For those of you new to our site, you may not know that the team has a love/hate relationship with the Call of Duty franchise. While we agree that it has a huge place in modern pop culture, and that it is a titan of gaming sales, we sometimes find it lacking – as we did with Modern Warfare 3. The game was almost universally lauded and given high marks (usually nines or nine point fives out of ten), but we felt it was lacking in a few areas.
We try to give credit where credit is due, but not allow Call of Duty’s massive presence to scare us away from calling out glaring issues or rating it fairly. So let’s get down to brass tacks.
And indeed, the future that Black Ops II paints is very bleak indeed. Bent on overthrowing the capitalist/western governments, a charismatic leader named Raul Menendez forms a following painting these governments as slave drives and oppressors.
In an interesting twist, this war is not being fought by major forces, but is being waged by backroom deals and insurrection-style militia groups. His group, Cordis Die, is hell bent on destabilizing the world’s economy and overall global security.
The story of Black Ops II is told in two converging arcs. One, set in the 1980s (a few years after the events of Black Ops) follows Alex Mason, Frank Woods, and Hudson as they try and track down Menendez before he can set his plan into motion. The second arc follows David Mason (Alex’s son), Harper, Salazar, and a group of Navy SEALs and JSOC personnel as they try and accomplish the same mission that the CIA and the Woods/Mason duo were trying to accomplish years earlier – stop Raul Menendez.
Unlike any Call of Duty before it, Black Ops II allows the player to make choices that directly effect the outcome of his or her personal playthrough. In a tone similar to Mass Effect 3, each choice and mission outcome will have a direct result on the next mission and the story as a whole. Also in the vein of Mass Effect, the player can take part in “Strike Force” missions. These quick missions are set mostly on the game’s multiplayer levels and task the player with completing an objective. Doing so will provide security to a region or faction.
The story, as a whole, is amazing. It is by far one of (or maybe the) best Call of Duty franchise stories to date. It nicely picks up where Black Ops left off, and doesn’t feel rushed at all. Unlike MW3, with it’s lackluster and mostly bland storyline, Black Ops II has a story full of intrigue, emotion, and tense elements. It’s gritty, brutal, and violent. It’s unflinching in its story. And it really makes you question yourself as you play it. How would you react in a similar situation?
The most unnerving part about the campaign is how realistic and plausible the premise is. A charismatic leader who bands mostly younger lower/middle class people from across the world together to fight “tyranny” and “oppression”. It smacks of the Occupy movement and nicknamed “Arab spring” that we recently saw sweep across the world. And like those movements, there is a story behind the story.
While most of the Cordis Die followers see Menendez as a gracious leader who wishes to free them from their shackled existence, they are mislead and blinded from seeing his truly brutal nature and the fact that his goal is vengeance, not some revolution.
Without revealing too much and spoiling it for those that haven’t played, there are multiple endings that can be achieved. Each ending has a different tone. In essence, there is one “best”, one “middle of the road”, and one “terrible” ending. Each has a different cut scene. There are also a couple of endings that are a mixed bag of elements of the three. Along the way there are a ton of moments that make you sit up straight and take notice, lots of plot twists, and enough explosions and gun fights to make Michael Bay feel at home. All in all, it’s the perfect blend of Call of Duty action and great storytelling.
Arguably the more lusted after portion of this title is its multiplayer offering. And Treyarch has not failed to deliver. While at first I was critical of this title and its multiplayer play, I was won over slowly by the smooth, tight, and rewarding game play this game offers. Whereas Call of Duty in the past was very, very easy for me to pick up, play, and master to the point where was able to get twenty or so kills without flinching, Black Ops II requires you to keep yourself tuned in to what’s going on.
It harkens back to game play that was last seen in Call of Duty 4. The weapons and perks don’t do the work for you. They just compliment your efforts. I’m going to hit separate areas where I noticed particular improvements.
Treyarch has really mixed things up when it comes to attachments. There are your old favorites (Reflex/Red Dot sights, grenade launchers, ACOGs) but there are new attachments that significantly freshen what had become a stale area of the game. You can now attach foregrips, lasers, and stocks that make the weapon behave differently. Most notably, you can add a fire selector to most weapons that lets you swap between burst and full auto fire (or semi/full if the weapon supports it).
The foregrip, for example, increases overall weapon stability. The laser attachment increases hip-fire accuracy, and so on. This truly lets you tweak and tune your weapon to your needs rather than being forced to select from the same recycled equipment.
The weapons feel tight once again, and each weapon really does have its own “feel” and behavior that makes this game more about your personal playstyle than any before it. The weapon selection is also the freshest we’ve seen in years. This is one of the first Call of Duty‘s since World at War to NOT have an M16 variant included as a selection. Although the developers did decide to include the canceled XM8 project as the M8A1, the weapons are all viable platforms and none are figments of an imagination. A shocker considering there could’ve been some truly outlandish weapons in this game.
It’s actually difficult to chose a weapon and stick with it because they’re all so interesting and fun to use. The equipment in game is also fresh. While we have returning favorites such as the claymore, there’s also sensor grenades and a Black Hat module (which allows you to “hack” enemy equipment and kill streaks).
The perks in Black Ops II are some of the most balanced I’ve seen. Gone are the annoying Pro Perk challenges. Now each perk has a clear cut and well thought out function. Engineer, for example, allows you to see enemy equipment (including Sentry Turrets and assault shields) through walls. When teamed with the Black Hat equipment item, it allows you to take over the enemy’s equipment or destroy them outright.
