Success is polarizing, and love it or hate it, you can’t deny that Call of Duty has found it. Bobby Kotick and Eric Hirschberg take their annual Scrooge McDuck dive into the piles of money, while one camp stomps their feet about “the series never changing” and the other is too absorbed in multiplayer matches and popcorn campaign moments to recognize something very important. It takes enormous willpower to deliver a quality game year after year in the face of guaranteed success.

Let’s be honest; Activision, Treyarch and Infinity Ward could get away with phoning it in, at least for a couple of years, and the series would still top the charts. This year’s entry, Black Ops II, sees significant changes to the formula. While they don’t all work out, it’s the series’ ensured prosperity that enables the experiments in the design.

Single Player

The original Black Ops, released in 2010, is my favorite Call of Duty campaign. The intrigue and mystery surrounding Alex Mason, the mysterious interrogator present throughout the story and the well-developed characters in his comrades Woods and Hudson came together to create the most cohesive narrative experience the series has ever seen. While I can’t say that Black Ops II is as consistently wonderful, upon the story’s conclusion the pieces come together to be more emotional than Treyarch’s last outing.

The impact is largely due to the more personal nature of the experience. Throughout the game, there are a number of decision points that influence the course of events. Some of these are obvious, but so many others are subtle, occurring naturally in the course of play that it wasn’t until much later that I realized I was actually steering the narrative. These are not often clearly marked binary options, and more importantly, poor choices and failed objectives are woven seamlessly into the proceedings.

In most first-person shooters, players are held to a strict narrative. Tasks must completed before the story will progress, and failure means a return to a previous checkpoint. Black Ops II turns that formula on its ear. You didn’t manage to save the hostage? Too bad, he’s dead. Oh, you didn’t fully explore and gather all the information available? That’s going to come back to haunt you later. There is a ripple effect to many of the actions that is handled extremely well. It was often so seamless that it was pinpointing which events were pre-determined and which resulted from my influence was no easy task.

Unfortunately, not everything is flawlessly executed. In a number of instances, the game uses an invisible countdown before an objective is failed. On multiple occasions, dying and restarting at a checkpoint drastically shortened the amount of time available leading to failure. In another instance, the design of one of the scripted blockbuster moments was absolutely broken. I had to run through a corridor and jump, and 20 tries resulted in a variety of absurd failures. Most of them resulted from unavoidably getting shot from an exterior, obscured location and missing the jump because of the vision effect of being near death. It absolutely broke the immersion, especially as the deaths were random. Running at the same pace, in the exact same way yielded different results each time. Progressing was a simple matter of luck.

Interspersed throughout the campaign are instances of a new type of mission that combines light real-time strategy elements with bot match style multiplayer. These Strike Force operations are loosely tied to David Mason’s hunt for antagonist Raul Menendez. They did manage to impress me only once, when a failure in one story level led to a new Strike Force stage. Interestingly, I failed that new mission leading to the death of a character, but then had the opportunity to retry. It was the only instance in which the design easily allowed me to undo a poor turn of events. I could do without ever seeing the Strike Force missions return. They are an interesting experiment, but one that has ultimately failed.

The successes in Black Ops II come from the sheer number of branching points and the variety of outcomes the different permutations yield. You can always go back and replay missions, but unless you rewind your story progress, thereby undoing everything that took place from the start of that mission onward, the choices won’t stick. The sheer length of many of the missions is enough of a deterrent that many will likely simply keep going, deciding to come back for an entirely new play through. With this approach, Treyarch has introduced replay value otherwise absent in the first-person shooter genre. This narrative philosophy is the new benchmark.

Gunplay is an important aspect of any shooter, and Black Ops II delivers in ways only made possible by its setting. The future tech on hand, including millimeter scanners that allow you to see through solid objects, shock knuckles and drone quad-rotors and motorized walkers all seem plausible for the 2025 setting. They also juxtapose nicely with the missions that take place during the 1980s, featuring more mundane armaments.

A first in the Call of Duty series, players can customize their single-player loadout before starting a mission. More weapons become unlocked throughout the campaign or by completing in-mission challenges. I never found anywhere these were detailed, and it still isn’t clear what is necessary to check the invisible boxes during each insertion. It’s a shame that so many weapons are tied to completing a number of these in specific missions. Have I mentioned recently that I lament the trend away from paper manuals? This is one instance where documentation would greatly assist players.

Presentation has always been a hallmark of the Call of Duty series, regardless of which studio is at the helm. This year is no different, with action moving at a solid 60 frames per second. The facial modeling, while not nearly as impressive as that seen in Halo 4, is still damn good. Sam Worthington is back as Alex Mason, Harper looks like actor Michael Rooker (though with a full head of hair), and Tony Todd (The Rock, 24) is instantly recognizable. All of the voicing is performed extremely well. I was disappointed that CIA Officer Hudson had a change of actors, but Michael Keaton does a fine job taking over from Ed Harris.

Sound is important in shooters, and the design for Black Ops II is simply acceptable. Again, the voice acting is fantastic, but I felt that the general soundscape was muddied. The gunfire wasn’t quite as crisp as I was expecting. The weapons are differentiated well, and that’s no surprise given the series’ history, but on the default sound setting (the way Treyarch intended the game to be heard) there didn’t seem to be enough definition between the background and the foreground. Perhaps this is largely because of moving right from Halo 4 to Black Ops II. 343 Industries nailed it, and Treyarch simply didn’t make as much of an impression.

The score, largely composed by Mass Effect alum Jack Wall worked well. Listen closely, and I have no doubt that players of BioWare’s space epic will hear the composer’s signature. There are a few licensed tracks, and I suggest sticking around for the entire credits. The bonus at the end is… interesting.

All told, Treyarch has crafted a fantastic story with a terrifying antagonist. The script team did a brilliant job of tying this game to Black Ops, which is especially impressive given how well things were tied up two years ago. Don’t expect an epic adventure. Instead, pop some corn, kick back and enjoy the ride.

CONTINUE ON FOR OUR TAKE ON BLACK OPS II’s MULTIPLAYER