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Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 review

The changing of the guard.

Let's not be coy. We both know why you're here. You want to know if this is the one. Is this the game that will finally turn the tide and see Call of Duty given a bloody good kicking? Believe me, I understand that impulse. We're conditioned to root for the underdog, not to cheer on a champion that's already spent five years on top.

Sorry to disappoint, but Black Ops 2 is not the cynical obligation you might think. It may be destined to earn all the money in the world between now and next November, but that assurance has gifted developer Treyarch with confidence, not arrogance. For so long considered the second-string studio, brought in to add to the series on Infinity Ward's off years, Black Ops 2 sees Treyarch not only adding to the franchise but taking ownership of it. This is a game that dares to take a billion-dollar formula and muck about with it.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the campaign mode. Bucking the trend for increasingly stunted single-player shooter experiences, Treyarch has returned to the belief that the solo portion of an FPS is the beating heart of the game, not a grudging tradition useful only for bombastic trailer shots.

No longer are you handed a pair of weapons and shoved down a corridor of scripted stunts. You can now choose your loadout and equip perks before each level, much like multiplayer. The maps accommodate and embrace this freedom too, offering broader routes that reward the exploratory player and secret areas, containing better weapons or useful intel, that can only be accessed with a special perk. There are still a few headbanging checkpoints where you can see the ghost of CODs past in the waves of spawning enemies that only cease once you hit the right trigger spot, and the AI still won't be winning any chess matches, but Call of Duty hasn't felt this alive in years.

The story builds to a suitably apocalyptic conclusion, but it avoids too many silly set-pieces.

The story is absolute nonsense, of course, but still devilishly entertaining. Hopping between flashbacks to Black Ops hero Alex Mason in the 1980s and his son David in 2025, you'll pursue charismatic terrorist leader Raul Menendez across the decades. The near-future setting comes close to being a corny gimmick, with its cloaking armour, robot spiders and flying wingsuits, but it also frees the game from the jingoistic onanism of Modern Warfare.

While rival shooters continue to herd themselves down the cul-de-sac of military realism, Black Ops 2 throws itself into pulp sci-fi with gusto. Although missions take place in Angola, Yemen, Pakistan and other potentially offensive hotspots, the story avoids the predictable post-9/11 plot devices. The evil Menendez is referred to as the biggest threat since Bin Laden, but with his smart suits and European suave he's a flamboyantly sadistic Bond villain rather than another fiendish Islamic mastermind.

Most remarkably, for once the storyline isn't a “one and done” linear romp to be churned through in a hurry. It's still relatively short - around six hours or so - but a branching storyline forces you to think and engage with the fiction rather than hammer through it. There are six endings and multiple points where your actions can dictate the outcome. A few blunt button-prompt moral dilemmas aside, it's surprisingly seamless. More than once, I finished a level only to discover that there were events I could have altered.

There are also level-specific challenges to beat, leaderboards that gauge your score against your friends and optional Strike Force missions that allow you to control multiple units, vehicles and turrets from an overhead tactical view. Some of these tie up loose ends from the main missions, others will impact the ending you get. It's a bold experiment, but not always a successful one. Friendly AI is pretty bad, meaning that the real-time strategy and tower defence aspects quickly take a back seat to hands-on intervention, at which point it becomes just another FPS level. They're not unplayable and still make for a change of pace compared to the core missions, but if this feature is to return in future instalments it'll need a bit more spit and polish.

"In a series where linearity had become a mantra, player agency is back on the menu."

There's less alternate history conspiracy guff this time. Only a level in which you kidnap Manuel Noriega leads the story into dubious waters.

None of these features can strictly be called innovative, given that they all exist in some form in other games - even other shooters - but it's still notable that a series that could easily coast on popularity and hype is willing to deviate from its safe formula by this much. In a series where linearity had become a mantra, player agency is back on the menu and this is the first Call of Duty game for a long time where you'll actually feel compelled to return to the campaign multiple times.

