By Daniel Rutledge
Games don't come any bigger than Call of Duty and it's now clear the king of shooters is not stepping down from his throne for another year.
Black Ops II implements an impressive number of major changes that help move the series forward, while retaining the classic Call of Duty elements that have made the franchise so beloved by its hordes of fans.
Developers Treyarch have moved the franchise from Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare setting into the near future - a gamble that has paid off in spades. Not every new feature is a resounding success, but as a whole this is a fantastic piece of entertainment.
The single-player campaign of Black Ops II is fantastic. Even people who have slammed recent Call of Duty titles have praised this one for its ambition, originality and thrills.
Despite being the biggest-selling annually released game in the world for several years running, the franchise has changed things up dramatically. For the first time the story, penned by Hollywood big-hitter David S Goyer and set largely in 2025, has six different endings. Which one you arrive at depends on either your success or failure in some missions as well as A or B style choices.
This adds further replayability to the campaign, which is frequently highly thrilling. Also encouraging players to go through the campaign again is the fact you can customise your load-out for single-player missions. Want to see what that downtown LA mission would be like with a sniper rifle rather than a shotgun? You can.
After adjusting the screen when you first put the disc in, before you've even gotten to the menus, a fairly shocking cinematic plays out with two children in a burning house. It's a young boy trying in vain to save his sister and it's fairly unpleasant.
This is our introduction not to the game's hero, but the villain, Raul Menendez.
That gung-ho, handle bar-mustached jolly green giant approach to some of the other Call of Duty games is replaced with a darker tone that can actually be taken somewhat seriously. To call it "gritty" and "hard-hitting" would be accurate, but the way it achieves this description is more organic and genuine than how other games sometimes do.
You even play as Menendez at one point, frantically chopping at enemies with a machete in a desperate bid to save another woman he loves. It's great to learn so much more of the villain and to understand and believe his motivations.
Menendez becomes a terrorist who incites war between the superpowers over rare earth elements, and turns America's high-tech drone weaponry against itself. It's all a little ridiculous of course, but it's still particularly well-done and the best single-player campaign in a Call of Duty game since Modern Warfare.
The single-player campaign, which moves to many locations on Earth and switches back and forward between the '80s and 2025, is still not quite as good as it could be. The game engine used to drive it all is a little outdated - something very apparent in an early mission set in '80s Afghanistan. For a large section of it you're riding around on horseback and the mane just looks terrible.
The opening mission is fairly underwhelming too. Set in Angola, it has a massive army rushing at you, but it's a bit 'meh'. Very quickly things improve, however, and I generally found the 2025 levels much more exciting than those set in the '80s.
The glorified quick-time events from more recent Call of Duty titles are back. While these are often derided by many reviewers, I've always been a bit of a fan, and rappelling across a cliff-face and flying through the air with a wingsuit was an enjoyable break from the carnage in Black Ops II.
The Strike Force missions are another innovation in Black Ops II. In them you control a small army with a specific objective - to stop the enemy blowing up first a series of defence towers and then a central factory, for example. You can control squads of infantry from a top-down menu along with heavier machine weaponry, or zoom in and control any unit from a first-person view.
I found the Strike Force missions fun but frustrating. The friendly AI is not quite right and it's quite hard to whizz around the map and make sure your team is doing what it needs to. Still, this is a very promising mode that provides further variety to the gameplay. I hope to see improved versions of it in future titles.
The well written story, the fascinating villain and the multiple endings of the campaign mean I will be returning to it for more than one replay. It's superb.
The first few days of playing Black Ops II multiplayer, I was a little disappointed. The combat seemed more frenetic and chaotic than ever and plagued with one of my pet peeves - quick-scoping snipers.
I always like to play each Call of Duty for at least a week after release before writing a review and I'm very thankful I did with this one. Those teething problems were quickly sorted and it became a highly rewarding, satisfying and kick-ass experience that has improved upon the hugely successful Call of Duty multiplayer experience once again.
There are so many new features to the multiplayer system that I won't list them all here. Basically, there's far more customisation than ever before and helping your team as a whole is rewarded much more than just looking out for yourself.
