Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Review
"When did video games get so violent and scary?" If you're a gamer who revels in nostalgia or simply a Disney fan (I'm both), you'll recognize that line from the unsurprisingly excellent animated film Wreck-It Ralph. In the movie, Ralph, the villain of a Donkey Kong-style arcade game, begs this question during his visit to the intense fictional first-person shooter Hero's Duty. Interestingly, the quote kept jumping back into my mind with each passing quarter hour spent playing through the hugely popular Call of Duty sequel, Black Ops II. Yes, the campaign, multiplayer, zombie mode and all the new stuff combine to create a seriously great game that deserves some seriously high marks. With that said, Black Ops II is perhaps the most realistic, violent, stomach-churning video game ever made; one that had me switching back and forth between it and less brutal titles to avoid the urges to call home or find the nearest confessional. This one ain't for the kids, and the parents who cave to pressure and let their underage youngsters play should probably be reported to the police. "Gubment came an' took ma baby!"
More than any other series, Call of Duty has become the face of gaming as viewed by the mainstream and John Q. Public, and Black Ops II's grim, joyless look at warfare and murder is made all the more disturbing by that fact. You'll have a hard time countering the ridiculous "games cause violence" talking points when the most successful title out there features a man shot right in the face (in John Woo-style super slo-mo), resistance fighters executing downed enemies like it's no big deal, a man burning to death in a crashed vehicle, a child dying as her skin melts off and worse - all in the first 20 minutes of story and gameplay. And that stuff isn't even the most appalling of what you'll see over the course of the 10-15 hour single player campaign. I can already read the comments some will feel the need to post under this review about how the world is a violent place, it's just for fun, how I should stick to reviewing kids' games, etc. Listen, if the guy who celebrated his birthday last year by attending (and thoroughly enjoying) a one-night-only screening of The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence was taken aback by Black Ops II's brutally violent content, maybe it is those who see it as "no big deal" are the ones with the problem. Complainers should also note that I can't and won't allow my views on the subject matter to cloud my review of the overall Black Ops II experience.
Author’s Note: Black Ops II does include a graphic content filter. When players start the game for the first time, it pops up on-screen and offers to turn off the most violent parts of the game. I, like I imagine most will, quickly mashed “no,” anxious to get into the game. Be aware that while this removes most, if not all of the most offensive content, Black Ops II is still not suitable for the little ones.
And what an experience it is. Treyarch, the developers behind the not-Modern Warfare Call of Duty games have truly outdone themselves, and they even stepped beyond their usually more highly regarded cousins at Infinity Ward. Though the single player campaign of first person shooters is where I tend to spend most of my time, I get that a good segment of those playing Black Ops II with start with online multiplayer; some may never even try the impressive, varied and engrossing campaign. Sad. Either way, we'll start with multiplayer.
Since I don't play much online, I went into the multiplayer suite fully expecting to be a bullet sponge and deserving of the kind of humiliating online beat-down I usually get at the hands of experts in games like BlazBlue or Street Fighter IV. But guess what? It never happened. The game expertly takes even the worst of soldiers and slowly but surely builds them to a plateau on which they can not only compete, but also prevail. An online training mode provides a great start for anyone new to the scene by doling out the experience points needed to level up while also nerfing the battles with a mixture of player-controlled and computer-controlled opponents. The cool thing is, though, that this mode doesn't necessarily feel like a set of training wheels. The skirmishes can be just as intense as the main multiplayer battles, while also forcing the player to learn and think like a deathmatch king.
After getting the hang of things, entering the main multiplayer modes becomes less terrifying and the game even offers to keep bending you to the learning curve. Playing in team matches is a great way to build levels while others more or less watch your back, and if that doesn't sound like much fun you can still go into the "every man for himself" battles with confidence. Black Ops II has an eerily intelligent and proficient matchmaking system in place to keep vets from eating newer players alive. Don't fret, seasoned pros; the same stuff you loved in Modern Warfare 3 is still in place and is still just as geared toward your experience. That really is the beauty of the Black Ops II online component: It can be equally fun for new players and old, and when the two meet in the middle you've got the best and most varied online multiplayer possibly ever seen.
