In the multibillion-dollar world of Triple A video-game releases, Call of Duty: Black Ops II is the new king of the mountain, even six months out from its release date.
You can thank its slick marketing campaign for that, in a new gameplay trailer released last week and an engrossing, six-part, YouTube-friendly mockumentary featuring Wired for War author P.W. Singer and retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North. Yes, that Lt. Col. Oliver North.
The ad campaign reveals the new Treyarch offering is set in the year 2025, after battlefield technology has become so advanced, unmanned weaponry controls every aspect of war (watch both videos at tampabay.com/blogs/latest-gadgets). The problems begin when these robotic protectors are hijacked by cyberterrorists and used to attack Los Angeles.
While this is great fun (mostly because I have an irrational fear of robotic overlords enslaving the planet), the verisimilitude with which these videos are produced is astonishing. It's also creating the biggest obstacle to the game's eventual success — maintaining a narrative thread that will live up to the expectations.
It's one thing when Microsoft was selling us on the Halo franchise with its faux war-memorial videos or cinema-quality teaser videos, also in mockumentary style. We knew that was fictional, because being invaded by a zealous alien menagerie was unlikely, to say the least. It's another thing when a stellar marketing campaign like Mass Effect 3's built up the narrative to the point where any possible ending (especially one that fell as flat as Mass Effect's finale did) would be disappointing to some extent.
But now we have an esteemed author, an expert in military policy, telling us, "Last year, one computer in Atlanta shut down the entire U.S. airpace, over 600 passenger jets, all had to land immediately over one software glitch." It sounds authoritative, disconcerting and most importantly, it's true.
That's an innocuous enough anecdote until it is later paired with scenarios predicting a U.S. war machine that is almost entirely automated, and cyberterrorists bent on leveling the playing field by using the only weapons they have access to against America: Our own.
"You know, there's gonna come a time when our technology is gonna catch up to us," North intones. "I don't worry about a guy who wants to hijack a plane. I worry about the guy who wants to hijack all the planes."
This is all packaged in a video with high production values and an ominous soundtrack. Not quite what you'd dismiss as a cartoonish representation of a Tom Clancyesque endgame scenario. Indeed, it all feels a little too … real.
It isn't, of course, because it's set in the future, something Modern Warfare 3 already explored by showcasing a near-future with an expansionist Russian run amok. Operation Flashpoint: Red River looked into this, as well, with a war against China sparking in Tajikistan in 2013. And let's not forget John Milius' idea that North Korea would co-opt most of the Far East and occupy the United States in Homefront.
These all are riveting scenarios, precisely because they fulfill the function of a video game by allowing us to vicariously engage in emotive conflict without the peril of true suffering. But none of those games once tried to sell us by scaring us with the idea it could actually happen.
That's a sophisticated turn for game marketing, and is as unsettling as the premise of the story itself. This would be like selling Bioshock by announcing in a documentary that plasmids had been invented and were being put on sale in the new underwater city of Rapture, which is being built on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. Preposterous, but frightening.
These kinds of tactics are setting the bar for storytelling impossibly high. Treyarch's original Black Ops didn't have this problem, likely because gamers were more enthralled with beating the game and fighting Nazi zombies with a JFK avatar than considering the implications of whether CIA agents in a shabby apartment in Kowloon had ever truly tortured an American citizen who created a deadly nerve agent.
Is this a bad strategy for shilling Black Ops II, or merely uncomfortable in its credibility? Perhaps both, given video games' poor record of compelling narrative.
"It's entirely possible that Black Ops II may end up telling a fascinating story, the story of a country that achieved such a complete military supremacy that the only thing it fears is its own arsenal," Carnegie Mellon University School of Art professor Paolo Pedercini wrote on Kotaku. "It could also attempt new forms of gameplay to describe the complexities of asymmetrical warfare and the vaporous world of cyberterrorism, but I suspect we'll end up with a refinement of the same shooter, this time with robotic enemies as targets."
That sounds more on target than any of the early proclamations in the gaming media crowning Black Ops II the game of the century. But that's all speculation that won't be provable until a playable demo is made available at E3 in June, at the very least.
More interesting in reality than any of these lofty narrative devices and the questions they pose is the fact that Activision had previously struck a deal between Infinity Ward and Treyarch, awarding the former exclusivity in regards to CoD titles set after Vietnam. This deal was arranged when Activision began demanding an installment per year after the success of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007, and is why the original Black Ops was set in historical Cold War conflicts like the Bay of Pigs and Khe Sanh.
Game Informer reports the setting of 2025 conflicts with that agreement, potentially delaying Black Ops II's planned Nov. 13 release date. While speculation persists that Infinity Ward could likely win damages from Activision over this infraction, the possibility exists, however slight, that Black Ops II would end up being pulled from the shelves entirely.
That, Activision probably feels, is the real doomsday scenario.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.