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'Call of Duty: Black Ops 2': Everything we know (and it's a lot)

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 detailed from the near-future campaign to the new Strike Force mode to multiplayer and zombies.

"The original Black Ops took place during the first Cold War," says Mark Lamia, the Studio Head of Treyarch, "I call it the first Cold War because the new Cold War hasn't happened - yet."

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is a direct sequel which will take place in part during the fictional second Cold War in the year 2025. You will play as David Mason, the son of Alex Mason, the previous game's protagonist.

Alex will return as a playable character in flashbacks to the late 1980s. As a de facto enforcer of the Reagan doctrine, he will be in charge of igniting and arming proxy wars with Russia in locations like Nicaragua and Afghanistan.

Black Ops 2's story spans generations, Lamia tells us. The father and son have a mutual enemy: Raul Menendez. Menendez is a mysterious figure. We know he's somehow tied to the Reagan-era conflict in Nicaragua. I ask Lamia if Menendez might harbor ill-will towards the United States, considering the government was reluctant to provide additional funds to the country's rebels at that period. Lamia won't provide a definitive answer just yet.

The Story

Screenwriter David Goyer (The Dark Knight, Superman: Man of Steel) returned to help Treyarch develop the time-bending tale, and create what both parties believe will be an unforgettable villain in Menendez. Lamia can't help but remind me that Goyer was responsible for Heath Ledger's Joker.

Both Masons will receive help from Frank Woods who somehow did not die in the original Black Ops. In that game's campaign he tackled villainous Victor Kravchenko, who was wearing a belt of live grenades, out a window. Hidden intel in Black Ops hinted at the possibility of Woods being alive at a POW camp in Hanoi.


A very old Woods is still alive in 2025 and a narrator of sorts in Black Ops 2. He explains what happened in the 80s while on assignment with Alex Mason and why it matters in the game's present.

Woods has an ongoing story of his own, and though it's unclear, the Treyarch team hinted at a major third-act reveal imagined by Goyer. Maybe I'm way off, but could Woods have been brainwashed in Hanoi like Alex Mason was in Vorkuta in the original Black Ops?


Anyhow, in the late 1980s, which will be roughly a third of the game, you will see how Menendez becomes a monster of a man, and in 2025, you will see what he's capable of. It's rather unsettling.

What's most important, though, Lamia tells me, is believability. "We gotta be grounded," he repeats time and again, like a holy mantra.

Rare Earth Elements


Lamia tells us future war won't be about oil, but rare earth elements.

Rare earth elements are about as grounded as it gets. The minerals are essential to many of today's most important products, from smartphones to renewable energy devices like wind turbines and hybrid car batteries. Rare earth elements also play an important role in the creation of most modern military technology.

So what's the rub? In the real world, rare earth elements are almost entirely controlled by China's market, which provides 95% of all REEs. By comparison, Iran controls only 10% of the Earth's oil.

Lamia plays a clip of Obama talking about the necessity of China's participation with Western market in trading rare earth elements fairly. He shows an interview with a Japanese businessman discussing the dangers of China's complete control of the commodity.

Then things get apocalyptic.

The Treyarch team volleys between clips from news and military television programs pertaining to war in the not so distant future. They paint a world in which a hacker could bring a superpower to its knees.

Drones, advanced robotics, security systems: Our best weapons may one day be used against us. Oliver North, who is a consultant on the game, says he's not worried about the guy who hijacks the one plane, but about the guy who hijacks all of them.

Which is an apt lead-in to the gameplay.

June 19, 2024: Los Angeles, California

A well-dressed man covered in blood shrieks in agony. David Mason pushes him into a seat and looks around the limousine, spotting the president. She looks like a younger Hillary Clinton. We hear G20 leaders across the world are under attack.

The vehicle is speeding down the highway. Outside, blinking construction signs call for an evacuation of Los Angeles. Above, a swarm of dozens, maybe hundreds of drones are bombarding the skyscrapers and roads. One swoops over the limo, lighting it up.

Mason pulls the president from the wrecked car, dashes across the highway, and hops into a turret atop a military vehicle dangling precariously off the lifted roadway. The weapon locks onto a half dozen or so drones at a time, chasing them with heat seeking rockets. A drone shot out of the air crashed onto the highway and skips like a three-ton stone over Mason, nearly slicing the head from his shoulders.


In action-star fashion, Mason abandons the turret moments before it slides off the freeway in a thunderclap of fire and cement. "On route to prom night with the president," some colleague says.

The president is repelled beneath the freeway by a couple of soldiers, while Mason provides cover with a sniper rifle. It's futurefied with the ability to see enemies through cars and cement barrier. They look like images from the new scattershot x-ray machines at airports -- Lamia later mentions them as an inspiration for the weapon.

