About halfway through Black Ops II’s singleplayer campaign, your squad steps from a helicopter onto Colossus, a luxury floating resort in the Cayman Islands. One squadmate sighs, saying, “So, this is how the one per cent lives.” No, this is how the one per cent makes games. It’s what happens when a publisher gives a studio a blank cheque, a luxury almost unique to Call Of Duty.
Evidence of this is found in the campaign, which is admittedly the same blockbuster hokum as ever, penned this time by Hollywood scriptwriter David S Goyer and sporting a series-first branching storyline. Six different endings depend on both spur of the moment moral A/B testing and your performance. Failure to capture or kill a target used to mean a restart; here, it often leads to repercussions. The goal, clearly, is longevity. Ever since Modern Warfare lowered the bar for campaign length, the story has been something to plough through in the first weekend – there to ease you into the mechanics, an FNG training run for the months of nightly multiplayer sessions to follow.
Black Ops II’s singleplayer campaign, however, is genuinely replayable. That’s thanks not just to branching narrative paths, but geographical ones too. No longer restricting you to a specific combination of weapons and attachments for a mission, you get to choose your loadout, including multiplayer-style perks. This has had a positive impact on level design, with Treyarch ensuring players aren’t punished for swapping the default SMG and pistol for a sniper rifle and shotgun, offering a handy bell tower here, an inviting network of outbuildings over there. These aren’t the expansive arenas of Halo – you’re still following your nose, or a squadmate’s feet, to the next objective – but Treyarch’s crammed a lot into these tight spaces. A scoring system, with friends-list-based leaderboards, adds further reason to replay, as do a suite of weapon-specific, objective-based and timed challenges.
Also new is Strike Force, a suite of RTS-lite missions in which you control a squad of troops and, on occasion, vehicles. Though entirely optional, such missions do affect the storyline, even letting you correct mistakes you’ve made in the campaign. In one, we rescued an NPC kidnapped by a villain who we failed to catch in the previous mission. While you can give orders from a tactical camera positioned up in the sky, useless friendly AI – reluctant to move as instructed, let alone engage the enemy – meant we did most of the legwork ourselves at ground level.
The story’s near-future setting helps the series get past its long-standing ‘F-Yeah!’ jingoism. Sure, America’s under attack again, but for once this is not a tale born out of lingering Cold War or post-9/11 paranoia. If there’s a bogeyman here, it’s China, but the two are cast as allies within minutes, united against antagonist Raul Menendez. But it takes a while to get there. Much of the first half of the game is set in the 1980s, with Sergeant Frank Woods – presumed KIA at the end of the first Black Ops but very much alive, retired, and well into his 90s in 2025 – telling the Menendez origin story. Here, the game is at its weakest, only really settling into a groove after a couple of hours, at which point that near-future setting comes into its own. Much of that is due to 2020s military technology, most of it automated, powered by the same rare earth elements Menendez plans to use to launch a massive cyber-attack that will destroy the US, China, and capitalism in one fell swoop. There are drones, of course, cloaking devices, and the AT-AT lookalike Claw tanks shown off when the game was announced. There’s a sniper rifle that can be charged up, killing enemies through the densest of cover; there are attachments that highlight targets in bright orange diamonds. The weaponset is largely familiar, though, with near-future spins on series staples such as the AK-47, Skorpion and SPAS-12, but the attachments and perks available make things feel genuinely futuristic.
All of which is just as well given that, fundamentally, the action is otherwise COD standard-issue. There are a few too many moments of that staple, the protracted scenes of hands-off bombast: one early low point saw us roll out of the way of a tank, get rescued by a squadmate on horseback, jump back to the tank that nearly killed us, have a punch-up on top of it, drop a mortar round through the hatch and jump to safety – all without pressing a single button. It’s still a shooting gallery, too, with static enemies popping endlessly in and out of cover unless scripted to do otherwise. Don’t expect to be outflanked or out-thought, then, but running smooth and lightning fast, the same dumb, dizzying rollercoaster is now a markedly less throwaway one. These are levels to be picked apart, to be mined for optimum routes and loadouts, completing challenges and taking on friends’ high scores.