What value can you attach to innovation? Common sense would suggest it be rewarded, as progress is impossible without change. Nobody ever got anywhere by standing still. But video games are played by nostalgic and stubborn people; the sort of people that traditionally hate change and cling to their habits like rabid dogs. Heck, it’s why we have sequels in the first place. But should we be happy to see games that just sit up and do the same tricks over and over again? The Call of Duty series answers this question in the affirmative, with quickfire releases of what all but the staunchest of fans would call incredibly similar games. And now we have Black Ops 2, hoping to bring enough new bells and whistles to justify its own existence. So does it?
No. Not really. This review is going to talk about a lot of innovative ideas, with the phrase “for a Call of Duty game” as a suffix. The campaign isn’t as linear as you might expect… for a Call of Duty game. The multiplayer offers a lot of variety… for a Call of Duty game. It looks good… for a Call of Duty game. You get the idea.
There’s a story, of course, and it’s told with the usual bravado and baseball bat subtlety. Raul Menendez is a very bad man who is big on terrorism and revenge. The game flips between Alex Mason (protagonist of the original Black Ops) in the 1980s, and his son David in 2025, taking the player on a six-or-so hour journey through explosions traditional and futuristic. The plot is ridiculous and convoluted, cramming all the twists you expect from the series – as much of an oxymoron as that is. Treyarch have switched things up this time around in a few ways, the major one being a branching narrative. Various actions – big and small – in missions can change the course of events. Don’t kill this guy to gain aid later, kill these other guys faster to gain valuable intel, make a blatant moral choice with the press of a button. For the most part these don’t amount to much, but it’s a little more engaging than just forcing your way to the credits. Plus there are six alternate endings to work towards, if you think the story is just that damn interesting.
Choices you make could never really be described as ‘moral’, particularly in the somewhat uncomfortable world you run around in. Scenes where grown men leap off cliffs in LED-covered wingsuits like flying squirrels are butted up against men and women trapped and burning to death, or screaming as they are tortured on screen. Such imagery was flung at me so clumsily and so often that it was hard to tell if it was to make a point or to get me excited. It’s unclear whether Treyarch actually is that jaded, or they just think their audience is.
In a welcome twist to the tightly controlled experience modern Call of Duty is known for, players can choose their loadout before each mission. The core gameplay is still a calculated mix of corridors filled with fodder and the odd large battlefield, but being able to decide what you’re carrying into battle at least imparts a modicum of control. When you’re not moving robotically from stealth mission, to escort mission, to sniper mission, you’ll occasionally be given the option to do a Strike Force mission. These strategy missions allow you to play in first-person through any of the soldiers on the field, or from an overhead view where you can direct units. The overhead view doesn’t work well at all, with the AI not really up to the task of handling themselves. In first-person, you just get to see a haphazard version of a normal mission, with no scripted actions to make things smooth, exciting or challenging.
Treyarch’s trademark zombie mode is probably the highlight of the experience, and has enough content this time around to be considered it’s own animal. Survival still has you holding out against endless waves of the undead, but three more modes – Grief, Custom and Tranzit – all add their own wrinkles. Grief pits two teams against each other, charging them with surviving the horde while also working to get the opposing team killed. Hilarious and rage-inducing scenarios constantly emerge from these games. Custom is exactly what it sounds like: a way to tweak difficulties and power-ups. Tranzit lets players wander a huge world map, fighting zombies and riding buses as they collect parts to create all manner of useful device. Exploration could yield a handy riot shield or end in horrible, bloody death.
Then there’s the multiplayer – which, for some, is the whole reason for the purchase. If you’re a fan of CoD multiplayer then you’ll find things very, very familiar. The big difference is the “Pick 10” system, which gives players 10 points to spend as they see fit on weapons, perks and Wild Cards. It’s a simple but flexible system that lets each player choose how they want to tackle a match. Killstreaks have been rebranded as Scorestreaks, and points are now awarded equally for performing objectives, not just putting bullets in faces. Capturing and holding points and guarding flags can be more rewarding than simply trying to up your kill-death ratio, and it makes the multiplayer much less cutthroat than previous incarnations.
Call of Duty occupies an increasingly strange place in the gaming sphere. The majority of fans play the games almost obsessively, many to the exclusion of all other titles. The series is constantly berated (although rarely in the press) for rigid gameplay that remains unchanged year after year, but any changes immediately earn massive amounts of scrutiny from long-time players. Black Ops 2 reflects this schizophrenic stagnation, changing a lot on the surface while keeping everything status quo under the surface. The game isn’t particularly good looking, it doesn’t do anything clever and it has nothing important to say. But it provides a reasonable amount of entertainment, and since that’s what the target market is looking for I guess you can call it a success. Of a sort. 
Platform: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Players: Single, multi online
Classification: R16 – Contains Violence