Another year, another round of unparalleled commercial success for the Call of Duty franchise. Activision's flagship series remains firmly in command of not only the first-person shooting genre, but a significant share of how console gaming is viewed through the pop-cultural lense. This reality makes covering Treyarch's latest Call of Duty instalment, Black Ops II, a strange experience in futility. In all likelihood, the vast majority of gamers out there know well in advance whether Black Ops II is on their must-have list. For the other four or five of you who have yet to decide, here goes nothing!
In all fairness, Treyarch has made a concerted effort to change the conversation around the new Call of Duty this year, tweaking the tried-and-true formula and adding just enough new features to make one wonder whether the "It's Call of Duty" labels fits Black Ops II. The near-future setting, alongside talk of branching campaign paths and new missions which impact the story based on success or failure, definitely piqued my interest heading into E3. That newfound curiosity lasted until the underwhelming demo shown at Microsoft's press briefing. The promised futuristic elements were barely noticeable, campaign choices translated into nothing more than a high vs. low ground fork in the road and the game continued to chase the Guinness record for most casual explosions on screen at once. My expectations quickly crashed back to Earth.
However, things were about to take another slight turn, when the behind-closed-door demo Treyarch revealed during E3 brought some of the intrigue back to Black Ops II. We saw an extended version of the campaign mission, set in a war-torn modern-day(ish) Los Angeles, shown previously. It played out in a very similar way, but did manage to move at a more consistent pace, and filled in the sequential gaps created due to the press briefing's time constraints. Improvements to the Call of Duty engine were incremental, with the glass reflection and general detail of the background environments being of particular note. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the demo displayed the advanced AI machines players will encounter in this dystopian near-future. There still weren't really any fireworks, but it was a welcome change for the series.
Another welcome addition comes in the form of the game's Strike Force campaign missions, which will apparently alter story progression in some minor ways. These arena-focused asides task players with commanding a versatile squad of elite soldiers, armored vehicles, turrets and so on in order to survive a wave of enemies. This strategic approach gives players a birds-eye view of the battlefield, and the ability to jump into the action at will. Treyarch started out by directing a portion of the team to cover a long corridor, snapped into the view of an APC watching their rear, eliminated a few enemies, zoomed back out and quickly took control of a frontline riflemen to continue the fight. It's a refreshing idea, one which played out in a satisfyingly seamless way. Hopefully the promised consequences end up being more than brief, throwaway side routes.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II appears to be another steady entry in Activision's most-lucrative franchise, allowing for some room for Treyarch to experiment, but still not daring to stray far from its roots. At the end of the day, all parties involved will likely rest easy regardless, as the Call of Duty train rolls along undeterred.
The game is out November 13th on basically everything.