After closing out the Microsoft conference with the total and utter annihilation of Los Angeles (don't worry, Californians: it won't happen for another 13 years), it's easy to think Black Ops II is just another explosion-packed round of Call of Duty mayhem. Well, it is - and it isn't.
After sitting through an intriguing behind closed doors demo, we grabbed director David Anthony to talk branching storylines, Strike Force, villains and much, much more...
Black Ops 2 marks the biggest switch in the series for some time in terms of setting and gameplay types. Who did you have to convince at Activision in order to take it in a different direction?
Good question! I can tell you this - and it sounds like a cliché - because you always hear people say, "Oh the publisher was so supportive!" but, honestly, in this, they genuinely were. Because they understand that, at Treyarch, what we always try to do is ask: "What are the reasons that people are going to come back and play this game?" You have a lot of choices when it comes to entertainment these days and we take that very seriously, and we want to make sure that we give people experiences that they haven't seen before in the franchise. That was really important to us. So, when I go to Activision and I say that, they're very supportive of that. So, in that respect, it was actually kind of easy.
The key mantra from the start was: surprise. We want to surprise people at every step of the way while they're playing this game. Break expectations. When they're playing this game, whether it's from a story point of view, character development, gameplay types, the actual structure of the campaign itself - just when people think that they're starting to get to grips with it, we like to pull the rug out from under them a little bit.
So was that mantra you talked about - of wanting to surprise people - borne out of any internal worries that, with a series as big and as popular as Call of Duty, there might be danger of fatigue creeping in?
I can honestly tell you that, at Treyarch, we don't spend any time thinking about what's going on in the outside world, either in terms of the industry, or other franchises. We have a tremendous amount of respect for other game developers out there - and we like them; we have a lot of friends in a lot of different developers - and we know we're always going to be up against top class games. But I just focus the team on one thing: making a better game than we made last time. And ever since we've been working on Call of Duty, I think that's what we've done.
And Black Ops 2 is no exception to that?
Black Ops 2 is no exception to that. I have never been so excited about a Call of Duty game. I feel like I'm talking in clichés again - but I mean it.
Watching the demo at the show, it seemed obvious that one of the things you are going for with Black Ops 2 is a greater degree of freedom for the player. Because, if there's been one criticism of Call of Duty, it's that it can sometimes feel like a haunted house ride, with things popping up for you to knock down. Can you talk a little about how you took on that challenge?
I'd love to. So, in the previous games, there's never really been a concept of failure. I mean, you can fail to get to the end of the level, but the failure has no consequence. You'll keep trying and keep trying and keep trying, and eventually you'll get through it. With Black Ops 2, it's going to feel completely different. You'll be playing one of our Strike Force levels and, whether you succeed or fail your mission in that level, will have consequence in the game. So we have this whole geo-political Cold War going on between American and China in the future of 2025, and your performance in those Strike Force levels will actually influence the outcome of that conflict. We spend a lot of time making sure that those outcomes are meaningful.
Now let's look at the branching storyline aspect. I wrote that story with David Goyer, who wrote Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, he's just finished writing the next Superman movie, and was an amazing guy to work with. It really was an incredible opportunity for us to work with a guy of that calibre. And, with the branching storylines we wrote for the game, as you're playing, you're going to get to the point where you start realising that what you're doing has a material impact on the life and death of significant characters within the story. Like, you could have someone on your squad, who is a very key member of that squad, who may live or die depending on what you're going to do. We like to create these emotional conflicts within the story.