Review: Call of Duty Black Ops 2

Black Ops 2 delivers more than just an addictive multiplayer mode.

When you're dealing with a billion-dollar franchise, change is not always the most advantageous move. But developer Treyarch rolled the dice with the latest yearly installment in the Call of Duty series, opting to take some risks with the campaign and multiplayer. Call of Duty Black Ops 2 not only succeeds in delivering the core action veterans to the series have come to adore but also pushes the franchise to new heights while breathing life into a series that has been teetering on oversaturation.

For years, many fans of the series would bypass the campaign and head right into multiplayer, no matter how much time and effort was paid to the single-player story. Those fans would be remiss to do the same with Black Ops 2. Treyarch has not only crafted a well-conceived story about a near-future assault on American soil but has also added branching story paths, allowing for multiple endings depending on your actions.

The developer and lead writer David S. Goyer, who also penned The Dark Knight, removed a lot of the clutter that bogged down previous games in the franchise in favor of a more focused narrative. Though it still might not be considered the main course of this feature-rich title, the campaign is still a top-notch adventure that fluctuates between the Cold War in the '80s and a terrorist attack in 2025.

Treyarch also included Strikeforce missions, which allow you to take an overhead view of the battlefield and select which soldier or automated drone you want to control during the missions. During this overhead view, you can also order members of your squad to focus their attention on specific enemies or capture points. These missions, which are sprinkled throughout the campaign, promote more of a feeling of urgency than the story. You are limited to five units during a Strikeforce mission, and if you exhaust your fleet it will have dire consequences toward the end of the campaign. Though the missions were challenging, I did feel they disrupted the flow of the compelling single-player story.

The level design also was changed for the better. The Call of Duty franchise is known for tight, corridor levels that usher you through shootout after shootout, but Black Ops 2 offers more wide-open areas, which allow for more flanking opportunities. Treyarch also added the ability to customize your loadout in the campaign. For multiplayer veterans, this will be second nature. But for those who have not dipped their toe into the online world, this will provide a bit of a taste of what is so compelling to the competitive portion of the game. Being able to choose your primary and secondary weapons, along with what attachments and gadgets allow you to complete missions in your preferred style. Overall, these changes have made the single-player campaign the best the series has ever produced.

But Treyarch didn't limit the upgrades to the campaign. The big addition to multiplayer is the Pick 10 system, which opens up what used to be a more stringent loadout system from past iterations. Each weapon, perk, attachment, grenade and gadget takes up one slot in this system, allowing for countless combinations and a level of customization no other Call of Duty has offered. Never use a secondary weapon? Ditch it and opt to take an extra attachment on your primary. Your tactical grenade just taking up space? With the addition of wild cards, you can now opt to take an additional perk into the battlefield.

Treyarch has also included League Play and CODcasting. The former helps Call of Duty novices and veterans play against similarly skilled players by separating competitors into different leagues. All of the weapons, attachments, gadgets and perks are unlocked, leveling the playing field. CODcasting gives the ability for someone to do play-by-play for a multiplayer match that is being streamed live. The announcer can view the game from any of the competitors' perspective and can use an overhead map to call out what each team is trying to accomplish. It's a major step toward legitimizing gaming as a spectator event.

This is the most addictive Call of Duty multiplayer suite in the series' history. Between the Pick 10 system, League Play and CODcasting, Treyarch has overhauled one of the most popular online gaming titles without sacrificing what makes it so enticing. The only issue I have run into is occasional lag (Activision sent me the PlayStation 3 version of the game), which can cripple a game predicated on split-second reactions. But when the connection is strong, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more addictive multiplayer.

Zombies mode returns for the third time in the series. The mode pits you and up to three others against wave after wave of the undead. You are awarded cash after each kill which can be used to build fortifications and purchase additional weapons. Tranzit is the new story-based mode that takes you from area to area trying to ward off the zombie invasion. Though the mode is frantic, the story doesn't feel fleshed out enough. Another new Zombies mode is Grief, which pits teams of four against each other while trying to survive the zombie horde. Players can not kill each other but can entice the zombies to attack the opposition. This adds even more strategy because now you have to contend with other players, instead of just AI-controlled zombies.

Treyarch deserves praise for not only taking risks but also executing them with few flaws. The campaign is one of the most engrossing in series history, and the branching story paths offer replayability to a mode that is a worthy distraction to the hugely popular multiplayer. The additions of the Pick 10 system, CODcasting and League Play continue to push the boundaries of competitive multiplayer. And Zombies offers a compelling way to play with your friends though the story mode has some room for improvement. Black Ops 2, which is available for PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U, delivers as much bang for your buck as any title this holiday season.