Los Angeles is aflame. The pavement is red, and the white clouds in the sky have been tainted by the black smoke rising from the skyscrapers. The explosions blind me at first, and then leave a ringing tone in my ears. As the freeway collapses I feel the vibrations resonate through my body, and I hear thousands of tons of metal crushed beneath the concrete blocks. I'm right there at the heart of the battle.
Sure, I've been here many times before. I've lived my life down in these trenches for a few years. But this time things are a bit different. The battlefield is inhabited by soldiers who can be invisible, and they carry sonar equipped weapons that see through walls. There are hundreds of remote controlled drones blocking out the sunlight, and picking off helpless civilians on the ground below. There are massive robots that spit out missiles at colossal tanks. It's a battlefield born out of digital warfare, but the devastation is worse than anything seen before. The year is 2025. Welcome to the future. Welcome to Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.
I belong to the minority who have enjoyed the campaigns of the last couple of Call of Duty games. They have been explosive rollercoaster rides with bombastic action sequences, and bearded macho men who shoot evil people in the face with giant guns. And in Call of Duty: Black Ops Treyarch even managed to make things better with a great story, that in many ways made it a better experience than the one we had with Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare games.
For this reason I was very much looking forward to this year's sequel, and much like in the first game, the story revolves around Alex Mason and his gang. We're not getting conspiracy theories and existing conflicts this time around. Instead Mason and company take on a fictive yet charismatic antagonist named Raul Menendez. Menendez put his plans in motion during the end of the Cold War, and these plans play out all the way up until 2025, where a new group of heroes is introduced, lead by Mason's son David.
The adventures of father and son are told in parallel and are in the end tied up in a ending that's worth remembering. But even if the story in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 often excites, it suffers from flawed storytelling. All missions played out during the 80s are actually flashbacks told by fan favourite Frank Woods (you know, the one who took a nosedive on a pile of grenades the last time around). When it's time for "shocking revelations" you will have seen them coming from miles away. A lot of threads are left hanging, and to make matters worse that are some major logical gaps and plot holes that the developers make no effort to fill.
A lot of the pre-release talk has focused on the fact that the villain has managed to turn the defense systems of the super powers against their masters, and even if that's a great idea you will have reached the end of the game before you reach that part of the story. The five hour-long journey up to that point is made up of some of the most boring missions in the history of the franchise, and is true regardless of whether you're running around in yet another South American town during the Cold War, or in a night club from the future. Jumping around on the dance floor shooting terrorists in slow motion (to the tunes of some overly epic disco beats) is just strange. And at times this feels like a pastiche - a parody of Call of Duty.
It's also a shame that the campaign fails to take advantage afforded by the futuristic concept. There are sequences where you glide through the skies on a pair of mechanical wings and attack a base from above, and one scene where you control a four-legged murder machine, but regardless of the mission on hand everything comes across as overly-scripted and there is no room for any creative solutions. What's the point of equipping the main character with an awesome grappling hook when it's only usable in one single place in the entire game? There are massive amounts of untapped potential here...
That said everyone knows that Call of Duty likes to do cool stuff as long as it fits within the Call of Duty concept. Nothing wrong with that in my opinion, as the series usually manages its scripted sequences well. Unfortunately they aren't as polished in Black Ops 2, which can lead to repeated deaths just because the player chose to perform the scenario in a way that wasn't intended.
At the same time I think the opposite of this - missions with a lot of freedom - would have made matters even worse. The reason for this is that there is a more open ended chapter in the campaign, in which you ride on horseback and shoot at tanks and helicopters. It's the weakest part of the campaign, and perhaps a sign that the classic Call of Duty formula simply doesn't work unless you're locked into a confined space where you shoot at everything that moves in front of you.
There are a couple of things that separates Black Ops 2 from previous games in the series, and one such thing is the choices you make that remind us of Mass Effect. You can influence the fate of all the important characters, and some of your choices bring about unforeseen consequences. I've never pressed pause in a Call of Duty game before to analyse the situation I find myself in, but this time I had to do so on several occasions. There are even some choices you will make subconsciously during your first playthrough.
Even if I wasn't all that impressed by the campaign as far as mechanics go, I jumped on a second playthrough just minutes after the credits rolled across the screen. There are so many factors that count towards your ending, and the alternative outcomes are radically different. But these differences don't really affect the gameplay. You will be running through the same corridors, shooting the same anonymous soldiers regardless of what path through the story you choose.
