I can't recall a first-person shooter that made me feel more like I was in the middle of an action movie than Call of Duty: Black Ops II. This, however, is not necessarily always a positive thing. The cinematic approach plays well enough (if never spectacularly) in the multiplayer and zombie modes that give this latest chapter in the venerable military-themed series its longest-lasting heft. But when similar techniques are applied to the single-player campaign, the results are more middling, especially in light of the sterling success of the?original Black Ops ?two years ago. Treyarch's follow-up to that super-smash hit has already obliterated sales records this time around as well, so it doesn't need much help finding an audience. But whether this burgeoning franchise-within-a-franchise can thrive with continued treatment of this sort is another question.
Let's start with what will be the meat of the Black Ops II experience for many: multiplayer mode. Treyarch has not toyed significantly with the formula, still giving players numerous options for facing off against others across the country and around the globe. "Core" missions include Team Deathmatch, Free-for-All, Search & Destroy, and Capture the Flag (all of which are also available in "Hardcore" mode, which removes the HUD and limits health), and eight others; you can also engage in in two types of "Combat Training" runs to hone your skills, or play four "Party Games" that put interesting for-entertainment-only spins on the weapons you can use and the rules you play by.
These are all enjoyable for what they are, although to what degree is determined by the people you play with. If you want to be guaranteed of having talented, trustworthy squad mates, you're better off creating a custom game and inviting the people you want to join you rather than trusting fate to provide you with worthy allies from the standard lounge system. In any event, it's easy to lose yourself in game after game, and we found that even playing on a below-average team didn't depress the fun factor too much.
You won't notice a lot of big changes in the everyday operation of Black Ops II's multiplayer mode, with one key exception: the new "Pick 10" character configuration system. With it, you can forgo established classes and instead create a new from scratch, customizing all the aspects of your play by using a points system that affects everything from weapons to perks. It won't appeal to everyone, but it strikes us as a clever addition that lets you personalize your multiplayer experience as much or as little as you want.
The Walking Dead
Not in the mood for a traditional multiplayer free-for-all? Zombies mode puts a fantastical spin on the shooting concept, dropping you into a closed location where you must defend against ever-increasing hordes of the raging undead.
"Survival" mode, in which you frantically try to acquire the weapons you need to decapitate the decaying masses and board up the entrances to your stronghold, is still on hand, but it has been joined by two others. "Grief" is a cool idea, in which two teams attack each other indirectly by luring the zombies against the opposing side. A campaign-style offering called "Tranzit" lets you move organically between maps in a way that imparts some much-welcome cohesion to what's been since its inception a quirky aftertaste to Call of Duty's more realistic flavor. Tranzit might even be too open-ended, as it can be difficult to discern exactly what you're supposed to do with all the options at your disposal.
These are, alas, hardly major innovations for the most part, but they're the only ones of real note in Zombies. Otherwise, this is standard, "shame the shambler" stuff that lacks the pungent immediacy of Call of Duty at its best. We imagine it's tough to think of that many ways to spice up a zombie shooter, which is perhaps stylistically over-specific as it is, but if this mode is going to continue to appear in future titles, it needs a facelift or it's going to get really boring, really quickly. (Unless you adore titles like Left 4 Dead, it might very well have already arrived there.)