The first Call of Duty: Black Ops was the biggest-selling game of all time in 2010. Alex Ritman looks at the follow-up to see if it has what it takes to be as successful as the previous mission. Watch trailer
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 has gaming history in its sights
When the first Call of Duty: Black Ops was launched two years ago, it racked up more than US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) in sales in just six weeks. It also cemented video gaming's status as something that could hold its own against Hollywood in the entertainment business stakes.
With Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 unleashed at midnight tonight amid high hopes that it will top its predecessor's records, we speak to the development team behind potentially the biggest game, if not the biggest entertainment release, this year.
There has been a nearly continuous flurry of interest in Black Ops 2, the ninth in Activision's increasingly genre-defining Call of Duty first-person shooter franchise, since it was first announced last year, and subsequent teasers and trailers have highlighted a few key facts.
The first Black Ops was set in the Cold War, with various real-life events such as the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba cropping up.
The big news for the sequel is that much will take place in 2025 with a new bad guy in the Nicaraguan narco-terrorist Raul Menendez and using a future Cold War between the US and China as a springboard for global mayhem.
"When you move something to 2025, creative freedom opens up a lot more," says John Rafacz, the communications director at the California-based video game developer Treyarch.
"You've got a new setting, new weapons, the freedom to even develop existing weapons to a future state." Rafacz points to a fancy new sniper rifle with x-ray vision.
"It's based on millimetre- wave scan technology, as used by the body scanners in airports. But 13 years forward with new processing powers, it's not too much of a leap to think you can turn that into a scope."
Keeping things grounded
Stepping into future realms, while potentially a great platform for a wild imagination, could easily allow for things to veer away from reality (a gigantic Death Star), which is why Treyarch worked with the 21st-century warfare expert Peter Singer.
"He's the one who made it feel grounded so at no point it became laser beams and aliens," says Rafacz.
"But what was really interesting was that we would take concepts and ideas to him and shyly ask if they were too far out there, and sometimes he would tell us it wasn't far enough. It was quite sobering."
The new battlefield
Given the international appeal of games such as Call of Duty, picking an enemy without upsetting anyone is tricky. The first Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was banned in the UAE because of issues with some of the Middle East scenes. For Black Ops 2, the developers again turned to Singer to give them some idea of future geopolitical landscapes.
"He very quickly turned us onto this growing reality that by 2025, fighting wars over things like petroleum will be so passé," says Rafacz, adding that new battles will be waged over rare earth minerals used in products such as smartphones.
"If you look at global production, you'll find that they mostly happen to be mined in China. So you've got two major superpowers with an interest in these minerals."
A baddy for our times
Past Call of Duty releases have had their sniper scopes fixed on menacing Russian antagonists, in particular the devious Red Army general Nikita Dragovich. For Black Ops 2, a whole new figure with dastardly intentions has come to the forefront.
Raul Menendez, a Nicaraguan activist with a penchant for warmongering and something of an online guru with 55 million subscribers to his YouTube channel, was created with the help of David S Goyer of The Dark Knight fame.
"So you've got the guy who made the Joker one of the most memorable villains in history," says Rafacz.
"And in a very similar manner to the Joker, Menendez knows how to play the game, how to mix global issues together to advance his own agenda." And he has a big ol' scar on his face, so looks pretty mean too.
Change the course
South American troublemakers aside, the biggest new gameplay feature of Black Ops 2 is the Strike Force missions: branching storylines that affect the overall course of the plot, as opposed to a set linear path as before.
"I think time will tell whether this is something we'll continue," says Rafacz of this bold new step, pointing to how the positive reaction to the zombies mode has influenced development.
"This began as an unlock mode, and by the first Black Ops was its own stand-alone game. Now it's the biggest zombie universe anyone will have seen. So yeah, if non-linear gameplay resonates in the way we hope it will, I think we can see that develop over time."
Fidel Castro and John F Kennedy featured as characters in the last outing, so does this mean we're going to get recognisable individuals in number two?
"You'll have to wait and see," says Rafacz, rather unhelpfully. OK, so let's hazard a guess about which figures might be playing a major role in world affairs come 2025. Suri Cruise? One of the Kardashians?
*Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 will be released tonight for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC