After finishing Black Ops II and proceeding to write this review, I felt a sense of déjà vu. By that, I mean I didn’t feel as if my role had changed; I was still caught in the middle of a war between two radical factions that I had no choice but to partake in, all of which took place in a setting driven by technology and paranoia. “Whose side am I on?” I thought to myself. “The haters, or the fans?”
Such an answer should be a lot more straightforward than it probably will be. Black Ops II is the latest entry in the now annual Call of Duty franchise and is created by yearly publisher Activision and bi-yearly developer Treyarch. It has a lot of new ideas for the series scribbled on its whiteboard, including a futuristic setting, branching storylines and open-ended strikeforce missions. However, does it truly bring this series into the future, or will we need to send a black ops team of our own to dispose of it? Read on to find out!
In a first for the series, Black Ops II takes place in the distant future, specifically in the year 2025. Taking control of David Mason, the son of Black Ops protagonist Alex Mason, the game kicks off with Mason Jr. and his Seal team interrogating Frank Woods for information on Raul Menendez, a radical politician who has risen to power in recent years and formed an immense terrorist group called Cordis Die. Back in the 80’s Woods and Mason themselves were involved with Menendez, and their missions during events like the Panama invasion and the Afghan-Soviet War take the form of playable flashbacks told by Woods. The element that ties these two timelines together is the long-running conflict between Woods and Menendez, of which David gradually learns more about during the game in his effort to find and kill Menendez before he can put his mysterious plans of world domination in motion.
As you can probably tell, Black Ops II’s narrative is rich with promising ideas, and while the whole thing is competently executed, you get the sense that Treyarch didn’t make the most of this great premise. The pace of the plot is relentless, sometimes to its detriment. Many characters are just barely introduced before they become essential to the plot, and loading screens will often try to cram ten pounds of exposition into a five pound bag, so to speak. It all feels a little rushed, as David himself doesn’t get much development, and you never get a sense for the public’s perception of the game’s events, even when the stakes are high. The whole business with two timelines doesn’t help, as the game has to keep thinking of excuses for Mason Jr. to revisit Woods or talk to one of his partners for info on past events so the 80’s missions can continue. At one point, Mason has an epiphany while in some kind of futuristic locker room with his buddies, which prompts him to learn more about the past. I wish I was joking. As a whole, the plot seems a bit rushed and glosses over some of the important character motivations and background details, ensuring that a second playthrough is practically necessary to properly get the whole picture.
It may sound like I’m bashing the story, but in truth it does have some notable strengths. Award-winning screenwriter David S. Goyer is on board this time around, and it’s easy to tell given that there’s a huge increase in the amount of third-person cinematics. A lot of them are missing the kind of careful pacing and gravity found in great films, but they’re an interesting inclusion nonetheless, and the dialogue is sharper and conveys more personality here than in previous games in the series. The story is at its best, however, when it’s expanding upon Woods and Menendez in certain first-person sequences. Their rivalry, which is well justified and explores touchy themes such as guilt, nihilism and morality, easily propels Black Ops II’s story as the best ever told in a Call of Duty game. Sure, that might seem like praising a skunk for being the least smelly of its kind, but there really is a sense throughout that Treyarch cares. The characters are, for the most part, well realized and essential to the plot, which itself feels cohesive and meaningful.
The game also introduces several ways to influence the narrative via player choice, periodically allowing you to make decisions that shape the rest of the game’s story. Some of these moments are easy to spot and are quite obvious in terms of their placement, but others are subtle to the point where you’ll probably stare at the mission result screen a few times and be baffled to know that certain results could have turned out differently. This certainly makes Black Ops II the most replayable campaign in the series, since there’s a lot of incentive to go back and make different decisions in order to experience all four different endings. Some endings are definitely better than others, and only one of them closes off the storyline in a truly satisfying way. If you get a bummer conclusion the first time through, it’s recommended you play through the game again, or at the very least look up the various endings on Youtube.
Just be warned; Black Ops II is a vulgar and often brutal game, sometimes needlessly. Characters swear like they have their fingers stuck in a clamp, and a few cutscenes attempt to ramp up the shock value just for the hell of it, especially with a few people getting graphically burned early on. It leads one to think that maybe not all of Treyarch’s story team were on the same page when it came to tone and context. Like Treyarch’s previous CoDs, there’s still a filter for graphic content and profanity, which is always a nice option to have.
In terms of gameplay, this is still a Call of Duty game at its core. At this point you’ve played at least one of them, right? You’ll shoot various people with bullets that come out of guns, preferably while aiming down sights, and it’s all embedded into a linear experience designed to maintain a steadily fast pace and focus on explosive set pieces. The controls are still some of the best in any FPS, and the variety seen in Black Ops returns here in full force. Levels will routinely put you in control of a vehicle such as a jet, car, wingsuit, robotic spider, or even a good old-fashioned horse for example, or they’ll empower you with unique weaponry, such as a segment where you play as a certain machete-wielder, which feels like playing with cheats enabled. For the most part, this is still the same CoD experience you’ve seen before, so if you were hoping this would be a CoD campaign for people who hate CoD campaigns, you’ll be disappointed.
However, to stop there would be a disservice to the small innovations that Treyarch has tried to integrate. Levels are typically a lot larger than in previous CoD’s, leading to ambitious segments like the Afghanistan level, which has you riding across desert valleys on a horse while defending bases from tanks and helicopters. You can now choose your loadout before heading out into a level, adding some strategy and planning to the mix. Futuristic weaponry and attachments have been introduced, and they’re all useful even if only a handful, like the Target Finder sight, affect the way you play the game. It also mustn’t be overlooked just how welcome the ‘shot feedback’ feature is. Whereas enemies in previous CoD titles would simply drop dead when shot, giving little sense of impact, this time around there’s a small ‘X’ displayed on your crosshairs whenever your bullets harm a foe. It may sound like negligible addition, but in truth it makes the the simple act of shooting a lot more satisfying and less repetitive than it was in the series’s previous entries.
