Release Date: November 13, 2012
Platform(s): PS3 / X360 / PC / Wii U
The Call of Duty franchise was once a small fish in a huge ocean of first-person shooters. Their games were popular, but they had plenty of competition. Fast forward to today and that little fish is now the biggest predator around, destroying its competitors with every successive installment. Black Ops 2 continues this trend admirably, pushing the franchise into new directions and ideas while still keeping the hardcore fans happy. It offers a lengthy campaign mode with a branching narrative, a refinement of the multiplayer that many now cannot live without, and a Zombies mode that is now big enough to be its own standalone title. Fans of the series will feel right at home, however those that have yet to be lured in will find that Black Ops 2 will likely not change their opinion.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is comprised of three major parts: Campaign, Multiplayer, and Zombies. Each has its own menu and settings, making them feeling like separate pieces of a bigger picture. Campaign mode is where most players will start their Black Ops 2 experience, and that is also where I began. From the very first mission that takes place in Angola, South Africa, I knew right away that I was playing a Call of Duty game. From the linear level progression, to the giant ‘Follow’ indicator on the screen; it seemed that Treyarch wasn’t going to take any major risks with the franchise. Fans of the series are accustomed to this kind of gameplay, but for those who have little exposure things can quickly become monotonous.
That’s not to say that the campaign is bad; it’s actually quite varied and has you engaging in operations all over the world. There are also plenty of the set pieces the series is known for and things can get pretty exciting. One of my favorite missions was actually the 2nd, in which you lead a squad into some Temple ruins that have been converted into a secret underground facility. The mission takes place in the futuristic world of 2025 and thus you have access to high-tech gadgets. For example, you get nano-gloves that can cling to any surface and wing suits that make our current technology pale in comparison. These missions that exploit the possibilities of our future are easily the highlight of the game, but unfortunately they’re littered in between plenty of flashbacks to the 1980’s. Once you’re back to playing with Soviet-era weapons and equipment, things tend to get a little bit less fun.
Woven in-between all these missions are two distinct story arcs. In the future we have David Mason and his squad who make up the JSOC counter-terrorism force. In the past we have the story of his father Alex Mason, Frank Woods, and Jason Hudson; three of the main protagonists from the first Black Ops. Throughout both arcs we see the rise of one particularly devilish individual: Raul Menendez, the main antagonist who just loves to make people suffer through highly elaborate plans. Utilizing his charisma and influence, he builds up an army under the banner of ‘Cordis Die’ and gains millions of followers. Eventually he takes control of thousands of U.S. automated drones and unleashes his fury on numerous major cities. It is up to David Mason and his squad to stop him, while at the same time uncovering the truth about his past in order to predict his next move.
This is about the best I can do to sum up the story of Black Ops 2, which is complex to say the least. I never played the first Black Ops, as a result I was a bit lost on who was who, and who did what and when. Even after doing some research on the events of the previous game, I was left pretty confused throughout most of the campaign of Black Ops 2. It tries very hard to be thrilling and intricate, but ends up being nonsensical and full of military jargon. Brainwashing, sleeper agents, and all manner of geopolitics; eventually I just gave up and tried to focus on shooting bad guys in the face. Trying to one-up the story of every game that came before it seems to finally be backfiring for the developers, and maybe next time they should just keep it simple.
One nice thing that I will give the developers credit for is the new branching story decisions that players can make as they play. Every once in a while you will be put on the spot and forced to make a very ambiguous decision. Sometimes, it involves tiny things like simply letting one of your teammates get burned, if you don’t save him in time he is permanently scarred for the rest of the game and others will even joke about it. Then, there are the big decisions that involve killing or saving key individuals; your actions here will play a major role in what ending you get (and there are several). In addition, Treyarch has added another new feature to the series that can also affect the story: Strike Force missions. If you ever thought that Call of Duty could use some more real-time strategy elements, then you’re in luck!
Strike Force can be considered optional missions to some extent, but not doing (or failing) them will have a negative impact on the final outcome of the main story. They task you in the shoes of David Mason as he controls squads of soldiers, drones, and mechs in missions strewn throughout the globe. Missions range from protecting key locations to assassinating troublesome figures. Here you play from a birds-eye view of the battlefield and can order squads around to do your bidding, although you have the freedom to take control of any individual and do things yourself. Doing so is a good idea as the artificial intelligence of your units is rudimentary at best and downright mentally challenged at worst. Even playing on Normal difficulty, my men were dying left and right and required lots of babysitting.
One mission in particular actually required me to NOT use my men at all in order to succeed. Every time I tried to play the game normally, all of my units would die. The only solution was to order them into a corner like grounded children and take control of single soldiers, accomplishing the objective singlehandedly while the rest stayed safe. How a mission with such broken AI got put into the game is beyond me, and I can only imagine how stressful this is on higher difficulties. Having said that, while the branching narrative is a welcome addition to the series, the Strike Force missions just weren’t ready for prime time and should have been left out.
