You've always had to play the good soldier in "Call of Duty" games: The only path to the end was to follow orders, from defending a key position to killing off certain enemies.
The restricted approach meant that while the military shooter franchise skyrocketed to massive popularity through immersive graphics and innovative online multiplayer battles, its single-player campaigns got rightly knocked as linear and forgettable.
By adding the element of choice, "Call of Duty: Black Ops II" (Activision, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, PC, $59.99) has revitalized the brand to become the best "CoD" since 2007's "Modern Warfare."
The game leaps back and forth from CIA and U.S. military missions in the 1980s to an international crisis in 2025. Your moral decisions and successes or failures in both settings determine your ending — and whether some of the main characters live long enough to see it.
The narrative is framed by conversations between elderly Frank Woods and David Mason, son of his former partner Alex Mason. The younger Mason is out to stop supervillain Raul Menendez, with missions in under-siege Los Angeles, flooded Lahore, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Woods recounts his own history with Menendez in flashbacks to Nicaragua, Panama and an exhilarating Afghanistan level where you fire RPGs on horseback.
The branching narrative is complemented by two more wrinkles. "Strike force" missions add in optional real-time strategy and can end in success or failure, leading to different outcomes in the endgame. And for the first time in "CoD," players get to choose their weapons before each mission, including unique perks inspired by the series' stellar multiplayer options.
What-ifs abound. What if I had disobeyed that "shoot" command? What if I had started that level with a sniper rifle instead of a pistol? What if I'd let invaders blow up that base?
These are the types of questions that elevated the lauded "Mass Effect" trilogy, one of many sources of inspiration for "Black Ops II" creators. There are sticky "frog" gloves as seen in the fourth "Mission: Impossible" film, flying wingsuits from the third "Transformers" and a superrare element called celerium that reminded me of the unobtanium in "Avatar." There's even a feisty computer whiz named Chloe, a la "24."
So sure, not everything is fresh here. Gameplay is still mostly of the run and shoot-everything-that-moves variety. Artificial barriers keep you moving in the right direction despite the illusion of open space. Your allies sometimes still wait for you to kill the last in a wave of enemies, just because.