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 Duty games borrowed quite a bit from the Bond films and other action series. That's helped the multibillion-dollar franchise morph from quality history-based war games into international globe-trotting thrillers.
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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.
The Nicaraguan drug cartel leader develops his hate for the U.S. when his sister is killed during a U.S. operation in Panama during the mid-80s. "For me it was very important to create the most compelling villain that we have ever seen in Call of Duty history," says Dave Anthony, who directed the game for development studio 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.
Including the Menendez origin story in the game is part of the writers' design to create some empathy between the villain and player. "We wanted something where you would understand who this guy is as a human being," Anthony says.
That is just one of several missions that play out in flashback, building tension toward a climactic scene nearly four decades later in the year 2025. Players are catapulted back and forth between the Cold War era and a future cold war between the U.S. and China, usually in the characters of CIA agent Alex Mason, returning from Black Ops, and his son David, a special ops soldier charged with protecting national security.
The elder Mason still has some lingering effects from the brainwashing revealed in the previous game and son David has some issues of his own. This is revealed during David Mason's discussions with the now-geriatric Woods about the past run-ins Woods and his father had with Menendez.
This constant shuffle between the past and future -- and the mix of older and new futuristic weapons -- keeps the game fresh and the player off balance. The action is constantly ratcheted up over the eight hours or so it takes to play the successful single-player story campaign.
Highlights include a Soviet-era battle in Afghanistan with Woods and Mason on horseback fighting along with the mujahideen and a futuristic Michael Bay-flavored battle of Los Angeles against shock and awe squadrons of bombers and drones in support of ground troops. That scene starts on the ground, with Mason protecting the president on the decimated streets of L.A. Action moves to the skies with a dizzying dogfight as you try to provide cover for the president's caravan.
Another fun mission involves directing an intelligence-gathering spider named "Ziggy" during a topsy-turvy trip through some ductwork.
Among the new weapons players get to wield is an electromagnetic sniper rifle that fires penetrating rounds. With its microwave millimeter scanner gunsight, you can see an enemy hiding and still take him out.
But beware. Some enemies may wear Predator-style cloaked camouflage and players must be alert for flying and unmanned Dragonfire bullet-shooting quadrotor drones. And not to be dismissed are stegosaurus-like mechanized computerized land assault weapons or CLAWs. Alert players can occasionally spot access points that let you control enemy hardware and turn it against them.
The story includes some warning signs about society's leaning on technology. Menendez, who develops a massive international following via social media, uses a fictitious rare earth metal, Celerium, to develop a super computer chip. Able to overwhelm standard IT systems, the chip is used to deliver a computer virus that gives Menendez control of the U.S. military's computerized assets. "All of these really interesting things that are happening with technology and social media these days explode in the story," 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.
In a new twist, players at the start of each mission, can customize their arsenal. And new Strike Force missions give players command of a squad. "Instead of playing just one character on the squad you can play anybody, you can play a mech on the ground or a flying mech," Anthony says. "It's up to you. It's like a sandbox."
Some players will love this change of pace, but for others it might push them out of their first-person shooter comfort zone. Take note, however, that the outcomes of these missions will impact the storyline involving the Cold War between the U.S. and China.
Other decisions made during the game will serve as turning points that change each individual player's story unfolds. "Players can make very critical choices that are going to affect your character and the characters you play with," says Treyarch studio head Mark Lamia, "and all of the narrative arc and the geopolitical landscape."
Luckily, there's no right or wrong choice and the story continues to a satisfying conclusion. Overall, the single-player game does play out, as Goyer has said, "as a big event movie."
The dilemma that developers face with each successive Call of Duty project is how to top the previous releases. "For this one, I thought the 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 and explosive as Modern Warfare 3, but it was definitely a very different style. Slower and more personal. ... A family story mixed with the futuristic drone warfare stuff."
Of course, the story mode is only one part of the Black Ops II package. Many players bypass the story totally and dive straight into the online multiplayer modes. This year's model looks crisp, plays smoothly and has plenty of new features to occupy players who are destined to spend hundreds of hours playing the game.
Those who love to tweak their assault outlays will enjoy the new customization tools that let choose your soldier's weapons and strengths. Also fun are new battle modes with more than two teams fighting it out and one called "Hardpoint," in which teams fight to control a randomly-changing location.
To encourage more players to go online, the developers have added new League play, which aims to match teams with those of equal skill. Also built-in are broadcasting tools that let players directly send live feeds to YouTube.
And there's more: the largest edition of the popular Zombies game, a totally separate survival horror game that can be played by up to four cooperatively and competitively 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)
Written By: Mike Snider, USA TODAY