Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Review
Each Call of Duty game is essentially two games in one - the single player campaign and the competitive multiplayer mode. With Black Ops 2, it's three as the Zombies bonus mode has finally evolved into a full-fledged game mode of its own. There have been a few evolutionary changes made to the other modes as well, but nothing that makes Black Ops 2 significantly different from Modern Warfare 3, or from the first Black Ops game for that matter. That's OK, though, because the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach has delivered a single player campaign that's (mostly) a lot of fun to play and a multiplayer game that still sets the standard for all military shooters.
Now I know that the first thing that most people do when they bring home a new Call of Duty game is to jump immediately into multiplayer, but since I'm the kind of guy who likes to finish the single player campaign and collect all of its achievements first I'll start there. The campaign interleaves two different timelines to tell its story, one set in the latter half of the 1980s and the other in 2025. These two timelines are tied together by the work of Alex and David Mason, father and son, both of whom follow a career in the Special Forces and both of whom find themselves going up against the plans of Raul Menendez. Menendez begins his career as a Nicaraguan drug kingpin, and the events in the 1980s that leave him scarred and seething with vengeance give birth to the megalomaniacal anarchist that he is in 2025. As far as story goes, the evil madman with the capability and desire to drag the nations of the world into total open warfare is fast becoming a Call of Duty clich�, and it's hard not to think of some of the classic Bond movies when you see yet another villain who manages to amass his own private army and build secret high-tech research and manufacturing facilities. As long as you're willing to concede this conceit the narrative does a decent job of revealing why Menendez came to be the leader of the global subversive movement known as Cordis Die and why things are so personal when it comes to the Masons. You'll need to pay attention, though, because the cast of players is rather large and it takes a little work to keep them all straight.
In reality, though, story takes a backseat to the gameplay, and Black Ops 2 delivers a lot of enjoyable action over its eleven levels (there are an additional five Strikeforce missions, but more on those later). There are plenty of the over-the-top moments that make Call of Duty campaigns more action movie than hardcore war sim, including a massive drone assault on Los Angeles that serves as Black Ops 2's counterpoint to Modern Warfare 3's full scale invasion of Manhattan. The 2025 timeline missions give you plenty of opportunities to play with future tech and weapons, but the 1980s levels manage to hold their own against them by offering the opportunity to do things like deploy bear traps rigged with mortar shells against enemies and conduct anti-tank warfare on horseback.
So far it may sound like "while the story may have changed the gameplay has stayed the same", but that's not entirely true. First off, Black Ops 2 lets you customize your weapons loadout for each mission. The first time you play through a mission you may want to stick with the recommended loadout (especially the Access Kit, which will show you where to find special weapons and bonus items in the level), but once you complete your first mission you'll see why you'll want to play with your loadout before taking on a mission again. Each mission has ten challenge objectives that range from that Call of Duty favorite of finding all of the hidden intel in a level to things such as achieving mission objectives in a decisive manner to getting a required number of kills with an alternate weapon. Completing these challenge objectives has two advantages. The first is that if you complete a requisite number of them you'll unlock a special weapon or kit for use in future missions. The second is that completing these objectives will increase your overall score for the level. At the end of a mission you'll receive a score which is based not only on the challenge objectives completed, but also on kills (with a bonus for headshots and melee kills), vehicles destroyed, and the difficulty level at which the level was played. These levels scores are not only tracked as part of your "Career Record" in the campaign, but also on leaderboards that let you see how well you did compared to your friends and other gamers. If you're the competitive type or a gamer who enjoys setting and breaking high scores, this all adds a nice motivation to replay campaign missions. If this isn't enough motivation for you to retackle some of the levels that you've already played, then the branching storyline and Strike Force missions may provide that motivation.
At numerous points in the campaign you'll be faced with decisions such as whether to capture or kill an enemy target, and the choices that you make will affect how the game's story plays out. There aren't any obvious "right" and "wrong" choices with these decision points and the repercussions of your decisions won't necessarily come to light until much later in the story - repercussions that could include the deaths of major characters in the story. While none of these decisions will change the missions that you'll play in the campaign, they will affect what plays out in the cutscenes that tell the story between missions and determine which of the game's six different endings you'll see. If you want to explore some of those alternate branches and see some of the other endings after you finish the game, you'll be able to select any mission in the game and "rewind" the story to that mission so you can make different choices the next time through.
