|Available for Xbox 360, PS3, and WiiU|
Jetpacks with rigid wings. Gloves that can adhere to any surface and support your body weight. Advertisements that feature your face when you walk by. The campaign in Call of Duty: Black Ops II has some interesting ideas about the future of technology, but what about the future of this massively popular shooter series? On the one hand, Black Ops II introduces new mission types and dramatic decision points that liven up the campaign, as well as a league play option that represents a fundamental shift in the franchise's hallowed multiplayer mode. On the other hand, the campaign hits the same satisfying rhythms, the multiplayer captures the same frenetic intensity, and the cooperative zombies mode delivers the same stale undead-massacring action. Caught between striving for the future and remaining rooted in the past, Black Ops II finds solid footing, providing another great ride on the Call of Duty rollercoaster.
The ride starts off a bit rough as Black Ops II makes good on its pre-campaign warning of graphic content. Two early scenes linger on people burning alive, and while one ends up contributing to character development, the other is just gratuitous. Later cutscenes don't flinch from depicting gory violence, though of all the unpleasant sights you see throughout the story, the playful (and not at all gory) post-credits video might be the most appalling.
Fortunately, the campaign boasts an engaging story and a lot of entertaining action. It features the lead characters from the original Call of Duty: Black Ops, and though it references events from the past, a clear narrative thread emerges that is easy to follow. You jump between two time periods: the present, which is the year 2025, and the past, which spans about a decade during the Cold War. The narrative reflections of the elderly Frank Woods (a protagonist from Black Ops) weave these two timelines together, but the character that truly drives the story is the villain, Raul Menendez. During the Cold War missions, you follow Menendez's origin story and rise to power. In the 2025 missions, you desperately try to avert his catastrophic master plan. This parallel character development is deftly handled, infusing your missions with undercurrents of curiosity and urgency.
Things get even more intense when you are asked to make a choice. Press one button to kill a target, the other to let him live. The conditions of each choice vary and there are only a few of them, but even when you aren't responding to a prompt, you might be making a choice in a dramatic moment that will have consequences later. The main course of the campaign remains constant, but these decisions do affect the fate of some key characters. A few of these moments are sure to give you pause, adding some welcome weight to the proceedings, and there's a handy story rewind feature that lets you play earlier levels in order to see how different paths play out. There are also mission-specific challenges that give you ancillary goals to complete while you do so, further increasing the replay incentive.
You can also see some variance in the available strike missions, which are a new type of campaign level. These stages put you in a squad of soldiers and drones, and then let you choose which asset to control at any given time. Defending installations against enemy assault, escorting a convoy, and rescuing a hostage are some of the endeavors you might undertake. Though you have a team at your command, strike missions are still all about you gunning down foes. Your AI allies are only good at slightly hindering your enemies, so you end up doing the heavy lifting yourself, often while tracking activity on multiple fronts and hopping around to deal with advancing enemies. Having to consider the bigger picture is a nice change of pace for a series that has mostly involved just shooting what's in front of you, and these missions are a welcome shot in the arm for the familiar campaign pacing.
Of course, familiar as it may be, that pacing is still great. The campaign ebbs and flows as you move through a variety of diverse, detailed environments using an array of powerful weaponry to dispatch your foes, occasionally hopping into a jet or on to a horse for a short jaunt, or manning a missile turret to tame a swarm of hostile drones. A few neat gadgets and surprising gameplay moments satisfy the novelty quotient, but you still get the lingering feeling that you've done this all before. The new strike missions, dramatic decision points, and memorable villain help keep this concern at bay, however, and this fiesty, enjoyable romp is more enticing to replay than other recent Call of Duty campaigns.
Black Ops II's competitive multiplayer has seen some changes as well, notably in the way you equip yourself before going into battle. The COD points system from Black Ops has been ditched in favor of a new token system that still affords you some control over the order in which you unlock new weapons and gear. The more interesting change is the new loadout system, which gives you ten points to play with and assigns a single point to every element of your loadout (guns, attachments, perks, lethal and tactical items). It offers a bit of flexibility if, say, you don't use a sidearm much but could really use an extra perk, and the new wild cards allow some limited creativity. Put one of these in your loadout, and you can go into battle with two well-equipped primary weapons, or you can load up on perks and bring just a knife and your wits.