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Call of Duty: Black Ops II review: The future will be familiar

Call-of-Duty-Black-Ops-2 reviewThe Call of Duty games are essentially first-person shooter porn. They bombard your senses with explosions, gunfire, and general mayhem during your time spent with them; throwing enemy after enemy at you, offering ways to keep the war going forever online. And it works, and works well – so much so that the franchise’s producers expect to clear a billion dollars every year. That’s a staggering accomplishment when you think about it, and it proves that the series remains relevant even as it recycles ideas. But its age is showing.

The real question is, does that matter? Sports franchises release new iterations each year that often add just a single new feature or two, and fans are content. So why is the Call of Duty franchise held to a different standard? Perhaps it is a victim of its own success. Fans of the series put days, even weeks of time into playing and exhausting themselves, and have done so since Call of Duty 4 changed everything five years ago. They know their games, and minor additions can make for big changes.

Call of Duty Black Ops IIBut five years is a long time in gaming. Despite undergoing several modifications, the engine is beginning to lose a step. After half a decade of seeing the exact same truck driven by the same enemies, it stands out. Facing the same scenarios in the campaign with just a few deviations can be masked with clever design and an addictive multiplayer – both of which are present here – yet the flaws are showing.

But …

Despite the inevitable complaints that Black Ops 2 is just a new map pack for Black Ops, and despite the angry chorus that (correctly) suggest that this game lacks innovation, there is a reason for that billion dollar sales figure. This game still commands respect.

Black Ops 2: Black Ops Harder

Overseen by Hollywood screenwriter and recent co-scribe of The Dark Knight Rises, David Goyer, the plot in Black Ops 2 continues the franchise’s tradition of featuring campaigns designed to be the game equivalent of a summer blockbuster film. You shouldn’t play Call of Duty campaigns if you are hoping for character development or insight into the human soul, you should play them to blow stuff up real pretty. How you feel about them depends on what you want from your game – and perhaps gaming in general. Regardless, Black Ops 2 does what it sets out to do, and fills your senses with enough battles and explosions that you may have to apologize to your neighbors for the noise. It is big, loud, and dumb, just like the high-octane Hollywood films it seeks to emulate. And just like those films, Black Ops 2 is both entertaining and problematic at the same time.

Call of Duty Black Ops II_Panama_Raul MenendezThe story takes place in two time periods: The first, chronologically speaking, occurs during the tail end of the Cold War, and continues the adventures of the slightly brain damaged protagonist from the original Black Ops, Alex Mason, as he attempts to stop the rise of the narco-terrorist, Raul Menendez. These sections are offered as flashbacks from 2025, the primary time frame of the game, when Alex’s son David attempts to learn more about the threat Menendez poses after he gained a fanatical following of nearly one billion people.

The story actually works much better if you don’t already know Menendez’s plan. That’s tough if you have seen any of the commercials or stories about this game, but in the slim chance you remained pure like the virgin snow, this review will be spoiler free.

In general terms though, the plot attempts to give you a more rounded picture of the villain of the piece, as you see how and why he does the things he does. It is an interesting, even noble goal to bring complexity to the narrative, but it falls flat more often than not. Plus, while the retro settings worked well in Black Ops, in the sequel they aren’t as attractive as the levels that offer you futuristic – and therefore original – combat options. There is a heavy emphasis on tech, and it overshadows the more traditional aspects of the earlier missions in the past.

The story is also fairly dark, which leads to what is perhaps the biggest issue of the campaign – it just takes itself so damn seriously. From murdered fathers to crippled sisters, there is a bleak feel to the story. It’s broken up by endless bouts of killing the same suicidal AI that continues to stay under cover until they conveniently stand up and place their heads in the same spot, over and over again.

Call of Duty Black Ops II Between the death-happy enemies and the auto aim (which is the default, but can and probably should be turned off), you can sleepwalk your way through most of the first half of the game. Black Ops 2 does away with the mystery of Black Ops (and the flashy spectacle of Modern Warfare 3) and suffers for it. The later half of the game picks things up, but there are very few new mechanics or set pieces you haven’t seen before.

The story does feature branching plot lines and multiple endings, which are activated based on the choices you make and the objectives you accomplish (or fail to). It leads to a different narrative in many instances, although the general story and the locations remain the same. These give the campaign something it has never had before though: replay value.

Throughout the game you will be offered “Strike Force” missions, side quests that affect the overall story without changing the broadstrokes of it. These missions come and then disappear after a limited time, never to reappear and taking any story elements they had with them. The Strike Force missions are squad based, and allow you to work with multiple characters and some of the new high-tech toys of tomorrow. Some may have you on offense while others have you defending locations. Although it isn’t really an innovation, it is a good addition to break things up, even if it does cut into the pacing a bit since they are only available for short periods of time.

Call of Duty Black Ops II_Time and FateBut despite the new setting, game mode, and weapons, Black Ops 2 operates much the same as the previous games, and features the same problems like exceedingly linear levels, reused design elements, the odd glitched character, and predictable fights with unimpressive AI. It also raises the question of why the game, which during gameplay always features a team of at least two characters, regardless of the time period – doesn’t feature co-op.

