Jetpacks with rigid wings. Gloves that can adhere to any surface and support your body weight. Advertisements that feature your face when you walk by. The campaign in Call of Duty: Black Ops II has some interesting ideas about the future of technology, but what about the future of this massively popular shooter series? On the one hand, Black Ops II introduces new mission types and dramatic decision points that liven up the campaign, as well as a league play option that represents a fundamental shift in the franchise's hallowed multiplayer mode. On the other hand, the campaign hits the same satisfying rhythms, the multiplayer captures the same frenetic intensity, and the cooperative zombies mode delivers the same stale undead-massacring action. Caught between striving for the future and remaining rooted in the past, Black Ops II finds solid footing, providing another great ride on the Call of Duty rollercoaster.
The ride starts off a bit rough as Black Ops II makes good on its pre-campaign warning of graphic content. Two early scenes linger on people burning alive, and while one ends up contributing to character development, the other is just gratuitous. Later cutscenes don't flinch from depicting gory violence, though of all the unpleasant sights you see throughout the story, the playful (and not at all gory) post-credits video might be the most appalling.
Fortunately, the campaign boasts an engaging story and a lot of entertaining action. It features the lead characters from the original Call of Duty: Black Ops, and though it references events from the past, a clear narrative thread emerges that is easy to follow. You jump between two time periods: the present, which is the year 2025, and the past, which spans about a decade during the Cold War. The narrative reflections of the elderly Frank Woods (a protagonist from Black Ops) weave these two timelines together, but the character that truly drives the story is the villain, Raul Menendez. During the Cold War missions, you follow Menendez's origin story and rise to power. In the 2025 missions, you desperately try to avert his catastrophic master plan. This parallel character development is deftly handled, infusing your missions with undercurrents of curiosity and urgency.
Things get even more intense when you are asked to make a choice. Press one button to kill a target, the other to let him live. The conditions of each choice vary and there are only a few of them, but even when you aren't responding to a prompt, you might be making a choice in a dramatic moment that will have consequences later. The main course of the campaign remains constant, but these decisions do affect the fate of some key characters. A few of these moments are sure to give you pause, adding some welcome weight to the proceedings. Once you've seen the story through, there's a handy rewind feature that lets you play earlier levels in order to see how different paths play out. There are also mission-specific challenges that give you ancillary goals to complete while you do so, further increasing the replay incentive.
You can also see some variance in the available strike missions, which are a new type of campaign level. These stages put you in a squad of soldiers and drones, and then let you choose which asset to control at any given time. Defending installations against enemy assault, escorting a convoy, and rescuing a hostage are some of the endeavors you might undertake. Though you can set targets for the team under your command, strike missions are still all about you gunning down foes. Your AI allies are only good at slightly hindering your enemies, so you end up doing the heavy lifting yourself, often while tracking activity on multiple fronts and hopping around to deal with advancing enemies. Having to consider the bigger picture is a nice change of pace for a series that has mostly involved just shooting what's in front of you, and these missions are a welcome shot in the arm for the familiar campaign pacing.
Of course, familiar as it may be, that pacing is still great. The campaign ebbs and flows as you move through a variety of diverse, detailed environments using an array of powerful weaponry to dispatch your foes, occasionally hopping into a jet or on to a horse for a short jaunt, or manning a missile turret to tame a swarm of hostile drones. A few neat gadgets and surprising gameplay moments satisfy the novelty quotient, but you still get the lingering feeling that you've done this all before. The new strike missions, dramatic decision points, and memorable villain help keep this concern at bay, however, and this fiesty, enjoyable romp is more enticing to replay than other recent Call of Duty campaigns.
Black Ops II's competitive multiplayer has seen some changes as well, notably in the way you equip yourself before going into battle. The COD points system from Black Ops has been ditched in favor of a new token system that still affords you some control over the order in which you unlock new weapons and gear. The more interesting change is the new loadout system, which gives you ten points to play with and assigns a single point to every element of your loadout (guns, attachments, perks, lethal and tactical items). It offers a bit of flexibility if, say, you don't use a sidearm much but could really use an extra perk, and the new wild cards allow some limited creativity. Put one of these in your loadout, and you can go into battle with two well-equipped primary weapons, or you can load up on perks and bring just a knife and your wits.
