Regardless of whether or not you think that Black Ops 2 is the best Call of Duty adventure to date – and you very well might – it’s surely the most interesting. To their credit, some of CoD’s fiercest detractors are candid about the fact that they don’t actually play these games, but every year the same scornful opinion rings loud: Call of Duty is always the same. Whether Black Ops 2 is a direct result of developer Treyarch actively listening to these people is obviously open to question, but the franchise’s ongoing, record-breaking form suggests that this sequel’s welcome set of tweaks and changes originated from a less self-conscious place than that. Some of these improvements are decidedly behind the times – campaign leaderboards and challenges could/should have been implemented years ago, really – but some of the other alterations are genuinely fresh and unexpected.
With its timeline-hopping plot and branching pathways this a much more ambitious CoD campaign than usual, but (as ever) it takes genuine pride in being nothing more than tub-thumping hokum. It’s a romp, and like the first Black Ops (and unlike the duo of Modern Warfare sequels) there’s nothing deliberately contentious about it: no civvie massacre, no murdered children. There is a completely bizarre obsession with burning human flesh, but this is basically an 18-certificate redux of The A-Team; the sobering realism of the original Modern Warfare now a very distant memory. Some of the story’s aforementioned branching routes involve a handful of binding choices which completely re-shape the latter stages of the game (the ending included, obviously) while others merely invite you to engage in different styles of play for a few brief stretches.
You can customise your loadout before each campaign mission (in exactly the same way as you do in multiplayer) and some optional “Strike Force” side-quests both dictate what happens during the core campaign, and allow you to play Call of Duty as a real-time strategy game if you want to. The stark, no-nonsense nature of these missions is surprisingly bracing – if you lose a soldier in combat they’re gone forever, and if you fail a mission there’s no option to retry it – and unexpectedly prove that CoD could actually work quite well as a strategy game. On console the process of ordering units around can be a bit finicky at first – control pad shoulder buttons are way over-used – but it’s engaging as hell once you’re in. As you’d expect, you’re never actually forced into playing this way, and can jump into a grunt’s boots at the touch of a button. Be warned though: if you don’t adapt, you’ll struggle on the higher difficult tiers.
It’s in multiplayer that the real shake-up has taken place. There are a few new weapons and a couple of largely unexciting new game modes – Hardpoint is a competent approximation of King of the Hill, for example – but combat has been dramatically broadened by the game’s new “Pick 10” system. Pick 10 honestly couldn’t be any more straightforward, but its affect on how people are going to play Call of Duty going forward is anything but simple. Everything now costs a point: perks, grenades, side-arms, weapon mods, streaks, launchers… everything. Wildcards also cost a point (they’re basically perks for your perks and streaks) and once you’ve spent your ten, you’ll need to start swapping stuff around if you want to add anything new. You can ditch tactical grenades in favour of a second mod for your primary weapon, or you can ditch all grenades and score a third gun mod. You can use a Wildcard to give yourself two primary weapons (at the expense of a perk) or you can ditch almost everything in favour of a fearsome set of beefed-up streaks.
The combinations aren’t exactly endless, but the possibilities are daunting at first, particularly as CoD has always set a peerless benchmark for accessibility in this department. Once you’ve acclimatised though, one of the great joys of Black Ops 2 in multiplayer involves strategising against your opponents by bouncing between different loadouts. Keep getting sniped by campers farming streaks? Bring on the explosives and tactical projectiles. Is everyone running around with triple-topped super weapons? Claymore up, perk up, and get comfy. For better or for worse, this Call of Duty often rewards the same kind of cunning, thoughtful play that Battlefield has always demanded… but only up to a point. Maps are mostly still tiny and combat is predominantly close-quarters, and replacing kill streaks with score streaks was a lovely idea that’s basically tokenistic: getting good, old-fashioned kills tends to net you more points than almost everything else.
Map design is first-rate – the shockingly unimaginative Carrier level notwithstanding – and it wouldn’t be a Treyarch game without a few undead wandering around. Zombies now has something vaguely akin to its own campaign mode; entitled Tranzit, it bends the formula by giving you an expanded world to travel around in (much of it only accessible by bus) and a massive wealth of secret areas to discover. The onus is on exploration here rather than mere carnage – though classic Survival is always an option – and a brilliant new mode called Grief brings the comedy. In it, you tackle Tranzit alongside another motley squad of four. You can’t interact with your opponents directly, but moving smartly and manipulating the dead is a surefire way to stitch them right up, and there’s nowt more satisfying (or amusing) than that. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is an extremely generous package, a veritable smorgasbord of slick, captivating entertainment. As per usual.