Call of Duty: Black Ops II Review
Written : Friday, November 16, 2012
By: Lee Abrahams
As you hurtle through a drug cartel owned village, guns blazing with your squad sweeping alongside you providing cover fire, suddenly a technical van comes screaming around the corner. “Take out the driver,” your buddy Woods screams and you duly oblige, sending the truck hurtling into a nearby wall and erupting into flames. “Just like old times,” Woods says with a chuckle, which is ironic considering it is pretty much the general feeling you get all the way through Call of Duty: Black Ops II. It is just like old times, built upon the foundations of all the previous Call of Duty games that have come before with a few new tweaks to keep it interesting.
The series has long since dispensed with the campaign being the most important part of the package, with players instead keen to invest their time into multiplayer or the co-op Zombies modes, and the same holds true with the newest instalment. It’s abundantly clear that Treyarch has tried to inject fresh ideas and impetus into the same stale formula but the studio has only been partially successful in doing so.
Carnage at its finest.
Spanning a few decades of conflict and covert operations, the story sees previous protagonists Alex Mason and Frank Woods back in the saddle (literally at one point) trying to tackle nefarious drug cartel leader and wannabe world messiah, Raul Menendez. The game also hops into the future, with Mason’s son David as the newest tough guy, to see how an old grudge erupts into something much more potent. As ever the plot is pure nonsense, designed to drag players to a wide range of locales with an ever-diminishing amount of plausibility. Clearly someone thought riding horses around a desert would be suitably epic but it comes across as a touch laughable, and the final scene from that mission has been ripped wholesale from Indiana Jones. At least you didn’t fall off a cliff.
The problem lies in the fact that the game still follows the same linear path as always, with the inclusion of scripted decision points at key junctures redu
ced to little more than solitary button presses that only seem to alter which cutscene you end up with. There may well be multiple endings but they all boil down to just a medley of the same few scenes that are solely dependent on only three different choices in the entire campaign. It gives the impression of choice and narrative while actually all you have is the regulation good/bad choice every step of the way. Only one of them actually leads to any extra mission, and the rest are entirely down to your mood at the time. Clearly the idea was to evolve the story a little more, but you can’t help but feel like you are still allowed minimal input into what is going on.
The same is true of much of the vaunted futuristic tech on display, with Nano-gloves for climbing cliffs, flying wingsuits and swanky new firepower. Only most of the tech is handled by the odd button press or dull on-rails flying and shooting, so it never feels overly useful. The weapons too are just slight twists on weapons we’ve been using since Call of Duty first turned up, with only the addition of heat sensing abilities, chargeable sniper shots and funky drones making them any different. Sure the gadgets look flashy but they don’t change much of the tried and tested formula.
He’s pretty upset. You can tell by the fact he worked out a lot.
The other main addition to the campaign are the rather woeful Strike Force missions. These are optional objectives that task you with a range of goals: be it hacking local servers, protecting a base or assassinating a high value target. The idea is that you control a range of units or turrets and can, theoretically at least, manage them from on high to complete the mission. Unfortunately for everyone involved the AI is truly appalling and renders management from afar pretty much pointless. Your units will ignore the fact they are being attacked unless you pick out specific targets for them, and enemies tend to be remarkably adept at blowing up objectives from miles away. The only real option is to get stuck into battle yourself which is surely missing the point, but is the only way to guarantee success. Considering the recent Ghost Recon game did squad-based combat in such a great way, it's strange to see how this could fall down so easily, but aside from being a bit of a diversion this is one area best left alone.
Even assuming you do tackle the Strike Force missions you are still likely to barrel through the story in five or so hours, and the convoluted mess of a narrative does not make it time well spent. On the plus side you can tinker with your loadout and perks before each mission which is a nice touch, and there are a series of level specific challenges that you can tackle for a bit of replayability and a few achievements. Though the fact you can only see what the challenges are either before or after a mission makes remembering them a pain. Surely it would have made sense to have them available on the pause menu? Thankfully the one aspect of the campaign that CoD still has over its rivals is the sense of spectacle, helped by tight controls, so you always feel like you're part of the bigger picture. No matter how ridiculous the action may be, at least it keeps things interesting. Plus, the ease with which you can rack up Gamerscore should not be overstated.
Horses against choppers. Not great odds.
