If there has ever been a gaming franchise that has commanded the attention of the world, it would be Call of Duty. For nearly ten years the series has grown from its World War 2 roots to become synonymous with the first-person shooter genre. What started as a strict PC first-person shooter has expanded to virtually every platform reaching millions of players, generated billions of dollars in sales, and created increasingly varied criticism from the industry and fans alike.
With Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, the same questions asked for years now are being posed again. Does it do anything different? Why does it get so much attention? What’s so good about going around shooting things for hours? As passionate as the players are who log hundreds of hours into the multiplayer, there are also those that will spend just as much time condemning the series for a multitude of reasons. The simple truth is that out of all the shooters on the market, Call of Duty (and more specifically Black Ops 2) just does it bigger and better than the competition.
The biggest surprise of Black Ops 2 might be in how the single player campaign is handled. Written by David Goyer (of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight fame), the overarching story is not only dark but much more intricate than what might be expected of a military shooter. Since so many of these games feature the abundance of stereotypical “soldiers with guns and attitude” along with a maniacal villain with aspirations for world domination, a break from the mold is always appreciated. The character of Raul Menendez is expertly crafted. Menendez’s drive to flip the world on its head is believable and never devolves into a bland pastiche of other video game terrorists. Not only do you want to make him pay for his crimes, but you also begin to sympathize with the character to some ends. While the other main characters don’t have as many layers, there is always a good degree of believability and companionship felt towards them. Don’t be surprised if the story makes you feel like you are actually accomplishing something aside from killing faceless soldiers to get to another checkpoint.
To further enhance the storytelling, something completely unexpected was implemented: player choice and branching storylines. At several points in the game, the actions players take can have different results on the story. This doesn’t just amount to who lives and dies; it involves discovering secrets, having actions play out differently, and even influencing the ending. Though the concept of multiple endings is nothing new (and nothing too mind-blowing in Black Ops 2), the incentive is there and appreciated. Suffice it to say, players might want to actually take the time to play the campaign again and see how different choices influence the game.
Without a doubt, Black Ops 2 delivers on sound quality. This is a game where explosions, yelling, gunshots, explosions, death rattles, and more gunshots are going to barrage the ears. Obviously if you hate those things then you’ll want to mute everything. But if you hate those things, chances are you weren’t considering the game in the first place. Most of the voice acting for characters is done with enough flair and conviction. The main cast does a great job and is another reason the script is delivered so well. That being said, there are the “hard-ass” soldiers who take special pleasure in punctuating everything with choice obscenities. It’s surprising how often an admiral can inject c***sucker into every other line of a speech. For the most part, the music gets the job done. The score is strong when buildings are crumbling everywhere and subtle enough when it needs to be. Those who don’t have a personal soundtrack when playing online should appreciate how well music is injected into matches. And for those who are annoyed by the pervasive nature dubstep has taken in practically every form of media: there are some times you will roll your eyes.
Anyone going into Black Ops 2 expecting a complete overhaul of any mechanics should not only be looked at questionably but should consider what actually makes a shooter fun. The shooting mechanics are, unsurprisingly, extremely satisfying. There are some interesting touches here and there with controllable robots, optical camo, and other future tech but nothing so jarring it takes getting used to. Before the start of any mission, players are given the chance to select a weapon layout that caters to their preferences. Having the ability to try out different guns and loadouts (as long as they have been unlocked) allows for further experimentation and adds to the experience.Even with the variety of options, some of the old familiar problems come around. Some missions will throw an infinite number of enemies at players before reaching a determined checkpoint; it’s even possible to find the enemy spawn and kill dozens of guards as they magically appear inside a room. It’s also easy to get lost in some of the open environments. The game often gives a general destination and leaves the rest up to the player. Going up a set of stairs or into one room might advance the player into an area full of enemies with no assistance. However, this issue might mainly affect those who enjoy exploring the nooks and crannies of every environment. Further playability is squeezed out of the campaign by attaching optional objectives. Finding hidden intel, killing a set amount of enemies with a certain gun, or other tasks will unlock new attachments or perks to be used during the campaign.
