To say that the Call of Duty franchise took some heat last year would be an understatement. Despite record-breaking sales and some positive praise from the media, Activision was criticized for pumping out yet another yearly entry in the franchise that many considered unchanged. Much of the criticism originated from the Battlefield 3 faithful, but despite this I still sensed there was this underlying current of negativity hovering over the franchise last year. Despite some of the naysayers, Activision has stayed the course once again keeping the core Call of Duty experience intact as they return with Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Sure it is still “Call of Duty”, yet this year feels a little different and much of that has to do with the work Treyarch has done over the course of the past couple of years making Black Ops 2 one of the better entries into the franchise to date.
After playing through the entire single player campaign two times and after many hours spent playing the multiplayer portion of the game, one thing is for certain, the core COD gameplay, for the most part, remains firmly in place in Black Ops 2. In terms of the single player campaign, the story features two storylines that intertwine with one another. One part of the campaign is set in the 1980’s while the other is set in 2025 featuring futuristic warfare technology. Alex Mason from the first Black Ops game returns as the main protagonist. The game starts out when Mason comes out of retirement in the 1980’s in order to recue his old friend Sgt. Frank Woods. After rescuing him from a shipping container barely alive, Woods and Mason embark on a journey to round up Menendez who was responsible for Woods kidnapping. The game then switches gears and fast-forwards to 2025 where Mason’s son (now an adult) leads an elite counter force in the hunt and aged Menendez. Menendez is a ruthless leader and due to some tragic events he experienced over his life he stops at nothing to seek revenge and have others experience the pain he faced. Granted, there is so much more to this story than that and I recognize I am not touching on big chunks of the plotline; however, if I tell you more I would be giving too much away.
Black Ops 2’s storyline is something you need to experience for yourself as it ranks right up there with some of the best. It is a wonderfully told story and dives deeper into the mind and raw emotion of the game’s characters (especially the games main protagonist Menendez) unlike which I have seen before. Granted, I found the game could have benefited from some kind of recap of the first Black Ops game as I was having difficulty figuring out what was going on in the first few missions, as I just couldn’t remember. That being said, everything comes together nicely as the game’s story winds down, and let’s just say there are some moments that will be stuck in my mind for quite some time. There is nothing like seeing a guy getting his knee caps blown off by a shotgun at point blank range to leave you with some lasting memories.
It is not just the story that makes the single player experience so good. You will find that the choices you make along the way impact the outcome of the game. At about the halfway to three-quarter mark you will be faced with some difficult decisions, and as the game wraps up you will be faced with even more difficult choices. I managed to witness two distinctly different endings but the team at Treyarch tells us there are six different endings available. So this is indeed a first for the franchise and something that will inevitably give you plenty of reason to revisit the campaign after you have completed it.
The single player experience will take anywhere from 6 to 8 hours to complete depending on your skill level and your difficulty setting. This is indeed a little on the short side, and the same as past CoD games, but when you take into account the replay value of the campaign experience featuring the various different endings, Black Ops 2 single player experience is likely something you will come back to on more than one occasion.
The single player experience will have you spending the bulk of your time shooting down enemies as you run from cover to cover pushing forward. This being said, the campaign does manage to spice things up a bit with some varied gameplay. You will be doing such things as firing a RPG on horseback, driving a military truck like a maniac in downtown LA, flying a fighter jet in the skies above downtown LA, skydiving at mach speeds, using your futuristic nano gloves to scale mountain sides, controlling ‘Ziggy’ a slick little spider shaped robotic spy gadget, and you also control land and air drones. I could really go on and on but regardless I was impressed with the variety. Granted, some of the sequences didn’t work as well as they should have. For instance, guiding a Valkyrie missile towards an enemy helicopter from a gunboat was simply problematic and I never felt I was in control of a fighter jet in one of the final missions as it felt like it was on rails. Nevertheless, I still give full marks to the development team for mixing up the gameplay and keeping us guessing from one mission to the next.
