Duty to duplicate.

Commended and condemned, Call of Duty is in either case one of the most culturally key video game brands of all time. In less than a decade, only a quarter of our industry’s age, Activision’s IP has stood as the symbol of gaming’s expansion. The playing populace has multiplied ten-fold, the economy has restructured into one reliant on the blockbuster, and storytelling has become as important to the game as the game itself.

The irony is that through all this change, through a dozen annual releases shipped in assembly line fashion, COD has remained static – a rail shooter with a Hollywood script. And why shouldn’t it be? It follows the formula better than anyone else. Only problem is that the formula has proven to be a one-trick pony with a bad limp. And each year, those hurdles are looking higher. Does Treyarch do enough to freshen up the fight, or is this animal begging to be put down once and for all?

Story Bored?

While it’s not by any stretch of the imagination a revolution in storytelling, the single-player campaign of Call of Duty: Black Ops II is probably the most intriguing of any since Call of Duty 4, mainly because of its unique structure, and it is certainly the most topical. The plot, jumping between story-lines set in the ‘80s and 2025 respectively, is a fairly forgettable ‘Tom Clancy’ political blockbuster, marked by a third-world Bond villain – albeit one with a tragic background – a cliché cast of characters and names (Woods, Hudson, Mason), and an end of the world scenario.

You know the drill.

Like in the first Black Ops, it jumps from past to present in order to give the current doomsday affair some context. In the past, you’re Alex Mason, the primary protagonist of the first game, and in 2025, you’re his son, David – call-sign, Section. The main deal is that Raul Menendez, another ideological enemy with a personal vendetta against America, has orchestrated a Second Cold War, this time between the U.S. and China, who’s restricted export of its Rare Earth Elements, extremely valuable minerals used in military and personal tech. As Cold Wars go, your missions take you to proxy states as you infiltrate covert installations and wage all-out war with neighbouring nations. Overall, the plot can get confusing as you’ll find yourself halfway through the game and not know what’s going on or how you got there, but as far as Hollywood scripts go, it’s not bad.

What’s new to the campaign, and what makes it interesting, is the inclusion of multiple endings. A set of Strike Force Missions throughout the single-player have a direct effect on the story’s outcome. If you are killed in one of these missions, there’s no revert to checkpoint; your character is permanently dead and the game skips to the next core mission. Based on how your strike missions go, the end of the campaign will slightly differ. Though it would be great to see a greater exploration of ludonarrative consequences in future COD games — especially when the franchise is so deeply grounded in the framed narrative — Treyarch has at least taken a step away from the movie and into the game.

Unsurprising Assault

But only a small step. Black Ops II is still the cinematic rail shooter that Call of Duty has always been. At times, it can feel like the control you have is entirely negligible. You’ll go where a CPU orders you to go, a context-sensitive cut-scene will take over, you’ll be instructed to pull a combination of triggers to engage an event that the game could just as easily have carried out but instead offers to you in sympathetic consolation – as if to say “Wow, this guy really doesn’t get to do much… I guess I’ll let him hit a button here”. And just in case you make a habit of getting lost in corridors, a patronising ‘Follow’ way-point will be there to further pull you out of the experience. The game desperately wants you to adhere to its every scripted thrill, so much so that you often feel like the guy behind the controller at an E3 demo.

It’s the best looking Call of Duty yet. But the bar wasn’t set very high in the first place.

The warfare itself is, again, what you’d expect: solid but untouched. Fast-paced shooting galleries will throw waves of nationalists at your feet; all you have to do is point and shoot, which is satiating enough. Depleting your weapons is never a concern as frequent ammo reserves and corpse looting give you access to a vast array of armaments. The future sections are by far the most fun, as many of your opponents will be cloaked and have to be brought down with an EMP grenade.

If I have one contention with the gunplay, it’s that there is no way to remove the kill indicator. Years ago, titles like Resident Evil 4 and Chronicles of Riddick Butcher Bay made strides towards realism in games, innovating by reducing the player’s HUD and relying on laser-sighted weapons. Black Ops II, in more ways than one, feels like a regression. What’s next? Is Black Ops III going to remove regenerating health and re-introduce health packs?

War Of All Ages

Multiplayer has been the meat of this multi-billion dollar franchise for years. If you’re a fan of its fluid and frenetic firefighting, the latest COD will satisfy; if you’re not, there’s nothing to entice skeptics. You spawn, you sprint around some rubble, you spot an enemy, you shoot first or you drop before you can blink. It’s quick and reflex-driven, and it all takes place in the future setting of the game, so you won’t be killing clans with Kalashnikov.

The meat of the game remains online. And it’s no mystery.

One thing that’s new is the ‘Pick’ 10 system. Essentially, this give you complete freedom over you load-out, allowing you to mix and match weapons and perks. Whereas before you were confined to a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, a grenade, and a perk, now you can opt to throw in that extra perk in place of that grenade you rarely rely on, or stack yourself with weapons, etc.

Zombies makes another return, which began as sort of an obscure bonus mode in Treyarch’s World at War but has since become standard. As always, you’re holed up in a house and defend your stronghold from wave after wave of undead until your inevitable death, boarding up windows, buying weapons, and picking up bonuses that max out your ammo, award point multipliers, and obliterate zombies with a nuclear bomb. It’s good fun that’s best enjoyed in the co-operative company of a few buddies and a box of pizza.

Vulnerable Veteran

Black Ops II is a bit of an eyesore. While many of the missions showcase attractive environmental effects and texture – notably one that has you hang-glide off a cliff in the pouring rain – their corridor design renders that beauty irrelevant. Most concerning is Treyarch’s ever-persistent visual fidelity, the miscalculated mindset that ‘next-gen’ is defined by a gloss of paint. Sure, in most circumstances, Black Ops II looks better than previous COD games, but characters still move in the same awkward, machine-like manner. When the movement of a soldier had been so perfectly captured in Unreal 3 titles like Gears six years ago, why is COD still subject to the same untidy animation? It may look acceptable for a 2012 game, but it still feels like a 6th Generation title, not a 7th.

The sound is par for the course. An A-list voice-over cast including Gary Oldman and Sam Worthington supply a standard action hero’s performance, while the gruff wise-ass monologues of James Burns, rife with comical cursing, sound like snippets out of a Die Hard film. The intensity of warfare is captured well enough, but the driving score and far-fetched movie plot naturally diminish the realism of war that early COD titles nailed on the battlefields of Europe.

Black Ops II is an honest effort at moving the Call of Duty franchise forward, but this effort is superficial and in the end is more of a step back for not just the license, but for video games. Too often stripping the player of control via numerous cut-scenes and quick-time events, too often belittling you with ‘Follow’ indicators and ‘Kill’ crosshairs, and too often leaning on its summer flick script over the once thrill-packed re-creation of warfare,. The campaign of Black Ops II is exciting at times, but when a hundred soldiers charge at you, and you find yourself yawning, you know something is wrong; in this case, ‘wrong’ means nothing new. Ageing graphics and animations also fail to prove that COD is benefiting creatively from its ‘1 title a year’ force-fed production. The multiplayer is the only reason you should be buying the game, but even in its online suite, Treyarch has not sufficiently answered the call and mustered an experience you can’t enjoy on any number of previous releases.

Prefer moving pictures and sound? Then watch the video review here

Call of Duty: Black Ops II was reviewed on Xbox 360.

Cannon Fodder