Many Mass Effect fans lamented the recent metamorphosis of BioWare's signature sci-fi series from a role-playing game with shooter elements to a shooter with role-playing game elements. So what are we to make of the new Call of Duty playing a bit more like a Mass Effect?
This new Call of Duty: Black Ops II has Mass Effect in its bones.
And let's get some of the obvious distinctions out of the way. Competitive multiplayer? Black Ops II has that; Mass Effects don't. Krogans? Only in Mass Effect. Dialogue choices? All over Mass Effect; absent from Black Ops II. Thor's hammer? I don't think that's in Mass Effect.
What Black Ops II has in abundance are choices. It doesn't just have the kind of choices you'd normally find in a shooter—the interesting moment-to-moment choices of whether to shoot or run, whether to throw a grenade and then step to the side or step to the side and then throw a grenade. It has the kind of choices that tweak the plot of a game. It has the kinds of choices that enable Mass Effect fans and fans of other flexible role-playing games to discover that their games unfolded in very different ways. Did you let Wrex die? Did you save the Council? What final choice did you make for Commander Shepard? We can now have the same kinds of conversations about Black Ops II because, for once, a new Call of Duty is not a flume ride. It's a broadly-branching tree of decisions.
The campaign of Black Ops II is full of missions set around the world, most of them involving lots of over-the-top triumphant military actions. From 80s Afghanistan to the 21st century Cayman Islands, there will be bad guys to shoot and helicopters in need of exploding. Sometimes, these missions will pause and give you a choice: Let this key character live or die? See that guy, the [redacted]? I killed him. Patricia Hernandez, who reviewed Black Ops II for us, did not. Out yourself as a spy and risk the consequences? Depending on the choice you make, a major supporting character might be absent for the remaining handful of levels left in the campaign.
Some of the choices in Black Ops II could almost be described as subtle, except, well… one involves whether the supporting character Harper is burned in a fire and has half his face scarred for the rest of the game. This choice is decided on the fly and simply depends on whether you drive a vehicle he's on top of too close to an inferno. Yes, this decision is made in the heat of the moment. But what's more remarkable than the pun I just made is that kind of choice in any game. It's highly unusual to see that kind of on-the-fly decision, if we can even call it that, have lasting consequences—even if cosmetic ones—for the duration of game. A matter of steering a truck in one mission determines how a major character will look for the rest of the game? That's fantastic.
As you play through Black Ops II's campaign a small alert occasionally appears in the upper left corner of the screen. It indicates that your career has been updated. This is usually a signal that you've just done something that has bent the story or expanded it. Of all the prompts games have given me this year, of all the alerts I've seen pop on the screen, this is one of my favorites. It signals to me that I may have stepped off the expected path, that I have in some way deviated. In a Call of Duty this at least simulates some overdue rebellion. At the end of each level, the game's main campaign menu displays a list of the levels the player has completed along with text descriptions of what consequential things have happened. These are signals, too. Their message: you could have had a different outcome; your friends probably did.
When I compared notes with Patricia, I discovered that there was an enormous difference in the ending scenes we both saw. It wasn't the difference I had expected us to have. It wasn't the one I figured we'd be able to trace back to an obvious, pivotal press-this-button-or-that-button choice in the game's final level. The difference we discovered (don't worry, I won't spoil it) came down to which part of a certain character's body we shot halfway into the game. That's some Mass Effect-style long-term consequence for you. (No wonder someone mixed up the games' discs. Totally understandable, given all of these similarities.)
There are even more branches in the new Call of Duty. Every Black Ops II mission is filled with small side-missions. It would be a bit much to call them sidequests. There's no Majora's Mask wedding quest in here. But they are essentially the CoD equivalent of a sidequest. You'll see the words "ACCESS" floating over things that you don't really have to access. If you do, you get a little extra mini-adventure.
Here's an example that we captured from the game's second level. If you don't select ACCESS, you don't play that sequence.
In other levels, going down similar tributaries might gain you a helper drone or throw you into a short rescue mission. You might wind up with a new weapon or ability just for that mission. Many of these side missions are tied to the sets of 10 challenges that are scripted for each level. These challenges might require you to discover and use a certain weapon to kill 10 enemies or to find some important information that will expand the story. Completing a bunch of these challenges unlocks a perk, one per each level (shooter fans may notice that a lot of this resembles some of the great but long-since-neglected level design ideas in the Rare-made Nintendo 64 shooters GoldenEye and Perfect Dark). The challenge lists are essentially lists of clues that hint at side tasks still undiscovered in each mission.
After the campaign's first few missions pass, players can access Strike Force Missions. These are played in what resemble arena-shaped multiplayer maps. They run on a timer. You command several units at once: squads of soldiers, drones, turrets and even a little walking tank. You can control any of them, hopping from unit to unit a la Battlefield 2: Modern Combat or Battalion Wars or just direct them all from overhead. Either way, you can dole out orders for units to attack, defend, hack enemy installations and so on. The missions tie into the campaign's story and essentially dictate the attitude of the rest of the world toward the United States. Countries will ally with you if you succeed (X-Com!). If you fail, you lose a Strike Force squad. Lose enough and the mission is lost for good. Don't even try and certain things will happen in the campaign that wouldn't have if you played the missions and succeeded in them. Again: branches, choice, and my storyline differ from yours. Again: Mass Effect and its tribe.
The biggest games can afford to be the laziest. The Call of Duty series can rightly be accused of not having changed enough to merit a new installment each year. With Black Ops II's campaign, however, we have a wonderfully unexpected and welcome twist. The twist is that there are twists, not all played out to a passive audience but, with shocking frequency, instigated by the player.
Mass Effect became more like Call of Duty a couple of years ago.
Today, Call of Duty is more like Mass Effect.