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game review

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2’s main protagonist, David Mason, fights in the year 2025, where warfare has evolved to the point where fleets of robot drones march on the battlefield and buzz by in swarms overhead. Troops wear invisibility suits and guns can see through walls.

As the old saying goes, if you eat steak every day, you're eventually going to get tired of it. You may initially love steak, and it might even be the best steak in the world, but there's no getting around it: it's steak. Too much of it – or of anything, for that matter – is boring. It's why grocery stores are full of food and why hundreds of TV channels were invented.

That's the situation the Call of Duty franchise now finds itself in. Black Ops 2 , the latest annual entry in the military-themed series, may very well be the preeminent first-person shooter game on the market – and it will sell well to reflect that – but it definitely suffers from that same boring sameness. There's hardly a moment of the game that doesn't drip with that old, been-there-done-that feeling.

It's as formulaic a game as has ever been released. Actually, that's not quite right. It's as formulaic a Call of Duty game as has ever been released. Let's go through the checklist (hint: the answer to all of these questions is "yes," except where indicated).

  • You’re in control of American soldiers?
  • Do they spout lots of incomprehensible military jargon and curse like sailors?
  • Is the main bad guy a foreign terrorist?
  • Do the heroes fight off large hordes of charging enemies?
  • Are buildings exploding and toppling around you in huge set pieces?
  • Is the main shooting action broken up by parts where you sit in a turret?
  • Are you hemmed into a very tightly scripted experience where even the smallest deviation from the set course results in death and starting over?
  • Can you just run through it and hardly fire a shot? (The answer to this one is almost)
  • Ultimately, does it matter that you’re actually playing, or are you simply along for the ride? (The answer here is mostly “no” to the first part, and “yes” again to the second.)

Black Ops 2 does introduce some new elements to the standard Call of Duty formula, but we'll get to those in a second. Not among them is the story, which focuses mainly on special operative David Mason as he tries to find out what happened to his father Alex, who starred in the first Black Ops . In conversations with the wheelchair-bound veteran Frank Wood, Alex's old cohort, David learns of the rise of Raul Menendez, an orphaned Nicaraguan boy who goes from being a small-time drug dealer to world-class terrorist.

The plot thus sees the player zip back in time to Cold War-era missions set in the likes of Angola and Afghanistan, then forward again to David Mason's present, the year 2025. This flashback story-telling technique can actually be added to the standard Call of Duty checklist above.

In the younger Mason's future era, warfare has evolved to the point where fleets of robot drones march on the battlefield and buzz by in swarms overhead. Troops wear invisibility suits and guns can see through walls. It sounds science-fictiony, but if you've been keeping up with recent military technology developments, it's a pretty safe projection of what war will look like a decade from now.

As the game's trailers have suggested, the core question here is what would happen if an enemy were to gain control of all those drones? Put that together with a revenge-seeking Menendez and you pretty much get the drift of what the story has in store.

Developer Treyarch has added two new main elements to the single-player campaign in an effort to defuse some of the criticism that usually gets levelled at Call of Duty games – that they're excruciatingly linear and give the player almost no agency of their own.

The first of these is a set of optional Strike Force missions, where the player – placed in charge of a squad – must accomplish an objective, such as sinking a freighter or finding and rescuing a hostage. In this mode, players can choose to direct their troops and drones by looking on from an overhead map, or they can swoop in and take control of individual units. Players can also fail these missions, which can ostensibly affect the main story's outcome.

It's a neat idea and a welcome change-up that places players in arenas that feel considerably less confined and linear than the main story. It's also pretty cool to pilot drones, which can wreak havoc on opponents. The irony, however, is that these missions feel very much like those found in the game's online multiplayer mode.

It looks like the developers have tried to divert attention from the franchise's weak point by accentuating its strongest point. That's either clever or cheating, depending on your perspective.

As for whether failing the Strike Force missions affects the story, you do get several chances to go back and retry them. Once you figure out what you need to do, none of these optional encounters are all that hard. You'd have to try pretty hard to fail them repeatedly – or skip them completely – to see how they affect the rest of the game.

The second new element added to the single-player campaign is the ability to make individual choices that also affect how things go. Some of these are minor gameplay options, like choosing to snipe enemies from a ledge or rappelling down to take them on in close combat. But others – such as simply injuring a certain individual rather than killing him – branch the story in different directions.

The value of this mechanism seems lost on a game like Black Ops 2 , which otherwise escorts players down a very defined tunnel of action. It's great that certain choices at very specific moments alter the story, but when the journeys between those points is so narrow, there's little incentive to go back and try it all again so you can make a different choice, just to see how it turns out. Especially not when the game's real draw – online multiplayer – is beckoning.

This is where Call of Duty has traditionally shined, and Black Ops 2 is no different. All of the same modes – team deathmatch, capture the flag and so on – are back, as are many of the ability-boosting perks and opponent-leveling killstreak rewards. Of course, in holding with the future theme of the game, much of the equipment, weapons and killstreaks are futuristic in their scope – there are a lot more drones to control, for example.

The levelling-up system has been tweaked, however, with players now earning tokens that can be spent to unlock new weapons, gear, perks and so on. That's a good move since you can now concentrate on getting the things you want sooner, rather than having to sit through the automatic unlocking of stuff you have no interest in.

The new system also revamps the old gear and perk limits. While previous Call of Duty games allowed you to have only three perks, you can now give yourself a couple extra if you want. The catch is, you only get a total of 10 slots for equipment, weapon attachments, perks and so on. Let's say you want more perks; you're going to have to sacrifice those extra grenades or rifle scope, for example.

It's a smart reorganization that allows for even more customization to each individual's play style, yet it also maintains the battlefield balance. As a result, there probably won't be many similarly equipped players out there, yet no one will have an edge – on paper, anyway – over anyone else.

Of course, there is the issue of differing skill levels, which has traditionally been intimidating for newcomers. For that, Treyarch has added the Combat Training mode, where newbies can get comfortable battling bots before going out to get massacred by teens who spend all day playing. There's also the zombies mode, a fun co-operative distraction where players take on never-ending waves of the undead.

The multiplayer tweaks are generally good, but they're still tweaks, which brings us back to the sameness issue. There's little doubt that Call of Duty is firmly in the camp of sports games, where a few minor improvements somehow warrant a brand new annual release. The additions to the single-player campaign are cosmetic and not big enough to inspire much replay, while the multiplayer changes are also just small improvements to a formula that has been working well for years.

That's all well and good, but wouldn't this steak taste so much better if the cooks just took some time off to really come up with something new?