(Activision for Xbox 360)
By Mike Delano
Being a sequel to one of the best-selling games of all time, the makers of Call of Duty: Black Ops II are smart enough not to tinker too much with the template laid out in the enormously popular and critically acclaimed original. Developer Treyarch has always been willing to get a little risky, though, and their gambles pay off again this time, making Black Ops II the best game in the franchise since Modern Warfare 2.
The biggest tweak is bringing some of the covert missions you’ll play out of the Cold War and into the near future of 2025. This allows the single player campaign to play around with some future weaponry, from attack drones to armored mechs, which is exactly the kind of spice that these increasingly predictable installments needed. Granted, you still get the classic Call of Duty-style rescue missions and infiltrations, and they look (creeping through the tall grass of Angola, sneaking through the jungles of Myanmar during a rainstorm) and play beautifully, as always. But even these are freshened up with branching paths, customizable loadouts, and storylines that change based on your decisions.
That ambition bleeds into the competitive multiplayer as well, which is as addictive as ever. The maps are some of the best the series has ever offered – the locations are full of detail and personality and the layouts are fantastic, encouraging all different types of play styles, from lone wolf run ‘n’ gunners creeping through tight corridors to long-range snipers looking for a perch from which to survey their prey. The new “Pick 10” create-a-class system fosters these diverse approaches by giving players the opportunity to truly customize their soldier. You can fill up your 10 inventory slots with only what you want, whether that is enough weaponry to be a walking tank or the opposite, a silent killer infused with lots of physical abilities but armed only with a knife in your teeth.
The popular Zombies mode also returns in Black Ops II, and although its been given the royal treatment this time around with a full campaign and a big expansion on all of its esoteric Easter Eggs and humor, it still doesn’t connect with me. Surviving waves of enemies with your buddies using Call of Duty’s peerless gunplay should be a guaranteed success, and the concept worked fine in Modern Warfare 3, but here it just feels off.
Black Ops II is so packed with polished, compulsively playable content that it reinvigorates the Call of Duty franchise. The series’ output hasn’t had a dip in quality since the original Modern Warfare in 2007, but with every subsequent installment, it always seems to be just on the brink of fatigue. That is, until November rolls around and it exceeds expectations to remain the king of the FPS genre, an annual tradition that Black Ops II continues.