Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Credit: Activision)
But the games keep selling, and critics keep digging them, and we keep playing them, so it should have come as little shock that there would be a sequel to the 25 million-selling military monster, Call of Duty: Black Ops.
What is a bit more surprising, however, is how much new flavor Call of Duty: Black Ops II (releasing November 13 for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC and November 18 for the Wii U) adds to the franchise's time-tested formula. Stay frosty and check out five of the biggest changes coming to what's bound to be the biggest game of 2012.
It's a futurist.
Sick of the same old war? Black Ops II forges new ground for fans by letting them trip through time between a Cold War past and the near future of 2025. It's a somewhat risky new direction for Call of Duty, which has thus far focused its stories on retelling past and present-day events.
But the new scenario should breathe new life into the franchise, featuring a plot that grabs today's headlines and runs wild with them. You'll squabble with global superpower China over rare earth elements — a current bone of contention for the U.S. -- while tinkering with all sorts of futuristic doodads like controllable quadcopters and robotic tanks.
This isn't Halo, however. To ensure the plausibility of Black Ops II's future, the developers brought on technological warfare specialist Pete W. Singer, author of the critically-acclaimed "Wired for War." It's a little bit science, a little bit fiction, and what sounds like a great deal of fun for gamers.
It puts the story in your hands.
When most people think of a Call of Duty single-player campaign, they think of a tightly-scripted rollercoaster ride pulled straight out of Michael Bay's Big Action Playbook. It's essentially a linear, playable movie. But Black Ops II is a different sort of beast, giving the story back to the players by featuring a branching storyline, a first for the franchise.
"Players will come to points where there's a decision to make, and those decisions will affect the narrative arc of their characters, of other characters, of the entire story," Mark Lamia, head of developer Treyarch Studios, told Yahoo! Games.
Also influencing the outcome are brand new 'Strike Force' missions: optional, sandbox style levels woven into the main story that gamers can play through in a variety of ways, including an 'Overwatch' strategy mode that lets them control units from on high. A genuinely non-linear Call of Duty, believe it or not -- and like any good labyrinthine tale, Black Ops II won't end the same way for everyone.
"These decision points are meaningful to not only the game they're playing, but the ending," says Lamia. "There are multiple endings based on these branching story points."
It's got zombies. Lots of 'em.
You can't leave the house without running into a zombie horde or two these days. And while Call of Duty's been dealing with zombies since 2008's World at War, the undead play a much more prominent role in Black Ops II.
"It's bigger and more expansive than any zombies experience we've ever created," Lamia says.
Four game modes await those looking to mow down some shamblers, including the new open-world Tranzit game type, which lets players roam around a collection of maps in a rickety bus. Along the way they'll pick up buildable items and weapons to improve their chances of survival. Add to that a classic Survival mode and a quirky Grief mode (in which teams sabotage one another as they try to survive against the encroaching hordes) and you've got what essentially amounts to another full video game.
A league of your own.
Solo campaigns and zombie epidemics are all well and good, but a good chunk of gamers will skip all that nonsense and hop online for the game's famed multiplayer. Even here, Black Ops II breaks from tradition.
For starters, the game introduces League Play, a matchmaking system that levels the playing field and ensures you're always competing with people of a similar skill level, answering a common gripe levied by those who can't seem to succeed against superior competition.
"When we say "esports" people automatically think about pros, but it's really about competition," Lamia says. "Even if you're a beginner or just an average player, there's going to be a league you can be competitive in."
You'll get placed in a league after playing through a few test matches. Should you get better — and if you play enough, you most certainly will — you'll get bumped into a new league.
Other new features aim to turn Black Ops II into a sort of Monday Night Football for first-person shooter fans. There's CODcasting, for instance, a set of broadcasting tools that lets anyone 'televise' a match by using multiple camera angles and calling the shots via play-by-play analysis. And in another first for pro gaming, you can even livestream Xbox 360 and PS3 matches directly to Youtube without any extra hardware.
Play your way.
Playing Call of Duty online encompasses a lot more than just aiming, shooting, and running for cover when you miss. Every match nets you some experience points, which in turn help you access new weapons, perks, items and more. Black Ops II lets you deal with all that stuff in a new way, however, thanks to the game's new class system.
Prefer to have an extra scope? Want to bulk up on perks? The game's 'Pick 10' create-a-class system frees players from the shackles of having one primary weapon, one secondary weapon, some grenades and a few perks. Bulk up on munitions and bail out on perks, if you wish, or go a little more sci-fi and go perk crazy while running around with a knife. Like much of Black Ops II, the choice is yours — and that's just the way Lamia wants it.
"You can now modify classes in ways you could never do before in a Call of Duty game…there's just a mind-boggling amount of custom game options for players."
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