The zombie is perhaps the most played out character in pop culture today. It seems every movie, every book, every game, every app... all of them now seem to feature some kind of zombie or zombie-related phenomenon. I, frankly, was sick of the craze as far back as two years ago, yet for some reason the monster continues to be an ever-present entity in all entertainment media. Whatever. So yeah, like Black Ops, Black Ops II has a totally self-contained (and considerably beefed-up) zombie mode. Surprise, surprise. As much as it pains me to admit it, I actually had fun with this part of the game.
The main zombie survival is handled just like it was before: You (and three friends if you like) stand your ground against the waves of oncoming brain-eaters until the last man falls. You can also compete against another team to see who can last the longest, but neither scenario was all that much fun for me. The new mode, Tranzit, is where the inclusion and expansion of the zombie stuff is most welcome. Here, you and your team are plopped into what looks like a world comprised of unused set pieces from Tim Burton's Batman Returns. Players move from locale to locale by way of a robot-driven city bus and must clear each area of zombies before moving on. It connects the single maps into a living, breathing world, and even offers multiple paths (watch out for the flying monsters!) and tons of secrets to uncover. Survival may feel a little tired at this point, especially with zombies as the antagonist, but Tranzit ends up being a whole game in and of itself, rivaling the Left 4 Dead games for zombie shooting superiority.
Now we can finally get to where I'm most comfortable - the single player campaign. Despite my objections to the offensively violent content, Black Ops II's campaign should stand as a testament that multiplayer titles don't have to neglect the single player aspects when getting things together. The campaign tells the story of father/son soldiers Alex and David Mason in both the 1980's and year 2025. The plot centers on a Dr. Evil-style bad dude Raul Menendez, his plans to draw the entire world into a massive conflict and his personal vengeance for the Mason family. It can be tough to keep up with things as the game jumps back and forth in time, and the plot can border on the absolutely ridiculous but it mostly gets the job done. I didn't have any more connection to any of the characters at the end than I did from the get-go, but the loose story just barely holds the huge set piece moments together.
The most impressive part of Black Ops II is the gameplay. As you jump from level to level, you'll begin to see this as the realization of the modern shooter; this is the shooter developers have been struggling to make for decades. Shooting is tight and easy to control, movement is just the right balance between too slow and too floaty and you are always doing something new. For example, you'll start by charging across a dusty African plain, headlong into an opposing guerilla army. Then you are sneaking through tall grass while carrying a wounded teammate. Then you are attempting to bring down a helicopter while aboard a speeding boat. And just when that begins to get old, you are swinging across a sheer cliff face with some "I need to buy those right now" sticky gloves. This constant gameplay changing continues at the same clip through all 11 campaign levels, and at between 10-15 hours, the campaign feels exciting and just the right length. "Boring" isn't a word that can be slapped on any part of this single player game.
You could argue that what I've just written about gameplay variety could be applied to all the past Call of Duty titles, and you are probably right. The thing is these games just keep raising the bar, and Black Ops II includes a choice system that elevates the gameplay even further. Though you only see it a few times, you'll be prompted at certain points to either kill or take prisoner a key bad guy. Your picks directly influence the end of the story, and a handy level select lets you go back and see how different choices affect the end result of the Masons' story. You could argue the choice mechanic and story outcomes adds replay to the single player campaign, and no one should ever underestimate the value of an extended solo mission.
The bottom line is that Call of Duty: Black Ops II is the best shooter of 2012, and also one of the best games overall. The multiplayer knocks it out of the park by catering to everyone's needs and skill level, the single player is one of the better shooter story modes I've played and the package, when viewed as a whole, just knocks it out of the park. I, personally, was extremely turned off by how violent and brutal the game gets at certain points in the campaign, but that doesn't mean it isn't a top-notch game that everyone can enjoy. Everyone over the age of 17, that is.
Final Rating: 90%. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is the best shooter of 2012, and also one of the best games overall.