Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops II
Not to make any fun of my Australian brethren, but the “Aussie” way of pronouncing the third word in Activision’s cash cow franchise’s title is almost literal; “doody”. Despite having a two in the title, Black Ops II is in fact the ninth Call of Duty release we’ve seen this generation, and the essentially unchanged cut-and-paste formula from 2007 is beginning to show its age.
Treyarch’s first attempt at a direct numbered sequel, Black Ops II picks up right where the first Black Ops left off… I think. The convoluted and tired story is the same “Rah, rah, America is number one!” experience we’ve seen before, granted, this time the situation has been improved upon slightly, both in terms of gameplay and narrative.
Players take the digital reins of special operative David Mason, the son of Black Ops’ protagonist Alex. The story swaps between the perspective of the 2025-dwelling David Mason, while also presenting missions from the midst of the Cold War. The flashback is a classic storytelling tool of the Call of Duty universe, but this time it feels natural and actually improves the narrative. In David’s world, combat has evolved to the point where people can go invisible, guns see through walls, and robotic drones rain death from the skies. While not too absurd to be unimaginable (à la Ghost Recon: Future Soldier), Black Ops II‘s use of “future tech” is quite fun to play around with and is sure to be a reality in the not-too-distant future.
Aside from the series’ first leap into the future, Treyarch has added a number of “new” features into the mix, although non-linear gameplay and basic choice are hardly ground-breaking features in most other series’. The first of these are optional missions called Strike Force. With a heavy and noticeable RTS inspiration , players control a squad of soldiers from either a traditional overhead view, or from on the ground. You can switch at either time so it’s not really that important. While in the Strike Force segments, the player has to complete a set of usual objectives such as sinking a ship, capturing hostages, and other usual Call of Duty fare.
The inclusion of Strike Force in the otherwise boring and linear kill-fest of 2012 is great, and Treyarch is to really be commended for trying to prep up the single player experience that is otherwise stagnant and forgettable. Being under fire from a heavily entrenched enemy and then switching to an overhead drone to destroy them in a rain of missiles is great, and pretty exhilarating to boot. The catch with these missions? Their outcome directly affects the rest of the game’s story if you fail it in the number of tries available to you. An otherwise interesting mechanic becomes pointless thanks to classic hand-holding.
The story impact choices aren’t just limited to Strike Force though, and thankfully the second method of player choice is much more intuitive. While some are incredibly minor and otherwise dismissable (like choosing to avoid specific combat), some have a lasting impact. To avoid spoilers, I chose to let a certain VIP live instead of killing him, the fallout of which radically changed the immediate and upcoming story. As I mentioned before the inclusion of choice is welcomed, but in a linear and shallow experience like Call of Duty, it feels lost and out of place. And besides, very few people play Call of Duty for the story, instead choosing to play it for the multiplayer aspect.
Since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, multiplayer has been the biggest draw card in the Call of Duty deck of tricks… and boy, is that deck getting worn out. The usual stable of modes returns, some tweaked, some removed. Guns have been reskinned, attachments added, once again, the usual fair. However unlike the “usual”, the leveling up system has now been revamped. Instead of unlocking all weapons whether you want them or not, players can now choose what to unlock (provided you have the required level).
The new system has also seen the Create-A-Class system change dramatically. Gone are the days of shoehorned design and “Use this Perk because it’s the best”; upon us are the new days where you have really do have ultimate control over your play style. Each weapon, attachment, perk, and grenade is worth one point. You have ten points to make a class. Want three attachments on your gun? Go for it! It’ll just cost you a grenade or a secondary weapon, the choice really is yours.
Multiplayer has changed for the best; however, I still can’t decide if I should force myself to like it. I mean, I know I don’t, but why? Is it the horrible hit detection, perhaps it’s the absolutely horrid maps (easily the worst in the series’ history), or is it the heinous spawn system? Call of Duty has gone from a respected series to a sports title; the same formula with a few minor changes, and the same price tag. The PC version of the game is bugged and has already been hacked, while PlayStation 3 users can’t even load the multiplayer segment, and the Xbox 360 version is plagued with lag compensation and hit detection bugs. It’s a catch-22; for the additions Treyarch made, they also ignored the core issues the series has always had.
Treyarch has also made changes to how you unlock your “killstreaks”, which are now called “scorestreaks”. It’s a long known fact that the average Call of Duty player is a brainless “Must kill the enemy because K/D is all that matters” drone, which is a giant pain in the ass in objective modes. Now there is an incentive to play the objective, and it’s worth noting that most players still don’t. Scorestreaks can now be obtained by capturing flags, defending bases, defusing bombs, all of it. It’s no longer a forced method of killing players, instead rewarding those who actually play the game properly. Irritatingly enough, most of the participants still ignore the objectives.
The much loved Zombies mode returns, this time seeing its most entertaining iteration yet. Tranzit, the new map, is entirely dynamic and lets players ride through a series of different maps, each with its own upgrades and environments. You do this by boarding a central bus, which then physically drives you around. The gameplay is chaotic, hectic, and an absolute blast with friends.
Maybe I am tired of the series, but Call of Duty is no longer fun. The monotonous release cycle and identical gameplay has existed for too long. While the additions to campaign are great, and Treyarch has done an excellent job innovating as much as possible while still retaining the “addictive” gameplay, Call of Duty: Black Ops II is one too many bites of a doody sandwich.