Is it good? Is it crap? Right now it's both
The chances are you've already decided what you think about Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. CoD is one of those series that divide opinion immediately. But the interesting bit is that whether you see Black Ops II as an exciting next chapter in gaming's biggest, most high-octane FPS or just another slice of stale old more-of-the-same pie, the fact is that you're absolutely right at this stage.
You see Black Ops 2 is currently a bit of a Schroedinger's Cat of a game. With only demos, screens and dev promises to go on, all the new additions it supposedly brings to the series are unknown quantities. Thinking about them today, I've found it incredibly easy to get excited about what they could achieve, but also pretty easy to get a bit sad about how easily they could just be PR spin for the tiniest of incremental changes. Because let's face it, whether you like Call of Duty or not, you have to admit that it's a series pretty stuck in its ways.
All that in mind, I've picked out the biggest potential game-changers at play and filtered them through my twin lenses of optimism and pessimism to see just how fresh (or not) Black Ops 2 may turn out to be. Have a look, and then let me know which way you're swinging at the moment.
The near-future setting
The optimistic interpretation: Treyarch will use the near future setting to finally break completely free and create its own, fresh Call of Duty sub-series. With the Modern Warfare series still the focus of a messy legal battle with ex-Infinity-Ward staff, a 'future warfare' series is a logical replacement.
Unrestrained by historical accuracy, and exempt from the responsibility of plausibly reconciling its story with current reality (though Modern Warfare eventually solved that problem with a great big Screw that", admittedly) Treyarch can now weave an epic bespoke narrative of its own. And a cleverly disturbing one at that, if it's smart about how it extrapolates its future history.
The pessimistic interpretation: It'll be a re-tread of Modern Warfare 2 and 3, only with China instead of Russia and LA standing in for New York.
The automated mecha-tanks
The optimistic interpretation: They will completely change the whole flow and focus of battle, becoming terrifying, all-conquering signature enemies whenever they appear, See them as Call of Duty's equivalent of BioShock's Big Daddies or Half-Life 2's Striders. Huge, lumbering harbingers of nigh-guaranteed death whose simultaneous avoidance and destruction must become immediate priority.
The second they appear, the fight will become about them and them alone. All other enemies will become a secondary consideration compared to their terrifying destructive power. Each encounter will become a tactical cat-and-mouse sandbox duel, as we use every ounce of cunning and every environmental advantage to wring a win out of desperately unfavourable odds.
The pessimistic interpretation: They'll just be reskinned versions of Call of Duty's usual tanks. They'll look cooler, but it'll still just be a case of hurling grenades from cover or conveniently gaining the scripted use of a set-piece rocket launcher at just the right time.
The optimistic interpretation: Black Ops 2's theme of high technology turned against its owners by a hack-happy enemy will lead to a Terminator 3-style situation whereby tech just cannot be trusted. Even the noble toaster will be looked upon with suspicion, before being promptly shot in half. Can you imagine that? A world without toast. These terrorists are monsters.
Anyway, modern technology as much a risk as an asset, we'll eventually be forced to eschew as much of its use as possible, leading to a cool and clever set-up during the second half of the campaign in which we 'go analogue', combating our own advanced hardware with more antiquated, more traditional tools of warfare.
Enter the horses vs. choppers encounter seen in the trailer, in which we must use the versatility of our swift but vulnerable steeds to evade an ever-present metallic threat from the sky, using environmental and manoeuvrability advantages to gain the upper hand. Horses can't be hacked, you see. Unless you have a really nice carrot, or an absolute crapload of sugar lumps.
The pessimistic interpretation: The horse bit will be one of the campaigns 80s-set levels, and will be just another Call of Duty on-rails shooting bit, only with the skidoos reskinned with horses. Horses are cool since Red Dead Redemption, you see. Just ask Uncharted 3.
The non-linear Strike Force mode
The optimistic interpretation: These semi-open world missions - which appear along the course of the campaign, and do not have to be successfully completed in order to progress - could be a revelation in regards to the way Call of Duty's campaigns play out. With several Strike Force missions selectable each time they appear, and real repercussions promised within the later campaign depending on the player's choices and levels of success, they could add a much-needed sense of real, player-driven involvement to a series that feels increasingly like a high-gloss rail-shooter.
They won't turn CoD into Skyrim, but they might well add a light dose of Deus Ex. Your choices will return unexpectedly to reward or haunt you hours down the line, and whole levels will play out differently via the appearance of new areas and new set-pieces.
The pessimistic interpretation: Call of Duty always has bits where things switch out to a different gameplay style for a while. Modern Warfare's air support levels have been doing the perspective-switching bit for years, albeit over linear routes. Strike Force will just be a bigger version of that, given a formal name. And the repercussions will be relatively self-contained, mattering only for the remainder of the current level, and changing only simple things like the number of enemies faced and the number of squad-mates alive.
The scaled-up Zombies mode
The optimistic interpretation: Zombies being fleshed out into a fully-featured game in and of itself will mean great things. Treyarch is often at its best when allowed to go off-track and experimental with more irreverent ideas. The fact that CoD Zombies exists at all is a testament to this. With promised new game modes and a bigger zombie world, Black Ops 2's iteration could spin out into proper Left 4 Dead territory, with a full, set-piece-driven narrative co-op campaign complimenting the traditional survival arenas, and heaps of new lore and a full-scale mythology tied into the main 'serious' campaign.
The pessimistic interpretation: It'll be more of the same, but with way more DLC maps.
Want all the rest of the details on Black Ops 2? Check out Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 - the new setting, sandbox gameplay, player choice and more (opens in new tab)