10 Slots Equal One New Approach

In what should surprise no one, the core multiplayer mechanics remain the same. The game moves the same as it has for five years now, and the same competitive philosophy is at work. If you have played the games before, nothing should surprise you here. It is not a criticism to point out that CoD has always has been a matter of evolution over innovation, and the changes are progressions of things that have been introduced before. 

There is no question that the series is in need of an overhaul soon, but both Treyarch and Infinity Ward have done a remarkable job with what they have to work with. The franchise has long been a trendsetter in competitive multiplayer games, and several of its innovations – like kill streaks and paying points to unlock weapons revealed through leveling – quickly became standards of the FPS genre. Black Ops 2 has a few innovations of its own that will likely soon be commonplace.

The changes they introduce are generally very good ones, and are typically adopted by other games in the genre quickly. The same process is at work here. There are several changes to the leveling that will alter your approach, although none should feel alien to fans.

Black Ops 2

The biggest change is the inclusion of a 10 slot limit for your loadouts. Each loadout has 10 spots that you can fill however you choose, once you unlock the item you want by reaching a specified level, and then using a token earned by ranking up to unlock it. These 10 slots can be used to carry perks, weapons, weapon modifiers like scopes, and secondary equipment. So if you want to attach a scope and have a dual clip, that will cost you three spots – two for the add-ons and one for the weapon itself. If you choose to load up on perks at the cost of a secondary weapon or a concussion grenade, you can. It often makes you sacrifice one thing for another, and after just a few times with it, you’ll see the ebb and flow at work. 

Kill streaks have also been replaced with something closer to the MW3 support point system, which included objectives as a measure for raising your streak points. Capture a domination point, shoot down a UAV, or kill an opponent and you will earn points to unlock one of three rewards, each of which is listed under its cost per reward, and selectable once you have unlocked it. As with all Call of Duty games, the risk of these scorestreaks overwhelming the gameplay is present, but it is manageable. However, if you hated the constant death from above mentaility of previous Call of Duty games before, you will hate it here.

There are other changes, including the weapons, which offer new attachments unlocked bey earning experience with that weapon. It has a new coat of paint, but isn’t truly new. All of the familiar modes return, including MW3’s Kill Confirmed and a new Hardpoint mode that is akin to King of the Hill. The wager matches from Black Ops also return, but are now dubbed Party Games, and the practice mode that let you play against bots in Black Ops has been revamped. It now allows you to play mixed matches with humans and AI, which is a great way for new players to ease into the well-traveled world of Call of Duty online.

Call of Duty Black Ops II_Meltdown

Along with the traditional online modes, Black Ops 2 introduces League Matches. Specific matches you compete in will rank you on a ladder, with a good performance sending you up and a bad one doing the opposite. It will take a while for players to settle in once the game has been released, but it should group players with opponents of a similar skill level.

The changes don’t touch the fundamentals of Call of Duty’s multiplayer, but they help to present it in a new way that feels fresh, if very familiar. There aren’t enough changes to win over those who dislike it or bring back those that have since abandoned the series. But for those that do enjoy the games, Black Ops 2 offers plenty to reaffirm Call of Duty’s spot as the dominant online game around, and this offering does surpass Modern Warfare 3

Have Zombie, Will Travel

One of the biggest changes seen in Black Ops 2 is the new take on Treyarch’s signature zombie mode. The single maps have been replaced with a bare-bones campaign called Tranzit, that has you and up to three others fighting off waves of zombies as always, but now you have a partial world to discover and an AI-controlled bus that takes you between the locales while under attack. It was a formula not especially in need of a major reworking, and it often leads to confused teammates being split up when some take the bus, but a good team can make the most of the shifting locations and hardcore fans should appreciate the effort to expand the mode.

Stats are now kept for your zombie progression, and you can collect tools that are scattered throughout. All in all, the changes feel like half measures. The previous, stand alone maps offered just as much as the new, transferable campaign. It just doesn’t go far enough to really become the standalone mode that Treyarch was aspiring to.

black-ops-2-zombiesStill, zombies mode remains a highlight for those seeking co-op. The change are a love letter for the zombie fans. Treyarch wanted to offer them something more, something deeper. In that it somewhat succeeds, and it will be interesting to see where the inevitable DLC takes the mode.

Along with the new take on the traditional zombie mode, Black Ops 2 also offers a new zombie Grief mode, which allows eight players to stand against the zombies, but those eight players make up two teams and only one team can win. If you see a human fall but they are on the other team, you have the choice to let them die and take a lead or revive them and hope that they help you survive longer. It’s a fun mode, but not a huge draw.

Conclusion

The cracks are showing, but Call of Duty continues to put out quality, annual offerings. There haven’t been many changes to the fundamentals, and the graphics – while still decent – are less impressive than some of the newer engines on the block. There are several new tweaks that work though, and the 10 slot limit may not seem like a major change, but it really does make you rethink your approach.

The campaign is a decent diversion, but little more. It has pacing issues and never really surprises you, but it is a fun distraction for a eight hours or less. As always though, the multiplayer is king. It does honor to the series, but those that aren’t fans will see it as more of the same. Call of Duty remains at the top of its genre, although its position is tenuous. It is in need of an overhaul, but as long as the quality of the games remains consistently high, and as long as Activision and its developers pack this much content on one disc – a campaign, zombies, and a massive multiplayer – that billion dollars a year seems like a pretty safe bet. 

Score 8.5 out of 10

 

(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360. A copy was provided by the publisher.)