Back in 2010, developer Treyarch showed us a new side of the Call of Duty franchise with Call of Duty: Black Ops. Rather than being a standard military game with a cliched story, the game was an M. Night Shyamalan-esque take on the shooter as a whole.
Fast forward to 2012, where Treyarch once again looks to mix things up in the military shooter genre with Call of Duty: Black Ops II. But instead of giving us yet another taste of modern combat, the game is set in the near future with more advanced technology at your fingertips. Does the new futuristic setting work, or does the game fall prey to the same tired themes so many accuse it of?
First off, a warning to those approaching the game without any knowledge of the original Black Ops: you will need to know the story beats from the first game in order to fully understand and appreciate the interactions between the characters throughout the campaign of Black Ops II.
Black Ops II picks up several years after the events of the original, seeing the return of familiar characters and the introduction of new ones. The game follows David Mason, son of Alex Mason, as he tries to assist in capturing Raul Menendez, a warlord with a dark past intent on holding those accountable for the pain he was caused so many years ago. For this, Menendez has turned to manipulating military drones and ordering attacks on cities around the world as he tries to destroy the free world and capitalist markets.
Interestingly enough, the game goes to great lengths to set up and humanize Menendez as a person. You’ll see the root cause of his grief, experience firsthand his pain and rage, and even sympathize with him to a small degree. It’s a first for a Call of Duty game to go into such great detail in order to create a believable villain, and it works.
Story pacing is decent, but doesn’t have near the depth or tangled beats of the first Black Ops. Don’t expect to be as blown away by some of the game’s reveals in the same way you were when you found out Reznov was all in Mason’s head.
And while the story it tells is engrossing enough, it tries to bring in other world conflicts that simply aren’t necessary to the plot and tend to muddy up the narrative as a whole.
But for all its flaws, the story is an interesting one that, while riddled with ridiculous military jargon and “bro” dialogue, delivers enough to keep you engaged throughout the five hour campaign.
Where the campaign falls short, however, is its choking linearity. A common theme found throughout many campaigns of Call of Duty games past, the single player mode will all but hold your hand as it guides you through corridors and points you toward objectives. It doesn’t get in the way of the overall narrative, but it does feel maddeningly unforgiving of different play styles, often forcing you to play the game as it wants you to. A bit more freedom of choice and less taking control away from the player would have made a much more interesting campaign by the way of mechanics and gameplay.
Black Ops II also saw the introduction of Strikeforce Missions, tactical single-player levels that saw you commanding a squad of drones and soliers as you try to secure maps and complete objectives within a time limit.
Strikeforce Missions are a neat idea, but their execution is a bit awkward. Friendly AI isn’t always responsive, moves slowly, and dies fairly easy, making for a frustrating time of commanding the battlefield. You’ll have the chance to take control of any unit on the ground, be it infantry or drones, and have to juggle your time between actual ground fighting and the game’s overwatch mode that allows you to view all units from a bird’s-eye view in order to successfully pull off missions.
They’re an interesting experiment, but feel a bit too different to make sense in the campaign itself. They don’t feel connected to the action of the story, have more of a tower defense than tacticalvibe, and the results of failure in them doesn’t impact the narrative in any big manner, making them feel more like a tacked-on afterthought than an revolutionary new game mode.
Gameplay in Black Ops II is roughly the same as it has been in games past; standard FPS controls of shooting, switching weapons, throwing grenades, and crouching all make a return with tight controls and new guns that feel satisfying to shoot. I found myself picking up and experimenting with enemy guns on the regular, pleased to find that each gun had its own identity among the many you’ll encounter throughout the game.
Of course, there are other gameplay variants sprinkled in throughout the campaign that keep things interesting and give you the feeling of being a military hero; throughout the game’s missions, you’ll command drones, fly planes, take control of CLAW artillery units, and even make some decisions as to whether or not key characters live. Sure, decisions are determined by “do it, don’t do it” button prompts, but they’re still interesting and had me questioning my motives on occasion.
