Black Ops II’s Branching Narrative Paths Showed That the Series Could Take Risks

For the past week or so, I have been enjoying the Blackout beta for Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 to get my first taste of its much-anticipated take on the Battle Royale genre. What I’ve been most surprised by is the level of nostalgia that I experienced while exploring its large map—from familiar setpieces to Zombies musical cues, there’s much to remind me about what I believe to be the superior Call of Duty subseries.

But as I scroll through the playable characters of Blackout to see familiar characters like Mason, Reznov, and Menendez, I yearn for a single-player campaign to expand on the Black Ops lore—Black Ops III simply didn’t do it for me. Something was lost along the way, and what I find myself missing the most are the branching paths and player choices that were possible in my favorite Call of Duty game, Black Ops II.

I didn’t have the highest opinion on the feature when it was first demonstrated at an E3 press conference. While I remembered that the first Black Ops game really pushed the idea that Call of Duty can deliver a more fun and complex story, what Treyarch demonstrated appeared to be merely superficial. Oh, I can choose between sniping and rappeling in this intense highway sequence, you say? It didn’t appear like a decision that would make waves in the future—BioWare, this studio was not.

But the more I thought about it, the more this feature made sense for a Black Ops game. Unlike in the previous Call of Duty games by Infinity Ward (such as the Modern Warfare series), the Black Ops games are ones where your player character actually has a voice. While you couldn’t make decisions in the first Black Ops, hearing your player character of Mason speak and make his own decisions was a huge step, and playing missions from other perspectives and seeing Mason as a character with agency felt like a huge novelty at the time.

The choices early on in the game were somewhat standard for games that had an element of player choice—go this way, or go that way; shoot this person, or shoot that person; execute this prisoner, or don’t execute. The very last choice, taking place during a 1980s flashback mission, gave the player insight into the psyche of Mason—would you choose to give in to your rage, or control yourself? These choices always came during interesting story beats, and although Black Ops II is far from the most complex story-driven game, it felt miles ahead of its predecessors.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

But later in the game is where Treyarch’s branching paths mechanism truly hit home. There’s a mission named “Karma” named after the titular character, a hacker who is essential to the final act of the story. You as David “Section” Mason, along with the character of Harper, are meant to extract Karma, but eventually you will find yourself at odds with the villainous lackey named DeFalco. After a brief hostage situation, Karma gives herself up to DeFalco, but Section and Harper remain in pursuit.

You undergo a typical Call of Duty run-and-gun sequence, in a race against time before DeFalco escapes in an aircraft. What I expected was to reach this evacuation point, engage in a brief gunfight with DeFalco, and rescue Karma to complete the mission. While this is possible, this isn’t what happened during my playthrough: I ran out of time, and DeFalco flew away with Karma. What was shocking to me is that I wasn’t treated to a Game Over; no blurry screen with a message scolding me for being too slow, and no returning back to a checkpoint.

I failed the mission, and yet the game moved on anyway.

I immediately looked up to see if this failure was a scripted moment, and to my surprise, it was not, but rather one of two possible outcomes. I was thrown into a Strike Force mission, a pseudo-real-time-strategy portion of the game, where I had to coordinate a rescue mission for Karma. This mission is not playable if you successfully rescued her the first time around. Sure, it could be a silly way to reset the game back to its narrative where Karma is in your good graces, but the emotional feeling of canonically losing that mission is a feeling I would have had from a character permanently dying in a Fire Emblem or a Heavy Rain-like game, not from a freaking Call of Duty game.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Player choice eventually reached a blockbuster-absurd level approaching the final levels of the game: by the end, your partner Harper is either alive or dead based on a choice. Playing as the character of Farid, working undercover for Menendez on behalf of Harper, you have to either execute a captured Harper to prove your loyalty to Menendez, or make a sorry attempt to shoot Menendez instead, only to be killed yourself. The idea of offing a major character by your own hands before his story was “complete” provided the player with a level of control that I never thought this traditionally-linear franchise would ever give.

But it wouldn’t prepare me for the third-to-last mission of the game, titled “Odysseus.” The last few missions all take place on the aircraft carrier called the U.S.S. Barack Obama (seriously). Even if you weren’t aware of the name for it, we’ve all seen Mexican standoffs in film and other media before—imagine characters of different factions all pointing guns at each other, the outcome looking dire for many or all, if even one person were to engage. This mission finds yourself in a Mexican standoff with multiple named characters, and it is delightfully crazy.

The outcome of this stand-off is determined by your choices and successes throughout the game. Did you save Karma, kill DeFalco, and kill Harper as Farid? Farid will now die saving Karma’s life. Did you lose Karma at first, then get Farid killed earlier? DeFalco will kill Karma. Did you save Karma, kill DeFalco, but get Farid killed? With no one to save Karma like in that first scenario, Karma will die: the permutations go on. And it’s all presented in slow motion, as Treyarch wants you to feel the consequences (or rewards) of your actions—it’s cheesy, but effective.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II's Branching Narrative Paths Showed That the Series Could Take Risks

I truly wish that Treyarch, or either of the other two Call of Duty studios, would have stayed on course with this new vision that Black Ops II provided for the series. But in retrospect, Treyarch probably played all of their cards—they likely ran out of storytelling gimmicks after this bold new venture. But I really felt the absence of the feature in Black Ops III—while your player character still had voice lines, a personality, and their own agency, you were still on a set path through and through during the events of the story. If you failed a mission, you’d start from a checkpoint and try again.

Call of Duty has never been a sandbox—it has been a theme park ride, a haunted house, a shooting gallery with some fluff. But for once, and only once Call of Duty, through Black Ops II, was truly a video game that you played. The way you would interact with the story and the characters actually had an effect on the outcome, and although other more story-driven games have done it better and in a more complex fashion, seeing the Michael Bay-esque franchise that I’ve always considered being a guilty pleasure dip its toes in that way, narratively, was nothing short of exciting.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II is still pretty much a dumb action movie, but boy is it one that I love.

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