On the technical side of things, Black Ops 2 does much better. In terms of visuals, it’s easily the best looking Call of Duty to date. While the Infinity Ward Engine is has been in service for years, the improvements made on it over time keep in line with more recent tech. The series maintains its silky smooth framerate throughout and looks good while doing it. When it comes to audio, it’s a mixed bag. The voice acting is top notch and features many A-list Hollywood actors like Sam Worthington, Michael Keaton, and Gary Oldman. The score by Jack Wall, though, is sadly forgettable. It’s epic, orchestral, and hits all the right notes, but once it was over I could barely remember any of it. The game’s main theme by Trent Reznor is pretty catchy though.
The only thing that I haven’t really expanded upon is the overall gameplay, but really there’s not much to say that hasn’t been covered in reviews of previous installments. Comparing Black Ops 2 with say, Call of Duty 4, leads to a very short conclusion. You’re still going from mission to mission and completing them in a very linear fashion—minus the big story choices which I described above. There are plenty of guns to choose from, but they all accomplish their goal well enough that switching from the recommended gear is not required. Everything also still feels eerily smooth due to the game’s high framerate, something the series is known for. To me, the Call of Duty franchise improves through refinement and by adding ever more content. This is especially true for the game’s multiplayer.
Black Ops 2’s multiplayer is the result of Treyarch attempting to refine and rebalance everything that has come before. Gone are the days of perks like Last Stand that kept players alive well pass their expiration date, or Martyrdom which allowed them to drop live grenades after being killed. This is Call of Duty multiplayer at its best; it’s fast, intense, and brutal. If you don’t have twitch reflexes, then don’t even bother because chances are you will be decimated very quickly. Some people like it, some don’t. I personally prefer the much slower experience found in Gears of War 3, where I actually have a good chance to kill someone that’s already seen me. In Black Ops 2, if someone sees you before you see them then you might as well get ready to respawn. Like I said, it’s excellent but it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Regardless, there is plenty to do.
As previously mentioned Black Ops 2 cranks up the content and offers players more features than they know what to do with. Right away there’s offline split-screen for when friends come over, and you can even have two players go online together. Then you have all the customization features like the ability to create your own class loadout as well as custom emblems. There’s also a Theater mode, where you can record and view matches you’ve been in, as well as popular ones from the community at large. Add in 14 bundled multiplayer maps and 55 ranks to level up through, and Black Ops 2 will certainly keep you busy for the near future. The multiplayer mode is comprehensive and easily the best part of the package. But there’s still one more piece that bears mentioning, Zombies mode.
The Zombies mode was originally introduced by Treyarch back in Call of Duty: World at War, and has now grown to be very popular among fans. It takes the same mechanics found in the campaign and multiplayer and drops them into a zombie apocalypse for up to four players. Zombies mode offer three different ways to play. The first is Survival, which as you can guess is simply about surviving wave after wave of the undead. The more kills you get, the more points you’ll rack up which can be used to buy weapons, special powers like revives, and upgrades in the forms of stronger weapons and perks. Points can also be used to unlock new areas on different maps. Survival is the most basic mode and provides a pretty good challenge.
The second mode offered is Grief. This mode is similar to survival, but instead of just four players trying to stay alive, there’s another team of four they’re indirectly competing against. Sabotaging the enemy while still fighting off the undead can create some very exciting and hilarious moments. Grief ends up being a very good name for this mode, as that is what you’ll primarily be doing. Finally, there is Tranzit mode, the most unique of the three. Here a group of players team up and a ride a bus from map to map collecting items and weapons, while also unlocking plenty of secrets. The bus can also be upgraded and fortified for safety. Tranzit is also the only mode that offers up a story and is basically a mini-campaign. All in all, Zombies is a great addition to Black Ops 2 and helps spice things up after long bouts of campaign or multiplayer.
Black Ops 2 is less of a revolution and more of an evolution of one of the most popular series in the history of our industry. It takes what works, and for the most part improves upon it. While the story may be getting a bit too smart for its own good, the addition of choice certainly adds new variety. And while the Strike Force missions are disappointing, the game’s deep multiplayer and Zombies mode help to make up for it. The gameplay is technically proficient, but can get monotonous for those who aren’t huge fans. In sea first-person shooters, Black Ops 2 is can easily be described as a great white shark. Despite that, the series has yet to reach the point where everyone will feel confident taking a dip.
- Impressive voice cast with great performances
- Huge production values in terms of visuals and polish
- Deep and refined multiplayer mode that is the best offering yet
- Zombies mode adds plenty of extra content and keeps the experience fresh
- Moral choices affect the narrative and make the campaign more interesting
- Gameplay hasn’t changed at all essentially since earlier games and can get old
- Strike Force missions are riddled with horrible AI
- Story is very convoluted and nonsensical
- Soundtrack is pretty forgettable