Overall, the game’s futuristic setting lends a fairly new look and feel to the game itself, but it isn’t the big departure so many thought it might be. Don’t expect to be shooting lasers at each other a la Star Wars; it’s more Call of Duty with new tech and drones to give you an edge on the battlefield, but looks and feels similar to the original Black Ops.
Of course, Call of Duty simply wouldn’t be Call of Duty without its multiplayer modes. And while multiplayer is Call of Duty through and through, Treyarch introduced a number of new conventions in Black Ops II that serve to change a tired space.
Players new to the Call of Duty multiplayer sphere can learn the ropes in Combat Training, a mode that pits newer players against each other with a handful of AI bots. Regular experience is earned throughout the Combat Training mode to a certain point, allowing you to get a handle on the game without having to die an embarrassing amount of times in the more intense public matches.
After that, it’s back into the familiar multiplayer scene with a handful of modes both old and new to appeal to players of all types. Multiple team-based games such as Kill Confirmed and Hardpoint allow you to work together to complete objectives like capturing points or taking out enemy units, with some allowing for more units to be on the map simultaneously than others. Different modes appeal to different play styles and allow you flexibility to find which modes suit you the best.
Black Ops II sees the implementation of the Pick 10 system, a system that allows you to customize your loadout by using tokens earned in combat to unlock and equip new weapons, upgrades, and perks. There’s an extreme amount of flexibility that allows you to customize your loadout however you see fit to create the best solider class for your play style. It’s fast, it’s efficient, and a well-designed user interface allows you to seamlessly scroll through menus and make your selections accordingly.
Multiplayer might not be for everyone, but it is much more considerate of both the experienced and the newbies, allowing for a more open game for all.
The popular Zombies mode in Black Ops makes a return in Black Ops II with a handful of new takes on slaughtering the undead. Games are once again wave-based and see you boarding up entrances to prevent spawning enemies while entering, and money earned killing zombies and rebuilding barriers will help you gain access to new areas and weapons.
But where the first Zombies saw you in one survival-based game mode, Black Ops II presents you with a variety of options. Tranzit gives you the chance to reach new areas of the map by boarding a decrepit bus inhabited with a Total Recall Johnnycab-esque driver, Grief pits teams against each other by allowing them to slow down enemy units an sic zombies on them as they try to down all players on opposite teams, and the classic Survival mode returns to the same barrier-building and zombie-slaying gameplay of the first Black Ops. New maps are available in Black Ops II as well, including a destroyed and lava-filled Town and a farm house gone to hell. It’s a mode without much depth, but there’s something to be said about how much fun it is to team up with your friends and try to last as many rounds as you can.
Sound design in Call of Duty is well done and lends a lot to the game’s satisfying gunplay. Each gun has its own unique sound, enemies communicate in different languages, and a dubstep-heavy futuristic soundtrack rests in the background behind the game. Voice acting isn’t great, but it isn’t terrible, either, walking the acceptable middle ground of being an adequate representation of the characters portrayed in the game. Sure, more than a handful of them have an Adam Jensen-esque gravelly voice that makes them sound like they’ve been smoking for a thousand years, but it remains believable within the game’s crazy and violent context.
Graphically, the game is hit-or-miss; there’s a lot of clipping, lighting isn’t always consistent, and character models look stiff and awkward. But the game’s performance isn’t affected in any way, moving at a consistent pace without any frame rate issues during my review on the Xbox 360. It doesn’t look great, but it doesn’t look bad, either, cementing the game in an average ground that aligns it with the cacophony of shooters in the FPS market today.
Overall, don’t come to Black Ops II looking for a completely new and re-vamped experience; it’s more Call of Duty, with a handful of new ideas thrown in to mix things up. But that isn’t a bad thing; actually, Treyarch did a fair job of changing the formula without alienating fans or changing things so drastically that it no longer aligned with other games in the franchise. And while the campaign is frustratingly linear, it still manages to tell a well-realized story on par with the original Black Ops with its twists and plot developments. Outside of the game’s main campaign, new ideas in multiplayer and zombies lend another two dimensions that result in a meaty experience you’ll be able to return to for a long, long time.
(Note: This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360. The game is also available on the PC, PS3, and Wii U.)