The single player storyline that is driven by player choice, the amount of variety in the game and the replay value all make for a fantastic single player experience, but the “game changer” this year is easily the Strike Force missions. There are about five Strike Force missions in all and they are included in the single player campaign. Your ability to successfully complete the missions also directly influences the outcome of the campaign. The Strike Force missions allow you to control a number of different soldiers, air drones, land drones, turrets, and other war assets in strategy-based missions. In one instance, I had to protect three areas from enemy insurgents. When the mission launched, I took an aerial view of the map so that I could strategically place my soldiers and my lumbering land claw in the best defensive positions. Whenever an area became a little chaotic, I would just jump out of the aerial view and simply take control of one my soldiers, a turret or even a drone. To say that I found this mission a challenge would be an understatement. It was tough and I failed the mission on my first go around which was primarily due to my idiotic decision to not pay careful attention to the Strike Force tutorial. If I have any word of advice for you is that you need to pay attention during the tutorial and make sure you have a firm understanding of the controls before you tackle the first mission. In any event, the Strike Force missions are a nice touch and I certainly found it rewarding when I successfully completed one.
Now that I have exhausted the single player experience I will shift my attention to the multiplayer experience. It comes as no surprise that most gamers who purchase a COD game purchase it for the online multiplayer experience. I have heard that 80 percent of gamers who purchase COD do so for its online multiplayer, and once again Treyarch manages to deliver the goods in this area in a big way. The adversarial multiplayer is deeper than ever, specifically in regards to all the things you can do before you even jump into a game. It is simply overwhelming the amount of attachments you can pick up for your gun or the amount of perks you can access. I counted 13-maps out of the box this year, which is down from last year’s game, but there are no ‘filler’ maps. In other words, all the maps have been specifically designed for the online COD fan that enjoys that frantic run and gun experience. There are not many, if any, maps for the sniper enthusiasts this time around. Not to mention, there are no snow levels, which is always a plus.
The multiplayer maps in Black Ops 2 seem smaller as there is more close quarter combat than ever before. You will be fighting in such settings as aboard a luxurious yacht or in a battered military carrier. There is a map that takes place in a LA Bullet Train Station and another map that takes place on a floating resort. Bottomline, the maps seem to have a little more personality this year, they appear balanced, and I simply had a blast playing them all as I mowed down fellow journalists from Destructoid, IGN, Joystiq, OXM and so forth. Okay so maybe I didn’t exactly “mow them down” but I did hold my own.
In terms of the new multiplayer features, there are many so I am not going to bore you to death by reviewing them all. You will just have to play the game; however, I will go over some of the more significant ones. For starters there is an all new create a class where you are introduced to the new “pick-10” allocation system. While this does allow you to have several combinations of create-a-class content, I did find it somewhat limiting. It is amazing how quickly you can rack up 10 items when you factor in weapon attachments, lethal grenades, non-lethal grenades and perks that are essential for your survival in the online realm. That said, “pick-10” does balance the playing field out a little bit as gone are the days when someone is armed up to the point they are almost unstoppable online.
Scorestreaks have also seen a reboot of sorts with Black Ops 2. It is no longer all about the kills. This time around Scorestreaks reward you for helping your team win the game. Whether it is defending your teammate, getting an assist, or capturing a flag, each action has a different value. Additionally, there are some new weapons added to the mix as well. You will see a high-powered microwave turret that emits an intense energy wave and there are now drones that can be deployed to attack the enemy and you can command a Hellstorm Missile or take control of a VTOL Warship. My favorite of the new weapons is the Shock Charge, which is a non-lethal throw device that electrocutes and stuns enemies that come near it. When a player runs over it they are absolutely crippled and you can move in for the quick kill. In the end there is certainly enough new in the online multiplayer department to capture your attention and keep online fans coming back for more.
I should mention Black Ops 2 will feature Live Streaming and Shoutcasting, moving the online multiplayer closer into the world of spectator sport. There is also CODcasting, which is a tool you can use where you take on the role of color commentator for any recorded game. There is also League Play, which should be well received by those hardcore or even veteran CoD online gamers. What is cool about the League Play is that you are initially ranked according to how you play in five ‘tryout’ games. After the initial five games are complete you are placed into a division with players of similar skill. If you keep winning you move up the ranks but if you lose you will drop. You just know with League Play plenty of bragging rights will be involved.
