As with so many long-running franchises, we found ourselves wondering what Black Ops II could bring to the party that hadn't already appeared in one of the other Call of Duty games. We wouldn't have been too surprised if it had been much of the same.
This is no bad thing, as the CoD series has been nothing short of brilliant. The issue is, that with the brilliance of Halo 4’s refresh and games such as Dishonored and Borderlands 2 making big waves in the shooter world, Call of Duty: Black Ops II has a lot to live up to.
There is much that's familiar in Black Ops II’s story in that it carries on from the previous one, albeit being set in 2025. The difference here is how the story plays out: Black Ops II changes depending on the way you play.
Decisions within the game will result in a different ending, as well as events playing out differently during the single player. We don’t want to reveal anything here because it would spoil it for you, but some of the decisions you must make can be difficult. It is the first time we have played Call of Duty with a conscience, and we like it.
As for the story itself, expect the usual romp around the globe. Black Ops II takes it a bit further this time, going all the way from the jungles of Myanmar to Singapore and even to Yemen.
There are plenty of twists and turns to keep you hooked, but it is the story choice mechanic that really makes it exciting. Ultimately, this is all just a platform for Call of Duty to catapult you around the world. It works and we aren’t going to deduct points for it, because the level design and look of the game is incredible. We wanted to see what Singapore might look like in the future and we did.
Call of Duty’s engine might be looking a little old, but that same 60fps watertight gunplay feels as good as ever. The difference is that Treyarch’s imagination has been allowed to run wild here. Its being set in the future adds a unique element to Black Ops II, which we thoroughly enjoyed.
Forget the usual scopes and silencers of CoDs of old, here we have motion sensors, remote-control drones and even some clever active camouflage moments. It all adds up to a much more exciting game and, when employed with the multiplayer, really keeps things feeling fresh.
In fact, we would argue this Call of Duty is the biggest departure, gameplay-wise, from the original Modern Warfare. Some levels require you to play the role of battlefield commander, asking you to move units to attack and defend areas. You can even zoom down and control each individual unit. It is a nice mechanic, which isn’t exactly executed perfectly, but still makes a change from the usual CoD fare.
AI on the harder difficulties can create irritating situations which, while not necessarily being the game's fault, can be immensely frustrating to the player. Essentially, they are capable of laying down so much fire directly at your face, that death can occur before you have even had a chance to scramble for cover.
We wouldn't mind so much if this happened out of our own error, but it tends to feel so random, with the level design giving us too few hints at what is coming, that it can be annoying. Conversely, on the easier difficulties, you pretty much become invincible, save for a few moments when you really push too far. It's a shame, because previous Call of Duty games have felt a bit more balanced.
In keeping with the fairly significant departure from conventional COD, is the multiplayer. Gone are killstreaks, to be replaced with scorestreaks. This means that rather than needing to kill enemies to acquire things UAVs, drones and even attack dogs, they can all be gained by helping teammates and capturing flags.
It might seem fairly unimportant, but it makes a big difference. This time round Call of Duty beginners will find themselves given a much fairer chance against the veterans of the series.
Then there is the "pick ten" mechanic, which grants you a maximum of 10 different options for your multiplayer character. You can pick and choose anything, so in theory could have one gun, no grenades, multiple attachments and a tonne of perks. It all contributes to feeling even more customised than before and further adds to that multiplayer addiction for which Call of Duty is so famous.
Zombies has also been given a once-over. You now get a bus, in which you and friends are transported between a series of defendable bases. It plays brilliantly, and is without doubt our favourite CoD mode to enjoy with friends. Split screen is still a good thing and it is nice to see it supported here.
If you enjoyed previous Call of Duty multiplayer offerings, you are going to enjoy this. Some purists might complain, but we welcome the change.
Like Halo 4 and possibly even Assassin’s Creed III, this is the game the series has been waiting for. It is so polished, playable and well put together, that it is difficult to fault. Treyarch has changed enough to do away with the "just another Call of Duty" factor, most of which improves the series and takes it in a direction that we prefer to previous games.
Here is a game that we weren’t hugely excited about firing up our Xbox for, but which proved us wrong at nearly every turn. It's our favourite Call of Duty since Modern Warfare first launched.