Preview by Michael Gapper
Releasing Black Ops 2's DLC in honking great map packs as opposed to Modern Warfare's one-map-per-month schedule is good for his designers, says Treyarch's design director, David Vonderhaar. It's good for finding themes and good for experimenting with the usual rules behind Black Ops' multiplayer maps, and while that's not to say that Revolution is a Battlefield 3-style “nothing but tanks!”, “nothing but close-quarters!” explosion of creativity, it's trying out new things with cover, corners and map interactivity to test whether the old Treyarch design rules are still valid.
The Treyarch rulebook (actually more of a rule-Powerpoint-presentation) governing engagement distances, first engagements, spawning, angles of attack, cover height and map structure tends to make modern Call of Duty maps feel similar but also makes it hard for any designer to build a bad map. They're rules with deep foundations, and they run almost entirely contrary to the name on the box this DLC doesn't come in: Revolution is about micro-updates rather than wholesale changes to COD's oh-so-delicate formula.
Hydro, Mirage, Grind and Downhill are all based on those same Treyarch design rules as described by online director Dan Bunting – three 'lanes' across the map with lots of space for flanking - making most maps into oval or circular paths around a central murderbox filled with claymores and madmen with shotguns. There have been some adjustments however: some cover heights prevent players from returning fire, one map uses curved corners to deny corner-strafing, and two have interactive elements to monkey with the workings of the murderbox. I played all four at Treyarch's studios where I also ate three slices of fruit bread and a chicken sandwich which, while delicious, in no way swayed my verdict on the DLC.
Hydro is a big grey concretey map set atop a dam with a central hub which regularly floods and kills anything standing in the map's lower channels. “I'm really into the Call of Duty competitive scene and Hydro is a super-competitive map,” says Vonderhaar. “It's almost symmetrical and it plays super, super, super-fast. It's also interesting because we've done one of the things we like to do at Treyarch – a big rush of water will eliminate the entire centre path, and it actually matters. You can use it to split the map and split the opponents.” Hydro plays best in Team Deathmatch or Kill Confirmed where the central channel becomes a meat grinder and limited sightlines keep sniper domination at a minimum.
A Spec Ops: The Line-style sand-blasted hotel in Dubai, Mirage's central hub is the hotel's lobby and the left and right channels couldn't be more different. On one side a crashed bus creates a narrow chokepoint while a large pool on the opposite side makes for a large, open and coverless space where sand banks allow quick access to first-floor windows and turn otherwise defensible elevated positions into deathtraps. It's the smallest of the new maps and plays a great game of Search and Destroy – bomb one goes near the largely indefensible pool, but bombing the pool first makes the second bomb at the sheltered bus crash chokepoint almost impossible even with your tastiest Scorestreaks dropping from the sky.
“Grind is based in Venice Beach California – the birthplace of skateboarding,” says Dan Bunting in a studio about twenty minutes from Venice Beach California – the birthplace of skateboarding. “Our lead level designer came up with the idea of making a map in a skatepark and I really didn't get it, but we trusted him and it's my personal favourite of the four maps.” Now, as a skatepark Grind is pump, but as a shooter map it's the best of the four, particularly in Domination and Hardpoint where every control point is made difficult to defend by the curved walls of the quarter pipes which surround the arena. The central hub includes what might be a skate shop with a claymore-friendly staircase, while one channel is a twisting series of quarter pipes opposite another channel built from full and half-pipes.
The first multiplayer map with a snowman, Downhill is set in the French Alps with a central hub made dangerous by cable cars which are both mobile cover and an instantly deadly man-squasher if you try crossing the ski lodge without observing the Green Cross Code. Of all the maps it's Downhill which feels the most familiar – channels littered with boulders for cover, lots of sniper vantage points, and a clear bias towards Capture The Flag where the map's sheer length and the difficulty of negotiating the cable car terminal at speed raises some interesting tactical questions and turns some of the more rocky parts of the map into circular Benny Hill chases while you wait for backup to arrive.
Die Rise is Revolution's new Zombies map filled set atop a skyscraper where narrow corridors and insta-kill drops make it the hardest Zombies map ever. Just finding a decent weapon without falling to your death is a challenge, and since most of the paths through the level are one-way only, it's easy to get split up from the rest of your team. It's far too easy to get mobbed and far too easy to get stranded and it's altogether a thoroughly unpleasant place to be, in the best possible sense.
Turned is billed as a competitive version of Zombies, but that's misrepresenting it entirely. Set on just one tiny map, Turned feels more like an obligation than a good idea; an answer to fans' demands to play as a zombie without ever considering why someone would want to be a zombie or how it might be fun. Left 4 Dead, for instance slots you into the regular co-op campaign as a more powerful creature in an asymmetrical deathmatch of sorts, but Turned is a five-player free-for-all game of high-speed Tag. Zombies can sprint but are unarmed, the sole human player is slow but armed to the teeth, killing a human lets you play as the human, and whoever accumulates the most time with meat on their bones wins. Except in practice, the bonus for being alive when the clock runs out is so massive, in our games it was the last man standing who won every time.
But wait, there's more!
Revolution is home to the first downloadable weapon in COD history, which has already scared the pants off everyone hoping the game stays balanced. Now, all Black Ops 2's weapons are balanced in the same way – designers have ten 'points' to spend on characteristics like range and power – but not all weapons are born equal and the Peacekeeper is an SMG with the range and stopping power of an assault rifle. It's every bit as scary as the pro players feared but while it's probably the easiest weapon for any newcomer to handle, anyone who's graduated to something more specialised will retain an advantage. Probably.
Revolution is available tomorrow on Xbox, which is how I played it, and in four weeks on PC because Heaven forbid Microsoft's DLC exclusivity deal should also include Windows. There's little new to Revolution's adversarial maps but that's the Call of Duty formula now – a not-at-all secret recipe of cover heights and engagement distances and eleven herbs and spices that are made all the more visible when Treyarch subverts them. It's a peek behind the curtain. Black Ops 2's first DLC is carefully designed and flawlessly executed but it's maths, not magic; method, not madness; an interesting convolution labelled a revolution.