The game's Strike Force missions are integral to its branching storyline. These are missions that become available at certain points in the game and remain available for only a short time. Succeed in these missions and you'll push the story down one of the branches with a more favorable outcome, and unlock additional Strike Force missions down the road. Fail and you'll send the story down a darker branch, as well as miss out on some additional Strike Force missions.
The Strike Force missions are multi-tiered tactical missions in which you must manage and coordinate the actions of a number of assets such as squads of soldiers or CLAW mechanized walkers. These missions play more like levels in a real-time strategy game than anything else. You give orders to your squads from a tactical overview map, issuing move, attack, and capture commands as the battle unfolds in real-time. You also have the option of dropping into the battle by taking over any unit at any time, whether it be a soldier, drone, or automated turret. Each of the five Strike Force missions are different types of operations - assault, defense, assassination, extraction, and escort - so you'll need to take a different tactical approach with each one.
A desire to make the campaign more dynamic than it has been in prior Call of Duty games was probably the motivation behind adding the Strike Force missions to the game. While the campaign branch points, career record scores, and custom loadouts all succeed in this regard, unfortunately that's not the case with the Strike Force missions. First of all, I'm sure that the majority of Call of Duty players have not been clamoring for RTS gameplay to be added to their favorite shooter. The context switch in the middle of the campaign is about as jarring as it probably sounds, and it completely interrupts the flow of the narrative.
The biggest problem with the missions, though, is that they just don't work all that well. The AI for both your forces and those of the enemy isn't very well-implemented. Path finding is particularly problematic with drone units like the CLAW continually getting themselves stuck on the map and squads of soldiers stringing themselves out and running one by one headlong into slaughter. The Strike Force missions are designed so that they can be played entirely from the tactical interface, but if you want to have any hope of beating the missions then you'll have to jump into the boots of one of your soldiers and do the job yourself. The lackluster AI is just as apparent from the first-person view as it is from the tactical perspective as you grant the death wishes of hundreds of enemies that plunge headfirst into your weapons fire. It's so bad, that if I wasn't able to take control of the VIP on the extraction mission I don't think that I could have completed that mission at all. She stood motionless in a building as an endless stream of enemies tried to come through the front door, never making a move for the back door even though I ordered her to move to the extraction point. Once I took control, I ran out the back door and made a beeline for the extraction point and a successful completion of the mission.
Adding RTS and dynamic shooter gameplay to the Call of Duty game engine was probably asking too much of it and it shows. Since you can complete the game without the Strike Force missions (and it's never really adequately explained how they really fit into the grand scheme of the story anyway), you're probably better off skipping them unless you're really set on seeing all of the possible game endings.
So that's the single player game. Overall an enjoyable Call of Duty style experience with some nice new additions marred only by the broken Strike Force missions. Most players should be able to complete it within six hours. Now let's move on to multiplayer.
If you've played any of the recent Call of Duty games, then you'll find that Black Ops 2 leaves the core of the multiplayer game unchanged. I think that this is a good thing as it's not an accident that the Call of Duty franchise is the top online military shooter with gamers. Black Ops 2 does add some new features that will be particularly welcomed by gamers new to multiplayer or those jumping into the game after a majority of other players have had time to level up their accounts. For veteran players, a new set of well-designed maps to master, the addition of near-future weapons to the arsenal, an enjoyable new game mode, and the ability to further customize custom classes will all be welcome new additions.
I've always felt that the Call of Duty games' multiplayer modes were particularly brutal for new players. Being a level one player in a match filled with level 60s equipped with high-level weapons used to mean filling the role of a stat-padder for the other players without having much of a chance to learn the game and close the experience gap. With Black Ops 2, Combat Training mode is fully integrated into the multiplayer experience. The Bootcamp mode of this training mode is reserved for players levels 1 through 10, with six on six (three humans and three bots per team) Team Deathmatch gameplay where players will earn full experience points just as they would in a regular match. Once players progress beyond level 10, they can still participate in Combat Training by graduating to Objective mode, which continues the bot and human gameplay but with players accumulating experience at half the normal rate.