These are two extreme examples, but tweaking your loadouts with the gear you've chosen to unlock still confers a sense of getting more powerful and better equipped for combat. These are still the fast and deadly battlefields that have drawn millions of players for years. Positioning and reflexes are king, firefights are over in the blink of an eye, and success is rewarded with deadly equipment and satisfying experience gains. New gear, new weapons, and new score streak rewards are sprinkled throughout, offering new martial capabilities and strategic wrinkles. Traditional gametypes and a few rule-bending party games all offer familiar frenetic fun, but one new mode of play holds the potential to really shake things up.
When you first enter league play, you must play a few rounds so that Black Ops II can calculate your skill level. Then, you are placed in a division, and your subsequent league play games pit you against players who are roughly your skill level (your numbered rank is not displayed). You can rise and fall in the league standings, and at certain intervals, leagues will be recalculated to allow players to move up to the bigs or get busted down to the minors. Whether you relish running with the wolves or are tired of getting trampled, the quality of play increases when players are better matched.
League play also represents a significant change in competitive play because everything is unlocked from the start. This kind of freedom was previously relegated to the small ponds of custom games, but now there's an ocean of players who have all chosen from the same available options when they enter a match. This levels the playing field and lets you leverage the full power of the Black Ops II arsenal right from the start, which is great news for players tired of having their options restricted. However, this also means that you don't gain experience in the way you may be used to; the only XP you get from league play is a nominal reward at the end of a match. Without the ever-present possibility of completing challenges, unlocking new gear, and leveling up, league play feels detached from modern Call of Duty tradition. It's a strange sensation, but it feels liberating, allowing you to focus on the action at hand without the temptation to play in certain ways to target certain rewards. League play has the potential to shift the way that people play the game they've been enjoying for years, and that's an exciting prospect.
There are also some new sharing tools aimed at making the multiplayer experience more social and more extroverted. You can link your PC to your YouTube account and live stream your league play matches without having to purchase extra streaming software or capture equipment. This accessibility is appealing, but there are substantial barriers that limit this feature. The first is audience; you must have at least 10 viewers on your stream before it will go live. The game gives you a link to share and leaves you to recruit a crowd. The second barrier is technical. Call of Duty has long boasted high frame rates that make the action slick and speedy, but the games we streamed and viewed ran at slower, chunkier frame rates, as well as low resolutions. Watching a pale shadow of Black Ops II is hardly appealing, so your best sharing bet is still theater mode. There, you can watch your previous matches, edit highlight clips (or let the game take a shot at it for you), grab screenshots, and upload media to share with those on your friends list and the community at large.
Another new feature, so-called "codcasting," aims to introduce a new player type to the Call of Duty scene. By queuing up a game film and selecting this feature, you can watch the match with a suite of tools that let you highlight the action. You can track different players, watch certain areas with a free-roaming camera, and even use a picture-in-picture mode to see the standings and the action side by side. Though this has the potential to allow players to generate some dynamic, entertaining play-by-play videos, its current manifestation is very limited. You can only codcast saved films of games you have played in, and unless you can provide your own streaming solution, your only potential audience is the five other players you could invite in to your lobby. Future updates to this feature could make it more useful, but as of now it just feels like a shell of what it could be.
Black Ops II also heralds the return of zombies mode. Now in its third incarnation, this cooperative survival mode is still frantic, challenging, and home to some weird humor. But though some of the new missions play with the formula by adding a bus to catch or a competing team to watch out for, the core action has grown stale. Shooting the bullet-sponge zombies lacks the satisfying immediacy that Call of Duty thrives on, and dealing with their lurching, single-minded attacks grows dull even as they get faster and more numerous. The new maps feature veins of fire that flare up when you cross them and obscure your vision, adding more visual sludge to the already murky environments. Perhaps the fire is intended as some kind of platforming challenge--jumping frequently seems to be the best way to avoid it--but hopping around doesn't make the environments any less ugly or the enemies any less boring.
Though zombies mode is stagnating, the rest of Black Ops II is lively, and it's great to see some shifting in the familiar structure. Developer Treyarch's storytelling prowess has once again resulted in an engaging, exciting campaign, and the addition of league play to the online multiplayer arena is an intriguing change that could reinvigorate the formula that has endured for so long. By reaching forward while remaining rooted in the things it does so well, Black Ops II offers a great shooter experience.