When Mason pulls the trigger, it kicks sharply back, letting out a piercing noise, like wood slapping pavement.

Mason finally makes his way down to the lower road, hops in a sports utility vehicle, and drives through the abandoned street, hammering cars and pulverizing enemy soldiers. Up ahead, the vaulted freeway begins to collapse.

A female pilot keeps watch over Mason from a Vertical Take-Off and Landing aircraft, a harrier-like jet (remember, from Saints Row The Third). She provides direction through the dizzying battlefield.

"Most of the city's a full blown war zone," shouts some guy. The Pentagon and Wall Street are in equal or worse shape we hear, before a red semi sideswipes the vehicle.


"The arena district is compromised," screams a grainy voice over the radio. Mason opens his eyes.

He is in the arena district, between the massive storefronts of a futuristic Staples Center and Nokia Theater.


A horse-like robot called the Cognitive Land Assault Weapon, C.L.A.W. for short, led by the enemies, shoots a cop apart. You've seen something like this machine before. Maybe here. Or here. In game, it's bigger and scarier.

Mason and what remains of the U.S. soldiers shoot the heavy steel legs out from beneath the C.L.A.W., and fire a round into its rear panel, igniting the fuel chamber into a plume of smoke and flame and electricity.

He heads into a shopping center. A swarm of friendly quadrocopters, basically military grade versions of the AR.Drone Parrot, swoop in. Mason dials a few numbers into his wrist computer, which literally wraps around his forearm, commanding the gaggle of flying artillery-bots. He makes his way through the interior of a shopping area. When an enemy charges him, Mason lifts his other hand, which is wrapped in a glove-like electronic-device, and fires a propulsive blast of air, knocking the baddie to the floor.

Outside is a horror show. Falling buildings and dead civilians. A skyscraper comes down, the rush of debris screaming towards Mason.


Mason wakes up, and the intersection is filled with brown air, ash and little flames.

The pilot in the VTOL calls in. She's been injured. The plane lands and she is taken by paramedics to an ambulance. Naturally and without a second thought, Mason pilots the vacated aircraft.

He doesn't know a thing about flying one of these, but a voice on the radio says the "flight computer should handle most of the work."

The VTOL is entirely player controlled, from steering to boosting to shooting. Mason releases missiles with abandon, decimating parking structures, drones and more red semis. Apparently the latter are the chosen vehicle of enemies nationwide.

Things are going fine, until Mason hits another plane dead on - in what is a rather showy display of heroism. He ejects at the last moment, launches his chute, slides into the side of building and tumbles towards the ground.

Pause screen. That's it.

If you're a connoisseur of the franchise, you know Black Ops was a bit more covert. A bit less bombastic than the landmark destroying Modern Warfare series. Lamia assures me that this game will have more top-secret, no-one-ever-knew-you-were-there missions.

But they wanted to introduce Black Ops 2 with a bang.

Pick a path and the new single-player mode, Strike Force

Dave Anthony, game director on Black Ops 2, says he used to love choose your own adventures, and that, for years, he's wanted to bring something similar to Call of Duty.

"For the first time," he says, "player decisions will impact the story."

He explains that this will work in two ways:

Key decisions will have significance from a narrative point of view, but so will skill. How well you do will influence the narrative's outcome. Main squad members and villains' henchmen will live or die depending on what you do and how you do it.


He says these won't be small impacts. The result of the new Cold War and the success of Raul Menendez will depend solely on the player.

"At end of campaign," Anthony says, "you'll see how things could have been different."

Anthony says Strike Force missions are one example of how player decision and ability will impact the outcome of the story.

Strike Force missions are sets of levels that will shape the outcome of the Cold War between the United States and China. They are non-linear, sandbox campaign missions.

They exist within the single-player campaign's main story. At choke points throughout the campaign, you will be updated on the state of the world at large by being shown a number of conflicts. As a covert operative, you will select one mission from the set of missions, and do your best to complete it. Whether your group lives or dies will affect the game's story.


Strike Force missions are like team-based multiplayer scrimmages - played by one player. The player is able to shift between all available soldiers and robots on his team on a battlefield. You could hop from a rifleman's perspective to a drone to a C.L.A.W. in a matter of seconds, and omniscient overhead view will allow you to give, what looks like, real-time strategy commands. Send this guy here, direct this drone to flank from the right.

The goal is to kill the opposing A.I.-controlled team and complete a series of objectives in any order. When a person dies or a bot is destroyed, it is gone, and you inhabit who or whatever remains. Run out of people or time, and the mission is lost.

