It's not an easy task keeping an old franchise fresh - even the most dedicated fans start to weary of yearly entries to long-running series.
That's the hurdle faced by Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, the latest title in a blockbuster franchise that's been shooting out games for nearly a decade. But Black Ops 2 manages to successfully push the boundaries of the series from the trench, forward into new territory.
Black Ops 2 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC) focuses on two connected storylines, one which takes place in the 1970s through the '80s, and the other in 2025. The plot from the past fleshes out the tragic tale and vengefully violent rise of Raul Menendez, a Nicaraguan terrorist whose life's work becomes masterminding a plan to destroy the U.S. Meanwhile, the future storyline follows the U.S. effort to foil
Menendez as he hatches that plot, attempting to ignite the Cold War between China and the U.S. into a full-scale conflict.
Screenwriter David S. Goyer, whose Hollywood resume includes Batman Begins, penned the story. And it's a good one. Goyer creates an emotional connection that inspires players to advance through the gunfire into either selfless heroism or cold-blooded revenge. The decisions mean life or death for some characters.
While you can sense the plot twists coming - especially when the resolution seems just a little too easy - that doesn't take away from their spy-movie-like kick in the teeth when they do manifest.
There are different endings based on decisions made in the game, a first for the franchise. It's nice to see the game's developer, Treyarch, introducing consequences to a first-person shooter. Critics have long spoken out against the genre, saying there are no strings attached to unleashing ultra-violence. Adding a conscience to Black Ops 2 is a move in the right direction.
Goyer is not the only renowned talent drawn to the most-anticipated game of 2012. Oscar-award winning musician Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails wrote the game's theme song. Much of the soundtrack is haunting and memorable. But in some portions of the game, certain tracks just don't work. For example, in one mission, you find yourself ruthlessly mowing down enemies as upbeat Latin tunes pump through the speakers.
While some of the missions set in the past are run-of-the-mill gameplay, the battles set in 2025 with futuristic weapons and use of advanced robotic military toys, like drones, spice things up.
Treyarch has broken new ground in the series by adding optional Strike Force Missions - real-time strategy levels that allow players to command units from an overview map of the battlefield and take control of any unit at any time. The new style of gameplay can be frustrating to get the hang of, especially with console controls. RTS games have never felt truly at home on an Xbox or PlayStation.
Making that part of the campaign optional is a smart move by Treyarch, avoiding a sect of gamers likely to be frustrated by the Strike Force Missions.
Multiplayer mode is a significant draw for Call of Duty players, and Black Ops 2 has made changes to push the title into the spotlight of competitive video gaming, known as eSports. Players can stream their games live to the web or mobile device and more easily use recorded footage from previous games to train themselves or create videos.
There is also an online league that ranks players by skill and bumps them into more competitive leagues as they improve.
The much-talked about zombie mode has also been broadened.
Bottom line: Black Ops 2 does not disappoint. Its smooth, well-written campaign is paired beautifully with a multiplayer mode that readies console gaming's bestselling title for the eSports spotlight. Also, more zombies. How can you go wrong with zombies?
- David Wylie has been playing video games since the olden days of the Atari 2600. Tweet with him: @editorgeek