Developer: Treyarch / Publisher: Activision / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Drugs]
As if, fundamentally, a review of Call of Duty: Black Ops II wouldn’t be polarizing enough among the hardcore audience, Treyarch had to cram a bunch of mission types, storylines, and options into this release to absolutely guarantee feedback firestorms. We know: haters gonna hate, lovers gonna love. But do us a favor… do me a favor, and hear what I have to say; consider it on its merits from a guy who’s written a shit-ton of reviews over 20 years.
Black Ops II is deeper, more complicated than any of us probably imagined. It’s a vast, sprawling release with many, many hits, and some notable misses. It’s Call of Duty. It’s Black Ops. You know what you’re getting. But it’s here, and this is what I think of it.
The past of 1986 and the future of 2025 blend very, very effectively to weave a tale of possible world destruction at the hands of a lunatic Nicaraguan. Unlike the shifting messages of who’s behind the western world hate in previous Call of Duty games, right from the get-go you know that Raul Menendez is that guy. That alone is a refreshing change of pace. What’s wonky is that, despite a haunting opening, setting the scene of him mentally scarred by the burn scars on his sister Josefina when they’re kids, and despite her later tragic death as a result of an errant grenade throw (that’s a bit of a spoiler…) Menendez’ response is an overblown “now I must kill EVERYONE IN THE WORLD.” Dude, tragic situation. Feel your pain… but that motivates you to destroy the world? It’s a stretch.
But, at least you know the bad guy. You also know the good guy, Frank Woods, who delivers a sublime performance as a commentator from his hospital bed. Current consensus is that Call of Duty‘s characters are invariably talking mop-heads that set up spectacular action set-pieces. But here, Woods, ably supported by star player David Mason (son of Black Ops 1′s Alex Mason), is worth watching and hearing. Even supporting cast members like Harper and Briggs make memorable contributions to a tale that, though far-fetched, still manages to hold consistency for most of the six-12 hours you might spend in their company.
What’s truly remarkable is how my story will differ from yours. Several endings, and routes to those endings, tell the story of your personal decisions. This is new territory for Call of Duty, and the ambition alone is worth applauding. The execution is, on the whole, very good. Did you rescue X while chasing Y? You probably won’t realize that your action changed your endgame. Your hint is the mission update log that suggests your actions impacted the overall story, and through that you may work out where each branch point occurs.
It’s ambitious and though it reveals some plot holes, the fact that the story of Black Ops 2 demanded so much attention in this review is significant in and of itself.
Call of Duty. You know what you’re getting, right? And largely that’s an accurate expectation. You run-and-gun through missions in 1986 set up by the likes of Colonel Oliver North and harassed by the likes of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. You alternate for most of the game between those exposition missions in the 80s, introduced by Woods in his nursing home smock, with the future fallout of 2025 when David Mason is embracing dad’s cause.
Where the 80s missions have a stylized quality dictated by their locations and story revelations, the future war missions deliver a modern gameplay approach. You don (very briefly) the nano-technology gloves that Tom Cruise used in Mission Impossible 4 to Spider-Man your way across a mountain, then wear a bizarro flying suit that lets you float from those heights—at a high rate of knots—to a landing point way the hell far away in a scene that’s as fundamentally cool as it is ludicrous.
You drive jeeps or choose to pilot a drone. You even (memorably) go on a death-be-damned machete hack-fest that (for me) was red-mist entertaining, yet I suspect will polarize the player base. From your individual stories and experiences to aircraft carrier-threatening events the pace dips and ascends in a format that genuinely pulls you towards wanting a conclusion, whatever path you took to get there.
But the glaring misstep on the gameplay path is the Strike Force missions. Four regular shooter events into the game you have to manage and manipulate several unit types on the ground. It’s a mini-RTS. An RTS-lite. It lets you command your forces from a top-down tactical view. And it doesn’t work very well.
It’s one of those steps off the reservation that you want to applaud, but the execution will be one of the great polarizing gameplay decisions. Command your team from the tactical view and you’ll quickly realize that your dudes are fucking idiots. The only way to beat those missions is to take direct control of a unit (infantry, virtually worthless turrets, or the CLAW) and fight for each objective in regular combat mode. (you have to complete one, the other four potential missions are optional based on story progression decisions and whether you want to deal or not)
Somebody will—and I will applaud them—beat those missions purely from the tactical top-down view, but the AI frailties burn the spotlight on a mode that must have seemed like a good idea to freshen up the experience, but when it doesn’t work perfectly, just comes back and bites you in the ass.
