Name: Call of Duty Black Ops 2
Genre: First Person Shooter
Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
Price: £38.97 on Xbox 360 from Amazon
£38.97 on PS3 from Amazon
£34.97 on PC from Amazon
Another year, another blockbusting entry into the Call of Duty series arrives. A generation-spanning shooter with more futuristic weaponry than the Terminator's personal armoury, read on to find out why Black Ops 2 may be the best COD game yet.
Developers Treyarch must have felt as though they were walking a tightrope when development started on Black Ops 2. How do you follow up one of the most successful gaming launches of all time when you're faced with a vocal community of fans as addicted to the systems you've built as much as they're calling for your blood unless new innovations are introduced too? Call of Duty games are criticised for being more-or-less the same each year, give or take a new location or tweaked mechanic. But rather than playing it safe in the knowledge that Black Ops 2 will still make millions upon millions even if was a straight copy of its predecessors, Treyarch have mixed up the action, and are trying something new. There's a confidence on show here that sees Treyarch unseating stablemates Infinity Ward as the new kings of COD, with Black Ops 2 arguably better than any Call of Duty or Modern Warfare game that's gone before it.The changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but still mark the most concerted effort to move the franchise forward since the first Modern Warfare title was introduced. These changes are most keenly in evidence in the single player mode.
Black Ops 2's campaign mode isn't any longer than that of its predecessors, coming in at a little over 6 hours for a series pro. It is, however, far more replayable. For the first time, the campaign offers branching storylines. In some cases, this boils down to a simple moral decision, an A or B button prompt. But often it's more involved; failing to rescue a hostage may not mean that a mission is failed and calls for a restart, but instead means that they'll need rescuing later on or be missing from key scenes further into the game, affecting its outcome. It works best when these paths aren't signposted, and it's quite possible to play through the game on a second or third playthrough and see multiple different outcomes to levels.
The missions themselves are designed to offer more chances to experiment for gamers too. For starters, you're not locked into a pre-determined weapon load-out before each level, and are instead offered tailored load-out and perk options similar to what you'd find in the multiplayer modes. While the level design itself remains fairly linear, the possibilities with which to try different weapons and approaches are quite clear - a jungle path may be littered with sniper nests, for instance, aiding those looking to take on objectives from afar.The storyline pulling all this together allows for some of the most entertaining weaponry and gadgetry yet seen in a Call of Duty game too. Following both Alex Mason of Black Ops 1 and his son David Mason and charting the rise and threat of Nicaraguan narco-terrorist Rual Menendez, the game takes place both in Cold War-era 1980s and a near-future 2020s setting, meaning your armament is wide and varied. From standard SCAR assault rifles to Millimeter Scanner scopes that pick up heat signatures through walls, bat-like wingsuits to EMP grenades and drones, it's an intimidating weapon list.
Some of the series' legacy problems remain however. Though less jingoistic than earlier games, the plot is still dense and confusing, though Menendez is a charismatic and enthralling villain. Hands-off, scripted sequences occur far too often, pulling you out of control for the sake of a slick kill animation or bombastic explosion. And while the confined level designs allow for some genuinely jaw dropping visual details (facial animations in particular are spectacular), we're still missing the tactical possibilities afforded by open maps, and finite waves of enemies rather than checkpoint-based progression in some areas.
Some new problems are introduced too. The Strike Force missions are new side-quests dotted along the main path, and often play directly into the branching storylines. They play out a little like an RTS game, seeing you issue commands to squad mates and drones from an overhead viewpoint. The problem is that allied AI is so poor that you often find yourself running into the fray and doing the wet work your pals should be doing for you. The change of pace would be welcome if the execution wasn't so poor.But, thankfully, for the most part Treyarch's campaign additions are solid and welcome. On top of the tried-and-tested, fast paced running-and-gunning and responsive control scheme, it all feels incredibly exciting and often, dare we say it, fresh. Treyarch have finally realised that, far from being merely a side note to multiplayer, people love a good campaign. And that's just what's been delivered here.
