With Black Ops 2, Treyarch finally "gets" Call of Duty. It's taken a few goes. First came World at War, a disastrous step back after Modern Warfare, then Black Ops, which was bloated, incomprehensible and dull.
This time round, though, Treyarch's nailed it, capturing everything wonderful and fun about CoD in one fell game.
The near-future aesthetic is a masterstroke, freeing the game up to be as wacky as it's always wanted to be while simultaneously renovating the CoD-standard brown/grey/green colour palette.
Black Ops 2 looks gorgeous; the environments resonate a believable futurism, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where recognisable architecture is dolled up with LCD screens on everything. The weapons, too, look absolutely stunning, sleek M8 rifles and blocky TAC pistols with holographic scopes and neon tinted iron sights.
It's details like these that really make Black Ops 2's visual design. Stop to look around, and the entire game is popping with neat, semi-plausible touches.
Speedometers are projected on the inside windscreen of cars; civilian and military clothing has a slick digital-era look. Compared to the relentless muddy sepia of past Call of Duty games, Black Ops 2 is a work of real flair, dripping in colourful near-future chic.
The 2025 setting also makes for some seriously fun toys - Wing Suits will prove a fan favourite. Jet-powered, mechanical hang-gliders, Wing Suits feature heavily in Black Ops 2's campaign, allowing you to arrive at the starts of levels looking like Optimus Prime.
There are invisibility cloaks, too, though they're only used by enemies, and QuadroCopters, hovering, pesky drone things with machineguns stuck to them.
Gizmos like these provide wonderfully varied set-ups. There are driving sections, flying sections, climbing sections; even a mission on horseback. Treyarch's limitless imagination is busted open by an aesthetic that isn't restrained by currently existing technology - that grating propensity for realism that Call of Duty has suffered under since Modern Warfare is completely absent from Black Ops 2.
And thank God, because the series' politics had gotten disturbingly jingoistic.
There's been a thematic tension at Call of Duty's core for years. On one hand, it's an incredibly high-concept action game filled with killing and explosions - on the other it's a war simulation, using places like Afghanistan and Somalia as backdrops for missions.
That's created an uneasy kind of conflict, where incredibly serious historical issues have been dumbed down by blockbuster spectacle, misleading Call of Duty into a dangerous place where shooting brown people is fun.
Black Ops 2 doesn't do that. Brimming with laser guns, robot soldiers and Wing Suits the campaign is a knowingly silly, high-concept caper which doesn't even try to tackle big issues. There's some guff about rare earth elements and cyber-warfare, but it's only used to give big action scenes a sliver of context.
The whole story wears a daffy grin - it's not pretentious in the least. Black Ops was spoiled by its determination to be taken seriously, recreating the Vietnam War as a "hell yeah" action romp without even a hint of irony.
But Black Ops 2 knows its place, providing just enough exposition to make it clear what your objectives are before moving on to the next big, colourful sequence.
There are no quotes from Robert Oppenheimer when you die, no flag-waving soliloquies on human nature - the futuristic setting doesn't allow for it. This is more a sci-fi fare than a war shooter, the military nonsense that scuppered previous CoD stories sidelined in favour of interesting mechanics.
There's a refreshing determination in Black Ops 2 not to get bogged down in politics. The near-future is almost totally removed from any big military issues of today, freeing Treyarch to write a story that's silly enough to accommodate CoD's big action without trampling over history.
The lack of a Middle Eastern war aesthetic removes the temptation to play soldier - since the game looks like DOOM, it feels like it should be played like DOOM, inviting you to run, gun and have fun rather than crouch behind a concrete wall.
The whole campaign is much more vibrant, the colours, the variety of missions and the new kinds of gameplay styles creating an offline mode that's as refreshing as Modern Warfare's was in 2007.
