After almost a decade leading the pack of first-person shooters, Activision's record-smashing franchise gets a few significant tweaks to ensure it stays ahead of the trigger-happy pack. And, by and large, they work.
Bloody, tricky campaign in new Call of Duty Black Ops II
Call of Duty: Black Ops II
PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC
If you thought we were living in violent times now, just wait for the near future. Should you still be kicking in the 2020s, you'll have to deal with psychotic South American druglords intent on inflaming tensions between the Chinese and US superpowers in a quest to control the world's supply of rare minerals that power your smartphone. Or so predicts Activision in the latest edition of its multi-billion dollar, line-blurring film-and-video game Call of Duty franchise that, following about a year's worth of build-up and a set of predecessors that have smashed most records, lands amid sky-high expectations.
The big news for Call of Duty fans - while the gist still involves shooting foreigners in the face across a wide array of colourful international locations - is that the game has been given a few innovative twists to keep people on their toes.
The campaign mission explodes in typical Call of Duty fashion: thrusting you - as the old, gruff and gun-toting favourite Alex Mason - into a chaotic sun-bleached Angolan battlefield from the 1970s civil war, as you seek out your captured comrade Frank Woods. Several hundred bloody deaths later, we're introduced to the main protagonist Raul Menendez. It is around him that the convoluted story circles. He is the crucial link as the narrative jumps between the Cold War-era missions and those in the near future. Now, twisted and seeking vengeance for the events of the past, Menendez is the target as you step into the Navy Seal boots of David Mason, Alex's son.
Complicated plotline aside, at times the gameplay is simply immense. From charging around the sand dunes of Afghanistan on horseback blowing up Russian tanks, to using wingsuits to swoop into hidden mountaintop facilities in Myanmar and taking out baddies with futuristic guns with X-ray scanners, there are several moment of intense gaming pleasure.
The most noticeable new addition comes a while in, with the first of the Strike Force missions. With a squad of soldiers, a couple of gun turrets and big old gun-laden mech under your control, you're given a top-down view of a battlefield and are expected to utilise a strategic deployment and tactic-based approach to fend off your foe. While optional, these missions can affect the global relations between China and the US and alter the campaign levels. Unfortunately, they are tricky, especially if you've just come from an all-guns-blazing single mission and are limited by a rather tardy computer AI for your troops. In the end, it becomes easier to do the whole thing in first person, which sort of misses the whole point.
In the main campaign missions, the non-linear approach comes into effect too. Miss all the intel or shoot someone of importance and you'll probably hear about it later on. As such, there are several endings available, making you feel more connected to the overall story. And thankfully, should your ending be not quite what you were hoping for, you can go back and repeat certain elements.
The multiplayer of Black Ops II is arguably the best of the series so far, with a new "Pick 10" system that allows you to customise loadouts. And the trademark Zombies mode has now grown into something that could be given its own release. Also, see two new modes of "Tranzit" and "Grief" added to "Survival".
In all, Black Ops II might not be the finest in the franchise, especially the campaign, but that's arguably because of the sheer quality of what came before. What it is, however, is an addition that takes significant risks, offering new elements that will probably return in what is set to continue as an annual - and eagerly awaited - event.