Call of Duty: Black Ops II – Review

Platform | Release Date
360, PS3, PC | November 13, 2012
Developed by Treyarch
Published by Activision

The Pitch:

Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a First-Person Shooter (FPS) that revolves around unique gameplay that propels the Call of Duty franchise into a world of future warfare, and back again to the modern era. The game is a sequel to the 2010 release, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and features returning Black Ops characters Sgt. Frank Woods and Agent Alex Mason, joined by a wealth of new characters.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II propels you into a near-future, 21st Century Cold War, where technology and weapons have converged to create a new generation of warfare between old and new foes. In this conflict, the mechanized creations of men reign supreme, facing off against each other as their creators stay safe and unconflicted, and in the process grow ever softer.

The yearly Call of Duty cycle is becoming so familiar that I’m starting to notice stages. First there’s waiting for the trailer, then there’s deriding it for just being Call of Duty again, and then there’s the careful leak of details before the larger previews. Finally, the run up to release where I, and most gamers, finally accept that they are going to purchase it. Activision have got this little sequence on lock and I’ve just been pulled through this process once again. However, I have good news. If the hodgepodge development of last year’s Modern Warfare 3 really did threaten to break the series’ hold on you then rejoice, Black Ops 2 has arrived on schedule and it’s easily the best release the franchise has enjoyed since the first Modern Warfare.

Carrying on from the events of the original Black Ops, the game sees you fight against a single militant leader across two distinct time periods. When playing as the returning Mason and Woods you’ll be back in the 80s, blasting through levels in Angola and Panama among others. While playing as ‘Section’, Mason Junior’s chosen codename, it’s the future you’ll be blowing up. The plot doesn’t have quite as many twists this time around, and the extensive inclusion of Manuel Noriega feels like a strange decision. He’s played as a character rather than a real historical figure, spending far more time on screen than feels comfortable given this is a fictional interpretation. However, where Modern Warfare became indecipherable and uninteresting, the fight against big bad guy Menendez is continually entertaining.

The best thing about this divisive narrative though is the variety it allows for in the single player gameplay. While in the past, Black Ops 2 feels like traditional Call of Duty fare but still offers some stand out sections such as a forced retreat early on. Running backwards firing back into a chasing horde of angry militants feels fresh compared to the constant march forward that has come to define the series. Comparably low key moments like this blend well with the usual chaos to give Black Ops 2 credibility as a top-tier shooter rather than just a yearly cash cow.

Jump ahead to the future, and while the Ghost Recon boys can feel safe in their positions of most advanced Advanced Warfighters,Treyarch introduces a whole new set of toys that defy expectations. Cool new weapon attachments reveal cloaked enemies, jetpack-aided skydives deliver the trademark blockbuster set pieces, and the late addition of plane section where you actually control the thing demonstrates real ambition in a franchise that has often lacked it. Black Ops 2 has less in the way of obvious gimmicks than its predecessor. Here, Treyarch have favoured genuine innovation rather than just theatrics.

This is keenly demonstrated in the Strike Force missions. These RTS-lite jaunts crop up during the course of the main plot, and must be completed within a set time less they disappear from the interim menus. Truthfully, they aren’t the most bug-free bits of gameplay you’ll ever enjoy. Individually controlling infantry and drone units isn’t so much of an option as a necessity given how poorly the AI fights against each other. Still, they break up the action nicely, and offer something more fleshed out than the fledgling attempts at this type of content made in the first Black Ops.

Linearity has been a serious issue for the series for some time, and Black Ops was as guilty as any other release. Fortunately, Black Ops 2 features levels that are far more friendly to wandering off the beaten path. Some areas even had me thinking of the PS3 Killzone outings – multiple paths breaking off that allowed me to flank and try out some more unusual loadouts. You’ll still be commanded to ‘Follow’ on plenty of occasions but Black Ops 2 rarely leads you by the hand in the same way as its predecessor. Bringing this sense of freedom is one of Treyarch’s key achievements with the game.

