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.

The other way you can affect the story is by successfully completing Strike Missions, which become available at certain points during the campaign. Strike Missions have a real-time strategy feel, and will have you commanding several units in a more sandbox style map, but you can jump into any soldier or drone to control the action personally. The idea behind Strike Missions is great, but the execution is lackluster. The tactical view and controls are passable, but real time strategy is still awkward on a controller. The AI can also make these missions frustrating. It’s often better to just Rambo the mission yourself than to depend on your soldiers to follow your orders.

Multiplayer is still Black Ops 2‘s main attraction. The big new addition is the Pick 10 system, which is brilliant in its simplicity. Rather than selecting a primary weapon and three perks as you have previously, Black Ops 2 makes every option cost a single point. The game then encourages you to mix and match however you see fit with a greater degree of customization. Maybe you’d rather run a second attachment for your shotgun in exchange for one less grenade. There are even additional options called Wildcards that let you double up on perks, weapons, and attachments at an increased cost of two per item. The customization in Call of Duty has always had these RPG elements to it, but this is the greatest amount of freedom we’ve been given. The gameplay itself has remained more or less the same; it’s still very twitch based, the instant kill knife will still feel cheap and camping certainly hasn’t suddenly disappeared. However, Black Ops 2 fixes some previously broken and problematic mechanics. For example, Second Chance and all other iterations are gone, so no more scooting around along the ground after death, and the Ghost perk now only grants UAV invisibility if you’re moving or performing an action, i.e. not when you’re camping in a corner. These changes might not seem like much to newcomers, but fans returning to Call of Duty will welcome them for how they improve the gameplay.

Some other new features are the addition of League play and the expansion of the Zombies mode, and they both contribute to the game with League giving you another wheel and set of goals to achieve and Zombies being a fun distraction. League play ranks you in a ladder after five qualification matches and lets you fight to increase your placement in the standings. These matches tend to feel very satisfying when they go off correctly in that everyone is right around your skill level, so they often come down to the last objectives and kills. Nazi Zombies, now simply called Zombies, has become a bit of a hallmark for Treyarch and it’s grown even more for Black Ops 2. Grief mode is a new twist on the survival gameplay, with two teams of four pitted against each other. The goal is to be the last team standing, but you still have to survive the final wave of zombies or the teams will be reset until there is a clear winner. Because you can’t simply shoot each other, you have to try and get the zombies to screw them over. Combine League and Zombies with all the various game types from the regular multiplayer, and it seems there is always something new to do even if another game type gets stale.

Bottom Line: Black Ops 2 is conflicted. It wants to move in bold new directions, but it falls back on safe, but aging, mechanics.

Recommendation: It’s the first time in a while that a Call of Duty‘s single player hasn’t just felt like just a rollercoaster dragging you along and the multiplayer still has all the normal hooks to keep you playing. Not every new change goes over perfectly, but it’s refreshing to see a developer trying to do something new with the military shooter genre.

[rating=4]

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

What our review scores mean.

Game: Call of Duty: Black Ops II
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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For another opinion check out this review from our friends at Smosh Games.

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