We see a Strike Force mission on a shipping dock in Singapore. The mission is to capture the A, B and C points.

The Treyarch employee running the demo makes quick work of the opposition. One moment he's a soldier, the next he's a C.L.A.W. He's flying a drone, now he's a mobile rocket launcher called the Autonomous Ground Robot, or A.G.R.

He pulls out to the commander view, and we see the squad, controlled by the computer on his behalf, maintaining status quo, taking cover, and making careful moves against the enemy.

He zips back into a soldier and calls in air strike to take out boat, completing mission. Lamia laughs. You could play the mission this way, or you could just play as a single soldier. It's totally up to the player, they say.

In a way, it looks like single-player multiplayer. One person controlling an entire team in a game of domination.

Multiplayer, e-Sports and Zombie mode



Multiplayer is set in 2025 exclusively. Game design director David Vonderhaar explains the decision was purely gameplay motivated.

He is incredibly careful not to reveal much of anything, speaking in vague, elliptical thoughts. They're planning to kill some sacred cows, he tells us, though he won't say which in particular.

One thing Vonderhaar promises is 60 frames per second.

"60 frames a second, whether you see it or not, you feel it," says Vonderhaar. "There's no hitching. It's that zen you feel when your brain feeds into the controller and back ... that's why 60fps is important to us."

We see two maps.

The first is on a small Yemen island called Socotra. It's reminiscent of the Modern Warfare 3 DLC map Piazza.

The houses are small and appear to be constructed from clay and stone, filled with dozens of electric fans to keep out the heat. Tight alleyways lead up and down the hilly terrain. A sneak-way grips onto the side of a cliff that cuts into the emerald ocean below. In the center of town is a tree that looks like this:

The complex shadows of the branches, we're told, couldn't have been rendered in the old version of the game's engine.

The other map is downtown Los Angeles following the single-player campaign's drone attack. On a street sign are the words Figueroa. This is literally where E3 takes place every summer.

The geometry is manic. The idea was for players to fight through a building that's been toppled over. It's like a vertical spin on Wall Street in Modern Warfare 3, filled with fire, smoke, sparks, rebar and thin streams of light.

There's parking lot, a garage, ripped up street, fire escapes, elevator shafts and flooded lobbies. Across the street are coffee shops, fountains and a two floor shopping area. It's incredibly intricate and chaotic, a flip of the serene Socotra where seagulls and waves could be heard in the distance.

David Vonderhaar mentions e-sports. He says Black Ops for PS3 was on the Major League Gaming circuit, but at the time the team didn't fully comprehend the significance of competitive gaming. Now, Vonderharr says they find it amazing.

"E-sports is a big agenda for us," says Vonderharr. "More importantly, taking e-sports to the mainstream is a really key thing, but in order to do that you have to make the game fun to watch"

How they'll do that, they won't say.


Next-up, Zombies. Zombies will be the co-op mode for the game. The team insinuated that Spec-Ops and Survival will not be included.

For Zombies, there will be a new world and new modes. Lamia says in general, more isn't always better. Except with zombies. Fans always want more ways to play the mode, and Treyarch plans on giving them just that.

For tech heads, this will be the first time Zombies runs in the multiplayer engine. Previous Zombies modes were jury rigged using the campaign engine





There will be horses


Near the end of this lengthy session, we were shown the improvements the team is making with their motion capture system. They created a female character to stress test the software's ability to create believable facial animations. This was neat, but was surpassed by footage of a horse being motion captured.

In a mission set during the 1980s in Afghanistan, Alex Mason rides a horse, who was fully motion captured in the House of Moves in Los Angeles. And it looks pretty believable. As do the faces of the characters. Just look at the close-up of Woods in the reveal trailer to get a grasp of how far the motion capture tech has come.

In fact, the game in general looks believable considering the future setting. The team at Treyarch clearly has done a tremendous amount of research into how the world will look a little over a decade from now. The loud colors and bright lights of future LA don't look quite as becoming as the dark corridors of the original Black Ops. That's the cost, perhaps, of bigger environments with greater detail, all the while maintaining 60 frames per second.

If anything's holding back the graphics, it's the current console generation's hardware.

Outside the theater during a break I spot a piece of concept art presumably from the horse sequence. A member of the Mujahideen with a stinger missile launcher strapped to his back, evades an attack from what looks like a Russian helicopter.

Lamia's words echo in my head: "Gotta keep it grounded." I'm sure that mantra stands, until an idea like this one pops up. After all, what fun would Black Ops 2 be without a helicopter-versus-horse battle to the death?

Want to find out more about Call of Duty: Black Ops 2? Like how Strike Force works? Or how real the tech is? Or a bit about sound design? Boy have we got you covered.