Scorestreak rewards - the replacement of killstreak rewards - have been one of my favourite things about Call of Duty since being introduced in Modern Warfare. In Black Ops II there are more options than ever before, including some particularly cool new ones like the Warthog, VTOL Warship and Guardian.
Some enemy scorestreak rewards are much tougher to destroy than in previous years. A sentry gun, for example, can't be taken out with a swipe of your knife any more, they need some serious firepower unloaded on them, or a hacking device which can now be equipped instead of a tactical grenade.
Multi-team matches are one of the new features that I have been enjoying the most. It seems so obviously great it's a wonder it hasn't been used much in shooters already. Hardpoint mode with three teams of three players in particular is great fun.
League play ranks players and puts them in groups of similarly skilled opponents - a great feature in theory, but thus far not one that has enough players in its lobbies to be used.
Some of the more powerful weapons and perks are unlocked immediately in the non-custom classes and while you're progressing through the ranks, it's great to be able to utilize some of the best weapons, especially if you're having trouble in a match.
Treyarch really don't like campers, that's for sure. If you want to hide from enemy detection, it's harder than ever. Instead of two perks required to hide from UAV, motion sensors, aircraft and so-on, there are three or four you'll need to stay hidden. And a silencer on your weapon. And even if you have the Ghost perk enabled, it doesn't work if you're motionless.
I have a love-hate relationship with this approach. It's great that it's near impossible to hide in one spot for a whole match, but I'd rather play against campers than quick-scopers any day. As a Call of Duty fan, I occasionally have to defend the silliness of the game against people like my Battlefield loving pals - this is made all the more difficult by people running around the map with a sniper rifle and winning close-quarter battles against enemies wielding shotguns and sub-machine guns.
I don't mean to go on, but yes, quick-scoping is still a problem with the game. The over-powered nature of sniper rifles is still abused in Call of Duty, but it doesn't seem as much of an issue as in Modern Warfare 3. C4-throwing and drop-shotting still somewhat sully the experience too, but just as Treyarch somehow managed to reduce this in the first Black Ops, they've again bettered Infinity Ward in these areas with the sequel.
Black Ops II has made some wonderful improvements the highly successful Call of Duty multiplayer experience. Certain things like weapon power imbalances will be ironed out with patches, I hope, but even as it is, this is for my money the number one multiplayer console shooter on the market.
I have to admit I'm much more of a Spec Ops man than a zombie nut, but I appreciate how much effort has gone into this section of the game.
Zombies mode started as a fun little diversion bonus game in the Treyarch COD titles. Now, Activision has invested enough for it to become a fully-fledged campaign set across a series of stages, with multiple routes through each.
The standard survival mode is there, of course, as is a four-player Tranzit mode in which you need to board a bus to get to different areas of the map. There's also another new game type, Grief, which sees two teams of four enter an area but only one walk out.
For me, the zombie modes are a bit of a novelty, but are not nearly as entertaining as the single-player campaign or multiplayer modes.
Activision promised "three games in one" with Call of Duty and for my money, they've delivered it. While the zombie mode is not really for me, I appreciate that it's there and has a massive fanbase.
The single-player campaign is one of the finest of any genre game of 2012. As far as first-person shooters go, Halo 4 and Black Ops II have really set a new standard.
And as for the multiplayer - Call of Duty II has been my preferred online gaming experience for several years, as it has been for millions around the world, and the bar has been raised yet again with Black Ops II. I'm confident that come this time next year when the next Call of Duty is released, only then will I stop thrashing this one so much.
There are innovations I haven't mentioned in this review like CODcasting (live-streaming to YouTube direct from your console), better video editing and sharing tools for recorded matches, a more robust multiplayer training mode against bots... There really is a lot of value packed into this disc.
It's still too early to say whether Black Ops II is the best Call of Duty yet released, but it's looking like it will be. It's not perfect but it's pretty damn close.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II
:: Publisher: Activision
:: Developer: Treyarch
:: Format: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
:: Rating: R16