Following the incredible performance of Call of Duty: Black Ops was always going to be a challenge. One of the most popular games in the series, it pulled the story to interesting new places and built upon the ever-great multiplayer; arguably, Treyarch out-did Infinity Ward at its own game. Direct sequel Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 attempts to push forward yet further, but this time its success is a little more mixed.
Black Ops 2's campaign is the usual pastiche of explosions and expletives. The story continues the tale of Black Ops' Alex Mason in the late 1980s while also following events set in 2025 through the eyes of Mason's son, David. It's certainly an ambitious effort, tracking along two time periods, but unfortunately the narrative is a bit of a mess: it lurches from one nonsensical plot point to the next, wrapping itself ever tighter around convoluted twists to justify a myriad of set pieces.
One ludicrous early section – which, to its credit, is actually one of the best parts of the campaign – has you riding around on an apparently-bulletproof horse, rocket launcher nimbly balanced on your shoulder, to take on a stream of helicopters and tanks. There's a plane segment that doesn't fly well, a mechanical recon mission that controls poorly. Recent Call of Duty games have all had more than a touch of Hollywood about them, but Black Ops 2 tips the balance slightly too far, and that's mainly due to a storyline that's difficult to follow and thinks it's more clever than it actually is.
While it rests upon the solid basis of Call of Duty's strong gunplay, the campaign is still host to some hallmark flaws that have harmed the series for years. Your AI team mates are generally useless, occasionally taking down an enemy or two but little more. Walk into a combat zone and all enemy fire instantly magnetises to you, the rest of your squad lolloping around without a care in the world.
Then there are a number of glitches. During our playthrough we got caught on scenery, saw an event fail to trigger and were unable to pass a checkpoint until the entire level was restarted thanks to frozen team mates. Black Ops 2's campaign looks rather fantastic most of the time, filled with fancy smoke effects and impressive facial animation, but it's certainly betrayed when you see an entire boat completely disappear into thin air, mid-combustion, before your eyes. Similarly the audio is brilliant, the sounds of destruction clear and full, the voice acting generally good, but there's a disparity in the volume between cut scenes and gameplay; the cut scenes are way too quiet unless you fiddle with the options.
In a new turn for the series, Treyarch has implemented branching paths that change how the story unravels: you might choose to shoot or spare a man; you may drive carefully or burn half of your friend's face off by veering into flames. These splits ultimately affect the ending, which offers some incentive to play again outside of the difficulty settings.
You're also able to change your weapon loadouts before each level – we found the defaults fitted us just fine – and engage in real time strategy side-missions if you're not quite ready to advance the main storyline. Here you play at commander, watching from an overhead camera and ordering troops about to guard facilities from swarms of invaders for a set amount of time. You can hop into the body – or chassis – of any allied soldier or vehicle to help out first hand, too. These sections aren't explained very well, however, and we never warmed to them: it's easier to just jump into direct control than order from above.
Still, the campaign is just one third of Black Ops 2 – and let's be honest, multiplayer is Call of Duty's main draw these days. Happily the outcome is much more positive here: this is the same life ruiningly-addictive online mode as ever, with enough game modes to suit everybody who likes to shoot things, polished up with a few new tweaks.
Kill streaks have been replaced with the similar, but more wide-reaching, score streaks: now rewards such as UAVs, care packages and all-destroying bomber planes are dependant on how many points you notch up before you perish. Not only do kills contribute to that score, and thus your streak, but so also do objectives in modes such as Domination and Capture the Flag. Whereas before you'd only be awarded experience for successfully securing an area, now those points join with those earned through kills to pull you ever closer to those match-changing rewards.
It's smart because it aims to satisfy both camps: racking up a lengthy string of kills will still net you bonuses, but now players who prefer to go for goals rather than worry about their kill:death ratio also benefit. It no doubt encourages some players to camp to preserve their streak the longer it goes on, but that's not too different to the kill streaks of old; it's a real effort to push people towards playing for objectives, and from what we've seen it's having the right effect.
