It's the end of the year, which means it's time for the inevitable Call of Duty game. Treyarch has a lot to live up too after the reception and the success of the original Black Ops, and this time around, the studio is looking to expand upon some of the ideas laid down in the first game. Does it work, or does the latest Black Ops II installment fail to improve enough and ultimately fall flat? Read on to find out.
Version tested: Xbox 360
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is technically set in the not-so-distant future. I say “technically” because a good portion of the game's campaign takes place in the mid-1980s, and the game switches between the past and the future (2025 to be exact) pretty frequently. Before we delve into too many specifics, however, I'll say this: the story in Black Ops II is pretty ridiculous. You'll have to suspend your disbelief often, as the story never seems too concerned with sticking within the bounds of realism. The technology the characters use in 2025 is quite a bit more advanced than the tech I think we'll have in another 12 years, with things like cloaking devices that make humans as close to invisible as possible widely used. There are plenty of twists and turns, too, though those twists never felt as surprising as they should have.
That being said, it isn't as if the campaign in Black Ops II is lacking charm. Players will chase the beyond evil Raul Menendez - who I must say makes a excellent villain - throughout the decades as he hatches a plan that would quite literally leave the world in shambles. The situations the characters get themselves into may not always seem plausible, but that does allow for some intense sequences and edge-of-your seat moments. Treyarch deserves a pat on the back for never being afraid to shake things up a bit as well – Black Ops II isn't always about shooting. There will be times when you're riding on horseback (while holding and shooting a rocket launcher, no less), jumping out of a plane to “parachute” into enemy territory, and flying a jet. Some of these sequences work better than others, but at least they all serve a purpose in giving you something different right when you need a break from the typical run and gun routine.
Alongside the regular campaign missions, you'll have the opportunity to complete Strike Force missions. These add a little RTS flavor to the first person shooter genre, giving you areas to defend as enemies attack from all sides. You can zoom out to view an overhead map, which allows you to issue orders to multiple units at once. You can also control individual units and jump between them freely, giving you the chance to fight off enemies quickly in the places that need help the most. It's a cool little mode, but things can get hectic at times, so I think it could prove to be a bit much for some players. If you want to get the best ending though, you'll have to successfully complete these missions.
In fact, in order to get the best ending, you'll have to do a lot of things. There are many moments in the game when the path forward is determined by player choice, which means that you'll have a story with plenty of branching paths. That's a pretty ambitious for a single-player FPS campaign, and there might even be a few forks in the road that have you hesitant to make a decision. Black Ops II features a total of three different endings, and I was actually surprised by how many variables there were when it came to which ending you see when you beat the game. At least one of those endings seems to leave the door open for a direct sequel, so don't be surprised if we see a Black Ops III by this time in 2014.
The campaign is decent, but it isn't going to win any awards. The character models are all pretty solid, though they do have a tendency to look a little wooden and the lip syncing isn't the best. The environments can range from drab to beautiful, but more often than not the environments impress. There are some issues with textures, though, especially when you get up-close, so the engine that has been in use for years now is showing its age. There seem to be a few lingering bugs that need to be squashed too – for instance, I encountered a few NPCs that appeared to be glitching out and broken, and one instance where the game didn't allow me to progress. It was at the very end of the game, leaving me with no way to advance or go back until I opened the menu, selected “restart mission,” decided I didn't want to do that, and went back to the game. When I closed the menu, the way forward magically opened, letting me continue onto the end of the game. It isn't the biggest problem in the world, but it sure was annoying at the time.
The campaign certainly makes some missteps, but that's not the main feature of Black Ops II. Multiplayer is where it's at for most, and that's the mode that Treyarch really honed in on. Regular old multiplayer is getting a new feature in the way of the Pick 10 system, granting the player 10 points with which to build a load out. This, along with the Wildcard system, allows for a lot of customization between load outs, so you shouldn't have a problem building one that is tailored to your play style.
Everyone else will have that same edge too, so mulitplayer battles are always pretty intense. There's something to be said for Call of Duty's fast-paced gameplay where you can be dead in a second and kill even quicker, and in that respect, the multiplayer mode soars. The matches keep you on your toes, and that's helped along by the quality of the maps. The maps give players plenty of little nooks and rooms to explore, making for an exciting experience where you never really know what's waiting for you beyond the bend. I didn't encounter a map that I didn't like, though there are some that are clear favorites among the Call of Duty community. These ones are where the most intense battles go down, since each player is familiar with the map and won't hesitate to use that knowledge to get a leg up on the competition.