The changes to multiplayer are less obvious, but no less interesting. Top of the list is Pick 10, which completely scraps the idea of fixed loadouts and combat classes in favour of a pick-and-mix approach, freeing the player to come up with the exact combination of guns, attachments, grenades and perks that suits them. As long as you don't choose more than 10 items to take with you, the game is agreeably blasé about your decisions. Deep levelling systems also mean that every weapon unlocks new attachments based on successful kills with that weapon rather than player progress, so you're always moving towards more stuff you'll actually use. “Whatever works for you” is the game's rallying cry.

Killstreaks are gone too, replaced with the more accessible Scorestreaks. If you're playing Deathmatch then you likely won't notice the difference, but when playing objective-based modes such as Capture the Flag, Demolition or Hardpoint, the change levels the playing field, allowing players who may not be crack shots but who excel at completing tasks and helping teammates to earn the fun toys as well. New players are also catered for in the Combat Training playlists, which stand aside from Core and Hardcore modes and offer a relatively pain-free journey from newbie to Colonel rank.

"The maps are tight, intricate mazes with no dead ends and no safe spots."

Characters now resemble the actors voicing them. Cult movie fans will recognise Michael Rooker, Tony Todd and James Hong straight away.

Those toys aren't always well balanced, however. The Lightning Strike Scorestreak bonus can be a real game-killer, especially in modes that force players to cluster around flags and capture points. Dropping devastating ordnance with little warning, the area of effect needs to be reduced or the Scorestreak level raised to stop teams from spamming the opposition with unavoidable death. Treyarch is less strict about snipers as well, and the combination of quick-scoping plus the flexibility offered by Pick 10 and the various perk slots means that it's possible for some players to dominate a map, using their rifle like a shotgun.

Such wobbles are part and parcel of any new shooter launch, particularly one that has revamped its player systems at such a base level. The maps, at least, serve to keep things fair. These are drawn from the classic COD template, with Overflow, Plaza and Raid all standouts. These are tight, intricate mazes with no dead ends and no safe spots. Wherever you end up, there's always a way out - and a way in. Capture points are well chosen for maximum drama, offering challenging spaces to hold or assault. Dubious Scorestreak attacks aside, there's no single place that can be rendered invulnerable, but nor are they so exposed that taking them is a chore.

Only one of the 14 maps (15 if you count preorder bonus Nuketown 2025) is a wash. Hijacked takes place on a luxury yacht, but with a full complement of 12 players, it's simply too small for anything but the most manic deathmatch.

"Ultimately, ambition is the word that best describes Black Ops 2."

The game has a much broader colour palette than most military shooters. There are even bright blue skies in some maps!

It's just Zombies that lets the game down. Now elevated from amusing mini-game to its own campaign, the level of polish evident elsewhere just isn't visible here and there's a sense of the mode being pushed too far, too early. You can still take part in the classic Survival stand-offs in various locations, but the big addition here is Tranzit, a rolling campaign that sees you travelling by fortified bus from one map to the next. You have a limited time in each area to seek out items for the new crafting system, steadily opening up new areas as you go.

It's a fine idea, if fairly obviously a hybrid of Left 4 Dead and Dead Island, but with absolutely no in-game explanation of how this game mode works, a lot of its finer points are quickly overwhelmed by the brutal zombie waves. Button prompts are fussy, which can be the kiss of death when trying to grab a new weapon, while characters tend to jam and obstruct each other in the narrow spaces of the maps. It's still amusing enough as a bonus side dish, but Treyarch's ambition has outstripped its design in this case.

Ultimately, ambition is the word that best describes Black Ops 2 - and that's remarkable enough in itself. This is still Call of Duty, with all that entails, and anyone who has resisted the series so far likely won't be won over this time either. For the fans, though, Black Ops 2 offers the rare sight of a series at its height choosing to experiment and change rather than stay loyal to a proven, but tired, formula. It may be a small victory in the battle for fresh blockbuster thinking, but it's a victory nonetheless. Those hoping to see Call of Duty knocked off its perch will have to wait another year.

8 / 10