Is it that time of year already? No, not the annual rush to plaster Christmas all over every shopping centre as soon as the last embers of Bonfire Night have died down, but the traditional November release of a new Call of Duty game. Turning out a new title in a series every twelve months should lead to creative inertia but against the odds, in Black Ops II developer Treyarch has delivered the most invigorated and interesting COD in years.
Fight The Future
As always, the game is divided neatly between its single player campaign and multiplayer modes, with each offering familiar pleasures alongside exciting new flourishes. The story mode, for instance, splits itself between past and future. Some of the missions are told in flashbacks to the 1980s as previous Black Ops heroes Frank Woods and Alex Mason chase down a dangerous terrorist called Raul Menendez against a backdrop of Cold War paranoia. The other missions are set in 2025, and follow David Mason, Alex's son, as he continues the pursuit, with Menendez now older and more calculating, pitching himself as an anti-capitalist cult leader.
All the Call of Duty bombast you expect is here, from the grungy punchiness of the retro missions to the sci-fi tinged thrills of the future levels. There are reliable old weapons here, as well as brilliant new toys that allow you to see and shoot through walls, track enemy heat signatures and more. Fancy adding some spark to your melee attacks? Grab the electric knuckledusters that leave enemies vomiting themselves to death. Nice.
Choose Your Own Adventure
There are changes afoot in the campaign structure as well. There are now six different endings, depending on your choices and actions. Don't worry, COD hasn't gone RPG, but moments of moral choice as well as mission objectives now carry greater weight as you know they can shift the course of the story. This also adds much-needed replay value to the single player side of the game, as do level-specific challenges and leaderboards that track your performance in each stage against your friends. In previous COD games, the campaign was something to bash through on Veteran before sinking into multiplayer. In Black Ops II, Treyarch offers a campaign that you'll come back to more than once.
The maps, too, are more ambitious than before. The old corridor construction still rears its head, along with some annoying checkpoints and a few too many showboating scenes that play out without your input, but frequently there are multiple routes to be found, as well as hidden caches of weapons and intel that genuinely change the way battles play out.
There's even a splash of real-time strategy in the form of Strike Force missions, optional levels that put you in charge of squads, vehicles and turrets. You can hop between each for the personal touch, or issue orders from an overhead tactical map. The AI isn't really up to the task, but as a change of pace and a halfway house between single and multiplayer, they're a welcome addition.
The changes to multiplayer are less dramatic, but no less noticeable. Matches are still fast and brutal, and the maps follow the tight COD template that fans love. What's changed are the systems around the matches. You can now completely customise your loadout, choosing any ten weapons, items, perks and attachments, freeing players from the rigid confines of combat classes (though those are still here).
Killstreaks are gone, replaced by Scorestreaks which reward consistent good play rather than simply the player who is best at headshots. If you're more of a slow and steady player, better suited to meeting objectives and supporting teammates, Black Ops II finally recognises your contribution. Also making the often daunting conflicts more approachable are Combat Training playlists, which mix low level players and AI bots, allowing for an easier climb for new players up to Level 10, after which you'll have unlocked enough features and toys to slip into the main public matches. Think of it as the nursery slopes of multiplayer shooting.
Rise From Your Grave!
Even Zombies mode has been built up into something more substantial. Once a throwaway extra at the end of the single player game, it's rapidly becoming an entire game in its own right. Here, you travel between different locations on a bus, fighting off waves of the undead, unlocking buildings and weapons as you go. It's not quite as robust as the other two sections of Black Ops II, but it's much more than the trivial distraction of old. The best new feature is Grief mode, in which two teams of four players fight the zombies in the same area - but only one human team can leave. Frantic and ruthless, it won't be a surprise to see this branch out into its own title soon.
What's most impressive is how much effort Treyarch has put into addressing long-standing criticisms of the COD formula, and how it's managed to broaden the game's appeal without sacrificing the hardcore on the altar of mainstream gaming. It really is the strongest and most surprising Call of Duty game since the first Modern Warfare, and comes highly recommended to both fans and newcomers alike.
- Vastly improved single player campaign
- Zombies mode is seriously meaty
- Smart, subtle multiplayer tweaks make it fun for everyone
- Strike Force missions could be better
- Some balancing required for multiplayer
- A couple of frustrating single player checkpoints