Available on Xbox 360, PS3 (tested), PC
How things change. Once Infinity Ward produced the good instalments of Call of Duty, while Treyarch delivered the second-rate efforts you got in between. Since Call of Duty: Black Ops, however, that’s begun to turn around. Black Ops might have had its moments of extreme silliness, but it was more inventive and entertaining than last year’s Modern Warfare 2, and now we have Black Ops 2: the most interesting Call of Duty game to ship since Modern Warfare. Now, being interesting doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an absolute barnstormer, but you can’t accuse Treyarch of sitting still and following the formula.
A New Approach
In fact, Black Ops 2 does something you might not expect from Call of Duty: it takes risks. It’s ambitious narrative straddles two periods, shifting between CIA-sponsored activities in eighties Angola, South America and Afghanistan and a fight against a terrorist arch-villain in a near-future world full of stomping, hovering drones, electronic sights and global alliances. It features branching storylines where your actions or failures in one mission might change how things play out later on. Most importantly, it no longer feels like a game where you follow the yellow objective marker from one shooting gallery to the next, doing what you’re damn well told. For the first time in years, Call of Duty allows you to handle some things your way.
You might not spot this at first. Your movements in the first few levels are as bound to the old yellow marker as in the last few Call of Duties, with the game’s main focus being to make good and sure that you’ll see every noisy, head-ache inducing spectacle it wants to throw your way. Give it time, however, and you’ll notice the levels opening out, with alternate routes appearing and rewards for straying off the beaten track. Let’s not go crazy. This isn’t a military shooter take on Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Dishonored. You still spend much of your time being hustled and bustled from one set-piece to the next, shooting all the bad guys before rejoining your AI buddies so that they can activate the next door or set-piece. However, given that Modern Warfare 3 often dragged you through the game like a slack-jawed imbecile who couldn’t really be trusted to even shoot straight, this is a definite step in the right direction.
What’s more, the game goes further with its Strike Force missions. These have you tackling several defensive or offensive objectives with the aid of a couple of infantry units, turrets and drones, in a kind of tower-defence/real-time-strategy/shooter hybrid. You can switch rapidly between a tactical map and a first-person viewpoint, meaning you can plan the overall strategy while taking part in the battle yourself. It’s not entirely convincing – the controls aren’t intuitive and your allied AI is so poor that it’s tempting to just do everything yourself – but it’s still good to see the series stretching. There are ideas here that a future Call of Duty could explore.
Tales of the Unexpected
And here the storyline and setting make a difference. Despite a writing credit for The Dark Knight’s David Goyer this isn’t the most subtle or sophisticated tale, but it’s still a cut above Modern Warfare 2 and 3, daring you to think about your enemies, their motivations and what really differentiates them from your friends. For once, the characters are more than one-dimensional. Future technology, including camouflage suits, controllable drones, a very neat drone spider and some brilliant electronic sights, make a major difference to the game, as does having drones as well as humans deployed against you.
Throw in some surprisingly inventive levels, featuring floods, horseback battles and flying wingsuits, and you have a Call of Duty that’s always spectacular, but not always that predictable. To be clear, this doesn’t mean it’s consistently brilliant. The thrills aren’t always there, or you get stuck in another lazy assault on a secret base, or your standard-issue ‘defend this space’ sequence. When it does work, however, you’re reminded why Call of Duty became so big in the first place: no other military shooter works harder to give you dumb action movie thrills.