Activision recently showcased two of the first levels from Cold War shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops in London, with lead members of the team from developer Treyarch holding the pad.
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The game is based around the recently unclassified Black Ops conflicts that occurred during the Cold War.
The first of the two levels shown were called ‘WMD’ and are set deep behind enemy lines in the Ural Mountains of the Soviet Union. The mission is set in 1968, and your character ‘Major Thomas’ kicks-off the level by shooting off into the brink of space in a SR71 reconnaissance plane.
It's a beautifully-paced scene, from the moment you approach the SR71 and are taking in the full glory of one of the most stunning aircrafts ever made, to sitting in the cockpit, looking down the nose of the beast while listening in to radio chatter. Even before take-off , your heart begins to pump a little faster in anticipation that something pretty damn special is about to occur.
And then it does. You pull back on the LS button to lift off, and the noise and accurate modeling of what the g-force feels like to your body and face is genuinely breath-taking. It is a gaming moment to treasure, and one which we will no doubt be showing off to mates when the game releases later this year.
But then, something even better happens. You level out, hovering on the edge of space, and the momentary feeling of peace and calm before the storm, is equally impressive.
Your satellite scan in the SR71 shows your soldiers on the ground in the Urals. You need to cleverly command your squad from the aircraft in order to stop them setting off alarms. Otherwise, they'll be noticed and quickly eradicated by the approaching enemies in vans and lorries around the compound.
It is a similar scene to the AC-130 gunship in Modern Warfare, and gives you a really cool perspective on the battle that is about to kick off.
Then, all of a sudden, you are in the thick of the action.
Down on the ground, stealthily creeping around in the snow as you try to avoid being seen or heard by the Russian soldiers. The stealth gameplay looks solid and, while it might not be all about hiding and skulking around in the shadows - a la Splinter Cell or Metal Gear - there seems to be a really nice mix of action and stealth. You also quickly learn how to take out Russian soldiers stealthily with a scoped sniper crossbow.
The guys at Treyarch tell us that you can choose to play through the game entirely in one style or the other, but it looks like you will soon learn when you need to take it slowly and undercover, and when you need to go hell-for-leather with all guns blazing.
It almost goes without saying, but CoD: Black Ops looks incredible. The snow effects in the game were spectacular and you could almost lose track of what you were supposed to be doing, i.e. killing commies, by just idly taking in the massive, breathtaking vistas that open up as you look out across the Urals.
After successfully hiding away from the Russians you lead your squad of four men to an old cable car building, which is when you get to have a go at the new high-altitude jumping mechanic.
Hooking your climbing gear onto railings, which flash white to indicate where you need to launch from, you then throw yourself over the edge of the cliff and start abseiling down. You charge and release RT to fall and it looks like an incredibly fun thing to do, so we hope the developer has added more opportunities to deploy this new mechanic in the many other levels they are still to reveal.
However, in no time at all, in the WMD level that we saw, you and a colleague abseil down to an electricity substation built into the side of a cliff entering feet first through the window, surprising the enemy inside, and - ideally - shooting them in the head before they have chance to respond.
At this point in the demo I had written two words in my notebook.
In capitals I’ve scrawled - FUCK ME! – because this is the moment that the whole level has been leading up to. This is why Treyarch keep banging on about the importance of pacing in the game, and this is when an almighty firefight starts to kick off.
The demo shows how you can change the tips on your crossbow to explosive ones, which is a nice touch, and one that you will certainly need to learn how to make the best use out of, because there are plenty of Russians that you and your men need to dispose of to get through the rest of this level. It is absolute, glorious and bloody chaos for a good few minutes as you blast you way through attempting to get to a nearby relay station to take the power down.
Once successful, you and the rest of the boys take a casual leap off the side of a nearby cliff. A superb ending to one of the most visceral action sequences we’ve ever seen in any game. Ever. It’s certainly a superbly-crafted demo.
Let’s just hope that the rest of the game is on par with this.
The second level shown off at Activision’s pre-E3 event in London this week was very different to the snow-based sneakiness of WMD.
‘Slaughterhouse’ is based in the heat of Hue City in Vietnam, where you are in the middle of a major battle in the Vietnam war. Yet the reason you are there is because the CIA's also headquarted in Hue City, in a compound which has been overrun by the communists.
The deep reds and orange-hues of your surroundings convey a real sense of an oppressive heat in the Vietnamese city which, combined with your radio chatter and chopper noise, offer a completely different feeling to the game you experienced in WMD.
This time around, there is no sneaking, just full-on gunfighting in a more traditional manner that any CoD fans will be used to. There are also some genuinely funny laugh-out-loud moments in the level.
For example, you shoot someone in the head and they shout, “shit!”, to which your character dryly responds, “affirmative.”
The whole level feels like utter chaos and the attention to detail throughout the cityscape environment is incredible – floating papers, flickering shop signs and seemingly meaningless bits of graffiti all divert your attention from the matter at hand. The tanks and copters in the level were perhaps some of the real stand-out moments, although there is just so much going on, so much noise and chaos and gunfire at every turn, that it is hard to identify one thing that defines ‘Slaughterhouse’ in Hue City.
Following that demo, Treyarch reps talked teasingly about the importance of ‘moral choices’ in the game. No doubt we will hear a lot more about that at E3.
They also mentioned that there is a 4-player co-op option with 2-player local split screen. Again, no more details on that front were forthcoming.
All-in though, a very promising preview to what could well be, dare we even say it, the best Call of Duty yet.