An added layer of depth is there thanks to the Strike Force missions. During the campaign you unlock short challenges that are played out in parallel with David Mason's escapades, and the story in the main adventure is dependent on your performance in these missions. It's an ambitious concept with interesting game mechanics borrowed from strategy games. You can jump between the different soldiers in your group with simple button presses, which comes in handy when you have to be in more than one place at a time.
The problem with Strike Force is that it comes across something designed for more than one person, even if there is no support for a second player. In one mission you're tasked with defending three control points, but if you're playing on one of the higher difficulty levels it's near impossible with enemies swarming the place, and you cannot lower the difficulty mid-mission even if that's possible in the regular campaign levels. Normally this would have little impact, but in Strike Force you're only given a set amount of attempts and if you don't make it you fail the mission, and as a result there is a negative impact on the main campaign.
As luck would have it it's not with the campaign that we find the true lasting appeal of Call of Duty. The multiplayer component in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is just as addictive, rich on content, and wonderfully intense as we've come to expect. It even manages to take better advantage of the potential of the futuristic concept than the campaign, and it hasn't been this much fun to tailor your character since the very first Modern Warfare.
One of the reasons for this is that the perk and weapons systems have been given a major overhaul. All classes now have a budget of ten points, and every weapon, attachment, perk, grenade, and so on is worth a point each. This means that you can build your class any way you want it, and if you don't want a third perk you can use that point for a silencer for the assault rifle or something else. As long as you don't excede ten points. This is also means you can use more than three perks, if you can manage without an extra grenade or accessory.
It gets to be a bit overwhelming with the sheer amount of new weapons, gadgets and rewards. You feel like a kid in a candy store, but there is naturally a risk that some of the high tech gear will draw distain from veteran players. It remains to be seen how the community embraces this, but in my opinion the sandbox that makes up the Call of Duty multiplayer hasn't been this exciting in many years.
Another important change is that there no longer are any killstreaks. These have been replaced by scorestreaks, so you don't have to have the quickest trigger finger to gain access to attack dogs or gunships, as you can also focus on capturing the flag off the opposing team or grab dogtags in Kill Confirmed.
If you're into e-sports you will love Black Ops 2. Thanks to Call of Duty Elite is easy to keep on top of your personal stats and your clans, and there is support for livestreams over Youtube. You can even record commentaries on top of the matches.
The last third of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is made up of Zombies. Much like in Treyarch's previous military shooters you will be able to take on the armies of the undead with three friends - and the mode is more ambitious than ever before. In Tranzit Mode you try and survive for as long as possible in a deserted town by collecting objects, building things at work benches and finding new weapons. The game world is stranger than before, with environments that feel ripped out of Fallout 3, and characters straight out of Left 4 Dead - but with some of the worst dialogues ever seen in a video game.
The world in Tranzit is said to be 150 times larger than what was on offer in Call of Duty: World at War, but when the majority is made up of fog that covers a desert as empty as the brain of a zombie, and the graphics are an abomination that should not be allowed on this generation of consoles, then that number fails to impress. All in all, Zombies comes across as an underdeveloped mess that fails to live up to the rest of the package. But if you enjoyed the zombie mode in the last game you can probably squeeze out some brainless fun here as well.
When I reviewed Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 one year ago, I wrote that I wouldn't mind it if the series continued along the same tracks for one more year. But since I've changed my mind. I can't pinpoint the exact reasons for this, but Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 simply doesn't impress me like the previous instalments. I wasn't prepared for my reaction as I thought I would enjoy the bombastic rollercoaster ride as much as I've done before.
It's obvious that Treyarch have really tried, both as far as the campaign and the Zombies go, but they haven't made it all the way. There is a lot of potential in Black Ops 2, but perhaps there is just too much comfort with the signature style of the series, that it's impossible to make something truly captivating with it.
That's why I'm ready for a complete reboot of the Call of Duty franchise. But that's not likely. Call of Duty has been turned into the FIFA of the shooter genre. It's a sports game you buy once a year and then play for the following 12 months. A game where the changes from one iteration to the next are minimal, but something you can always rely on. So don't focus too much on my score. If you still enjoy Call of Duty games, you will no doubt enjoy Black Ops 2. But after spending 6 years in these trenches I would like to see Infinity Ward and Treyarch come up with something different.