Of course the single-player is not going to be the factor that draws in the crowds, and never will be, as the online arena is where most players will sensibly spend most of their time. Thankfully this part of the game is still as strong as ever, and the new Pick 10 system will allow players to customise their approach to each and every battle with a fine tooth comb. It will probably only be a matter of time before some heinously unbalanced combinations come about, but for now the system is a great example of how to keep play balanced while providing people with plenty of options.
Despite a few teething problems in terms of connectivity, which seems to be pervading almost every major online title these days, once you get into a game things feel as tight as ever. The maps are well designed, though one or two feel slightly cramped, leading to players spawning too close together and far too many frustrating deaths from behind. On the whole though there is a good balance between close-quarters combat and decent sniping zones, though only time will tell whether or not players can settle into the new surroundings as they did with cherished maps of the past.
The gameplay itself has also had a few welcome tweaks too. Once again, new players can dip their toe in at the shallow end with the help of Combat Training against friends and bots, though only to a certain level of experience to prevent it becoming a source of easy stats. Multi-team battles can take place on some of the best game modes like Kill Confirmed, adding a more tactical affair to the previous format. Certain modes (including our favourite One in the Chamber) have been dropped into the party list, which is for game types of a more quirky nature, though is also ideally suited for solo players looking for a bit of fun. Finally, league games help to judge your skill levels and assign you to a group of players that match your abilities – with your overall goal to climb as high up the ladder as you can.
Multiplayer shenanigans. Kill those fools!
Considering most players will be online for the long haul Treyarch has done a good job of balancing the maps and abilities, as well as introducing score streaks to enable players without godly kill/death ratios to enjoy some of the entertaining abilities as well. In terms of carbonated beverages this is Cherry Coke rather than an entirely new drink, a subtle twist on a familiar brand, but the changes are welcome additions to an always solid package. Though achievement hunters may groan at the idea of having to prestige, which has also undergone a new range of choice options rather than the basic reset, but at least it gives those diehards some reward for their devotion.
The third arm of the ensemble is the always popular Zombies mode. The new Tranzit option basically allows players to travel between a range of areas, each with their own unique quirks and secrets, via a handy and rather nefarious bus service. Players can also opt for the more traditional Survival mode on each map, or go up against a rival team in the Grief mode and try to make sure they end up as zombie fodder. The Zombies mode has always been a bastion of entertainment and this time is no different, though in truth, the new maps just don’t seem as interesting as those in Black Ops or World at War. Plus the travel mechanic is rather annoying to use and frustrating to wait for. No doubt there are more maps en route, which is a good thing as the current mix is decent but unspectacular.
Black Ops II is trying its hardest to introduce new ideas into the whole package but has mixed results. The campaign is short, ridiculous and underwhelming, and the Strike Force missions could use a little more work. Thankfully the online package is still superbly well done and, tied into the Elite stats service, lets players spend a wealth of time playing, comparing and mucking about. The Zombies mode is the same great fun, whether solo or in a group, and the Tranzit idea is a pleasant addition that's only let down by rather drab maps. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a very good package, of that there is no doubt, but it’s not one of the best in the series. As the campaign draws to a close one character mutters, “I’ll see you in a year.” Is that a threat? A warning? Or just a knowing nod by Treyarch at what all games fans already know. Call of Duty will certainly be back and, on this evidence, is at least building a solid foundation to work with.
The voice work is of the usual high standard and the weapons and sound effects are superb.
Good for the most part but the engine is starting to look its age and the odd bit of texture pop in can be an unwelcome reminder of that fact.
As much fun as CoD ever was, which will probably vary from person to person. But for all the weaknesses of the solo experience you have the underlying strength of the online modes to rely on.
Not as good a package as the original Black Ops, as the campaign and Zombies maps are weaker, but the addition to all three modes do add a greater depth and sense of progression. No Zork though. Gutted.
A well balanced list that covers all three modes, with only hitting prestige likely to cause issues for players who don’t spend a lot of time with MP – though no doubt they will be a minority.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a decent successor to the original but despite the flashy tricks up its sleeve, this plays in pretty much the same way. Fans will find plenty to enjoy in each of the three main modes and the online arena is still up there with the best around, plus Zombies is likely to garner plenty of your time. Black Ops II might not be perfect, but the entertainment value far outweighs some questionable design choices.