Call of Duty: Black Ops II Review
Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on Sony PlayStation 3
Doesn’t time fly - it’s November again, the cold and rain have set in, the majority of the men in your office are sporting moustaches that any 70’s porn-star would be proud of and of course, like clockwork it’s time for yet another Call of Duty release. Just in time for Christmas and likely to make a gazzillion pounds for Activision.
This year it falls to the team at Treyarch to take the Call of Duty onwards and upwards and yet for the last few years the Call of Duty series has acted more like a Madden game. Tweaking has become the norm, along with some subtle changes to game modes - Treyarch has zombies, IW has spec ops, but neither Treyarch or IW have sought to push the boundaries a little bit and really change things. Why would they though right? Modern Warfare 3 wasn’t as warmly received as previous outings yet it still sold more than anything else in 2011, so as stated, why bother innovating? Well, as luck would have it and fair play to Treyarch it looks like they are actually trying to push the series forward a little - not all for the better but at least they are trying.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II follows directly on from the 80’s Cold War B movie that was Black Ops but on this occasion the campaign spends half its time in 2025 alongside the usual Cold War nonsense seen in the original. A bit of a trick on Treyarch’s part but the future setting does give the creative team a hell of a lot more freedom in gameplay mechanics, weapons and extras - but sadly no jetpacks, maybe next time eh?
The main campaign is where the majority of the changes are mostly seen and fairly instantly accessible. As mentioned the story takes place across two timelines, both of which are purely focused on apprehending or indeed killing the game’s main bad guy, Raul Menendez (or as he’s often referred to in game Raul fu**ing Menendez). Flashbacks to the 80’s are used liberally, with you heading off into the wild with the first title’s favourites Alex Mason and Frank Woods, it is here that people would feel right at home, to the point where it might have been a complete rehash of the first title but fast forward to 2025 and players take control of Alex’s son, David.
Utilising the writing talents of David Goyer, famous for many a comic book hero movie script, Blade and Batman (The Christopher Nolan trilogy) to name a few, the game actually has a genuinely terrifying main bad guy and in a nice twist for the franchise, you care about his actions and the things that he says. Whether the story is being played out via flashback or in the present day (um, future to you and I) the story holds your attention much more so than previous iterations - sure there is the usual blend of bad language and truly gruesome deaths but it actually has meaning this time around, you do find yourself giving a damn. Oh and let it be known that a couple of people are graphically burnt alive in the first ten minutes, so good work all you parents out there queuing in GAME to buy it for their kid.
So, we have a story that is engaging and a bad guy you can love to hate, all good so far. Luckily for us Treyarch were not done there though. Actions within the many varied and frankly at times bonkers campaign missions have consequences, directly affecting outcomes throughout the game and altering the ending. Yes, you read that right, Call of Duty is no longer completely and utterly the same game for everyone, it changes based on your actions. A really really long time coming granted, but hats off to Treyarch for finally having the balls to implement it in a franchised that has made all it’s money as a linear shooter.
The missions are varied, it all feels a tad more open than previous iterations also - sure it is still for the most part primarily a corridor shooter with pop up enemies but the environments are big, graphically high end and full of life. Gameplay is mixed up nicely with on the rails sections, escort missions, last stand missions and the usual search and destroy missions. The flow is good, the scale is as usual just crazy, but to be fair it knows what it is and it plays up to it. Unlike the ridiculously serious approach attempted by MOH Warfighter, COD knows what it is and knows why people love it. Rest assured EA it isn’t because the missions are “based on real life events”.
Whether this will be welcomed or not it remains to be seen but the decision appears to have been made to remove respawning enemies, thus meaning that for series veterans at least the campaign will be a complete doddle on the highest difficulty. Alternatively you could look at it another way, mere mortals will now be able to get those cheevs/trophies that they would never otherwise have obtained - grenade spam anyone!