What I’ll say is that Black Ops 2 pushes the visual quality probably as far as the platforms and engine can accomplish. On the ground the textures are bright and detailed and the animations pretty solid (if a little recycled). In the cut scenes, though, some stellar work on textures, animation, and motion-capture adds spice to characters that could have been wooden cut-outs.
While some of the cinematography of key cut scenes is unoriginal (and occasionally ham-fisted) the general visual treatment is balanced and effective. The ’86 settings look like ’86 (which I was able to witness as a teenager personally, so I’ll vouch for that) and the 2025 locations, of which it’s mostly devastation, are crisp, with expertly realized overlays and technology that feels like it’s due in the future, but isn’t so ridiculous as to kick you out of the experience.
Maybe this section should have gone first, since so many will eschew the single-player and dive right in to Prestige runs, and find if their favorite guns or streaks are still valid. Well, here’s the baseline: Black Ops 2 delivers a shit-ton of multiplayer content, and if you can’t find something to like, you’re probably not a very happy person from the get-go.
Straight multiplayer does introduce a couple of new modes like Hardpoint, and they work just fine. Already, I have my favorite and less fond maps and modes. Really, there’s no point in stating opinions here since you guys will decide those details for yourself.
But the changes are pretty significant. The scorestreaks (replacing killstreaks) do afford a level of customization that I expect most players to embrace. With 10 slots to fill, you don’t need to pick a lethal grenade. Maybe you want to use that slot for an extra perk in one of the three categories. Maybe you want to ditch a secondary weapon and use that slot for an additional sight or ammo pack on your main. Within a short amount of time I was messing with my loadouts way more than I ever did in previous games, just to try the options and figure out what worked for me.
But the huge, MASSIVE additions surround the Theater mode and the ability to create, edit, and upload your games to YouTube. Every game you play is recorded for playback in COD TV, and while the file won’t stay forever, it’s there for you to edit or define parameters for the engine to find your best kills (based on options you set) and then spit out a video. That event can live in your COD TV area, and then you can have the Xbox render your gameplay moment as a video to upload to YouTube.
Sure, it takes a while since the Xbox isn’t designed to be a video capture/render device and the fact it can do this at all is probably the result of some dodgy technological deal with the devil, but it works… It really works, and it’s so very cool. Between that and CODCasting, which is great but you need to have 10 people watching your YT stream to kick into the rotation, the flexibility is pretty amazing, particularly when factoring in the longer-term competitive gaming hopes and dreams.
And that’s before mentioning Zombies. Survival—you know the drill. A new mode called Grief is comically misrepresented. I mean, it’s pretty much worthless. The concept of two teams griefing each other while fighting zombies, but not providing tools to actually grief the other guys… Yeah, probably seemed like a good idea, but is actually totally worthless.
But Tranzit. Tranzit is Call of Duty Zombies meets Left 4 Dead where you and up to three buddies travel between locations and fight off zombie swarms Survival-style, but you can also explore your environment and find junk to craft into useful items. It’s fun, expandable, and likely the standout of all the new modes on display.
Polarizing. So polarizing. I loved Frank Woods’ presentation of his story. I loved the bounce back and forth between the ’86 shenanigans and this future war. I loved the fact that I didn’t realize what story details I was affecting, which made the end-game play out in a way that represented my personal decisions. But Strike Force? Good idea, but the AI is so worthless it makes the missions too frustrating, even though the last two or three are easier than the first two.
So I have to give a score… and with all the multiplayer potential, the technology built in to make it work, the features that will make you guys come back again and again, it’s close to a 10. But the single-player doesn’t gel, has holes, has awesomeness, has pieces I suspect they hope you miss. And that’s more of an 8.
I have to stick a fork in it. I have to call it.
Black Ops 2 is a very impressive achievement both from the audacity of its slightly flawed single-player narrative to the massive construction of its multiplayer offerings, and so, Black Ops 2 scores.