Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Call of Duty: Black Ops II’ marketing just couldn’t keep a secret

Spoiler alert: This column reveals details you may not want to know about a couple of games. But, then again, the column is about how you probably already know these things.

There's a serious problem with Call of Duty: Black Ops II.

I'm not about to dash off some angry review about the game, mostly because A) it came out way back on Nov. 13 and B) I really enjoyed it, for the most part. No, there's a deeper issue here, and it illuminates a larger problem than the game's demonstrable franchise fatigue.

About six months ago, I wrote a column about Activision's marketing of the title. A six-part viral video had been released featuring Wired for War author P.W. Singer and Lt. Col. Olivier North. They were touting the game's ominous theme: That in an age in which the United States is the clear technological superpower on the battlefield, the only force that could defeat us in an all-out war … is us. All it would take is a little bit of creative computer hacking.

I called the marketing brilliant and unsettling, mostly because it seemed so plausible and was being presented as analysis of irrefutable facts. Gameplay footage was released showing a drone army destroying Los Angeles, as the player-character tried desperately to ward off unmanned weaponry that had turned on its nation. It was a great spin on a tired concept, and one that seemed promising. Who wouldn't want to jump right in and save America in 2025?

If only the game hadn't tried to turn its entire narrative on this concept as a plot twist three-quarters of the way through the campaign.

On its own, Black Ops II is a triumph of game storytelling, which is becoming more and more sophisticated with every new release. If Halo 4 was genius for drawing from its novel-based mythology and deft use of subtle non-verbal communication (the facial rendering by 343 Industries is truly outstanding, and using the Didact storyline from the Forerunner Saga books was a great nod to fans), Treyarch reached new heights of dovetailing disparate story elements and related gameplay into an engrossing, near-operatic drama. But what the marketing didn't tell you was that the concept of the robot army attacking the U.S. was presented as a mystery for six of the game's eight hours. It wasn't the opening salvo of the campaign, but the final push of the entire story.

Gamers were led to puzzle over what Raul Menendez had planned as his revenge against the CIA. We weren't supposed to know what cyber attack the Celerium device was built for. We were meant to be curious why Chloe Lynch was kidnapped from Colossus. But, alas, if you had eagerly been following the runup to the game, you already knew. All dramatic anticipation had been lost.

I can't think of a comparable marketing campaign off the top of my head, other than maybe already knowing Titanic ends with the boat sinking, but it was a dreadful decision by Activision. Just as Tom Cruise's first Mission: Impossible movie was utterly ruined by revealing in the first 20 minutes that Jon Voight was behind it all, Black Ops II dissipated all tension in its single-player campaign by marketing it with the very concept that was supposed to provide a climactic payoff for players.

Such a move is not good for an entertainment medium that constantly sniffs over the lack of recognition it gets for storytelling. Look at our $500 million in launch sales, the developers might cry; we are as viable as entertainers as movie producers and authors.

The difference is, no one sold Cabin in the Woods by revealing it was all part of an organized demonic appeasement program, or marketed Twilight by noting Bella and Edward would eventually get married and have a baby.

Black Ops II felt like Treyarch and Activision were really trying to move away from the trend of focusing on multiplayer almost exclusively. It seemed as if they wanted to sink a lot of resources into an epic mythology that was worth piecing together. But even if this glaring marketing misstep wasn't enough to trip up the title, the game exposes another problem.

Despite the stellar opening week, better even than Halo 4, overall sales are on a trend to bring in 15 percent less than last year's Modern Warfare 3. That pushed financial analysts Sterne Agee to cut Activision-Blizzard's 2013 projected earnings from $4.74 billion to $4.3 billion and downgrade them from "buy" to "neutral," according to Joystiq.com. That's a much bigger indicator that Call of Duty, which accounts for as much as 45 percent of Activision's annual revenue before interest and taxes, may have more pressing issues than just giving away a plot twist.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at [email protected]

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