This year’s Call Of Duty entry arrives with some heady expectations. The first Black Ops remains one of the most successful video games of all time, despite attracting controversy over Cuban missions and the brevity of its single-player campaign.
While content is likely to remain as controversial as ever – an early scene features a man being burned alive – Activision can probably rest easy over potential story complaints this time. Not only does the David Goyer-scripted tale cover a respectable eight to ten hours, it also offers branching story paths. Even seasoned players will find some longevity from replaying and seeing how different decisions pan out.
In places, Goyer’s plot seems to echo his work on The Dark Knight Rises, the game’s villain, Menendez, leading a populist uprising not entirely dissimilar to Bane’s. However, the contrast between returning hero Alex Mason’s missions in the 1980s and his son David’s in 2025 provides a complex and involving narrative. It’s as much a story of the fractured relationship between father and child as it is an exploration of America’s collective chickens coming home to roost. With most of Alex’s chapters focusing on one shady, CIA-led American intervention in global politics or another, there’s also an air of criticism towards US policy that’s deeper than expected from what’s often seen as a “hoo-rah!” military shooter franchise.
Switching between the slower, more brutal weapons of the past and the not-quite-sci-fi, high-grade military tech of the future brings two very different flavours to the game. Mason Sr’s sections feel grimy and almost sinister, crossing deserts on horseback or creeping through unforgiving jungle. His son’s feel slick and refined, with advanced complexes and military installations. The biggest disappointment of the campaign, gameplay wise, is that too many of the most interesting gadgets of David’s half of the story rarely appear for long, leaving players questioning their absence in later chapters.
More interesting are the tactical Strike Force missions, seeing you issue commands to a mixture of advanced drones and human soldiers. It’s clearly something of an experiment, and feels like one that Treyarch didn’t quite commit to, as the option remains to ignore overhead strategic views and just run around shooting as usual. Players willing to learn the (admittedly complex) command structure will enjoy the more cerebral element though.
Perhaps more important is the multiplayer aspect. As expected, the 12 modes on offer deliver a healthy variety of online experiences, from the straight-up carnage of free-for-all matches to multi-team efforts demanding planning and co-operation. The balance does still feel skewed to long-time devotees though, and those new to the franchise should probably get used to spraying entire clips in the direction of a rival, only to be downed by a single shot. Mercifully, a training mode aims to bring newcomers up to a semi-competitive level, though expect to spend a lot of time there if you’re a complete recruit or have simply grown rusty since last year’s operation.
Finally, the ubiquitous Zombies mode returns, expanded to offer a fuller team experience. Delivering three sub-modes itself – Tranzit, travelling between inter-linked maps on a bus, unlocking new areas to progress; Grief, a four-on-four versus mode; and no-frills Survival – Zombies is bigger and better than before, rounding out the package with yet more long-term appeal.
Black Ops II is essentially three games in one, its internal trinity offering distinct experiences. Ultimately, what players take away from it will be determined by what they want out of it. The story is meatier than before and genuinely engaging, multiplayer is deep and involved – if a touch unfair for those who can’t commit hundreds of hours to honing their skills – and Zombies is simply fun. With a gorgeous score and hardware-challenging visuals, it’s an undeniably better package than its predecessor. However, despite the changes, this is an iterative rather than revolutionary improvement and the too-brief glimpses of future tech coupled with almost entirely avoidable tactical elements create an aura of playing it safe. Call Of Duty remains the shooter of choice but some time soon we’re going to want a more radical reinvention.
Reviewed by Matt Kamen