Another year, another Call of Duty, another two games under one name. Well, three in fact, as the Call of Duties which aren't subtitled 'Modern Warfare' also includes the well-loved zombies mode.So, while different people will buy Black Ops 2 for different reasons, it is perhaps important to consider it as a package rather than just its individual parts. Yes, said individual parts are essentially the same experience as we've been playing for the last half-decade, but with tweaks, polish and a few more ambitious changes, but as a pure value proposition you certainly do get an awful lot of game in the (notoriously expensive) box.
Let's start with the singleplayer campaign, which although will be the most short-lived inclusion in that box is also the first port of call for much of COD's enormous audience. It is in many ways the usual 'American soldiers save the world from sinister foreigners' nonsense, but it at least tries to do something more. With a script by Hollywood screenwriter David S. Goyer, it splits its time between the 1980s and 2025 and a sizeable, rotating cast of playable characters.
Despite efforts to give its soldiers personalities and motivations, the script does tend to devolve into angry men swearing most of the time, which makes it difficult to feel much for the game's ostensible heroes. One setpiece level from the villain's perspective perhaps inadvertently winds up making him the most sympathetic character in the game, even though he subsequently becomes Dr Evil.
With the characters, including Black Ops 1's returning stars Mason and Woods, so throwaway, the real start of the show is the rapidly-changing setting. A phenomenal amount of money has clearly been spent on the game - not unsurprising, given Call of Duty is the biggest game series in the world - and while there's not much in the way of meaningful evolution it does at least strive to out-spectacular anything in its field. From dense jungles to exploding cities and tranquil Christmas-time suburbs to a vast, floating futuristic hotel, Black Ops 2 is a treat for the eyes throughout. There's something sad about the fact that all you can do in these amazing environments is run through small, corridor-shaped parts of them while shooting people, but then that is Call of Duty's nature.
It does at times offer a little more freedom than before, however. There's now the option to choose your preferred weapon load out before each mission, and in turn some levels provide a few different, if still linear, routes to best take advantage of whether you're in an in-your-face fighter or something of a sniper. On top of that, once in a while the game offers a moral choice, having you decide the fates of certain characters with eventual consequences upon the game's ending. Granted, these choices tend to involve 'kill or subdue' or 'shoot in the head or the legs', but for a series that has so long consisted only of bang bang bang/cutscene/bang bang bang/cutscene it's a more significant step forwards than it might appear to be.
Multiplayer, on the other hand, is rather less progressive. This is about tweaking and refining Call of Duty's wildly successful online formula, so few risks are taken. New maps, new weapons, new special abilities, some of which have slightly sci-fi leanings but still don't depart far from the tried and tested. Probably the most significant change is the loadout system. Where formerly you'd have to stick with specific sets of killing tools, now you get to pick 10 things to equip yourself with, offering hundreds of different possible combinations that in theory help cater to individual tastes. The game's community is wasting no time in finding the most powerful/efficient combinations, and indeed how to most brutally turn the elaborate maps to their advantage, but for the more casual player it's simply a welcome opportunity to play with a wider spread of toys.
While multiplayer isn't quite as visually spectacular as the sheer excess on display in the singleplayer, it's comfortably the best-looking COD's online modes have been perhaps ever. There's a concerted departure from grey-brown urban areas into colourful and exaggerated settings. Presuming you're not too busy hiding behind the large collection of small walls, crashed fuselages and futuristic billboards to notice, it's definitely more characterful than the series has been for a while.
The once-throwaway co-op Zombies mode sees a little more progress, moving from unrelated individual levels to a sort of campaign structure of its own. It's a meatier offering now, and getting closer to the perhaps inevitable point where it becomes its own game rather than a slightly silly sideshow to another one. It doesn't feel anywhere near as slick as the singleplayer proper, but on the plus side you don't get regularly interrupted by cutscenes and quick-time events.
All told then, business as usual but it does feel noticeably ramped up and it does some faintly amazing things with this generation of console hardware. The tendency to dismiss Black Ops 2 as simply more as the same is strong, but it has worked hard to be more spectacular and a little less restrictive than its many similar predecessors.