Stick with it, there are more deviations from the norm to discuss. Strike Force missions have been introduced to work alongside the main story, acting very much like optional side missions - it is recommended you complete them for the best ending, yes they also have a clear and undoubted impact on the game’s outcome. Strike Force missions are a Call of Duty first as they mix real time strategy with the normal first person action. The missions take place as a military group look to take control of Asia and you (and your team) are employed to stop them - the outcome of which directly affects the Cold War and in turn your entire campaign. During each mission you can control the following via isometric or first person view: troops, drones, CLAWs (think baby AT-AT) and anything else that is available of a mechanical nature. It’s different, it’s bloody hectic at times and ultimately a bit of a let down. The tutorial is dreadful - both short and lacking in key information. It is the pace that seems to let it down as it is relentlessly quick, enemies pour at you from all angles and the interface doesn’t help you. It is far too easy to be completely overwhelmed by it all, failing miserably and as a result it sort of ends up feeling like a good first attempt at something different rather than this awesome new feature that people will rave about. Hopefully it does end up being a good first effort which is iteratively amended during subsequent Call of Duty releases as the idea is there, just the implementation is lacking.
Before we march on to multiplayer a quick word should be said about the fan favourite co-op mode, zombies. For anyone not familiar is a horde like co-op mode, it has a bit of a Left 4 Dead vibe to it. New this time out is Tranzit mode which sees a group of like-minded folk running into zombie infested buildings trying to complete objectives and hopping back on the bus to zoom off to the next location. The lack of any type of hand holding makes this mode an immediate turnoff for those new to the franchise and is a serious oversight. That said, if you stick with it there is fun to be had. Tranzit is ok, if a little too much like trying to ski uphill as a result of the ammo constraints placed on your team and as with every iteration of the zombies game mode, its appeal will only last for so long. As well as Tranzit there are a handful of other more traditional zombie survival modes along with ‘grief’ modes. The ‘grief’ mode is a simple enough 4v4 mode and the more traditional survival mode is basically old school horde.
Oddly, multiplayer is where the least changes have been made - sure there are loads of customisations, loadouts are more readily available due to the new pick ten system (you can basically have what you like loadout wise, you just have ten slots for everything), and killstreaks have been replaced with score streaks to encourage players to actually play the game mode rather than just running around shooting people but minute to minute it is very much the same game we have been playing for the last few years. Which is a shame really as so much effort appears to have been made to freshen up the campaign, you’d have expected some new random cool feature to be present when you take it online.
The introduction of a league system is a welcomed one and whomever came up with the idea of removing rank from this mode is a genius but sadly it’s the people that make a community and Call of Duty attracts the worst of online gaming. With a bunch of friends though multiplayer is as fun as it ever was and the prospect of promotion and relegation a la FIFA is great.
All the modes you have come to expect from Call of Duty are there to enjoy, deathmatch, kill confirmed, domination and so on, these can be played in normal mode or hardcore. The moshpit function is a nice touch as it rotates game modes and maps every round removing the need to switch game types if you want to mix it up a little. Add to this the wealth of maps, with pack after pack after pack planned for a year’s worth of downloadable content, as a package it really is as good as FPS multiplayer gets. If though, like many others you feel you have been playing the same online game albeit with various skins since Modern Warfare from IW originally blew our collective minds five years ago, Black Ops II is not going to change your mind - it is essentially the same game, just tweaked with some really nice design changes. It is still a complete twitchfest, you will die a lot, often by being shot in the back, it will see more rage quitting than any other online game, but fundamentally it is nothing new.
It barely seems worth going into detail around the sound design and general graphical prowess of the title. Call of Duty games are always very nice to look at, if you like bombastic and over the top and the sound design is for the most part spot on. That trend continues with Black Ops II and it is fair to say that through some excellent graphical touches and some splendid use of lighting the look of the game is quite distinct from previous releases - certainly less grey than previous outings. The engine is getting on a bit and it doesn’t stand up against say Halo 4 but it’s still nice to look at and a fitting send off for the current generation if this is indeed to be its last Call of Duty release.
The main menu tells a story for Black Ops II as it displays three clear game modes in Campaign, Zombies or Multiplayer, each being a full game in its own right. This is effectively three games in one and that alone presents immense value for money. Treyarch should be commended as this could quite easily have been the same old same old but they clearly have passion for the franchise and have made every effort to breath some new life into what is now an old and tired formula. Some of it works, some of it needs work but all in all it is impossible to knock the passion and endeavour that Treyarch bring to the franchise - no longer are they the second devs for Call of Duty games and you have to respect that. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is well worth your time, and indeed money - easily the best Call of Duty for a few years.