For the sixth time in as many years, the folks at Actvision have brought back the proverbial 500lb gorilla in the room. That’s right, just in time for the holidays, we have yet another Call of Duty title. At the creative helm of this year’s game once again is developer Treyarch, — and rightfully so as the studio originally introduced us to the Black Ops storyline back in 2010. Previously considered Actvision’s second rate Call of Duty studio due to their lukewarm receptions of both Call of Duty 3 and World at War, Treyarch arguably knocked socks off of critics with the original Black Ops (myself included). The question is, with Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, can the studio pull it off again?
The story of Black Ops 2 is one that spans literally a generation, taking place during two disctincly different time periods. The game’s flashback levels, which are segments set up by the aged Black Ops protagonist Frank Woods, players are transported back to the tail end of the cold war. While the game’s “current” missions take place in the year 2025, which thankfully provides for a unique and futuristic arsenal of weapons and other toys.
The reason for the back and forth between the two eras is to tie in the game’s antagonist — South American arms dealer and terrorist Raul Menendez. It also helps to provide an extra layer of characterization for Menendez and a better understanding behind his (action movie cliché) motivations. As the game’s campaign unravels you come to learn how the United States played a role in the maiming of Raul’s young sister, Josefina, which leads him down a path of vengeance. And if revenge is in fact a dish best served cold, you can pretty much call Raul Menendez an ice box.
What helped the original Black Ops separate itself from the rest of the Call of Duty pack, in my opinion, was its emphasis on story. Treyarch was able to create a campaign with characters and a plot you can actually care about. Although the same is attempted with Black Ops 2, much of the games narrative and characters (Menendez included) fall short of its predecessor. Then, somewhere along the way, things become so convoluted that it feels as though you’re playing a title from the less story driven Modern Warfare series.
Creating huge and exciting set pieces has become the hallmark of game development this generation, and Black Ops 2 is no different. There are so many explosions and holy sh*t moments that most Hollywood action movie directors would be envious. And while I’m not necessarily against the over-the-top-ness of it all, at times, it can feel as though it’s simply just a bit too much. So much effort is put into creating these moments that it seems as though it’s done to excuse that the game’s lackluster pacing and overall story. And then there’s the potty mouth teenage boy dialogue which serves as a shining example of a game simply trying too hard. Gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous and it’s unfortunate. At this point, fans of the series deserve a smarter game.
Black Ops 2 does take some chances in the gameplay department by introducing “Strike Force” missions. These segments are said to enhance the overall single player experience by adding (or at least trying to) a real-time strategy mini-game. Yes, the team at Treyarch actually went there.
The game does take its time to introduce you to the new mode by providing a [very light] tutorial before throwing you into the fire. Unfortunately, the tutorial is probably among the worst I’ve seen in a game in years and the actual missions are terrible as your controlled A.I. is about as useful as a piece of Deli meat in a gun fight. Kudos to Treyarch for trying something different, but the execution is so bad it’s laughable. Luckily, sans the initial mission, these segments are completely avoidable, and if having fun is a priority for you that’s exactly what you should do.
As you would expect, the visuals department has not changed much. Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4 engine is still intact, and while it does shine as well as it did 7 years ago, it is starting to show its age, especially with the rest of the shooter crowd stepping up their games (pun intended) over the past year. Honestly, if you were to compare one of the future levels in the game with a Modern Warfare title, other than the weaponry and head up display n screen, you’d be hard pressed to discern a difference between Black Ops 2 and any title in the series that came before it.
If there was one visual differentiator that I picked up on during my play-through it would have to be one of the rare moments throughout the game’s campaign where the game shows over 20 characters on screen at once. However, when these instances do occur, you’ll notice that said characters are more for show than anything else as they can’t be hit until they pass an invisible wall. It’s a visual trick to make it look like there’s more going on than their actually is.
Thankfully, you didn’t take a trip down Call of Duty lane for the single player, right? Everyone knows where the real show is and that’s in the online multiplayer. Black Ops 2 not only sees the return of zombies, but also a completely revamped competitive multiplayer. Previously, players were forced to bring a primary and secondary weapon, had the option to choose perks from 3 different categories, and add swap in and swap out grenades and gadgets. This time around, players are introduced to the “Pick 10″ system and it is glorious.
For the first time, weapon load-outs are truly customizable, but it’s done so through an in-game point system. So while you can go into battle with just one (ridiculous) primary weapon, it will cost you point or attributes in other areas. On the other hand, you can equip yourself with something more moderate but it will help in becoming a more balanced threat ro your opponents. It makes Black Ops 2, feel much more like a shooter-RPG than any of it’s predecessors ever did — and that’s a great thing.
Another change is the switch from Kill Streaks to Score Streaks. Lone wolfs be damned as those kinds of selfish players who focus on growing their e-penis (or e-vaginas, respectively) through their kill to death ratios by camping out will not be rewarded as much as players who focus on team oriented goals. This is great for the “online pacifists” who are better at fighting battles with their wits and gadgets rather than gunpowder.
League Play is an addition that I’ve been clamoring for since Call of Duty 4. I don’t mean to brag but more often than not, I absolutely steam roll average players online in pretty much every Call of Duty game I’ve played. And the reason that happens is because the leveling system has always been nothing but a “I play more than you” sticker. It never really meant anything.
With League Play, we’re finally getting a system that is based on actual skill. Not only can you rank up, but you can also rank down and in doing so you’ll eventually find that sweet spot where those that you play against will be at or around your skill level. If you stick to League Play you’ll see many more of the games you play come down to the wire, instead of the constant blowouts you’ll experience in the matchmaking playlists.
When you break it all down Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is the tale of two games. On the single player side, Treyarch had a lot to live up to, and in certain ways, they came up short compared to what they achieved with the games predecessor. Unfortunately, their attempt to innovate with the addition of “Strike Force” missions, will wind up being a black eye, on what was a merely passable overall campagin.
On the other hand, the game’s multiplayer is by far a series best. It’s as quick and impulse driven as anything that came before it and chocked full of the same instant gratification magic that Call of Duty is known for. The change over to the “Pick 10″ system adds a level of customization that you simply do not see in any online shooter on the market. I can’t fully recommended the game’s single player, but the multiplayer (as usual with Call of Duty) is likely worth the cost of admission alone.