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Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 review: In the future, there is only war

"The numbers, Mason! What do they mean?"

Well, you can't say that Call of Duty never takes you anywhere. This, the ninth mainline entry in Activision's ludicrously-popular military shooter series, serves up yet another breathless foxtrot around the world's circumference.

Pakistan, Panama, California, Yemen, even the Cayman Islands - chances are that if it's a place that can be reached by chopper, then at some point in the campaign, lead protagonist David Mason will merrily hop off onto it with his battle rifle, shouting 'Holy shit!' until his throat is hoarse.

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Once again, it makes for an unforgettably exotic FPS experience, with sights and sounds that will permanently lodge themselves into your memory. It's been an impressive metamorphosis for a series which began life firmly ensconced in the browny-brown trenches of World War II.

But the journey the Call of Duty series has taken us on is one of time, too. Eighty-six years separate the dawn of World War II from the tumultuous events of Black Ops II, which means (as the mathematicians among us will have already calculated), that BLOPS 2 takes place in the future - June 19th 2025, to be precise.

The Call of Duty series has toyed with near-future warfare before, but it's always kept it grounded in the technology of today. Until now. Black Ops 2 steers the series firmly into the realm of sci-fi fantasy, and it makes for a stunning visual contrast from all that's come before it, regardless of whether you take COD 2's 1939 or Modern Warfare 1's 2011 as your starting point.

The futuristic tech permeates every square inch of the COD formula, great and small. In 1939, your melee weapon was the butt of your rifle. In 2025, it's a pair of electro-knucks that fry the recipient in under a second. In 1939, reconnaissance meant ducking behind a cow's corpse and gawping at Jerrys through a pair of Christmas cracker-grade binoculars. In 2025, it means activating your cloaking camo and ghosting past guard patrols like a whisper on the wind.


It affects locomotion, too. Who remembers the scene at the beginning of Call of Duty 1, where your fellow pathfinder Sgt Heath is found hanged in a tragic tree/parachute mishap? Wouldn't have happened if Heathy-boy had glided into Sainte-Mère-Église on one of Black Ops II's squirrel suits (very similar to that seen in the upcoming New Super Mario Bros U, actually), which allow the wearer to coast over Myanmar's junglescape at a blistering pace before landing on a sixpence.

At the other end of the scale, 2025's pampered platoons don't even have to worry about straining their throwing arm any more - grenades now spring from your soldier's wristband like Pop Tarts from a nuclear-powered toaster, with a holographic display giving you precise control over the grenade's range and trajectory.

As you may have ascertained from all this, the future portion of Black Ops 2's campaign mode is absolutely insane, with a general vibe that resembles Crysis more than it does Medal of Honor. But it's a thoughtful, playful kind of insane, with a Tomorrow's World kind of allure that implores you to keep playing just to see what oddity it throws at you next. Pakistan's now a flooded wasteland, protected by hovering mechs that sizzle intruders on sight with lasers, you say? Okay, whatever. Let's get in there and fill it full of bullets!


The fantastical plot might have been controversial at one point in Call of Duty's history, but since the series jumped the shark at some point between the Snowmobile Escape Ride Of Doom and the Effiel Tower keeling over, it's impossible to take any of it to heart. In any case, half the game is set in the mid-to-late eighties, told as flashbacks by the game's narrator, an elderly and crippled Sgt Frank Woods from Black Ops 1.

That said, you'd be hard-pushed to say that you get your fill of plausibility here, either. One early level has you galloping around the Afghan desert on horseback, taking out the entire Russian army with a rocket launcher. What the eighties sections do provide, however, is some context to the future missions. Placed side by side, it's easier to appreciate that the differences aren't merely cosmetic - the new tech impacts on the flow of warfare in quite a significant way.

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