“Call of Duty: Black Ops II” is like no other game in the “CoD” series.
Instead of focusing on historic battles or modern engagements, it spends most of its time in the future.
Instead of putting familiar assault rifles, shotguns and rocket launchers in your hands, it gives you weapons of the future — as well as plenty of the old favorites.
And instead of mashing together a string of missions with a convoluted, improbable and sometimes offensive storyline, it actually tells a coherent and compelling tale.
Activision divides development responsibility for “Call of Duty” games between Infinity Ward, which creates the “Modern Warfare” games, and Treyarch, which gave us the history-based “World at War” and “Black Ops,” as well as the highly entertaining “Nazi Zombies” missions. This time around, Treyarch takes to reins.
Many have seen Treyarch as the runner-up, creating shallower games that hide weak level design by throwing hordes of enemies at you. While those complaints might be somewhat true at times, I’ve always preferred the Treyarch games because they deliver a fun experience that rarely adds offensive elements to the game just for shock value.
“Black Ops II” definitely has Treyarch’s fingerprints. On some levels, you face hordes of enemies that challenge your trigger finger more than your brain. And the graphics are a bit uneven. However, this is the most fun I’ve had with “CoD” since the first time I played “Nazi Zombies.”
The bulk of the game is set in 2025, when a charismatic terrorist leader named Raul Menendez is seeking to overthrow the world’s elite nations and give power to the people. For most of the game, you play as David Mason, who’s part of a special operations unit trying to thwart Menendez’s plans.
However, a good chunk of the game is told in flashbacks by Frank Woods, who teamed with Mason’s father in the original “Black Ops,” which was set in the Cold War era. The elder Mason and Woods had several run-ins with Menendez during the 1980s, which helped set the terrorist on his path. In one flashback, you even play as Menendez for a short while. It involves a very intense killing spree, fueled by rage and fear.
The flashbacks provide crucial background for the action in the main portion of the game. They also include a pivotal moment when your decision will affect the course and outcome of the game. Such decisions are sprinkled throughout the game and you sometimes don’t even realize their importance unless you play through the game a second time and make different choices.
Decisions that have a real impact, the multilayered story and fascinating characters make “Black Ops II” the best-told tale in the “CoD” series.
The 1980s missions play much like the original “Black Ops,” with stealth and old-school weapons providing the keys to victory. The 2025 missions deliver a vastly different style of warfare. They tend to be intense from the start with plenty of action and a wide array of futuristic weapons. These range from aircraft that look like jet-powered Ospreys to flying drones and small walking tanks. They also include personal weapons, such as a grenade launcher that’s attached to your wrist, electrified “brass knuckles,” rifle scopes that see through walls and active camouflage clothing. In addition, Mason is based aboard a gigantic aircraft carrier named the USS Obama. And that’s all just 13 years in the future. I think the game developers have a lot more confidence in the Defense Department’s acquisition system than I do.
The portion of the game set in 2025 actually has two segments. There’s the primary storyline and a set of optional “Strike Force” missions. Although these missions are options, they also affect the outcome of the game, so it’s best to complete them.
In the “Strike Force” missions, you are given an array of troops and drones to defend, attack or rescue a target. In most cases, you can play through the missions in first-person perspective, switching from SEAL to drone or walking tank as the situation dictates. Or you can zoom out to guide your assets from above. In most cases, it’s much easier to run through the mission in first-person, but the overhead view can be handy for positioning your forces in many situations.
Overall, the missions provide a good selection of settings and styles of combat. Granted, things do go a little overboard at times. It wouldn’t be “CoD” if they didn’t. Imagine firing missiles at helicopters and tanks while galloping along on horseback in Afghanistan. It’s cheesy, but still a lot of fun.
Of course, a huge percentage of gamers who buy “Black Ops II” will never experience any of this. They’ll bypass the campaign and go directly to online play, which has become the primary selling point for “Call of Duty.”
Multiplayer game play has not changed radically from previous versions. Everyone still runs around like crazy shooting, knifing and blowing up everything in sight. Even if you’re playing on a team, the lone wolf mentality prevails.
However, one big tweak seems to have made the game a bit more fair to those who aren’t twitchy-fingered caffeine addicts. The new “Pick 10” system for creating your own class of warrior lets you select any 10 perks, weapons and upgrades. For example, if you earn a new perk that makes you more resilient, you might need to get rid of a weapon attachment in order to add it. This allows you to build a combat class that suits your play style but also seems to have brought some balance to the battlefields.
Overall, the maps seem to be well designed, offering something for every combat style but not giving anyone a huge advantage.
Since this is a Treyarch game, fans know to expect a survival mode featuring hordes of flesh-eating zombies. They definitely won’t be disappointed, because developers have delivered the undead and even added a new twist. You can play the traditional stand-your-ground format or you can try your hand at a more mobile style of zombie-fighting. In the “Tranzit” version of play, you move from spot to spot aboard a bus controlled by a robot driver. While in motion, you need to protect yourself from zombies who leap onto the bus. When it stops, you need to run to find more ammo, weapons or items that will help you construct a helpful gadget. It can get very intense and very fun.
The controls are very smooth, as should be expected from “CoD.”
The graphics are a bit uneven. At times, they’re quite impressive with incredible detail and depth. At other times, they’re only average, offering characters who move woodenly and backgrounds that lack texture.
Developers sprinkle a few familiar faces throughout the game. The media have already reported that it includes a defense secretary named Petraeus. You’ll meet him aboard the USS Obama. You’ll also run into former Marine Col. Oliver North and former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega during the 1980s missions. In the 2025 missions, you’ll even encounter a president who looks and sounds remarkably like Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The game lands a mature rating because of intense violence, which gets pretty gruesome at several points during the campaign. As usual, there’s also quite a bit of swearing.
Bottom line: A- “Black Ops II” brings some new elements to the “Call of Duty” formula and finds success.
Platforms: Xbox 360 (tested on), PlayStation 3, PC