Video Game Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
Black Ops 2’s story is surprisingly well constructed.
Ah, Call of Duty, the scourge of gaming… or so some would have you believe. Indeed, there is no more polarizing franchise than Activision’s first-person shooter. Cynics suggest the series isn’t progressing; to which I say, give Black Ops 2 a try. No, it’s not a full blown revelation, but there more than a few new tricks up Treyarch’s sleeve this time around.
One area where the Call of Duty series has been polished to a fine sheen is the controls, which continue to feature the most responsive aiming of any shooter on the market. Melee accuracy feels as though it has been turned way down, however, something that led to many close-quarters deaths during my early online forays. There’s also an on-rails aerial segment late in the campaign mode that was a bit annoying, which is responsible for the slight deduction.
After playing Halo 4 and Assassin’s Creed III, there’s no denying Black Ops 2 doesn’t match those games’ visual power. That being said, Treyarch has done a nice job squeezing a little more life out of the engine with polished cut scenes and varied environments — even if it’s not quite the globetrotting affair seen in previous entries. The best part about the visuals is the ingenuity with cleverly designed weapons that feel both futuristic and plausible (read: no laser guns).
Say what you will about the lack of progression in Call of Duty’s graphics over the years, but they keep things humming along at a steady frame rate that adds to the breakneck pace of the campaign. There are a number of elaborate set pieces throughout with tons of enemies and/or massive explosions, all of which are presented without even a hint of slowing. There’s also plenty of visceral bloodshed with Black Ops 2 earning its “M” rating.
Movie buffs will immediately recognize the contributions of Michael Rooker and Tony Todd, but even with that familiarity it doesn’t become distracting (something Ice Cube’s inclusion did for me in the original Black Ops). The voice acting is pretty good, but there seemed to be issues with the mixing as about halfway through I flipped on the subtitles to make sure I understood the dialogue. You’ll have no such issues with the sounds of battle, which boom through the speakers. There is one caveat: the online yells of death sound pretty goofy.
Delightfully absurd might be the best way to describe many of the recent Call of Duty plotlines, therefore it was a surprise to find an interesting and somewhat layered tale behind Black Ops 2. The story centres on David Mason, the son of Black Ops protagonist Alex Mason, and his special forces unit as they try to track down cyber-terrorist Raul Menendez. It’s told through a series of present day elements and flashbacks to the exploits of the elder Mason and Frank Woods, who essentially serves as the narrator. Despite jumping back and forth, the story is easy to follow.
One of the more enjoyable aspects is how the game weaves together fictional and historical events, placing characters in situations with real people like Jonas Savimbi, Manuel Noriega and David Petraeus (clearly written in before the scandal) — hell, even Oliver North makes a cameo. Black Ops 2 certainly isn’t the first title to do this, but it strikes a very good balance.
New to the campaign is a series of optional “strike force” missions, which is meant to take sort of a real-time strategy approach. You command units, moving them to defend or attack various points, while retaining the ability to jump into any one of them and take direct control. On paper it sounds pretty cool. In practice it feels like a work in progress. Unmanned units are largely impotent and splitting your forces never works. Instead you just end up ordering everyone to advance on a specific locale and jump from one unit to the next, killing as many enemies as you can. If Treyarch plans to bring the concept back next time it definitely needs some fine tuning.
Another addition is branching plot points. Throughout the campaign you’ll have the chance to alter the way the story progresses and ultimately where it ends up. Some moments are clear — kill person A or person B — while others are murky, but collectively they offer players the opportunity to tackle the campaign a second time without seeing the exact same stuff again.
While many may bypass the campaign and jump right into the multiplayer, they are doing themselves a disservice as Black Ops 2 features the most interesting campaign to date for Call of Duty. It’s skillfully paced, features a well fleshed out villain (Menendez) with an atypical goal (global chaos) and has plenty of “oh shit!” moments along the way.
Speaking of multiplayer, Treyarch has made a handful of judicious changes to Activision’s bread and butter, and nearly all of them work well. Perhaps the biggest is that loadouts are more customizable than ever with each player being given 10 slots to fill however they’d like. Want to carry one gun with six perks? You can. Want to carry two primary weapons and grenades sans perks? That’s an option, too. What about going into battle with just a combat knife? You bet. More than any Call of Duty game before, Black Ops 2 lets you play how you want to.
Kill streaks have also been replaced by score streaks — a subtle yet important difference as points can be earned for more than just putting an opponent in the ground. For example, call in a UAV and earn assist points for every teammate kill recorded while it’s active. Granted, most of your score still comes from killing enemies. It just offers a little more freedom and rewards you for supporting teammates. Players will also eventually gain access to the future tech seen in the campaign mode, which offers some new gadgets to use online.
Beyond that, online multiplayer is classic Call of Duty goodness with well designed, multi-level maps that keep you on your toes from start to finish with quick twitch shooter action. The modes are instantly familiar and a slick interface ties everything together. There’s definitely a vocal minority that will rail against Black Ops 2 because of that, but when you’re releasing the next installment in a series that’ll invariably dominate the online marketplace, reinventing the wheel isn’t what’s called for.
Rounding out the offerings is Treyarch’s signature Zombie mode, and it too gets some innovation in the form of “Tranzit,” which is sort of a poor man’s campaign. It’s an interesting twist on the formula as you travel from location to location on a bus driven by the zombie version of a Johnny Cab (fans of the original Total Recall will know what I mean), and even though I’ve never warmed to the zombie craze (I don’t even watch The Walking Dead), there is mindless fun to be had jumping online with friends and mowing down wave after wave of the undead.
If Tranzit is a bit too involved, there’s still the classic survival option, which can be played on any of the three included locations. Another new mode, Grief, puts two teams into the same area and tasks them with working in conjunction with (or against) the other team. You can’t shoot each other, but you can tempt the undead to swarm the competition. It’s a bit of a cat and mouse approach where only one team can survive.
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Once again, Activision shows that it knows the pulse of its fan base. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 makes some welcome adjustments to both multiplayer components and tops off another strong showing for the series with the best campaign Treyarch has even produced.