Past, present, future... it's never a bad time for zombies and slow-motion explosions.
With last year's Modern Warfare 3, the Call of Duty franchise seemed to be lingering dangerously close to a state of diminishing returns. Not commercially, of course - the series continues to break sales records with each successive annual installment. In the creative sense, however, there is an argument to be made that this style of shooter design has hit saturation point. Even though one might postulate that Call of Duty is as good as it has always been, a number of people are starting to feel like it's the same set piece-laden campaign and predictable multiplayer options year after year. Leave it then to Treyarch, once thought of as the "B-team" of the franchise, to finally make significant changes to the formula with Black Ops II that, if they all pan out, could put Call of Duty back on top of the echelon of great first-person shooters.
The single-player campaign is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the game, given that Call of Duty has become known for flashy but very linear campaigns that you complete in an afternoon and are then done with. For Black Ops II, Treyarch is approaching things a little differently, building upon the unique, introspective story elements of the original Black Ops.
The game is set in 2025 and plays out a not-too-unrealistic scenario in which the United States of America and China become locked in a Cold War over rare earth minerals used to manufacture all sorts of technology. Suddenly, the US drone fleet is hacked by an unknown enemy, conflict breaks out and the stage is set for your playable character, David Mason, who is the son of the previous game's protagonist, Alex Mason. Alex is still involved in the sequel though, via flashbacks to the 1980s; these sequences set up the backstory for the major antagonist, terrorist leader Raul Menendez.
In the future, drones rule the battlefield. Pray that they're not against you.
It's quite a different direction from where the franchise has been before, and with Hollywood writer David S. Goyer, known for his work on the Blade trilogy and Christopher Nolan's Batman films, penning the story, there is a strong pedigree behind these ideas. Where the campaign really seems to mix up proceedings, though, is in the brand new Strike Force missions. In these levels, the player will control an entire specialist squadron, switching between ground troops, field robots, helicopters, jets and other vehicles as they try to complete strategic objectives for the war effort.
The catch is, if certain objectives are not completed, or if the whole squadron is eliminated, the game will continue, but there will be significant consequences to the story. It's the first time a Call of Duty campaign looks to be offering true replay value, with different missions and plot resolutions opening and closing depending on how successful your Strike Force is throughout the game. With multiple paths to the end of the game, there might finally be an incentive to play the single-player content more than once. Plus, although little is known about how it will use the Wii U GamePad, the act of dynamically swapping between units on the battlefield sounds like a perfect fit for the new controller.
When in doubt, run headlong into a firefight with akimbo pistols.
I won't belabor the point, because at the heart of it, the campaign in Black Ops II is unlikely to completely reinvent the wheel. You can still expect an action movie-esque roller coaster with showy set-pieces and enough explosions to make Michael Bay proud. However, with the original setting and premise, plus a whole host of cool futuristic gadgets and weapons to use, the single-player mode looks more interesting than it has in the series for a long time.
Of course, the thing that keeps millions of players coming back to CoD all year round is the online multiplayer. Black Ops II still features this hallmark of the series to full effect, albeit with a few potentially key changes, such as the Score Streak system, and the way in which the Prestige leveling tree works. At least in my opinion, the multiplayer in this series has become a bit stale, with pretty much the same suite of options every time, but with the core tenets of the game getting refreshed at last, this might be the time that I finally get back into it. Local multiplayer is also present, and it is here that the Wii U version could really shine; two players can go against each other without the need for split-screen, as the GamePad controller can effectively function as a second TV screen.
Kills aren't the only thing to earn you your streak rewards this time around. Capturing flags will help you, as well as your team.
Last but not least, the acclaimed Call of Duty Zombies cooperative mode will be appearing in full on a Nintendo platform for the first time, after it was conspicuously absent or reduced in scope for the Wii versions of both World At War and Black Ops. This is doubly good news, as Zombies is now bigger than ever, even taking some fairly explicit cues from Valve's Left 4 Dead series. Unlike before, it now has its very own campaign called Tranzit, in which a group of survivors moves from one environment to the next, all the while mowing down hordes of undead, although the endless Survival mode from prior installments also returns.
Finally, there is a new competitive mode named Grief, otherwise known as "4z4". The idea is that two teams of four fight against each other as the zombies continue to pour in, but the teams cannot kill each other conventionally - rather, they must interact with the levels themselves in order to make the zombies attack the enemy. Time will tell how well all this can stand up to a certain other zombie game coming to the Wii U on launch day.
It probably won't go sparking any revolutions in the genre, but in my view, Black Ops II stands as the most progressive title in the Call of Duty series since it made the radical switch into Modern Warfare. Moreover, now that Nintendo has entered the HD era with a much more powerful console than before, this is easily the most refined and fleshed-out the series has ever been on a Nintendo system. If you are a cynic of the FPS genre like me, you might want to pay attention to Call of Duty: Black Ops II in the run-up to the game's release on Wii U on November 18 in North America, November 30 in Europe and December 20 in Japan.