One of the superstar franchises of first-person shooters returns to try and top its 2010 offering while dazzling gamers with its blockbuster approach to war in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Hardened Edition (Activision and Treyarch, rated M for Mature, $79.99).
Not simply resting on its past glory, developer Treyarch attempts to deliver another time-sucking triumvirate of gaming options for the fan of military shooters that mixes new innovations with familiar game play.
As always, the action starts with a shaky-camera, popcorn-munching, outrageous solo campaign that's about eight hours long and is as impressive to watch as to play.
The story has the player violently thrown back into the world of Special Forces combat, mainly through the eyes of veterans Alex Mason and his son David.
It's a time-hopping affair, spanning almost five decades, with a tale that reveals past and future glimpses of war technology, including introducing the supercarrier USS Barack Obama.
The generations of Masons work with other team members on missions to stop supervillain Raul Menendez before his cyberattack starts a world war.
The past conflicts take us back to the 1980s and, particularly worth noting, a war-torn Panama with a mission to capture Manual Noriega.
An incredibly brutal scenario plays out, highlighted by a gantlet of slaughter perpetrated by the player as the enraged supervillain.
Suffice to report, the locations and levels of violence are stunning overall, and include epic moments, such as the Rambo-esque ride atop a horse in Afghanistan, shooting copters out of the sky with a rocket launcher.
I, however, would have appreciated less working through the flashbacks, instead sticking to the dynamic future developers envisioned. The year 2025, for example, plays out with sophisticated weapons systems tied to unmanned vehicle and robotics that Cyberdyne Systems easily could have developed. I expected Arnold Schwarzenegger to walk out at any moment to clear a nest of pesky human terrorists.
Massive controllable MQ drones like “Terminator” Hunter Killers rule the skies, soldiers use bat wings to glide and swoop across terrain, a sophisticated tracker gauntlet ties into computer databases and helmet visuals, and a Predator-like cloaking device gives soldiers the ultimate camouflage.
Also, soldiers get to use Ziggy in a mission. This robotic spider comes with a taser attachment and has its owner use a flexible flat screen to control it.
Better yet, and most impressive, was the CLAW — Cognitive Land Assault Weapon — a remote-controlled quadruped that gave me a "Star Wars" chill.
A few favorite weapons include the Glavaknuckles, worn on the hands and thrust into the body of the enemy, electrocuting him to the point of vomiting; or the Storm PSR sniper rifle that uses a scope to see through walls and rounds that can penetrate most objects to hit the target.
Treyarch also tweaks the normally linear story design by offering the soldier a customized loadout of weapons, adding some choices during the missions that can alter the ending of the campaign and a not-so-appreciated set of Strikeforce missions.
Remember the kind-of-unnecessary real-time-strategy portion of Assassin's Creed Revelations? It's a similar type of command-and-conquer nonsense, only way more tense and unresponsive with zero failure tolerance. During select missions, such as while protecting a convoy, a player can, on the fly, position troops and some heavy armaments using an infrared satellite view and watch the real-time results as waves of enemies attack.
That may sound intriguing, but your men are slow to respond, and it's often better to simply jump into the mix (back in the first-person perspective), if the squad is not handling the job.
However, the main course of the Call of Duty franchise is still the rich, frenetic multiplayer mode featuring competitive matches for up to 18 virtual soldiers. The latest refinements build upon one of the best in the business.
For the casual warrior who tends to get frustrated with the constant killing by superior opponents and screaming from online knuckleheads (it still makes me feel like a deer in the headlights), life is not much better, but veterans will find the League play and its superior matchmaking addictive.
Things also get spiced up with 14 new and beautiful locations, including a nuclear reactor in Pakistan, the jungles of Myanmar, aboard a floating resort on the Indian Ocean and on the war-torn streets of Los Angeles.
Killstreaks, now called Scorestreaks, remain and reward a player for success and taking out his opponents with such high-powered, limited-use weaponry as a jet airstrike or flying around a Dragonstrike drone for 60 seconds to pick off foes using its onboard machine gun.
Also, the new "Pick 10" loadout system gives the warrior much more flexibility with slots to add weapons, gun attachments, perks, grenade types and secondary weapons. Also, new wild-card bonuses further reconfigure gear in the loadout and can open an extra slot for weapons or add an extra perk (such as higher resistance to explosives).
Those tired of the loud explosions and fed up with shooting fellow soldiers have, once again, another way to reduce stress in their complex lives.
Yes, the rotting piece de resistance of Call of Duty returns through a solo or multiplayer approach to killing glowing-eyed zombies within retro B-movie settings.
My favorite mode of the new trio is Tranzit. It gives up to four survivors a scenic bus trip into hell with help from a robotic driver (a fellow who resembled the cab driver in the original version of "Total Recall").
Players leave the bus during every stop (listen for the horn to get back in), liberally eradicate the waves of undead, and find extras and buildable items to make their lives easier. Staying on the bus is no safety zone, either, as the creatures will try to get onboard.
By the way, avoid the active lava spots (for obvious reasons) and stay out of the mist in these creepy areas or face the wrath of some nasty, hopping, sharp-clawed Denizens.
Although the rabid fan base ultimately will buy the Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 package for its better-than-ever multiplayer mode, Treyarch has not quite run the course on its popular franchise.
Those new to the game will find enough reasons to appreciate the military shooter and join the fight against forces of global evil.
Note: The Hardened Edition makes for a worthy gift buy for the Call of Duty fan this holiday season not only for the extras, such as an exclusive multiplayer weapon skin and a couple of collectible coins, but also for the codes for two unlockable bonus maps. Nuketown Zombies delivers a fan-favorite 1960s location seen in the first Black Ops, while Nuketown 2025 offers multiplayer combat in a remake of the original map set in a neighborhood of the future.
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