"Treyarch is a 100 per cent Call of Duty studio" explains Mark Lamia, head of Treyarch - the devs tackling Black Ops.
Before World At War, they were very much seen as the second-tier Call of Duty operatives, but following its success, Treyarch have finally been awarded the same perks as their sister Infinity Ward studio: two years of development time, their own choice of setting, and a dedicated multi-player team.
The subsequent leap in quality between Black Ops and their previous work is more of an eye-opener than a live grenade in your camo-trousers. Treyarch chose their setting well. According to Treyarch Community Manager Josh Olin, the studio plumped for a Cold War setting because it was a 'fertile' breeding ground of gameplay ideas, but it's their decision to focus on the War's underbelly that enables Black Ops to take even a series as well-travelled as Call Of Duty to places it has never been before.
"To take it one step further we decided not to do the conventional wars - the things at the surface - but we went below the surface to Black Ops," explains Lamia. "What that means is you do the operations that couldn't be talked about, that countries had to deny knowledge of."
Some of the real-life covert missions that have been dramatised within the game were so secretive that they actually had to be declassified by the US government before the paperwork for Treyarch's could be released. "We must have tripped every government red flag in existence", laughed Olin. "I'm sure they have a file on us somewhere".
Money was no object to the original Black Ops soldiers - they told the government what weaponry they wanted for their next mission, and they coughed up whatever the price - and since these elite soldiers had unparalleled experience in more or less every field of combat imaginable, you'll never know what skill you'll be forced to call upon next. "Once you're given your mission you're then given permission to go to the armoury and outfit you and your team with whatever you need," Lamia tells us, talking about the real life Black Ops crew. "It's not a huge army of people, it's you and your team. When you hear about this you can't help but be in awe of it. But as game designers we think about it and we're like, 'awesome'." It's given Treyarch ample opportunity to push in-game realism to its limits, without compromising the subject matter. You're a badass in the game because you're based on genuine, real-life badasses. It's perfect.
Playable segments of the game we've seen so far have taken us from cold to sweltering (abseiling down a Soviet mountain range one moment, storming through the Vietnamese jungle the next) and from high to low (commanding ground troops from the air in a section which play almost like a strategy game one moment, crawling through an underground catacomb filled with rats and assassins with only a torch for company the next). There certainly isn't much time to stop and moralise or wonder what's for dinner.
CHANGE OF PACE
"We're always thinking about where, psychologically, we want you to be" enthuses Lamia, as a knife enters our torch's cone of vision and exits through the back of a squad mate's skull. "We're not just talking about differences between levels. We want players to feel the change of pace from 'beat-to-beat' - to always wonder what's around the next corner". And with that, we emerge from the underground tunnels and immediately set about attempting to steal a chopper. "You're not going to have to go through a five minute training session to fly that helicopter - that's not what Call Of Duty is about," says Lamia. "The best way I can explain it is much like a weapon. You 'feel' it. Regardless of what weapon you pick up in Call Of Duty it doesn't take you long to get the feel of it - the same will be true of the helicopter. In seconds you're flying it and it is a weapon of massive destruction".