Treyarch’s latest answers the Call again

Like the inevitable changing of the seasons, Call of Duty’s yearly release has become an event to which the gaming community can set their watches. In recent years, many gamers have criticized the cookie-cutter formula—the series has almost felt like a yearly “roster update” in the sports-gaming sense. After my time with Black Ops II, though, I can promise you this is one title that finally deviates from that formula.

Right from the get-go, the plot hits with an innovative one-two punch, as the story splits between two time periods. We get to play as both the original Black Ops protagonist, Alex Mason, in the ’80s as well as his son, David, in the near future of 2025. The key thread that connects them? The villain, Raul Menendez—but this isn’t your standard-issue Call of Duty baddie. The considerable talents of writer David Goyer—co-writer of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight—bring Menendez to life, as he exudes a sinister demeanor and delusions of grandeur that remind you of a cross between the Joker and a classic Bond villain. But Menendez also reveals a human side that elicits empathy at times, making him easily the most interesting, entertaining antagonist the series has ever seen.

After years of creative stagnation, Black Ops II’s campaign is a revelation. Once you get past the first couple of missions, the game introduces branching paths that can change the ending depending on how you react to the situations presented before you. This injects a healthy dose of replayability you usually don’t get from a Call of Duty campaign, making a seven-to-eight-hour experience worth going through multiple times.

The main campaign is joined by the new Strike Force missions, which add some real-time strategy elements to the proceedings. You serve as a handler for a squad who must carry out diverse objectives depending on the mission, issuing orders from above or taking over as any single unit and fight the battle in the trenches yourself.

Whether it’s assassinating targets or protecting computer terminals holding valuable information, the Strike Force objectives are supposed to help determine how you play. Unfortunately, once you dig into these side missions, you’ll realize how incompetent the ally AI is; it often ignores your commands, and soon the RTS view becomes null and void. In the end, it’s better to try to supersoldier it and control one character at a time in order to win the day. Strike Force is a great idea that finally brings some new gameplay elements into the mix, but it’s poorly executed, making some of the missions a bit of a chore depending on the parameters.

Aside from this one glaring flaw, however, the campaign is the best since the first Modern Warfare. The story enthralls from the start, and the gameplay is still definitively Call of Duty—especially with some sweet future tech like the Millimeter Scanner that allows you to see foes through walls.

It wouldn’t be Call of Duty if I didn’t mention the multiplayer, though—and in Black Ops II, this element’s better than ever. The new “Pick 10” system works like a dream in terms of customizing your classes, and the user interface simplifies things so that most anyone can use it to maximize their killing potential in any match. Plus, with new modes like Hardpoint (Call of Duty‘s take on King of the Hill), League Play for official competition, and CODcasting for those would-be pro-gaming broadcasters out there, this is the biggest, best multiplayer suite ever seen in Call of Duty.

But if multiplayer helps define Call of Duty, Zombies mode—which now offers three play options—defines Treyarch as a developer. In fact, this mode’s now been expanded to the point where it could almost be its own standalone game. TranZit offers a deeper experience as you explore a variety of locations, ferried from place to place on a robot-driven bus that has clearly seen better days. Meanwhile, Survival is more of your traditional Zombies experience with self-contained levels taken from sections of TranZit mode. Finally, there’s Grief mode, which puts two teams of humans against each other to see who can survive the zombies the longest.

Let’s face it: Call of Duty is a phenomenon beyond our control at this point; the game will sell millions of copies no matter what a reviwer says. But with branching story paths, the most impressive multiplayer yet, and a Zombies mode that’s to die for, I can say that—for the first time in a long time—I’ll be proud when I answer the call with everyone else when Black Ops II releases.

SUMMARY: The first Black Ops put Treyarch on par with Infinity Ward; with Black Ops II, they surpass them. This is the most impressed I’ve been with Call of Duty since the first Modern Warfare; aside from some problems with the Strike Force missions, this is a shining moment for the franchise.

  • THE GOOD: Best story since the first Modern Warfare.
  • THE BAD: Strike Force missions are a great-but-poorly executed idea.
  • THE UGLY: The stunning renderings of Manuel “Pineapple Face” Noriega.

SCORE: 9.0

Call of Duty: Black Ops II is available on Xbox 360, PS3, PC, and Nintendo Wii U. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.