Los Angeles is aflame. The pavement is red, and the white clouds in the sky have been tainted by the black smoke rising from the skyscrapers. The explosions blind me at first, and then leave a ringing tone in my ears. As the freeway collapses I feel the vibrations resonate through my body, and I hear thousands of tons of metal crushed beneath the concrete blocks. I'm right there at the heart of the battle.
Sure, I've been here many times before. I've lived my life down in these trenches for a few years. But this time things are a bit different. The battlefield is inhabited by soldiers who can be invisible, and they carry sonar equipped weapons that see through walls. There are hundreds of remote controlled drones blocking out the sunlight, and picking off helpless civilians on the ground below. There are massive robots that spit out missiles at colossal tanks. It's a battlefield born out of digital warfare, but the devastation is worse than anything seen before. The year is 2025. Welcome to the future. Welcome to Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.
I belong to the minority who have enjoyed the campaigns of the last couple of Call of Duty games. They have been explosive rollercoaster rides with bombastic action sequences, and bearded macho men who shoot evil people in the face with giant guns. And in Call of Duty: Black Ops Treyarch even managed to make things better with a great story, that in many ways made it a better experience than the one we had with Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare games.
For this reason I was very much looking forward to this year's sequel, and much like in the first game, the story revolves around Alex Mason and his gang. We're not getting conspiracy theories and existing conflicts this time around. Instead Mason and company take on a fictive yet charismatic antagonist named Raul Menendez. Menendez put his plans in motion during the end of the Cold War, and these plans play out all the way up until 2025, where a new group of heroes is introduced, lead by Mason's son David.
The adventures of father and son are told in parallel and are in the end tied up in a ending that's worth remembering. But even if the story in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 often excites, it suffers from flawed storytelling. All missions played out during the 80s are actually flashbacks told by fan favourite Frank Woods (you know, the one who took a nosedive on a pile of grenades the last time around). When it's time for "shocking revelations" you will have seen them coming from miles away. A lot of threads are left hanging, and to make matters worse that are some major logical gaps and plot holes that the developers make no effort to fill.
A lot of the pre-release talk has focused on the fact that the villain has managed to turn the defense systems of the super powers against their masters, and even if that's a great idea you will have reached the end of the game before you reach that part of the story. The five hour-long journey up to that point is made up of some of the most boring missions in the history of the franchise, and is true regardless of whether you're running around in yet another South American town during the Cold War, or in a night club from the future. Jumping around on the dance floor shooting terrorists in slow motion (to the tunes of some overly epic disco beats) is just strange. And at times this feels like a pastiche - a parody of Call of Duty.
It's also a shame that the campaign fails to take advantage afforded by the futuristic concept. There are sequences where you glide through the skies on a pair of mechanical wings and attack a base from above, and one scene where you control a four-legged murder machine, but regardless of the mission on hand everything comes across as overly-scripted and there is no room for any creative solutions. What's the point of equipping the main character with an awesome grappling hook when it's only usable in one single place in the entire game? There are massive amounts of untapped potential here...
That said everyone knows that Call of Duty likes to do cool stuff as long as it fits within the Call of Duty concept. Nothing wrong with that in my opinion, as the series usually manages its scripted sequences well. Unfortunately they aren't as polished in Black Ops 2, which can lead to repeated deaths just because the player chose to perform the scenario in a way that wasn't intended.
At the same time I think the opposite of this - missions with a lot of freedom - would have made matters even worse. The reason for this is that there is a more open ended chapter in the campaign, in which you ride on horseback and shoot at tanks and helicopters. It's the weakest part of the campaign, and perhaps a sign that the classic Call of Duty formula simply doesn't work unless you're locked into a confined space where you shoot at everything that moves in front of you.
There are a couple of things that separates Black Ops 2 from previous games in the series, and one such thing is the choices you make that remind us of Mass Effect. You can influence the fate of all the important characters, and some of your choices bring about unforeseen consequences. I've never pressed pause in a Call of Duty game before to analyse the situation I find myself in, but this time I had to do so on several occasions. There are even some choices you will make subconsciously during your first playthrough.
Even if I wasn't all that impressed by the campaign as far as mechanics go, I jumped on a second playthrough just minutes after the credits rolled across the screen. There are so many factors that count towards your ending, and the alternative outcomes are radically different. But these differences don't really affect the gameplay. You will be running through the same corridors, shooting the same anonymous soldiers regardless of what path through the story you choose.