The perks are about as hard to pick as the weapons, with each one having a bonus that would be useful, it’s about catering your class to your personal play style and then going to work with it.
Arguably one of the most innovative parts of Black Ops II is the “Pick 10” system, the new way that create-a-class works. Gone are locked slots that require use of a primary, secondary, and perks. Gone are the unlocks that you’re forced to have. Similar to the CoD Points of Black Ops, you can unlock what you want as soon as it becomes available to you, or you can save your points for later. You can now truly tune your class to your personal style. If you want to, you can forego all weapons, save your knife, and have a class with six perks.
As mentioned, if you give up one of your weapon slots, you swap instead to a combat knife. This makes melee a whole knew element of the game. While at first I was afraid this would turn into the Marathon/Lightweight/Commando debacle of Modern Warfare 2, I was pleased to see Treyarch kept things balanced.
While most of the game modes are the exact same from the first Black Ops, some play drastically different than before. Domination, for example, now has two rounds which switch spawns mid-way through. This allows for players that may have been getting the short end of the spawn stick the ability to stage a come back.
One new mode that has been added is a mode called “Hardpoint”. This has quickly become my favorite mode in the game. It tasks players with capturing a series of areas and locking them down from enemy incursion. Basically, it’s Call of Duty‘s take on King of the Hill. It’s a ton of fun to play as a team, and rewards team play above all.
While for the most part the game modes are fun, spawns are still an issue at times. You’ll sometimes find yourself spawning in front of, beside, or next to an enemy over and over again. Spawn trapping is also painfully present on some modes and maps as well.
As a whole, the multiplayer of Black Ops II is something that has shocked, impressed, and won me over. I started out pretty far away from liking this game, but it has now become one that I can safely say is in my top five titles currently. Including all that I listed above, there’s also private matches and custom games to be had.
One of the core tenets of Call of Duty for a while now, Treyarch’s take on it has really made it something worth looking at. In the past you would be required to sacrifice all of your hard work on weapons, challenges, and so on in order to get a measly reward. Now, however, you keep your weapon level and challenge completion status when prestiging as well as gaining the ability to select a reward. They have made the prestige mode feel like a challenge (as it adds more challenges to do) without it feeling like an overwhelming sacrifice that made a lot of players shy away from prestiging multiple times – if even at all.
Gone are the Call of Duty “kill streaks”. It has been replaced with a streamlined system that actually rewards objective play in objective modes rather than strictly being based on kills. The list of items you can unlock include the returning Care Package to the all new Hellstorm missile, which allows you to call in a canister missile with lock-on enabled cluster rockets.
One thing I had to take issue with is that the streaks feel relatively high. I rarely see anyone get above 1000 points, and I feel like this might need tweaked to allow for more variety.
It wouldn’t be a Treyarch offering without a zombie mode, and this time they pulled out all the stops – literally. The new zombie mode, TranZit, allows players to travel in a dystopian future (which is a follow up to the events told in the Black Ops zombie story arc) on a bus. This allows each playthrough to be fresh, and each area has new enemy locations and items to unlock. The second new mode is “Grief”. Think of it as multiplayer with zombies. It’s crazy, intense, and amazingly fun.
Although I am not a huge fan of zombies, nor will I probably play this mode in a significant way, I do have to give Treyarch huge credit for designing this and shaking things up in this arena. The short amount I did play (roughly an hour) had me on the edge of my seat and lots of laughs were had.
The stats based browsing system is Activision’s answer to EA’s Battlelog. It allows you to browse games, stats, and challenges as well as connect with your friends via the Clan HQ. Also included with Black Ops II is the ability to “CoDcast” during Leagues (a competitive arena style, season based, game mode) and your saved clips and upload them to YouTube.
These elements are sure to be used by some, and I can definitely see myself using the League system and CoDcasting at times.
The graphics engine is the same that’s been used for some time now. It boggles the mind that Activision keeps pushing a one disc title with no graphics package while games like Battlefield 3, Medal of Honor, and Halo 4 are all going to two discs to support a smoother looking graphics package and sounds. This is one of the bigger drawbacks of this title.
The sounds in single-player and multiplayer are a bit better than previous offerings, and certain elements are absolutely terrifying to hear. The Warthog score streak, for example, sounds insanely well done. Weapons all sound beefy and throaty, but explosions are sometimes muffled sounding.
The controls are the same as in previous installments, but if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. They will feel familiar to most shooter fans, even those who haven’t played a Call of Duty title before.
Black Ops II is at the place Call of Duty should’ve been for a while now. This is a great starting point for the future of the franchise. What remains to be seen is if Activision will take this as their new battle standard or if they’ll continue to push mediocre offerings to maximize speed and profit (a la Modern Warfare 3).
This game is well worth a look to any first person shooter fan, and is a definite must for fans of a more competitive and skill-based Call of Duty. While there are areas where improvements could be made (connection stability, search times, party loss, minor weapon balancing) this game is well on its way to setting the standard for “arcade” style shooters.While it’s definitely not the most realistic or even authentic military games on the market, it is fun to play and its replay value is huge.
The game already has a few DLC packages slated for release now and into 2013, and you can download the Season Pass to lock all of these in at a ten dollar (US) discount. This adds a good chunk of value to the game, with the promise of new maps and Zombie story. Add this to the amazing and captivating single player story, and it makes a solid case for buying this game.