There’s no question mark at the end of the title Call Of Duty, but the series’ ideas lately are in such conflict that I wonder if there ought to be. It’s especially deserved for Call Of Duty: Black Ops II, a game whose campaign mode is riddled with nearly as much self-doubt as bullet holes. Over the course of its eight-hour story, Black Ops II wrestles with things like the generational effects of violence, our dependence on technology, income inequality, and America’s sketchy foreign-policy history.
That might be a startling statement to those who subscribe to the lazy, oft-held assumption that modern military shooters are a straightforward celebration of jingoistic militarism—a virtual shooting gallery of terrorists lined up in a row so your Navy SEAL avatars can gun them down with a spirited scream of “Hoo-ah!” In reality, the plots of recent genre titles like the first Black Ops, and especially Spec Ops: The Line have added a layer of moral complexity missing from shoot-a-thons of yore. Even a game that edges towards military worship, like Medal Of Honor: Warfighter, manages to set aside time to explore the negative effects soldiering can have on a troop’s family life.
The time-hopping tale of Black Ops II is the series’ most coherent in years despite leaping not only across decades of history but also between the perspectives of a few characters. You begin in the year 2025 with Navy SEAL David Mason’s desperate search for terrorist mastermind Raul Menendez, but the game quickly retreats to the Cold War era to relive the lucid flashbacks of nursing-home patient Frank Woods, a main character from the first Black Ops who hunted Menendez (alongside Mason’s father Alex) in the ’80s. You follow all that?
Mason is the game’s natural hero, but Black Ops II is more interested in the psyche of its villain—a political activist who has harnessed military might and the power of social media to gain a worldwide following. Similar to Bane’s brand of politics in The Dark Knight Rises, there are echoes of Occupy Wall Street in Menendez’s call to overthrow corrupt capitalist nations. The gap between the rich and the poor has widened substantially in 2025, causing segments of the public to become more accepting of a radical message like Menendez’s. (One level takes place on a resort island called Colossus, a place whose glittering decadence causes Mason’s squadmate to mutter, “So this is how the one percent lives”).
Part of Menendez’s motivations are rooted in personal tragedy—a fire set by an American businessman committing insurance fraud disfigures his sister, and later, that same sibling is murdered by the U.S. military. It’s part of a theme that runs throughout Black Ops II about how violence can shape a person, even decades later.
We’re presented with that idea in a broader sense because Menendez’s hatred for capitalist countries is also born out of failed U.S. attempts to prop up brutal regimes. Black Ops II’s fiction is blended with actual history, and as a native Nicaraguan, Menendez has witnessed the abuses of the United States-backed “contra” counter-insurgency in his home country and his heart hardens. The game recalls the mess that the Reagan administration made in Central America and features cameos from central Iran-Contra figure Oliver North and Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator who managed to manipulate the CIA throughout the ’70s and ’80s.
It’s an ugly era of American history, and it’s kind of surprising to see it highlighted in a series of games that once painted the U.S. military with the same gauzy “Greatest Generation” brush strokes as HBO’s Band Of Brothers. Black Ops II’s sense of history echoes Noam Chomsky more than Stephen Ambrose.
For those of us who question the overly hawkish messages that shooters can send, the newfound soul of military shooters like Black Ops II represents a kind of progress, but the courage of its subversive convictions are ultimately undermined by its own design. A startling amount of skill and craft is on display in Black Ops II’s roller-coaster ride of action sequences through war-torn streets, or at the helm of tanks and aircraft. This time, there’s even an element of crude decision-making: You can choose who lives and who dies in major story moments and influence the game’s ending. There is no option, however, to peacefully negotiate or engage in nation building. The game lays the sins of a violent culture at our feet and asks us to atone in the only way that a first-person shooter knows how to—with a gun.
Meanwhile, there’s a wispy sketch of a story in Tranzit, the marquee map featured in the cooperative mode (which is now simply called “Zombies”—apparently, the PR-conscious undead opted to drop their Nazi party affiliation), but it seems beside the point. I’ve never cared much for developer Treyarch’s repetitive zombie slaying action, instead spending the bulk of my time in the competitive multiplayer mode. The core elements that define multiplayer haven’t changed much since the original Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare, but the mode has evolved over the years into a much more refined package.
The best addition to Black Ops II is the Pick 10 class system. Instead of simply choosing your preference of predetermined slots of guns, grenades, and perks, you’re left to decide which 10 upgrades and item types you want. I’ve never been skilled at using grenades, so I sacrificed that slot to add a stability attachment to my gun. I also bypassed owning a secondary weapon to gain the power of faster reloading. Pick 10 revolutionizes the standard inventory system and adds a level of strategy and planning in character building usually only found in role-playing games.
I also applaud Treyarch’s move to replace kill-streak rewards with “score streaks.” Many players eschewed teamwork for lone-wolf tactics in prior Call Of Duty games, a behavior encouraged by kill-streak bonuses that gave players the ability to call in an airstrike or rain missiles down from the sky based on their ability to slaughter a bunch of people in a row without dying. Score streaks, on the other hand, enable rewards for engaging in team-friendly activities as well as murder—defending a base in the Domination mode, say, or defusing a bomb in Demolition.
Any concerns that the futuristic timeline and advanced tech of Black Ops II would turn the multiplayer into another version of Halo are overblown. The new toys are more or less grounded in reality. Shooting a grenade from your wrist instead of throwing it changes very little, and there are no super-powered evaporation lasers or anything like that. The only in-game gadget with the potential to throw the competition out of balance is the Target Finder scope, which effectively paints little triangles over enemies’ heads, but the scope’s narrow field of vision mitigates its advantage.
Black Ops II’s competitive multiplayer mode remains not only the best of the three components of the game, but also the most intellectually honest. There’s no tortured backstory describing why two teams of men are taking turns defusing a bomb on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier or shooting at each other on a cruise ship. In every mode of Black Ops II, bullets are the best solution to a problem; multiplayer is where that formula makes the most sense.