Speaking of which, the pacing in Black Ops II is also the best the series has ever seen. As mentioned above, the sheer variety of vehicles and gadgets you’ll control keep things consistently fresh, and the unpredictable level design and careful sprinkling of quieter story moments serve to make a campaign that flows like no other in the series before it. Treyarch has always had problems with pacing and repetition in their CoD titles ever since Call of Duty 3, but they’ve finally found their groove with this title.
Lastly, we come to the Strikeforce missions, the biggest new addition. You’ll periodically get the option to play them during the campaign, though they’re only available for a limited time before they disappear. The reason why everyone is hyped up for them is that they allow you to command and even take control of various different units around a large battlefield. How are they? Put simply, they’re functional but flawed. The tactical overlay is a bit finicky thanks to awkwardly mapped controls, and the commands you can order aren’t much more complex than “move a unit here” and “move all units here.” AI for the enemies is also quite dumb, making the whole thing pretty easy. You don’t even have to switch units that often, as most enemies are just generic foot soldiers, and the objectives usually just boil down to capturing points or defending points. Overall, it’s a nice experiment that feels very unique, but it still needs work before it can be considered a winning addition to the franchise.
The campaign feels slightly longer this time around, though it still only takes around 7-8 hours to beat. The general quality of the campaign and the branching paths ensure that you’ll probably return to it at some point, but there’s a good chance that the bulk of your single-player time will be spent in the zombies mode, which is back and bigger than ever. Classic survival gameplay is back, wherein you gain points to get better guns, expand the map and buy perks, but there’s also TranZit mode, which allows you to explore a large open world by riding a bus. A bus is necessary to get through radiated zones, and it warns you with a horn whenever it’s leaving. Lots of secret areas are hidden throughout the maps as usual, and the new crafting system is lots of fun to mess around with. Zombies mode can also be played cooperatively in both splitscreen and online play.
I do have a few complaints with this mode, though. The voiced characters aren’t as funny as they were in the first Black Ops (you can’t beat JFK), often resorting to juvenile name-calling and crude narcissistic remarks for humor. Also, if zombies catch fire, they explode upon death, which is usually more annoying than challenging. Lastly, the imp-like creatures that pop up in TranZit’s radiated zones have a habit of constantly jumping on your head and making you go through an insipid quicktime button-mashing sequence to get them off. It’s relentlessly distracting and honestly kills a bit of the incentive to explore. So yes, Zombies mode is both a step forward and step back here. However, it’s still retains its fun mix of action and survival, making for a fairly deep mode that I honestly prefer to Left 4 Dead. That’s right, I said that. I look forward to your angry Emails.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that Black Ops II is running on a slightly modified five-year-old engine. Textures are certainly rough and/or blurry at points, and the lighting engine isn’t nearly as impressive as you’d find in any other shooter. It’s a godsend, then, that Black Ops II has the most refreshing art style the series has ever conveyed. Treyarch’s rendition of the future may not be entirely believable, but it is inventive and just plain cool. Special mention must be made of Colossus, the floating resort city, which features nice touches like the protagonist appearing in holographic advertisements. Character animation is still a high point, and once again the game runs at a buttery-smooth framerate even in some of the more massive environments. I did encounter one glitch wherein Woods seemed to be levitating above his horse, though the ensuing hilarity meant it was easy to overlook, and there weren’t any other notable technical issues. Be sure to install the 1GB texture pack in the options menu, since it does make a slight improvement to the visuals.
Is the sound just as worthwhile, though? I’ve always found Call of Duty to have inconsistent sound design. Oh sure, the guns all sound appropriately loud and impactful, but during the game’s various set pieces I would often find that the sound effects failed to convey adequate visual feedback or just weren’t present at all. I noticed this a lot less in Black Ops II, so Treyarch must have been doing something right. Voice acting is well done throughout, and the score, penned by Trent Reznor and Jack Wall, is appropriately imbued with the typical synths and cold air of uncertainty that you’d expect from a futuristic setting. Make sure to stick around after the credits for a rather hilarious use of an Avenged Sevenfold track.
Black Ops II isn’t quite the genre-bending (r)evolution some fans were hoping for. At its core, it’s still the same relentlessly paced and linear set-piece driven experience, and if you disliked previous campaigns in the series, this one won’t do much to endear you. However, it’s as incredibly polished and varied as ever, and the advances it does make in storytelling, pacing and flexibility of gameplay qualify it as the most ambitious and creative Call of Duty yet. Combine that with an expanded zombies mode, and you have a shooter that has noticeable flaws but is definitely a step in the right direction. Treyarch have always been mocked and seen as Infinity Ward’s unimpressive little brother, but Black Ops II finally sees them outshining their counterpart with genuine finesse and creativity, making for an experience that’s a lot more compelling than last year’s limp and uninspired Modern Warfare 3. The future itself may be black, but the future of the series is brighter than ever.
(Reviewed on Playstation 3. Review copy generously provided by Activision and Step-3. Thank you!)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 7.5/10
Gameplay/Design – 8/10
Visuals – 7.5/10
Sound – 8/10
Lasting Appeal – 7.5/10
Overall – 8/10
(Not an average)
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U (launch title)
Ratings: Mature (ESRB), 18+ (PEGI) (there is a content filter, though)