When Modern Warfare first hit Xbox Live, the effect was monumental. It was one of the best online games we'd ever played, and seeing something of such high quality getting the right recognition was genuinely thrilling. Detractors argue that since then the series has become stagnant, but in many regards the biggest problems have been caused by skewed attempts to improve the formula by adding a bunch of cool new stuff.
Black Ops II nails Call of Duty multiplayer for the first time since 2007. The maps are fantastic, the guns are great, and the redesigned loadout system brings back the sense of clarity that has slowly been lost after years of incrementally piling on features.
Modern Warfare 3 dabbled with the idea of reinventing Killstreaks, but didn't commit to it in the way that Black Ops II's Pointstreak system does. A standard kill now earns you 100 points, adding far more flexibility for other types of kill. Wiping out an enemy with a targeted airstrike will only earn you 25 points, ensuring that chaining Pointstreaks together isn't just all about kills. Grabbing a flag in domination will net you 200, putting you just one kill away from potentially earning a UAV.
The new 10-point loadout system bundles guns, perks, and equipment together - allowing you to specialise classes even further - and the greater variety of Pointstreak rewards makes defensive play even more viable. 800 points can earn you the foe-microwaving Guardian emplacement, which is fantastic for protecting objectives or forcing the enemy to approach from a different direction. Our favourite addition is the proximity-activated Shock Charge, a versatile tool that's great for setting traps, scouting danger ahead, or giving you a heads up that you're being followed.
The preset multiplayer loadouts are all great, and start to give you a good idea of the variety of ways you can choose to play. The 10-point loadout system allows for inventive and incredibly versatile builds, but hardcore fans will adore the extremes. You can choose to ditch a secondary weapon in favour of extra perks and gear, or even make a class that forgoes weapons entirely - maxing out everything else and hoping that you find a good gun in the field. It's a genuinely excellent system, although we'll admit to mild worry that the versatility leaves it open to abuse. Our Activision-hosted review session, playing against developers and other media, was well-balanced, but the millions of CoD players online will have ample opportunity to break it. Treyarch promises to remain vigilant - we'll see what the next few months bring.
After the insane verticality and daft sniping spots of Modern Warfare 3's old-school maps, we're pleased to see that the maps in Black Ops II feel far more grounded and less open to exploits. Keeping routes and accessible areas more clean-cut and simple makes the learning curve for each map easier to deal with, ensuring that gamers who aren't pro are still having a good time.
Black Ops II offers some of the strongest map design in the series to date, with too many favourites to pick just one. The sprawling rocks and crashed plane in Turbine offer a great blend of sniping spots and opportunities to flank, while the frantic pace of Hijacked - a tiny level on a luxury yacht - is perfect for party games like One in the Chamber or the much-loved Gun Game.
Multi-team deathmatch isn't as much of a game-changer as Modern Warfare 3's excellent Kill Confirmed, but the overall set of modes feels comprehensive. The feature we're most excited about is the brand new League play mode. Giving everyone access to all the unlocks levels the playing field, and allows the game to accurately rate your average skill. Thanks to parent company Activision Blizzard, the league system for Black Ops II is a direct copy of the system used in Starcraft II. We've played enough of the latter to know that Blizzard's league system is the best in the world, and the impact it will have on Call of Duty shouldn't be underestimated.