There's a certain saying that might be appropriate for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 "two steps forward, one step back", though in truth it's more akin to two steps forward while dragging the ball and chain of military shooter design along. Treyarch has managed to bring some fresh new ideas to the genre: with multiple endings based on your actions, real time strategy laden missions and a sweep of improvements to the venerable Call of Duty multiplayer. Not all of these new features are perfectly executed, but it's great to see the series going in new directions. If only Treyarch had gone all-in, we might have gotten a brilliant but slightly flawed game, but instead we got something held back by some aging mechanics.
One specific section sums up exactly what I'm talking about. There's a mission that takes you to Afghanistan in the mid 80s, where you're supposed to hold off a Russian heavy assault, complete with attack helicopters and tanks ... with nothing but a horse. What's great about this mission is how the level itself breaks from the normal linear shooting gallery, as you use the horse to traverse the rather large map, jumping off to complete objectives before riding on towards the next. You can also do your best impression of a cavalry charge by trampling Russian soldiers, at least until you die instantly because you accidentally ran off the level and "you've abandoned you mission." You don't even get a warning to turn back. Here's an exciting mission that stretches the boundaries for a military shooter, then slaps you back down for not playing by its rules.
The rest of the story plays out by bouncing you between the 1980s and 2025. Black Ops 2 gets off to kind of a rough start as you switch focus between characters and then flashbacks of those characters. Eventually the bumpy ride will smooth itself out as you catch up to the basic premise: You're primarily controlling David Mason, the son of the previous Black Ops protagonist Alex Mason. David is trying to hunt down Raul Menendez, who besides having a personal vendetta against your friends and family is also the terrorist leader of the group Cordis Die. Your time spent in the near future is where the game is at its best. The Call of Duty series loves big spectacles and booming set pieces and the futuristic setting makes all that a little more believable even when it's outlandish. It's the future, after all, so why wouldn't they have winged jet-packs? The game actually downplays the futuristic bits more than it ought to; with stomping robots laden with heavy firepower and invisible stealth suits, it's a little disappointing that the act of putting lead down range has remained largely the same despite the obvious technology jump everywhere else.
Cordis Die's primary goal is to take control of all the US's military drones, but there are other layers to this plot, and you'll even be able to change some of these outcomes beyond what's scripted in the story. Black Ops 2 employs a number of in-game decisions, secondary objectives and optional strike missions that will all feed into one of the game's endings. Multiple endings are certainly nothing new in the wider scope of gaming, but they do work really well in Call of Duty. Some decision moments will have you questioning what's the right course of action, since they can often have unexpected outcomes, while others cleverly play off military shooter structure. There's also a slightly clunky option to rollback your save to repeat a specific mission and carry on with the campaign from there, so you don't have to replay the entire game to see the various endings.