There's much more of an effort being made; Treyarch could have churned out any old balls and it would have sold, but instead, the studio's reinvented what Call of Duty's campaign should feel like, jazzing up the visual design and hiring in Trent Reznor to write the most distinct CoD score to date.
The Strike Force missions are a bit of a blip - strategy-based, Command and Conquer type sections, the controls are too basic and the AI is too dumb for them to really work.
But other than those, Black Ops 2's campaign is an absolute masterpiece, doing for Call of Duty what the over-the-shoulder camera did for Resident Evil. This marks the beginning of a new era for CoD.
The online mode isn't quite so epochal, featuring only a few optimisations on the old model.
Wild Cards are a new addition, which allow you to flex the normal customisation categories. One example is the "Perk Tier One Greed" card that lets you pick two perks rather than one from the first tier. That's combined with the new Pick 10 system, which allows you to use up to ten weapon attachments, perks and Wild Cards at once, making your multiplayer class more customisable than ever.
There are also a few new game modes, ranging from the predictable, like a deathmatch that accommodates four teams rather than just two, to the wacky, like Stick and Stones where players can only use axes, knives and crossbows.
Most welcome of all is Combat Training, which initiates new CoD players by letting them play a few online games with other inexperienced players and some AI bots. It's a great introduction to the otherwise impenetrable difficulty of Black Ops 2's online mode, designed to broader Call of Duty's appeal even further.
Prestige Mode has been revamped too, so that now, when you reach the online level cap and start over, you retain the guns and perks you've already earned.
The only serious misstep in the whole Black Ops 2 package is the Zombies mode, which feels as dull, stupid and tacked-on as ever. The campaign does a great job of minimising Call of Duty's frat-boyish public persona, but Zombies, this time lengthened into a much bigger game of its own, is every bit as dumb as the series used to be.
That would be fine if it weren't so boring. The whole thing is a relentless slog from start to finish, with the eponymous zombies taking way too many bullets to die and the levels comprised of the same three dirty grey colours that used to muddy the campaign proper.
The Zombies Mode is larger in the sense that areas can be explored more, with each section requiring you to collect machine parts to power a generator, or open a door. But without any formal direction or objective markers, you're often left wandering around, chipping away at zombies until you stumble across the next MacGuffin.
The lack of guidance is no doubt intended to force teammates to talk to one another, but nevertheless, zombies is a drag.
Best since Modern Warfare
But it can't hamper the rest of Black Ops 2, which is easily the best Call of Duty game since Modern Warfare. With its much tighter, refocused campaign and finely-tuned online mode, Black Ops 2 stands tall as a mainstream game that knows full well its reputation and wilfully defies expectations.
Call of Duty is the safest bet there is; Treyarch could have patched together another generic shooter using the same old assets, but instead, it's pursued a brand new artistic direction and some fresh ideas.
Black Ops 2's futurism is a revelation, freeing the gameplay from the restraints of "realism" and the story from uncomfortable politics.
It's not perfect, relying on plot clichés from The Dark Knight ("he wanted us to catch him!") and whiffing a little of Chinese Century paranoia, but David S. Goyer's script is the best Call of Duty has ever had to work with.
Online mode is similarly cohesive, combining accessibility and functionality with a deep level of customisation and a steep learning curve.
When Modern Warfare came out in 2007, it reinvented Call of Duty by ditching the rattle of WW2 weapons and giving us M4s and AC-130s to play with. It also cast political aspersions over the US military, bravely killing off player characters to make its point about the war on terror.
Five years and four games later, that formula has gotten tired, the Call of Duty series weighed down by a puffed up sense of its own importance.
Black Ops 2 cuts away all that chaff. It's a lean, slick, fast-paced first-person shooter that doesn't sully its action with affected politics. It's fast and fun and brilliant, foregrounding the uproarious action, immaculate visual design and flawless technology that used to make Call of Duty Call of Duty.
Treyarch understands Call of Duty better than any other studio to work on the series. Black Ops 2 is a brilliant computer game.
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