For this entry in the series, Treyarch introduced a new mechanic in the form of Strike Force Missions. These missions are completely optional but influence the political elements of the story in later missions. Strike Force levels are similar in nature to real-time strategy games with an interesting twist. At any point in time the player can jump out of the overhead “strategic view” and take control over an individual unit as if it was any other level in the main campaign. Initially, the hybrid mode feels fun because who doesn’t want to command troops and take out enemies from a distance? The simplified controls soon become a burden because there isn’t much feedback as to what’s happening on the battlefield. Most will just assume control of one soldier and run around completing objectives. The final Strike Force mission becomes a test of patience not because of the difficulty but because enemy units spawn infinitely around the objective with no rhyme or reason as to why. With a little bit more time, though, the Strike Force mechanic could grow into a good mini-game (or at least ripe for DLC content).
Black Ops 2’s multiplayer is incredible. Game after game, the online portion is improved and tweaked. The new “Pick 10” system gives players ten equipment and perk “slots” to create their own unique classes. Each weapon, attachment, grenade, and perk takes up one of these ten slots and figuring out what works best is a lot of fun. The Pick 10 system lends itself to trying new things but never allows any specific loadout to be too powerful. Remember how revolutionary creating a class felt in the original Modern Warfare? Pick 10 changes things again for the better. The concept of “Kill Streaks” is replaced with “Score Streaks” and the experience feels much better. Instead of agonizing over how many kills players can pull off, rewards are given for higher scores. Players who aren’t able to stay alive for long periods of time now have a better chance to pull off an airstrike or unleash a drone on opponents. Since modes like Search and Destroy, Capture the Flag, and Hardpoint award points for more than just kills, Score Streaks feel more attainable. Newcomers are probably still going to have a bit of a difficult initiation period but Combat Training and other modes soften that introductory blow.
A slew of community features round out the already robust multiplayer. CODcasting allows players to watch previously recorded matches to study tactics, develop strategies, or create an on-demand video series. One of Black Ops 2’s best new online features allows players to live stream their gaming sessions. The streaming community is constantly growing and the ability to live stream is something that more games should include these days. For the biggest competitors, Treyarch has introduced League Play. League Play places gamers in ladders based on their skills; the more matches you win, the more your rank will rise. Divisions, competitive ladders, and seasonal leagues are a way for Treyarch to implement in-game what has been accomplished in the competitive gaming sphere for quite some time.
Finally, the Black Ops 2 package is rounded out with the Zombies mode. The survival mode is here and virtually unchanged from previous incarnations. One or more players attempt to defend an area from the undead horde, collect better weapons and perks, and stay alive. Zombies mode resonates so well because that drive to do better is always present. The Survival mode is also complemented by the Grief mode. In Grief, another team of players is also trying to fight zombies with you. The difference, however, is that each team can “grief” the other by stunning them when trying to revive another teammate or even attracting a swarm of zombies over (you can’t kill other players). If you really feel like being mean, Grief mode is a nice touch. Tranzit is the biggest addition to the Zombies experience because it makes the attempt at fusing a story to the ridiculous mode. More importantly, it offers a big map to explore full of Easter eggs, hidden objects, and more. Zombies provides a nice distraction from the serious nature of the Black Ops 2 experience and there is room for Tranzit to grow with new maps and secrets. The one complaint I have with the mode is that areas can be annoyingly dark at times and having to constantly jump to avoid fire pits can become tiresome.
One final note that should be made: the copy reviewed was for the PS3. During time with the game, there were occasional bugs or glitches; from time to time bad textures or pop-in was experienced. When playing on a console, these things are expected. On a PC, the advanced graphics options can truly make Black Ops 2 sing but console owners aren’t missing out. The game often looks stunning, that much can’t be denied. With that in mind, my first couple of days with the multiplayer was plagued with issues. Often the lobby would be full of players but the game would keep connecting and then unconnecting saying there weren’t enough players available for matchmaking. Several times my game would freeze when trying to load a map (both during the campaign and online). Were these issues enough to hamper the Black Ops 2 experience? No. And with a recent patch they seem to be resolved for the most part.
Treyarch crafted an experience that defies expectations and criticisms. Those who are quick to judge Call of Duty as a whole should play Black Ops 2. The improvements to each aspect of the game shows how the series can evolve while still remaining completely familiar. An enhanced, unique campaign that no longer feels like an afterthought should be given respect. A multiplayer experience that caters to the competitive and growing streaming/e-sports scene shows that Treyarch recognizes the needs and the market of its players. Without a doubt, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is one the most refined shooters on the market to date and for that reason we’re giving it an Editor’s Choice Award.
Note: A copy of the game was provided to Gaming Illustrated by the publisher for the purpose of this review.