The new James Bond film Skyfall may rule the big screen, but when it comes to action-oriented video games nobody does it better than Call of Duty.
Over the years, the Call of Dutygames borrowed quite a bit from the Bond films and other action series.That's helped the multibillion-dollar franchise morph from qualityhistory-based war games into international globe-trotting thrillers.
And in Raul Menendez this latest release, Call of Duty: Black Ops II has a villain to rival the Blofelds and Scaramangas of the Bond series.
TheNicaraguan drug cartel leader develops his hate for the U.S. when hissister is killed during a U.S. operation in Panama during themid-Eighties. "For me it was very important to create the mostcompelling villain that we have ever seen in Call of Dutyhistory," says Dave Anthony, who directed the game for developmentstudio Treyarch. To write the game's story, he re-teamed with The Dark Knight Rises co-writer David S. Goyer, who had also assisted on 2010's Black Ops.
Includingthe Menendez origin story in the game is part of the writers' design tocreate some empathy between the villain and player. "We wantedsomething where you would understand who this guy is as a human being,"Anthony says.
That is just one of several missions that play outin flashback, building tension toward a climactic scene nearly fourdecades later in the year 2025. Players are catapulted back and forthbetween the Cold War era and a future cold war between the U.S. andChina, usually in the characters of CIA agent Alex Mason, returning fromBlack Ops, and his son David, a special ops soldier charged with protecting national security.
Theelder Mason still has some lingering effects from the brainwashingrevealed in the previous game and son David has some issues of his own.This is revealed during David Mason's discussions with the now-geriatricWoods about the past run-ins Woods and his father had with Menendez.
Thisconstant shuffle between the past and future -- and the mix of olderand new futuristic weapons -- keeps the game fresh and the player offbalance. The action is constantly ratcheted up over the eight hours orso it takes to play the successful single-player story campaign.
Highlightsinclude a Soviet-era battle in Afghanistan with Woods and Mason onhorseback fighting along with the mujahideen and a futuristic MichaelBay-flavored battle of Los Angeles against shock and awe squadrons ofbombers and drones in support of ground troops.That scene starts on the ground, with Mason protecting the presidenton the decimated streets of L.A. Action moves to the skies with adizzying dogfight as you try to provide cover for the president'scaravan.
Another fun mission involves directing anintelligence-gathering spider named "Ziggy" during a topsy-turvy tripthrough some ductwork.
Among the new weapons players get to wieldis an electromagnetic sniper rifle that fires penetrating rounds. Withits microwave millimeter scanner gunsight, you can see an enemy hidingand still take him out.
But beware. Some enemies may wear Predator-stylecloaked camouflage and players must be alert for flying and unmannedDragonfire bullet-shooting quadrotor drones. And not to be dismissed arestegosaurus-like mechanized computerized land assault weapons or CLAWs.Alert players can occasionally spot access points that let you controlenemy hardware and turn it against them.
The story includes somewarning signs about society's leaning on technology. Menendez, whodevelops a massive international following via social media, uses afictitious rare earth metal, Celerium, to develop a super computer chip.Able to overwhelm standard IT systems, the chip is used to deliver acomputer virus that gives Menendez control of the U.S. military'scomputerized assets. "All of these really interesting things that arehappening with technology and social media these days explode in thestory," Anthony says.
Anthony, Goyer and the developers did plenty of research to arrive at a plausible premise. But some times Black Ops II is too smart for its own good. Luckily, if you find something confusing, you can always go back and replay a mission.
Ina new twist, players at the start of each mission, can customize theirarsenal. And new Strike Force missions give players command of a squad."Instead of playing just one character on the squad you can playanybody, you can play a mech on the ground or a flying mech," Anthonysays. "It's up to you. It's like a sandbox."
Some players willlove this change of pace, but for others it might push them out of theirfirst-person shooter comfort zone. Take note, however, that theoutcomes of these missions will impact the storyline involving the ColdWar between the U.S. and China.
Other decisions made during thegame will serve as turning points that change each individual player'sstory unfolds. "Players can make very critical choices that are going toaffect your character and the characters you play with," says Treyarchstudio head Mark Lamia, "and all of the narrative arc and thegeopolitical landscape."
Luckily, there's no right or wrong choiceand the story continues to a satisfying conclusion. Overall, thesingle-player game does play out, as Goyer has said, "as a big eventmovie."
The dilemma that developers face with each successive Call of Dutyproject is how to top the previous releases. "For this one, I thoughtthe focus was on the futuristic setting and that was the wow factor,"says Russ Frushtick, senior editor at video game news site Polygon.com."In terms of bombast, I don't necessarily know if it was as loud andexplosive as Modern Warfare 3, but it was definitely a verydifferent style. Slower and more personal. ... A family story mixed withthe futuristic drone warfare stuff."
Of course, the story mode is only one part of the Black Ops IIpackage. Many players bypass the story totally and dive straight intothe online multiplayer modes. This year's model looks crisp, playssmoothly and has plenty of new features to occupy players who aredestined to spend hundreds of hours playing the game.
Those wholove to tweak their assault outlays will enjoy the new customizationtools that let choose your soldier's weapons and strengths. Also fun arenew battle modes with more than two teams fighting it out and onecalled "Hardpoint," in which teams fight to control a randomly-changinglocation.
To encourage more players to go online, the developershave added new League play, which aims to match teams with those ofequal skill. Also built-in are broadcasting tools that let playersdirectly send live feeds to YouTube.
And there's more: thelargest edition of the popular Zombies game, a totally separate survivalhorror game that can be played by up to four cooperatively andcompetitively with four versus four.
All this adds up to essentially three impressive games in one -- an achievement that should cement Call of Duty in the upper echelon of entertainment properties.
Platform(s): Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Windows PCs
Rating: M for Mature
Release Date: Nov. 13
Score: 3.5 stars (out of 4)