In all, single-player is less Hollywood here than it was in Black Ops, but judged as a game rather than a translation of silver screen excess it will likely stand up to the test of time far better. Promises of a branching narrative don’t amount to much other than a couple of altered cutscenes and additional dialogue, but the missions themselves are strong enough to warrant replay. Still, it remains the appetizer to the multiplayer main course. People queue at midnight not to enjoy a decent story with David S. Goyer attached. They queue at midnight to shoot the world in the face.

For better or worse, everyone knows how caustic the player community of CoD can be, but it’d be a shame to write off the multiplayer experience as Black Ops 2 continues to build credibility once your first load-out is put together. Gone are the paint-by-numbers maps of Modern Warfare 3, replaced by layouts that are as innovative and original as the single player campaign.

Highlights include Express, a futuristic train station that offers the perfect setting for the less serious game modes like One in the Chamber and Sticks and Stones. Alongside it, Yemen is a brilliant arena for Team Deathmatch, offering numerous channels and vantage points that deliver a sense of danger around every corner. Not every map stands up during every game mode – the aforementioned Yemen being a bit of a displeasure when it comes to Domination – but together they form a set that stands tall against the iconic maps of Black Ops. Nuketown even makes a repeat and welcome appearance given the right unlock code.

The monetary system for purchasing upgrades has gone, replaced by a simpler medium of unlock tokens. Weapons still level and they can still be customised, but most thankfully there are plenty of new ones to try out. Pulling together the best of the single player’s past and future, the gun rack is filled with variety. Perks still allow more for player tailoring rather than competitive advantage, and wildcards extend that customisation. All of this supports the new Pick 10 system, players now being allowed to add additional perks, primary weapons and the like in exchange for losing something else from their arsenal. As an example, my most commonly used class trades out non-lethal grenades for other benefits. As a result the class carries both an LMG and a Sniper Rifle, along with an additional Tier 1 perk to support the combination. In the long run the new system might test the balancing of the multiplayer but in these early stages it simply allows for greater tactical depth.

Killstreaks have been replaced with “Scorestreaks”, and have subsequently become harder to gain and therefore more complimentary than definitive. That’s a good thing, particularly given how joyfully lethal some of the new drone-based options are. It’s probably also the biggest change to how the multiplayer actually plays. It doesn’t fix the problems faced by objective-focused players completely. Kills still rack up quicker points than any other scoring mechanism. Still, victory in game types such as Domination requires everybody to contribute to the primary goal somehow, but at least for those who are tasked with securing control points now receive something in return.

On top of a great single-player campaign and an outstanding multiplayer offering, Treyarch have included a newly expanded version of their popular Zombies mode. Multiple maps in more open settings remove some of the feeling of isolation, but the difficulty level has been ramped up in response. Defending yourself against hordes of zombies remains entertaining as a co-op experience, although some of the simplicity has been lost. All the expanded content means that Zombies is now less of a fun distraction and far more of a time sponge. There’s as much reason to spend hours on it as there is on the multiplayer, although for me it loses out in that competition. It’s tough, and the constant drive to buy weapons, perks and to unlock areas feels quite oppressive. That tone makes sense for a horror mode, but didn’t grab me as much as the quality of the multiplayer. Fans will no doubt love it, as there’s a whole XBLA release worth of stuff to enjoy.

It’s nearly impossible to talk about the qualities of Black Ops 2 briefly. It offers loads of content – rare for an Activision yearly release – and it’s nearly all at an impeccable standard. Sure, the engine is starting to look a little dated, and detractors of military shooters won’t find an experience that will change their mind, but I was hooked. If you need a brief summation then here it is. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is addictively brilliant. Treyarch have mastered iterative game development, leaving every other developer working on a Call of Duty game faced with meeting the very highest bar.

About Martin Perry

Martin Perry is Reviews Editor for Splitkick.
Bookmark the permalink.