Of course, you're also gaining XP and increasing your rank along the way, unlocking a ton of new items as you do. There's certainly enough unlockable content to keep you interested in playing and leveling up, which is where I think a game like Black Ops II has an advantage over something like Halo 4. In Halo 4, the number of new items you can unlock as you progress through the game feels a little limited, whereas there are plenty of new weapons and gear to unlock in Black Ops II. Not only do you get new stuff for leveling up yourself, but you'll also unlock new attachments for individual weapons as you level those up too. It's a great system, and it's there for no other reason than to keep players addicted.
At the end of all, it seems pretty safe to say that if you like the multiplayer modes in other Call of Duty games, you'll probably like this one just as much. You might even like it more, given that the Pick 10 and Wildcard systems add a very fun aspect to building a load out. Given that I was playing this during launch week, I ran into a few server problems, but those were surprisingly few and far between - I was only booted from a game once (though that may have been my fault) and for the most part, finding a match was pretty quick, even when I had my search settings set to "Best Connection." Make no mistake, we'll probably see Black Ops II dominating player number charts for months to come thanks to its addictive multiplayer mode that gamers will feel compelled to play.
Black Ops II's regular multiplayer mode might just end up taking a backseat to Zombies, however. After years and years of nothing but zombies, I feel pretty comfortable saying that I'm sick of fighting them. At least that's what I thought before I checked out Zombies in Black Ops II. Zombies, as many of you already know, is a pretty straight forward mode: kill zombies, rack up points, unlock better guns to use, and see how many increasingly difficult waves you and your team mates can survive. In the beginning, you'll be tricked into thinking that you've got everything under control, but once the zombies start coming in a seemingly endless stream, your cool and collected demeanor will rapidly devolve into a state of blubbering panic.
That's what makes it so damn fun, and the urge to see if you can both make it further and beat your personal best scores will keep you playing Zombies over and over again. I think that Zombies might just be my favorite mode in Black Ops II, which is saying a lot when you consider how good regular multiplayer is.
Zombies mode is not flawless, however. Two new game modes are joining Survival in Black Ops II: Grief and Tranzit. In Grief, your team goes up against another team of four in a battle for survival, but you're not allowed to actually harm the players on the other team. There are, however, plenty of ways to annoy players on the other team and make the task of killing zombies and staying alive a lot more difficult, hence the name. I like the idea behind Grief, but I'm not sure I like it more than regular Survival. It's a mode that will need to be expanded upon in future releases (or with content patches) - I look forward to seeing what Treyarch does with Grief in the future, but for now, I think the majority of my Zombies playing will be in Survival mode.
Next we have Tranzit, which is an interesting new mode that's best described as Survival mode in motion. Players will use a bus to go from hub to hub, fighting off zombie attacks while both stationary and in transit. There are items to collect and a crafting system to use, but if you didn't know this going in, you'd assume that it's just Survival mode on a larger scale. Tranzit is a lot like Grief in that I like the underlying idea, but Tranzit just kind of throws you in without indicating what it is you should be doing. Some of the waves you'll encounter are already pretty vicious, which can make item collecting nigh-on impossible when things start to get really hairy and team mates start going down. It's definitely an interesting take on Zombies mode, but sometimes Tranzit is guilty of piling on without making objectives clear. That's bound to be a barrier for some players, which is unfortunate since Tranzit shows a lot of promise despite the fact that it's a little rough around the edges at the moment.
Black Ops II is another solid entry in the Call of Duty series, but if you've not been tempted by the franchise before, this probably isn't going to change anything. On the other hand, if you feel that the series has gotten a little stale in recent years, picking this up may not be a bad idea. Black Ops II is careful not to step too far outside familiar bounds, but there are some new features that make this entry worth checking out.
Of course, if you're already a Call of Duty fan, you'll almost certainly love Black Ops II. The campaign is a little weird in that it's absolutely ridiculous, but there are some sequences that make the story worth playing through. Additionally, it's one of the only FPS campaigns in recent memory that encourages multiple playthroughs, even if some of the choices feel a little shallow. Strike Force missionsares an excellent way to break things up, and hopefully the folks at both Treyarch and Infinity Ward will try to expand on this further in future games.
Finally, multiplayer is another winner with great maps, a great mechanic in the Pick 10 system, and fast-paced gameplay that will get your blood pumping. As far as I'm concerned, Survival matches in Zombies are excellent, though Grief and Tranzit mode could have both used some more time to simmer. At the end of everything, though, you have to give Treyarch some points for taking risks in a series that's known for sticking to what works. Some of these risks don't play out as well as Treyarch probably envisioned, but each one lays down a springboard that could ultimately make future installments better.
So no, Black Ops II is not a masterpiece. It isn't the best FPS ever, and I doubt it will even be considered the best Call of Duty game. It's too early to tell, but Black Ops II may just lead to some actual innovation within the series, and that alone is worth celebrating. If nothing else, it's a very fun ride, so if you're a fan of first person shooters, I have no problem recommending that you make space on your shelf for Black Ops II.