Hands up who thought Black Ops 2's branching storylines system would be nothing more than a token gimmick? Really? Wow. Don't all put your hands down at once, you might send us spiraling into the Sun. We were skeptical too, but in practice it's really well done.
Each mission has multiple different outcomes, and the one you get when you first complete it is the one that is set in stone for the rest of the campaign - you can replay it as many times as you like, but your first outcome will always be the canon one. If you want to rewrite history, you'll have to restart the game from scratch.
Now, whatever happens you'll play the same core missions in the same order with the same characters. But your actions within those missions determine who lives and who dies, and that in turn has a butterfly effect that can alter the outcome of future missions quite dramatically. And intriguingly, it isn't always a case of succeeding to win, either - in some cases, failing an objective can actually make it easier to get one of the good endings, as it in turn determines where some of the key characters are situated when everything comes to a head.
Some of the branching paths are obvious; at certain points the game will grab you by the collar and ask you if you want to shoot someone in the head or the kneecap. Other times, it's more subtle. A mistimed jump, or a lapse in concentration, or a failure to complete anobjective in a timely manner, can have drastic and far-reaching repercussions farther on down the line.
Some might not like that the game doesn't clearly signpost these moments, but we do. It injects a aura of randomness and circumstance into a framework that, historically, is linear to a fault, and this helped us feel like we had some kind of a say in the game's outcome - something we'd never really gotten from a Call of Duty game before.
It was immensely enjoyable chatting to our colleague on GamesMaster magazine and comparing and contrasting our experiences across the campaign. Our endings couldn't have been more different', and each others' war stories gave us added insight on how our decisions helped save the planet (or not in their case, heh).
Another variable factor is the optional Strikeforce missions, which unlock at various points during the game, depending on what events have occurred in your save file. These are time-sensitive missions which take place in an enclosed arena, like a small-sized multiplayer map. Objectives change from mission to mission but invariably revolve around getting the better of the opposition forces. You can fight the battles on the ground, warping from unit to unit as they're killed in action, or from the sky as an RTS game, or for best results as a healthy mixture of the two.
As an RTS Strikeforce leaves a little to be desired - it's simply too basic to compete with dedicated examples of the genre, but this isn't its intention anyway. As a way of infusing the strategy and mayhem of the classic multiplayer modes into the single-player campaign however, it's a reasonable success, and overseeing the combat from above offers a welcome spot of repose from the relentlessness of the battlefield.
If you fail a Strikeforce mission, you can retry it at a cost of one of your three back-up platoons (which have to be shared across the entire campaign), or you can just accept your fate and concede defeat. Success in Strikeforce missions raises America's standing amongst the international community, which proves useful during one critical point near the game's climax.
One thing we do wish the game was better at signposting are the optional challenges that pop up on each level - challenges that ask you to play the game in different ways, such as meleeing 10 enemies or completing a Strikeforce mission exclusively in RTS mode. Fulfilling these objectives unlocks new weapons, which can then be selected prior to starting the next mission on the new pre-briefing loadout screen. It would have been nice if the game had made a bigger deal of this, rather than burying it deep within the folds of its menu system.
Black Ops 2 goes to great lengths to give its players a reason to replay its campaign, but the quality of the missions is so inconsistent that we can only see the most dedicated players rising to the challenge, with others being content to watch the alternate endings on YouTube - particularly as they're uniformly nonsensical. Nonetheless you certainly can't fault Treyarch for the effort that's been put into it, and in the end you'd have to say that while it's no Deus Ex, the branching pathways are well executed, even if it does mean that some of the more important figures find themselves increasingly relegated to the periphery as the story goes on, due to the fact that the game can't necessarily rely on them even being there in the first place.