Another way Black Ops 2 balances player skill levels is through its League Play mode. In this mode you play a few matches to receive a skill rating, and once you do you're placed in a division with players of similar skill. League Play games and seasonal ladders will automatically match you up with players in the same division and similar skill, and if you do well in these games you'll be able to move into higher divisions. League Play, along with Bootcamp, finally help to level the playing field for gamers just starting out in Call of Duty multiplayer or who are average players who don't enjoy being overmatched all of the time.
Those who have played Call of Duty games before will notice that the custom class system has changed. A new allocation system allows players to "trade" a slot in one category for a slot in another, so you can do things like sacrificing a secondary grenade for an extra perk. This is managed through a "Pick 10 System" that gives you ten total item points to spend selecting weapons, attachments, and perks in any combination as long as you don't exceed ten total items. This system is flexible enough to let you create a weapon bristling with attachments, or to let you load up on perks and go into battle weaponless and scavenging for dropped weapons ... and if you can find a dead enemy who dropped one of those multi-attachment weapons...
Black Ops 2 forgoes kill streaks for score streaks, giving players the opportunity to earn streaks in many more ways than simply getting kills. Depending on the game type, you can earn score streak points for capturing or defending objectives, getting assists, or saving a teammate. Of course you can still use kills to build your score streak, but now players who are more team-focused will be able to join in on the score streak rewards.
If you played Modern Warfare 3 you'll see all of that game's modes in Black Ops 2, but Black Ops 2 does introduce a few new modes of its own. The first addition is a new match type, Hardpoint, which is a map control game variant in which the capture and hold point keeps moving around the map. This mode really keeps the action moving as the teams continually have to switch between assault and defense, and it can be particularly intense on the smaller maps. And speaking of assault and defense, the other objective modes are now round-based, switching the teams between attack and defense so that they have equal chances on both sides of the battle. Also new in Black Ops 2 is multi-team play. Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed, and Hardpoint can now all be played with up to six competing teams, the latter two being particularly hectic as the number of teams playing increases.
Black Ops' Wager Matches return as Party Games in Black Ops 2. Party Game modes include Gun Game (each kill upgrades your weapon), One in the Chamber (each player gets one bullet, a knife, and three lives, and each hit is an instant kill), Sharpshooter (player weapons cycle every 45 seconds), and Sticks and Stones (players are armed with a crossbow, ballistic knife, and combat axe, and axe kills reset the killed enemy's score to zero). While Party Games aren't a part of the core competitive multiplayer side of the game, you will earn experience and rank up while playing these modes.
Black Ops 2 ships with thirteen multiplayer maps (fourteen if you pre-ordered the game), and as in previous Call of Duty games they're all well-designed and provide for a variety of environments. Some feel like variations on themes that you've seen before in the series such as the Middle Eastern city with numerous alleyways (Yemen), the modern city under siege (Aftermath, with Downtown LA serving as the setting), the Third World village (Slums), and the industrial complex (Drone, Meltdown), but others provide for more unique settings. I particularly enjoyed playing on Carrier which is set on the flight deck of a Chinese aircraft carrier. The deck has large open areas with only a few aircraft to provide cover while passageways within the ship provide for some close quarters combat. Hijacked is a great map for those who like the action to be continuous and intense. It takes place on a private yacht with open deck space on both ends and cabins and an engine room between them. Raid is another good close quarters map that is set in a Hollywood mansion complex and that provides for room to room fighting with small open courtyards between the buildings. And while Cargo may feel familiar with its maze of cargo containers, cranes that lift and move containers during the match make it a dynamic battlefield.
Overall, Black Ops 2 shows that the Call of Duty series has no intention of relinquishing its crown as the king of modern online shooters. Everything just feels and works right; the matchmaking, control responsiveness, framerate, lag-free online gaming, customization options, mode variety, and just about everything else works together to make the multiplayer game simply a blast to play.
