Return Of The King
Each new Call of Duty game presents a major challenge for publisher Activision, which has to strike a balance between evolving the series to increase accessibility and ensure it doesn't become stale, while at the same time avoid alienating an existing fan base by messing too heavily with a formula that has been central to creating the biggest franchise, in gaming, this console generation.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II's single player campaign aims to move beyond linear storytelling by introducing a branching plot that lets players personalise the adventure based on their choices and actions. The game's online component appears equally ambitious, with developer Treyarch innovating upon some of the core game systems in what could be the biggest overhaul to Call of Duty's online gameplay since the original Modern Warfare launched in 2007.
While the game's campaign spans a number of decades, multiplayer is set solely in the year 2025. Many of the weapons will feel familiar to series fans, but there are plenty of new gun attachments and futuristic gadgets to get to grips with too. There's an X-ray scope that can see through walls, a turret that fries nearby enemies with microwave rays, and an upgraded riot shield that can be placed to provide cover while freeing up both hands for aiming.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II's reworked create-a-class system lets players choose ten pieces of content - weapons, grenades, attachments that modify weapons and perks that modify character abilities - to take into each battle. There are only a certain number of slots that you can devote to each category but Wildcards, special choices that cost one slot to use, allow you to break the system in interesting ways. You can play with a rifle, no sidearm and extra claymores, for example, or with two rifles and no non-lethal grenades, or as a mad axe man with no guns, a tomahawk and a handful of perks.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II replaces Killstreaks with a new system called Scorestreaks. While the former granted players access to increasingly powerful military capabilities for chaining together successive kills, the latter rewards them for racking up points by completing actions that win games. So capturing a flag or planting a bomb, actions that benefit the team by contributing to the main game objective, will earn players more points than simply gunning down an opponent.
The Scorestreak rewards are a great cocktail of real-world weapons and borderline sci-fi ones. Reliable old favourites like unmanned aerial vehicles, sentry guns, air support and attack dogs rub shoulders with new tools of destruction like the aforementioned microwave emitter, a remote-controlled aerial quadrotor helicopter with a machine gun, and a swarm of drones that search for and destroy enemies.
Treyarch has showcased four multiplayer maps to date. Aftermath plays out in the ruins of LA, Yemen is a small-scale urban street fight, Turbine is a giant vertical map set around a collapsed windmill, and Cargo is a shipping yard off the coast of Singapore, complete with moving crates that alter the layout of the battlefield as you play.
While the original Black Ops' 18-player count is retained, games are no longer capped at two team battles - you can now play with up to six competing teams of three. There's also a new game type called Hardpoint, in which players must capture a position on the map which moves every sixty seconds. On top of that, there's a new skill-based matchmaking system which will, over time, ensure you never play against anyone significantly higher or lower than your own level.
Treyarch's also pushing Call of Duty: Black Ops II as a community focused e-sport. A new feature will enable players to stream games to the internet with a single button click, and there's even a dedicated heads up display for commentators featuring camera controls, the ability to switch to any players' viewpoint, plus a picture-in-picture scoreboard and map for tracking the action.
Amazingly Treyarch promises it still has plenty to reveal, including an improved combat training mode for new players and an expanded version of the highly popular Zombie co-operative game mode. Played globally by millions on a daily basis, Call of Duty's multiplayer component is the lifeblood of the franchise. On this first showing, Call of Duty: Black Ops II's feature-packed offering manages to be both accessible and challenging, and most importantly, an incredible amount of fun.