On a purely technical level, Black Ops II is hugely impressive. The Call of Duty Elite stuff is now free for everyone, and the set of tools included with the game are remarkably powerful. You can broadcast any game you're playing by giving a web address to those who want to watch it, commentate over live games and build up a fanbase, or even create video reels of your best moments and then upload them to the internet. Black Ops II can even scan through games quickly, find your best moments, and then give each clip a rating out of five stars. Not everyone will use this stuff, but it's bloody amazing that it's included.
Zombies fans are treated to Tranzit: a dark and wonderfully mad-cap mode that sees you moving through a open-world in a wrecked school bus that's driven by a robot. The Johnny Cab reference is a reminder that Zombies mode is seriously tongue-in-cheek stuff, but it's a much, much deeper experience now. The bus can be upgraded with spikes and battering rams, and ladders which let you climb onto the roof to get a better shot at those pesky zommers. The fact you can't actually control the bus itself adds an element of black humour that we really enjoyed: when the vehicle decides to leave, you've got to jump on quickly or get left behind.
You can combine items around the world to build equipment to help you survive or progress, and new features like the item store allow you to keep one weapon stashed away, and then pick it up again in an entirely new game. The rural town setting we began to explore contains tons of secret stuff to discover, especially if you're brave enough to jump off the bus in mid-transit. The only bum note is the inclusion of the world map - proudly displaying a globe menu with only one option you can choose makes it very clear that it's waiting to be expanded with paid-for DLC, which makes the decision to only ship one level with the game feel a bit cheap.
You'll have noticed we've used up half of this review without talking about the single-player campaign. There's a reason for that: it's bafflingly inconsistent and by far the game's weakest feature.
Things start promisingly, with the first two missions showing off impressive scale and some amazing future tech - but then it forgets about all its new toys and reverts to the predictable Call of Duty slog through generic war-torn cities watching increasingly bigger things explode.
Weirdly, production values vary vastly between levels, to the point at which we can barely believe that only one studio made the campaign. When you're juggling between gadgets and shooting through walls, Black Ops II easily nails the classic CoD feel that you're in a Bond movie, minus the Martinis and shagging. Firing rockets from horseback in Afghanistan is like a Michael Mann remake of Lawrence of Arabia. But minutes later it'll drop you into a level with prominent glitches, restrictive environments, and enemies that spawn from thin air.
Treyarch has also made the mistake of trying to tell too many stories at once. The narrative isn't so confused that you have difficulty following it, but it tries to cram in so many different themes that none of them deliver any emotional impact. The new branching storyline, similarly, never really amounts to anything. There are a few specific choices that you make in the game, as shown in the debut E3 demo, but mostly it relies on your performance in missions, where failing to meet specific criteria will result in somebody being killed later in the game. It's a praiseworthy idea, but the execution doesn't deliver - at best, there's only a vague sense you're affecting anything and little-to-no-inclination to replay and see what changes. At worst, there are the atrocious - and thankfully, optional - Strike Force missions.
These ultra-tough asides require you to direct other squads from a first-person or overhead view, but the AI just isn't up to the job. Your troops fail to notice foes until they've killed half the squad, and if you somehow manage to complete the mission anyway (you only get a finite number of retries) the story reward isn't remotely worth the effort.
Skip these and you're left with an erratic and ultimately underwhelming campaign that, while never awful, just can't match the series highs. As a multiplayer game, Black Ops 2 is one of the best shooters around - sprawling and sagging under the weight of interesting systems. Offline, however, it's merely adequate. Despite some commendable ambition, Black Ops 2 isn't quite the match-stealing assault on Infinity Ward's turf we hoped it would be.
The best online mode since Modern Warfare
- The multiplayer maps are fantastic
- Pointstreaks fix the emphasis on kills
- Incredible online infrastructure
- Zombie adventures on a bus
- The campaign isn't very good