Zombies mode has been a bonus mode in Treyarch's past few contributions to the Call of Duty franchise, but with Black Ops 2 it finally makes the move from bonus game to a full-fledged game mode of its own. Don't worry Zombies fans, the core gameplay remains the same. One to four players team up to fight off endless waves of increasingly nasty zombies, trying to make do with limited weapons and ammo. Players earn cash with each zombie kill, and that cash in turn can be spent at designated weapons purchase points on new weapons or to repair damage done to player fortifications by the zombies. Zombies also occasionally drop random power-ups when killed that include score multipliers, one shot kills, and a zombie-nuking bomb. The game continues until no players are left standing, at which point scores are tallied and displayed to the players.
So far that pretty much sounds like Zombies modes past, but there's plenty that's new this time out. First of all, full stat tracking has been added to the mode that rivals that of the multiplayer mode, and leaderboards let you compare your stats and best scores against those of your friends or other gamers. These stats will be used by the game's skill-based matchmaking system for public games, but frankly I'd be perfectly happy if someone with superior skills was placed on my team ... although there is something to be said for such matchmaking in Zombie's new competitive mode, Grief.
Grief mode is a team versus team versus zombies mode in which the two teams compete to be the last one standing. While the players can't shoot each other directly, they can "grief" the opposing team by doing things like blocking passages and tossing meat at the other team that will draw the zombies towards them. This mode has its moments, but games tend to feel like they drag on for a bit too long ... and it just can't compete with the new co-op mode, Tranzit.
Tranzit begins in a rundown bus depot and at first glance appears to be similar to the Zombies mode in previous games. However, you should relatively quickly earn enough cash to pay to open the front door to the bus depot and head outside, where you'll find a bus waiting for you. Tranzit's bizarre world is like a 1950s vision of an apocalyptic future, and that vision is perfectly captured by the combination of the curved lines of the rounded bus that screams 1950s with its barely functioning robot driver. Hop on the bus and you'll be taken to Tranzit's next location while zombies try to chase you down and break into the bus. Or you can choose to stay awhile, facing the next few waves of zombies at your current location while the bus eventually completes its route full circle and comes to pick you up again. If you miss the bus and want to move on right away, you can even try to walk to the next location, but you'll need to find your way through a think, smoky fog and face the wrath of winged creatures that enjoy landing on your face and trying to gouge your eyes out. But there's more to Tranzit than multiple locations - it's almost a Zombies story mode. There are secret locations to be discovered, some of which can only be reached by building things from collectible items you'll discover at the various locations. Each hidden area reveals more about the world of Tranzit and what happened to it, but in my time with the game I felt like we uncovered more questions than answers. Just who built the underground lab and why? And what happens when you rebuild the lab's electrical equipment? Tranzit still remains a tantalizing mystery to me, but I will certainly enjoy trying to uncover all of its secrets in the days to come.
Zombies traditionalists will be happy to hear that the classic Zombies mode gameplay returns in the Survival mode. In this mode you play in one of three single locations drawn from the Tranzit world, each with a slight variation in the game rules. If you select the town location, you'll have access to all of the weapons and perks in the game. The Tranzit bus station location limits the available weapons and eliminates the perks. On the Farm, there are limited wall weapons, perks, and the mystery box.
In addition to co-op online play, Survival and Tranzit can be played single player with the option to scale down the difficulty to make it easier for solo play.
Survival mode provides the same Zombies gameplay that gamers know and love, and some gamers will be drawn to Grief mode, but the real gem in the expanded Zombies mode is Tranzit. This mode is a great addition to the game, primarily because it feels more like a full-fledged mode than a bonus survival horror mode.
Black Ops 2 is a truly complete gaming package. The multiplayer game is excellent, the expanded Zombies mode is an enjoyable and very welcome addition, and the single player campaign is a fun ride that will have you yelling "Josephina!" at random times for weeks to come. About the only miss is the addition of the Strike Force missions, but they don't drag down the overall experience with them. Black Ops 2 should keep you plenty busy and having fun for quite a while.
Final Rating: 92%. Treyarch has done a great job in keeping the Call of Duty juggernaut going strong.