REVIEW: For the past few years, gamers have known almost exactly what to expect come November when the latest Call of Duty title drops: a slightly tweaked version of the series' peerless multiplayer paired with more derivative campaign gameplay full of bluster yet even more wearisome and than the one the year before. An attractive proposition to the many millions who consistently play online, the series' vastly diminishing campaign returns meant that something had to give, and while nothing is especially revolutionary about Black Ops II, some bold changes in both the single- and multiplayer games in addition to an expanded Zombies mode ensures that Call of Duty will remain one of the year's most important releases.
The most entertaining campaign since 2007's Modern Warfare, Black Ops II is anchored by Frank Woods in much the same way Black Ops was by Alex Mason. This time around the snaking, jumping, utterly preposterous narrative takes place in the year 2025, with flashback missions in the mid- to late-eighties filling in the backstory. The antagonist is Nicaraguan Raul Menendez, a caricature villain whose comically evil demeanour, borderline supernatural powers, and false eye would see him right at home in the most camp of spy flicks. His desire to bring down the system is attributed to what amounts to a traumatic upbringing by returning Black Ops scribe David S. Goyer, and attempting to explain the monster is the biggest mistake the story makes. Fortunately, its coincidences and nepotism are hemmed into a thrilling ride, and offering players choice and consequence by way of branching missions is deft design touch by developer Treyarch.
Ancillary to the main campaign thread, Strike Force missions shape the direction of events in fairly drastic ways, and smaller choices within standard missions of the "kill this target?" variety can also tack the narrative towards a number of different endings.
The Strike Force gameplay as a concept is fine - a top-down view of the battlefield allows players to command units and assume first-person control of anything at any point - but the implementation is off. The friendly AI simply isn't up to snuff, content to sit quietly on the opposite side of a mission-critical communication tower while the enemy blasts it to pieces, for example. As a result, the player will frantically dive from unit to unit, quelling resistance the way one does during a particularly gun-heavy game of whack-a-mole. The offensive Strike Force segments work better because a change of unit isn't really necessary; they may be played through as if the friendly AI weren't there at all.
A mid-game campaign mission allows players to feel the heat in another way: when the player dies in pursuit of a kidnapped scientist they are returned to a checkpoint as usual, but said quarry restarts slightly farther away. Too many player deaths and she's gone, although a subsequent last-gasp Strike Force mission can bring her back.
Alongside modern marvels such as drones and quadrotors, a suite of future tech also substantially bolsters the campaign novelty without straying into sci-fi cheesiness. There are no laserguns, but instead a swathe of high RPM machine guns and rifles with various scanners and other attachments that allow the player to effectively see through walls (and with a particular rifle, shoot through them), identify enemies quickly, and detect those wearing optical camouflage. Call of Duty weapons have always felt satisfyingly meaty, and there are no real duds in the available arsenal.
Better still, the multiplayer's custom loadouts have crossed over to the campaign, lending real flexibility to the way a mission is approached. Everything may be altered including perks, grenades, and gun attachments, although many weapons are locked until a certain mission, or until certain mission challenges are completed. There are also large, quadrupedal, weaponised robots, and their smaller tracked brethren; automated turrets; EMP grenades; and hovering fighter jets - all of which help make the missions feel somewhat fresher than those of recent years. Fabrication tech (3D printers), cyber weapons, powerful forearm-mounted tablets, and grenade launchers complete the picture. Some levels also feature a surprising amount of width for a game that made its name funnelling players down corridors. A horseback mission in Afghanistan feels downright massive, provided the dearth of content between firefights is ignored.
As much of a return to form as the campaign is, it's nowhere near a masterpiece. Black Ops II runs on a modified Black Ops engine, itself a heavily modified version of the IW Engine, and it is showing its age. While faces are more detailed and lend a creepy element to the inevitable up-close strangulations and mutilations, there a lot of rough textures, particularly early in the game. In fact, the first couple of levels are a depressing retread of previously well-worn and unwelcome FPS tropes, with spectacle taking precedence over player agency. A massive battle on a plain in Angola presents a dispiriting out of bounds warning should the player do anything but cling to his comrades' sides, for example. It doesn't make for a good first impression at all, and the gameplay- and tension-free stealth jungle sections that command the player only to follow a soldier and have the presence of mind to stop when he does are worryingly unengaging.
Then there are the playable cinematics akin to Modern Warfare 2's ice pick sequences that are simply padding, capped by cinematics that stretch suspension of belief past breaking point in a game where such a thing is elastic as gum to begin with. Developers need to learn that - cutscenes or not - improbable events such as a tree that looks as if it has stood solid for half a century happening to fall at the exact right moment to drag a climber who isn't even attached to it from a cliff add nothing to a game except an eyeroll. That such happenings go unremarked upon by the characters is even more absurd.
