Ask yourself one question, and be honest: were you genuinely excited for 2012’s Call of Duty game before all the juicy details dropped? We don’t know about you, but we were feeling decidedly apathetic towards Activision’s latest stab at its multi-million dollar selling military shooter, and with good reason. After all, to say that Call of Duty’s meat-and-potatoes gameplay has become formulaic would be an understatement of gross proportions. And yet, it still manages to print money by the bucket load.
However, for Call of Duty: Black Ops II, developer Treyarch is giving the series perhaps the most emphatic overhaul since Call of Duty 4 transitioned from WWII battle grounds to a more contemporary setting. More so in fact, as the new additions are more than just aesthetical; gameplay has been completely expanded, bold steps are being taken in terms of setting and story, and the undead are back in their own campaign. As such, we not only feel that Activision has delivered on its promise of ‘meaningful innovation’ with this year’s instalment, but more importantly, is crafting something that could potentially make Black Ops II THE shooter to beat for the foreseeable future.
Arguably the biggest pet peeve Call of Duty detractors have with the series is its linearity. You follow a strict path, blast a bunch of bad guys, trigger a cut-scene, and repeat until the credits roll. This time however, while the bread-and-butter gun battles are still ever apparent, players will be able to experience branching story paths, and directly affect the outcome of the overall campaign based on decisions they make. Details are sketchy at the moment, but elements apparently include various on-the-spot tactical decisions, such as opting to provide sniper fire for your squad or joining them in the fray. The new Strike Force missions are instrumental in this new open-ended structure however, allowing gamers to tackle Black Ops tasks around the world. These will be assimilated into the core narrative apparently, and take place in a sandbox-style environment, opening the door to a wealth of new options. These include ordering your squad about, commanding war assets such as aerial drones and more.
This is a massive innovation for not only the CoD series in itself, but for modern first-person shooters in general. Surely this will now be a benchmark for which all FPS games will have to try and match? Past Call of Duty games – and most FPS for that matter – are a linear rollercoaster ride where your entire future is already mapped out. There’s barely any degree of freedom from a narrative and gameplay perspective, no opportunity to stray off the beaten track. Above all, you felt like all your actions, however innocuous or significant they may seem, are for nothing; you weren’t really changing anything, you were effectively running through checkpoints, triggering the next big action sequence along the way. Black Ops II at least looks to eschew some of these restrictions by offering a degree of freedom and a chance to shape the story through your own actions; to give your efforts some weight and encourage gamers to experiment more. And we can’t wait.
World War II has been done to death, modern warfare is being milked for all its worth by Infinity Ward, so what’s left? The future, of course. Instead of setting the game in the 1960s again, Treyarch had decided to take a bold step with its latest endeavour, bringing the action forward to the year 2025. It’s a bold step, and one that offers plenty of opportunity to flex its creative muscles in regards to the technology and locations we’ll be able to soak up. So far, we’ve already heard details of a new Cold War, and while some of the action will indeed throw back to the 1980s, the lion’s share of gameplay will transpire in the near-future. We’ve already seen examples of some swanky high-tech gadgetry and state-of-the-art war machines, which will no doubt add a completely new dynamic to the tired-and-tested Call of Duty formula.
Then there’s the Zombies mode, essentially Treyarch’s alternative to Modern Warfare’s Spec Ops, which has started mutating into its very own unique brand. Initially starting out in World at War as an amusing side gig featuring Nazi undead, Zombies has grown to become one of the most surprising success stories of the Call of Duty brand to date. In Black Ops II, our decomposing friends rise from their graves once more, only in the form of a full-fledged campaign featuring a unique storyline. Not only that, but you can also expect the same frantic multiplayer action as you work together to subvert the shambling Hordes of Hades as with previous iterations. So, not only do you get the main campaign, but a new side story to boot. By comparison, Spec Ops seems pretty underwhelming at this stage, and in terms of money’s worth, Black Ops II certainly seems to be offering substantial bang for your buck: The main campaign, Zombies campaign, and multiplayer. Is this possibly the most complete FPS experience to date?
It's still early days, but all the signs point towards Black Ops II being the most robust entry in the series to date, and a firm shot in the arm for a series that had been stagnating for quite some time. As such, there's no doubt in our minds that the game will shake things up on the FPS landscape considerably when it arrives later this year.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is due out on PlayStation 3, PC and Xbox 360 on November 13, 2012.