Ever since it changed to a more visceral experience years ago with Modern Warfare, Activision's been "going for the gusto" with each of its Call of Duty games, delivering on every accord in both single and multiplayer. True, a certain few have been turned off (like those hastily banned from its servers – spoilsports), but there's a reason it sells multiple million copies a year. And now you can add another notch in its belt to Call of Duty: Black Ops II – because this is one of the best entries in the series to date.
The game's main story focuses on Raul Menendez, a Nicaraguan criminal who has his sights set on something bigger. With the help of a handful of rebels and some newfound technology, he's able to seize control of a large assortment of United States military vehicles, including walking tanks and gyrocopters with near-endless firepower. In a story that twists between the 70's-80's era (with original Black Ops hero Alex Mason) and the current year of 2025 (with his son, Dave), you'll learn what made Menendez so damn twisted, and why he needs to be stopped.
While there are occasional head-scratching moments (such as a certain character's loyalty), the story has oomph to spare, mainly due to two new additions – choices and Strike Force missions. With choices, you have multiple endings you can see, ranging from fairly punctual to downright devastating, depending on what you do. As for the Strike Force missions, these are open environment stages that you can either win or lose, depending on where you direct soldiers and who you jump into control of. These are first-rate additions to the game, no matter how you fare.
And some of the stages in the story mode are outstanding on their own. At one point, you're going all Lawrence of Arabia as you ride around in a desert on a horse, with a rocket launcher in hand. This is just one of the better cinematic moments in the game, along with a Los Angeles battle that has to be seen to be believed. At one point, you're in a vehicle, outrunning a collapsing freeway; the next minute you're in the air, mowing down your own drones. It's nuts.
That's just a small part of the package. Black Ops II continues to establish the best multiplayer in the business. Now that the Elite services are free, you can stream your gaming sessions via YouTube with ease, while checking out video clips and formulating clan options. The customization continues to be off the charts, as you can change your loadout, put together a special title for your gaming buddies and unlock new weapons galore.
As far as how the multiplayer plays, judging by the sessions we've played, it runs terrifically. The variety of maps (15 in all, thus far) will really keep you busy, but my personal favorite is Hijacked, taking place on a cruise ship with a cool "ambush room" on the top level (perfect for taking back the flag in some points) and lower levels. (You'll develop a favorite as well, I'm sure.) There are a multitude of modes here, with fan favorites like Kill Confirmed and Domination making a comeback, along with specialized League Play if you think you're really good. But don't forget to take advantage of the Party Games – Sticks and Stones is a triumph, arming you with a crossbow with limited ammunition and a knife. This'll really put your skills on display.
And if you want to team up with your friends, Zombies is back and greatly refined. You'll be unlocking new areas and weapons as you proceed, provided your team doesn't fall under pressure from the incoming waves of the undead; and once you hop into the bus (one of the new levels in the game), you'll be having a blast as you run around at top speed, defending your confined space. It's an acquired taste – and you need a group of people that can keep up with you – but it's enjoyable.
The gameplay hasn't changed too much from the Call of Duty standard, but I'm actually rather thankful for that. There's a "right at home" feeling with it, when you've got enemies lined up in your sights or you're hopping into a turret and mowing down groups from above. Occasionally, something does feel a bit "off", like when your cursor doesn't lock in on someone (with auto aim turned on), but overall it's sticking with the status quo – which fans will appreciate. The new Strike Force missions, I should say, do add a degree of challenge, though – especially on a higher difficulty setting.
Visually, Call of Duty: Black Ops II has some amazing set-ups, whether on a river in Cuba or in the heart of a devastated Los Angeles. The game runs beautifully at nearly 60 frames per second throughout, and some of the smaller things, like the shimmer on smooth flowing water or the stunned reaction of a guy when you ram a machete into his neck, are admirable. There are occasional glitches here and there, and some of the character models are hardly as realistic as others, but overall, Treyarch continues to pump out quality work with its graphics.
The same could be said with the audio side. Black Ops II's voice cast really gets the job done, primarily Kamar de los Reyes, who gives Menendez a sense of believability that most villains in the series – save for Modern Warfare II's Lance Henriksen – were missing. Other notables include a returning Sam Worthington and Michael Rooker, who's given a better opportunity to shine here than he did in the Call of the Dead DLC.
Jack Wall's music score is right on the money, never going into overkill mode but playing right along with the on-screen action almost perfectly. And the sound effects, from the booming explosions to the roaring machine guns, deliver on every front.
Say what you will about Call of Duty being "the same old thing", but Black Ops II simply proves otherwise. Everything you could want out of multiplayer is here, whether you're eSports serious or not; Zombies is still a romp with friends; and the single player packs on content with its new Strike Force missions and multiple conclusions. It's another top-notch sequel for a series that shows no signs of slowing – kind of like Menendez on an adrenaline rush.
-Robert Workman, @TheDCD
(Reviewed on Xbox 360. Activision did provide review materials for this game, including a final copy for testing and access to an event prior to its release. However, treatment in no way had any effect on our overview of the game itself.)