Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a direct sequel to the first Black Ops game back in 2010, but Treyarch is attempting to innovate the Call of Duty franchise instead of playing it safe. With a new near future setting, new gadgets and the addition of non-linear Strike Force levels in the campaign that can shape the ending, Black Ops II is the most ambitious Call of Duty in years.
Two-thirds of the campaign takes place in the year 2025, where players assume control of David Mason - the son of Black Ops' Alex Mason - as he attempts to deal with the threat of antagonist Raoul Menendez's cyber warfare and a new Cold War.
It also periodically flashes back to the 1980s as David questions an older Frank Woods about his former squad's history with Menendez.
Future warfare in 2025
Treyarch's interpretation of what war in the near future is like - having consulted Peter Singer from the Brookings Institute, an expert on drones and robotics warfare - is definitely different to the present day, and with that, it opens a lot of fresh opportunities from a gameplay perspective.
From the mission shown, there was a notable number of drones and robotics on the streets of LA, including cognitive land assault weapons (CLAWs) which are large and mean turret-mounted robots. A technologically-advanced sniper rifle was also shown that lets you see and take down enemies through walls.
The mission boasted a heavy amount of variety. In the space of 20 minutes or so, David got behind a SAM turret to protect the President, took down CLAWs with RPGs, issued commands to drones in the middle of firefights and, new for the franchise, flew an FA-38 fighter aircraft.
This was backed up by the spectacle of it all. There were several cinematic moments in the mission, from getting caught up in vehicle crashes to watching buildings topple over. However, Activision revealed that there will also be levels that are less chaotic as they aim to mix up moods and settings.
Freedom to be found
But even in the mayhem, Treyarch has ensured that it's not a strict rollercoaster ride. One segment of the mission requires you to make a decision as your squad attempts to lead the President to safety. You could snipe and provide cover from above, or you could personally escort and protect her on the ground.
The branching objectives ultimately have no bearing on how the story plays out, but it's an effective way to make you feel you're in control of David rather than a mere spectator.
This is also true when David hops onto an FA-38 jet to eliminate attack drones. In this case, there is no set path at all. Markers point you in the right direction, but this is a free-roaming section. You are free to fly around as you please across the burning city of Los Angeles.
Command your squad in Strike Force levels
Sprinkled throughout the single-player campaign are non-linear and sandbox-like Strike Force levels, which are remarkably different from the standard missions. In Strike Force levels, you take control of an entire team of SEALs assigned to capture various objectives.
Not only can players issue commands and mark waypoints, but they can also jump from person to person on the team at any time, with the AI controlling the rest of your squad. If the squad member you're in control of dies, you're automatically shifted into the body of the nearest person.
Strike Force levels are slightly reminiscent of multiplayer maps - you can go about fulfilling the objectives however you want. In the demo level we saw, there were three points that had to be captured but they could be taken in any order.
The other interesting thing about these levels is that if you fail the mission (your whole squad is defeated), there is no game over - the campaign will continue. But the success of these segments will contribute in determining the ending of the game from a geopolitical standpoint.
Black Ops II retains much of what has made Call of Duty a solid franchise in the past - the shooting remains tight and satisfying, and the game still runs at a silky smooth 60 frames per second.
Treyarch, however, is going much further, backing that acclaimed gameplay up with some intriguing and significant additions, which may be enough to appease anyone who was getting a little tired with the series.
> 'Call of Duty: Black Ops II' interview: Treyarch on explosive sequel
Call of Duty: Black Ops II will launch on November 13 on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, Wii U and PC.