The major change is in character class creation, which is now less rigid than ever. In past games you picked a main and secondary gun, plus any attachments, a couple of perks and grenades; in Black Ops 2 you're allowed to mix and match elements more freely to match your play style. You can fill up to ten different equipment slots in any combination, which means you can either stick with the standard sort of set up or go crazy and experiment.
You can leave your sidearm at home to free up a space for an extra perk, or forego those abilities altogether in favour of snapping three attachments onto your main weapon. The only constant is that everybody gets a combat knife. You could even opt to build the ultimate knife class, with several perks active and a couple of grenades as back up. It's a much more user friendly system that makes a lot of sense: what's the point in keeping a dusty pistol in your holster, never used, when you could trade it off for something more helpful? You still level up as you gain experience, and more weaponry and abilities unlock as you do so, giving you ever more room to fiddle as you go along.
As ever, there are oodles of game types to fiddle around in. The core set is what most players will gravitate towards, which includes your standard team deathmatch, free-for-all and objective-based face-offs such as Headquarters, where players battle for supremacy over an ever-changing area on the map, and plenty more. Then there are hardcore playlists, which carry similar modes to core only with more stringent conditions: less shots required for kills, for example.
There are also multiplayer options to cater to newcomers, which is good because the matchmaking still isn't greatly balanced; newbies and veterans continue to be matched up all too often. Combat training seamlessly mixes human players and AI-controlled bots together to help new players get on their feet, and there's a playlist that can only be accessed by combatants of up to level 10. We'd argue that similar conditions should apply across all of combat training, as we noticed some high-ranking individuals preying on the weak in other areas of this mode.
Finally, party games aren't what you might expect from the name: they're actually Black Ops' Wager Matches under a new name, game types that have slightly more abstract aims than the traditional modes. One in the Chamber gives every player three lives, a knife, a pistol and a single bullet: kill another player and you're awarded another bullet, and the last one standing is the winner. Sticks and Stones has you trying to destroy enemies with crossbows, ballistic knives and combat axes that reset opponents' score to zero should they hit.
Gun Game's winner is the first to get a kill with each of the available weapons, moving up to the next weapon with each successful hit; Sharpshooter rotates all players' guns every 45 seconds. Though you can only gain limited experience in these modes, they're brilliant fun. One in the Chamber in particular remains a strong favourite.
Treyarch has stepped towards eSports too, with a league mode that places players into ranks for competitive play. Players are invited to test their skills on a few games so that they can be assessed, and from there they're sorted into categories of similar levels. It remains to be seen how this plays out – the first 'season' commences next month – but from the practice season it seems like it could be an interesting addition.
The final part of Black Ops 2 is Zombies, expanded over its previous incarnations in Call of Duty: World at War and Black Ops and playable both online and offline. You can battle in one map to survive for as long as possible, but the centrepiece mode is Tranzit, a city-wide battle against the undead for up to four co-op players that pulls multiple locations together in one map.
By killing zombies you gain points that can be used to buy new weapons and open doors, and it's a balancing act between attacking enemies and spending time boarding up windows to keep them out. You can travel to different areas by hopping on a bus that drives in a circuit around the map. Each locale hides new things and parts that can be assembled into powerful weapons.
There's also an eight player mode called Grief. Players are sorted into two teams of varying sizes and try to out-survive each other as zombie hordes approach. You can't directly injure other players, but you can guide the infected face-munchers towards them, block their way or push them about. Grief them, basically.
Though the single-player campaign is far from a strong point of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 due to its clumsy narrative, ill-judged sections and short length, the online multiplayer still hits all of the right targets. Some crucial changes ensure that it's a decent fit for a range of skill levels and more flexible than before, and the Zombies mode has been improved once again. It might not fire on all cylinders, but as a multiplayer game, Black Ops 2 is still in the upper ranks.