There are also technical glitches, with the climax of a jungle escape bearing witness to a massive frame-rate drop, and enemy soldiers carefully skirting bear traps only to dash back directly into them moments later. Nonetheless, the game soon plasters over the cracks, relying less and less on scripted sequences as the set pieces pass, and allowing players to dictate the action. It certainly helps that there are fewer on-rails vehicle sections than usual, and by the time the action shifts to Nicaragua to present players with a Rashomon-style recounting of events there, Black Ops II has finally hits its stride. A level later, the flooded streets of Pakistan will have the hardest sceptics feeling exhilarated despite the fact that at its core, Black Ops II remains the shooting gallery of old, dolled up and given a sparkler to hold.
Although it's unlikely that FPS veterans will be put off by the level of gruesome violence within, it's still worth a mention. Full screen throat-slittings, burnings, and other such horror scenes are noticeably more graphic than in previous titles, and some enemies will now writhe on the ground rather than exist in either furiously alive or all-the-way expired states.
The Black Ops II campaign succeeds against the mounting odds, taking the old formula and injecting just enough new stuff while cutting back on - although not eradicating - some of the series' most outdated mechanics. The Strike Force Missions are undercooked, but elsewhere it's a seven hour adrenaline rush that works in spite of its lineage. The story is as silly as ever, full of the usual outsized emotions and ridiculous happenings, but the gun play is stronger and the future tech is suitably attractive without being completely unfathomable.
Alongside the upholstered campaign, the multiplayer of Call of Duty has been further tuned by Treyarch, which has made some not insubstantial tweaks to the twitchy shooter. For starters, the Pick 10 system allows the greatest load out flexibility yet, with anything able to be ditched and any combination of items lugged into the battlefield. From a suite of 20 class slots, 10 points worth of items for each class may be selected, with a few restrictions that will be familiar to COD veterans. This vastly broadens the variety of soldier load outs available, something that may be further expanded upon by up to three wildcards that allow the allocation rules to be bent even further. Wildcards take up one point of space, and can allow two primary weapons to be carried or an extra tier two or three perk to be selected, for example. Pro perks have been ditched altogether along with the Sleight of Hand and Steady Aim perks, weapon XP and unlocks do not reset after prestiging - an act which grants a permanent unlock token for one item. Whether these changes introduce balance issues remains to be seen, but they appear well thought-out and implemented.
The other big change to multiplayer is that killstreaks are now scorestreaks, giving those not obsessed with their kill-to-death ratio something to cheer about. Now things such as contributing toward the completion of objectives give points towards rewards, as do kills. Further, depending on the current game mode, the weighting may favour objectives over kills. It's a welcome change, and along with skill-based matchmaking - which also ignores location in favour of latency and ping - presents changes that may drag casual players on to multiplayer servers without fear of complete embarrassment. The 14 new multiplayer maps are colourful and on the whole provide arenas for pleasingly fast and frantic battles that define the COD online experience. It's a refinement of all that has come before, and feels at this early stage like the finest iteration of Call of Duty online.
As for Zombies, the same Survival mode returns, but with the option of hopping aboard a bus and trundling along to a new location in Tranzit mode, or playing against zombies plus another human team (who you cannot shoot but who you can push into hazards) in Grief mode. Tranzit is by far the best offering, but even with the ability to play with seven others, leave mates behind while making an escape on the bus, or build items to aid in the never-ending fight against the undead scourge, zombies mode feels stale. It's the least essential of the game's three facets.
Taken as a whole, Black Ops II is excellent value despite a hefty RRP. The campaign is genuinely replayable thanks to the branching plot and some truly memorable levels, and the multiplayer trumps that of every other Call of Duty, providing the series' most comprehensive customisation system yet alongside a newcomer-friendly matchmaking system that doesn't ignore the hardcore. Thinking about what Treyarch will manage with a new engine on the next generation of consoles is tantalising, but the mountain of content on offer here ought to keep most happily occupied in the interim.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II
For: PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC
Ups: The best campaign since Modern Warfare, featuring a branching narrative and multiple endings. An overhauled multiplayer that improves an already top-class experience. Great new weapons and tech. Dolphin diving is back.
Downs: The engine is showing its age in places. Campaign still contains a large dollop of silliness and outdated mechanics and on-rails sections. The Strike Force missions are a failure. Zombie mode is completely overshadowed and underwhelming.