All the online modes you have come to love are back. One of my favorites from MW3 returns with Kill Confirmed. I also spent a great deal of time in Hardpoint, which is a new multiplayer game mode. Hardpoint plays out very similar to any King of the Hill style mode where you take control of an area for a certain amount of time before it moves to another area. There are also custom games and party games, which are a hoot. “Sticks and Stones” was one of my favorites where everyone is equipped with a crossbow and the arrows explode after you hit your target. Much like previous years you can Prestige your character. There are 55 XP levels with 10 levels of Prestige. This year you do not completely start over when you prestige either; instead, you continue with your player progression. The fact that your weapon XP and earned attachments are not reset certainly makes this online COD fan happy.
Zombies are back this year and this stands as the third time the mode has made its way into a Call of Duty game. Much like everything else in the game, Zombies has also seen some enhancements. In addition to your standard 4-player co-op, which was around in the previous Black Ops game, this time it has its own campaign of sorts. I say “of sorts” because there really isn’t much of a storyline as it is all about killing zombies, hopping on a bus driven by a mechanical zombie and getting out at the next destination. Much like the Zombies mode from the previous Treyarch entries, I certainly enjoyed it and those who loved previous zombie modes will enjoy this one. There is a lot of exploring to be had and weapons to unlock once you have enough cash to unlock doors. My only concern is that some of the areas did feel a tad tiny and it almost seemed like every map featured restricted visibility. I understand why the development team wanted to do this but in the end I would have preferred at least a couple of areas where I could clearly see in the distance. One final note with regards to the Zombies mode is the new mode called ‘Grief’. Here you can team up with your buddies to challenge another group of up to 4 people in a humans versus humans versus zombies type scenario. I know it sounds confusing but this is a game that involves some strategy as you play on the various griefing mechanics to sidetrack the zombies or slowdown the opposing side. If you are the team with the last human(s) standing then your team wins.
From my perspective, the Call of Duty franchise has always somehow raised the bar when it comes to visuals in a first person shooter. Black Ops 2 is really no different as once again I found the visuals simply fantastic. Many will argue it’s the same graphics engine and at the end of the day they are somewhat correct as it has original roots but many changes have occurred over the years. This year the development team has once again made adequate tweaks to the engine and in the end they have managed to make enough enhancements as the game looks pretty darn good.
The most noticeable enhancement this time around comes with the characters animations. The facial animations are incredibly life like and look almost identical to the actor who is doing the voice work for the character. You will notice Michael Rooker’s character looks very similar to his real-life persona, but with much more hair. Also the lighting has improved a little more this time around, making for a game that appears much more colourful and vibrant than in years past. The reflections coming off Rooker’s character’s biceps for instance was pretty cool and again very life-like.
The sound in Black Ops 2 is an excellent compliment to the fantastic visuals. For starters the soundtrack is terrific featuring that ever so popular ‘Dubstep’ style music and a fantastic theme song by Trent Reznor. Once again during the frantic gameplay you will notice big sweeping Hollywood-esque orchestra tunes that match very well with the scenarios taking place on screen. The music sets the perfect mood and I found the soundtrack really enhanced the gameplay experience. Likewise, I felt the weapons sounded great as well. They all seem to pack a punch and all have unique sound effects. The voice acting and battle chatter between you and your squadmates is bang-on as the voice talent is fantastic and believable. You can tell a lot of care and attention was given to the game’s storyline and that is reflected in the solid voice acting. Granted it can sometimes sound a little over-the-top, but hey this is “Call of Duty”.
There is no doubt many will turn their nose at yet another Call of Duty game running on the same engine at 60 frames per second. The “ain’t broke don’t fix” path has certainly been taken again. This being said, Treyarch has undeniably been able to up the ante in nearly every facet of the Call of Duty experience with Black Ops 2. The riveting single player storyline features the wonderfully designed strategic Strike Force Missions; the online Multiplayer experience is much more robust than ever before and the Zombies mode has also received significant upgrades. It is quite amazing how the development team managed to fit this much content onto one disk. Needless to say, shooter fans can purchase Black Ops 2 with confidence.