With Call of Duty: Black Ops II the series is moving into the near future in a big way. While UAVs and autonomous rovers were featured prominently in early titles (especially in multiplayer), in Black Ops II, you'll fend off entire drone armies — and use them to your advantage, too.
We caught up with the game's director, Dave Anthony, about drone technology, weaponry and the moral and ethical concerns of having machines take a human life. He told us about five fearsome drones you'll come across as you play the game: the lumbering CLAW, agile aerial interceptors that go nose-to-nose with fighter jets, familiar quadrocopters and more.
Today's demo consisted of two levels. The first is the campaign mission set in Los Angeles, the same one shown at Microsoft's E3 Press Conference. Treyarch's other demonstration was a new kind of mission, Strike Force, a mode that reminds us of the N7 missions from Mass Effect 3, albeit with Call of Duty twist.
The real story of Call of Duty: Black Ops II though, is drones. Drones of all shapes and sizes, and with all shapes and sizes of guns are littered throughout the game, too. Not only are the mechanical monstrosities cool as hell, they're grounded in reality.
Anthony told us that they contracted drone-warfare expert Peter W. Singer, who quite literally wrote the book on drone warfare. Singer advised Anthony and the rest of the Treyarch team on what the drones of 2025 might look like. That's the precise reason that the drones that reduce Los Angeles to rubble are so chillingly realistic.
Here's a close look at all of the drones so far shown in Black Ops II. Be advised that some of the names for these machines either don't exist yet, or aren't final.
1. Remote-Operated Fixed-Wing Fighter-Bomber
The very first drones that we see are fixed-wing pilotless aircraft. They are large, about two-thirds the size of a traditional human-operated interceptor. Through camera and sensor arrays these machines are capable of collecting vast amounts of information, and feeding it to a remote operator. From there, the operator can make the decision to engage a target, though these machines are not making the decision to kill.
Remote operation sidesteps the huge moral quandary of whether or not machines should be coded to make the decision to kill human beings. This is reflected in Black Ops II, where near the beginning of the mission, the President asks about civilian casualties in downtown L.A. Her aide responds that casualties are "lower than expected," something that speaks to the precision of drone weaponry, rather than its lethality.
In the demo, these drones are shown dogfighting with a futuristic jet aircraft, the human-
operated F/A-38. Anderson, the female pilot of one of these incredible warplanes, says in the demo, "The rest of my squadron is either down or engaged with drones." This is sobering, suggesting that these aircraft can at least operate at parity against their human counterparts.
The CLAW is an armored quadruped. It stands nearly as tall as an adult male, mostly because of the chain gun mounted on its back. From the CLAW's short steps it's clear that the machine was only meant to move in one certain way. Aesthetically, the drone reminds us of an Ankylosaurus: it's hunkered low to the ground, heavily armored, and will lash out with devastating effect at nearby combatants.
In practical terms, the CLAW acts as a shock trooper, and an extremely effective one at that. The CLAW is impervious to small arms fire, and its chain gun can rip through infantry. In the dust-choked streets of Los Angeles, the robot is a whole different sort of street sweeper.
The quad may be my favorite drone shown so far. They are tiny quadracopters with a wingspan of about three feet — the kind we write about a lot around here. Hanging from the middle of the propulsion system is a low caliber machine gun, which is wrapped in layers of metal that allow the quad to perform its greatest trick: the drone can fire its machine gun and still fly in any direction. This means that the same drone that lays down suppressive fire during a frontal encounter could swing to the side and flank the enemy as well. That's a massive tactical advantage; one that human infantry would be hard pressed to adequately respond to.
In Black Ops II, the quads are directed by a wrist-mounted computer. Using a laser-guided system, the computer can paint an area, and that is where the group — as quadrocopters tend to roam in packs — of quads will move to. The computer also has a kill-switch, this allows the player to determine whether or not the drones will attack enemies or simply identify them. This is important, because these drones have the ability to independently target and engage enemies. The kill-switch however, still leaves the power in human hands.
4. ASD (Automated Sentry Drone)
Standing about waist-high, the ASD is almost cute. The weaponry that the diminutive drone packs is anything but cute though. Remotely operated, the ASD can roll into any hot-zone ready to sling fire from its chain gun, and level the battlefield with its grenade launcher. Piloted correctly, the robot can take on much larger foes, even the CLAW, which is nearly twice the ASD's size.
This drone is usually seen with infantry squads and is often used to soften up opposing defending positions. The ASD's grenade launcher is great for flushing bad guys out of cover, if not outright killing them. Once flushed, the machine gun makes short work of human flesh.
5. Interceptor Drone
In the latter part of the Los Angeles mission, the player commandeers an F/A-38 for a bit of sweet revenge against the drone army. Once airborne, a new type of remotely-piloted drone is encountered. This aircraft looked like a miniature B-2 stealth bomber. It does not appear to be a fixed-wing aircraft — there are flaps plainly seen on the wings. The drone was powered by jet rather than propeller and groups of them flew in squadron patterns, just like their human-piloted counterparts. In gameplay these drones were easily dispatched by the player, but it could have been that the developer was playing on a lower difficulty setting to make sure that the demo went smoothly.
Anthony also told me that Treyarch is hard at work on one last type of drone. Saying that the final drone won't be revealed until the game launches, he surmises that despite its late appearance, it will prove to be a fan favorite. If the drones we have already seen are any indication, we should be in for yet another destructive surprise.
You know the drones, now see them in action in the trailer below.
Posted on location at E3 in Los Angeles, California.