A word of warning though: Black Ops 2's campaign is at times relentlessly grim. I'm no gaming prude, being a veteran of the Manhunt games, but watching characters burn alive trapped in a flaming jeep within the first few minutes of firing up Black Ops 2 made me very uncomfortable, being the first of many similarly brutal scenes. War is violent, no question about it, but be prepared to face the digital horrors of war in the most harrowing of ways. Make sure this game stays out of the reach of youngsters.
The Call of Duty faithful would be up in arms if Treyarch made sweeping changes to the multiplayer modes, but that hasn't prevented Treyarch from introducing meaningful tweaks that again improve on what's gone before.For starters, a multiplayer match's load out is now governed by the "Pick 10" system that assigns equipment a point score, tallying up to no more than ten, and doing away with combat classes altogether. It's a pick-and-mix approach that means that the array of perks or weapons that each player can bring into a battle is far more varied, with players being able to augment their play styles to a point of fine-tuned perfection, without (so far at least) there being any massively overpowered players on a map. The unlock skills and progression rewards remain, but are now tied to your successes with specific weapons, meaning your rise through the ranks will see you more likely to unlock guns that you'll actually want to use.
Newcomers get a boost through the newly implemented Scorestreak system, which replaces the Killstreak rewards of old. To unlock powerful consumables on multiplayer maps you now have to make sure you're taking part in objectives, not just purely knocking off the opposing team. It means that even casual players with a less deadly trigger finger can receive rewards and feel a sense of achievement during a game, so long as they observe the rules of the game mode they're currently taking part in. This significant change is most obvious when playing objective-based modes such as Capture the Flag, Demolition or Hardpoint. Certain Scorestreak rewards still need a little more balancing though; the ordnance dropping Lightning Strike is too easy to gain, and can make capture-point game modes a little fraught.Maps though are, with one exception, well balanced. Cover is placed in useful positions, points of interest like capture points appear in the most exciting locations, and interiors have multiple entrances to prevent campers from ruling the roost. Visually they're awash with colour too, a welcome change from the muted earth tones that have so far dominated the series. The one problematic map so far is Hijacked, taking place on a small luxury yacht. When filled to its maximum of 12 players its just too crowded, resulting in frustrating spawn points and repeated, meaningless deaths.
Despite this very slight misstep, the multiplayer options here are superb, and easily enough to keep series fans happy and entertained. It's hard to argue with the changes introduced, rewarding the hardcore who have the time to dig out the ultimate Pick 10 load outs, while remaining more accessible than ever for the casual fan.Lastly, there's the fan-favourite Zombies mode. Rising up to become one of the most popular modes in the game, it's fleshed out in Black Ops 2 to become a larger portion of the overall game than ever before. As ever, teams of players can back each other up in the face of an undead onslaught, fortifying positions and unlocking better weaponry and ammunition top ups through kills, before being inevitably overwhelmed.
That core idea has been expanded greatly, with the addition of Tranzit, a mini campaign mode of its own that sees you travelling from one zombie infested zone to the next on a fortified bus. You'll slowly but surely unlock all the secrets of each zone, and the way the game drip feeds you new locations before whisking you off to the next, always knowing that your successes in the new zone will eventually see you reap the rewards of earlier expansion, adds to the breathless fight for survival. Then there's Grief, a competitive spin on the idea that pits two teams of four against each other in an undead zone, with only one allowed to leave victorious. The unrelenting zombie horde takes real skill to beat, and Grief has so far been the multiplayer mode in which I've seen the most communication and teamwork between players being used. That's a triumph in itself for a series that's almost single-handedly given online play the smack-talking bad image it's now found itself with.
Hats off to Treyarch. It takes balls to take a chance and throw aside the age old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" adage. But they have, with almost uniformly beneficial results. Sure, it's still at its core a Call of Duty game, with many of the pros and cons that that demarcation brings with it and that shooter fans love and deplore respectively. But Black Ops 2 has refined the formula to the point of perfection, hitting a standard that is unlikely to be bested during this console generation. While the Call of Duty revolution is most likely to come with a new engine on new hardware, Treyarch can rest safe in the knowledge that they've made what's almost certainly going to be regarded as the best entry in the most popular gaming series of this console generation.