Tracking the 9-year-old life of the "Call of Duty" shooter series is like watching the tide come in. It ebbs and flows. The first entry shot out like a cannon ball in 2003, but the series fell back to earth by the time "Call of Duty 3" (2006) rolled round. Then the push to revamp the franchise from its World War II roots to "Modern Warfare" (2007) powered it past "Halo" to the top spot on the sales charts.
But that high level of quality is impossible to sustain. It's hard to top yourself each year, and "Call of Duty" peaked with 2009's "Modern Warfare 2." That's not to say that Treyarch's latest entry, "Call of Duty: Black Ops 2," is bad; it's on par with its predecessors. "Black Ops 2" contains enough slow-motion explosions to make Michael Bay happy, and a body count that would put Rambo to shame.
"Black Ops 2" continues the story of Alex Mason and Frank Woods, the two hardened special ops members from the first "Black Ops." Treyarch fast-forwards the series to 2025. The campaign jumps back and forth between that near future and the 1980s. It traces Alex's rescue of Woods and Alex's shocking fate, while at the same time, following the exploits of Alex's son, David.
The narrative jumps between the two eras, but they're bound together by the villain Raul Menendez, a Cuban military genius out to avenge the death of his sister. His fury stretches for decades as he crafts an intricate plan to take down the United States and battles Alex and David Mason.
As with most shooters, the core gameplay doesn't change much. "Black Ops 2" still features shootouts punctuated with moments where players control vehicles or blast heavy armor with rocket launchers. Treyarch adds some twists like a scenario where Alex travels via horseback or when David controls high-tech drones.
But the best moments are when the developer shows off the special ops gear of 2025. The elite soldiers of the future can scale cliffsides with gloves or glide long distances via wing suits. The weapons add a creative wrinkle with enemy troops, who are nearly invisible, and rifles that let players see through walls. It borders on the fantastic, but Treyarch keeps the tech tantalizingly close to being possible.
The big misstep is the addition of Strike Force missions. It's a new feature that comes out of nowhere, and Treyarch teaches it to players in a few minutes. They don't ease them into the new real-time strategy gameplay. They're thrown to the fire and expected to thrive, but the control scheme is so clumsy, it's hard to manage it.
The later Strike Force missions devolve so that they're less about placing and managing troops and more about shooting through waves of foes. It becomes a chore, and what's worse is that the AI allies aren't the brightest and end up getting killed more often than not. Thankfully, these are optional.
But they do affect the narrative, which has branching details based on player performance. Drive badly and David can injure an ally. In another mission, the race to rescue a hostage matters because it affects how future missions unfold. It gives players an incentive to replay a campaign that's heavy on the intrigue and action.
The real reason gamers pick up "Call of Duty," though, is for the multiplayer. It won't disappoint longtime fans. Treyarch has made it easier to create custom classes so that the soldiers players bring in to battle fit their play style. Activision also opened up the Call of Duty Elite service so that the community features are open to all players.
The last part of the equation is zombie mode, a cooperative way to play that pits four players against an army of the undead. It's an option that's been with the series since Treyarch made "Call of Duty: World at War," and they've developed it with more elaborate maps and missions. Lastly, there's a video feature so that fans can record clips and stream their online exploits online. These improvements along with a host of others refine an already polished experience.
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Wii U