does the series branch out even further into the future, or is Activision aware the franchise made it big when it entered the modern era with Call of Duty 4 and that its fan may not care to see anything approaching science fiction being introduced?
Call of Duty’s main competitor, Battlefield, did venture into the future with one release, Battlefield 2142. Jumping that far into the future gave DICE the creative freedom to go wild the technology and weapons it created, which was fun. However, it’s telling that it has yet to return to that well and has only abstractly teased something to do with a sequel (which may only be BF3 DLC, if anything). Since 2142′s release, Battlefield has largely made use of a present day setting, returning to both World War II (Battlefield 1943) and Vietnam (Bad Company 2‘s Vietnam expansion pack) while refusing to go into the the future again.
The reason for this might be demonstrated by the relative popularity of Halo and Call of Duty. CoD has long since passed Halo by, and the reason for that is because there is a much larger market for more realistic, modern day shooters than there are shooters with sci-fi settings. A large part of that is because modern-day shooters have an appeal capable of pulling in more casual gamers who buy only one or two games per year. It’s possible developers can only stray so far into the future before losing a percentage of those fans, although it would be interesting to see how a full-blown futuristic CoD game would do and how much the Call of Duty brand really means.
Based on what little we’ve seen, it doesn’t look as if we’ll find that out this time around, nor does Activision have to worry about turning people off by BLOPS II jumping too far ahead in time. It remains to be seen exactly how this game will differentiate itself from Modern Warfare and whether there remains any reason to identify the two developers’ games with their own respective sub-series beyond not wanting to use a name like ‘Call of Duty 9.’ The trailer debuting on TNT during tonight’s basketball game should give us a better indication, although with there being a lot of time remaining between now and November, and an appearance during Microsoft’s E3 press conference looking likely once again, don’t expect Activision to go all out with our first official glimpse of the game.