The Call of Duty series’ single-player campaigns have always served as appetizers to the multi-player main course. Packed with set pieces and scripted events that could make Bruckheimer blush, they provide a few hours of forgettable thrills before fans jump online to frag their friends in the face. While the latest installment in the juggernaut franchise, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, could have followed this same formula, collected a big fat paycheck, and called it a day, its developers at Treyarch have done something unexpected: They changed Call of Duty.
No, they haven’t abandoned the core tenets that helped the series become an entertainment property capable of shaming James Cameron (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 beat Avatar to the $1 billon mark), but Black Ops 2 is far from another cookie-cutter Call of Duty. For starters, the campaign’s story—penned by The Dark Knight Rises scribe David Goyer—is the series’ best. Unfolding in both the original Black Ops‘ Cold War-era setting as well as a future-fiction world where advanced cyber-weapons make Skynet look like a schoolyard bully, the narrative packs plenty of plot twists. It doesn’t hurt that the main villain isn’t your typical evil-doing terrorist, but rather a sympathetic character possessing surprising depth; his motivations, more so than those of the various playable characters, define a narrative that resonates long after the credits roll.
Complementing the story is the player’s ability to shape it. A first for a franchise that’s previously relied so heavily on scripted action, choices—and their resulting consequences—help pave the player’s path through the game. This narrative device is tied to gameplay by Strike Force missions, more tactical objectives aiming to engage the mind as well as the thumbs. The concept, which encourages a more cerebral approach by commanding other soldiers, is sound, but the execution stumbles thanks to clunky controls and limited squad commands. Still, the payoff for slogging through these sections is a more immersive, personal story that ultimately supports a richer experience.
While Black Ops 2‘s single-player campaign represents a refreshing turn for the franchise, it’s the robust suite of multi-player options that will keep trigger fingers perpetually blistered. As with the solo content, Black Op 2‘s online modes receive a makeover. All the expected competitive modes—and even some new variants—are accounted for, but smaller tweaks result in significant changes. Call of Duty‘s genre-defining class system returns, but a fresh feature, dubbed “Pick 10,” allows players to pimp their characters like never before. Additionally, Kill Streaks have been swapped with Score Streaks, which recognize players’ success in completing objectives as much as their ability to fill friends full of buckshot.
Of course, if saving the world solo or blasting buddies online isn’t your thing, there are always undead hordes to slaughter. The addition of a so-called campaign to the popular Zombies mode leaves a bit to be desired thanks to some vague objectives and a barely-there story, but that’s a minor gripe. Whether watching your friends’ backs—or attaching slabs of zombie bait to them in the new Grief challenge—this apocalypse-surviving mode offers plenty of bang, and brains, for your buck.
Black Ops 2 is still very much the same special effects-spewing, content-packed Call of Duty you’ve come to expect. Layered into that familiar formula though, are a number of changes—both significant and subtle—that won’t please all the foxhole fan-boys, but ultimately make for a stronger, more accessible experience. While me-too military shooters like Medal of Honor continually attempt to clone Call of Duty‘s success, it’s refreshing to see that Black Ops 2 isn’t resting on it: A- (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
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