Game: Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
Available on: Windows PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
There was a time, not so long ago, when November’s sales chart was just as unpredictable as any other month; when Quarter-4 wasn’t a release window to be feared by all military shooters – or indeed, any game ever – attempting to infiltrate the market. It was a time before Call of Duty.
Nowadays, November is briefly contested each year like one of Black Ops 2’s “Hardpoints”, as other big name franchises make their valiant but ill-fated charges against the overwhelming might of Activision’s behemoth. Despite Halo 4 breaking its own share of sales records, this year is no different. The big deviation from the historical norm in this iteration is that, for the first time in the franchise’s recent history, developers Treyarch have made some significant changes to the established formula; most notably where the narrative is concerned.
STORY: Call of Duty titles have never been renowned for their intricately-plotted campaigns, usually content to move from cliché to cliché for roughly 5 hours, interspersing the blockbuster set-pieces with fairly soulless corridor shootouts. Black Ops 2 is different. For a start, not only is the storyline a brilliantly involving dual narrative, but it’s also multi-branching.
The main narrative strand takes place in 2025, where David Mason, son of Black Ops’ Alex, is attempting to eliminate a global terrorist organisation called Cordis Die, who are using a rare Earth element to manufacture a cyber-weapon codenamed Karma. Alongside his foul-tempered partner, Harper (played by gravel-voiced hard man Michael Rooker), David Mason mixes his own hi-tech missions with interviewing Sgt. Frank Woods, his father’s old partner, about their encounters with Cordis Die leader Raul Menendez.
Interestingly, it’s the villain who Treyarch have chosen to paint in the most sympathetic colours. Mason Jnr. and Harper – in perfect symmetry with Mason Snr. and Woods – are written too aggressive, too self-righteous; borderline unlikeable in fact. Menendez on the other hand is the only character with proper motivation, a man whose backstory is genuinely upsetting, who, at times, you find yourself rooting for rather than the Americans. His villainy is deeply-seeded and he’s far from a nice guy, but he’s no megalomaniacal pantomime baddie – his cause is clear and his motivations almost worthy.
Throughout the narrative there are forks in the road, some more obvious than others, some that I didn’t even spot until the end-of-mission summary. I won’t go into details, but every one of these moments has repercussions that will affect the multiple endings. Impressively, making the “right” choice won’t always result in the best outcome, just like failing on occasion won’t necessarily be detrimental to the ending. It’s not BioWare deep, but it’s refreshing to see Treyarch attempting – successfully, I hasten to add – to make the solo campaign as valid as the multiplayer.
GRAPHICS: Simply put, this is the best-looking Call of Duty yet. The environments are highly detailed, the character models excellent. While the aesthetics don’t surpass Halo 4’s glorious visuals or Medal of Honor’s use of Frostbite 2, they nevertheless stand up to the naysayers who have complained since Modern Warfare 2 that Call of Duty needs a graphical overhaul. The facial expressions and lip-synching in cutscenes are exceptional, though it still suffers from chronic Recycled Cannon Fodder Syndrome.
That being said, even when you’re in the middle of a firefight in the lashing rain against enemies using active camouflage and high explosives, it’s never hard to see what’s going on or tell friend from foe, or even differentiate between an enemy and an erratic swaying tree branch – a problem that plagues the far inferior Medal of Honor despite a better, more powerful engine.
SOUND: Celebrity voice-actors are a bit of an opinion splitter around these parts, but sometimes it’s nice to hear a familiar drawl spitting out cheesy lines, particularly in a blockbuster game like Black Ops 2. Sam Worthington returns as Alex Mason, while the aforementioned Michael Rooker’s instantly recognisable tone fits Harper perfectly. The delivery of the occasionally hammy script is faultless, whether from an A-lister or otherwise. Which, of course, is not to imply that it’s a bad script – in fact, it’s far from it – but this is Call of Duty, and Treyarch and Infinity Ward have long been regarded as the Simon West and Michael Bay of video games. This is especially true here, where realism is put on hold in favour of slapping you in the face with balls-out action, where the hero always saves the day in the nick of time, a good guy’s death is almost always a heroic sacrifice and when you shoot a car three times in a row it will, without a doubt, explode in a raging fireball. For that reason the script, and its delivery, is pitched perfectly to the fans.
While it’s hard to get overexcited about the soundtrack of any military shooter, Black Ops 2’s title score is rousing, menacing and moody, and the sound direction is excellent; never moreso than when on the battlefield. Allies will constantly shout out enemy placements or otherwise comment on proceedings; opposing troops bark orders and insults with equal voracity, while helicopters slice the air above to signal an imminent arse-kicking; explosions ring in your ears like Satan’s alarm clock, blurring your vision and drowning out even the cacophony of heated battle. The sense of immersion afforded by such atmospherics is immense and, combined with the gorgeous, crisp aesthetic, makes Black Ops 2 one of the most mesmerising shooters of the year.
GAMEPLAY: Although the core mechanics remain largely untouched (missions are still mostly linear affairs that funnel you, corridor like, from objective to objective) Treyarch have introduced several new elements to the franchise. For example, the loadouts can now be customised before each mission, allowing for selectable perks, weapon attachments and even changes to which weapons you’ll take in. It sounds minor, but it increases the feeling that Black Ops 2’s campaign is tailor-made for the individual.
The future tech fits the framework perfectly, and flitting back and forth between David’s 21st Century and Alex’s 1980’s never feels jarring despite the differences in gear and gadgets. One minute you’re riding a horse across a desert taking out tanks with an RPG launcher, the next you’re activating stealth camouflage, identifying enemies by their heat signatures and sniping through walls; in one narrative you’re mowing down rebels in Sierra Leone with a battered old AK-47, in the other you’re gliding to a target location through driving rain in a shiny, hi-tech wing-suit. The contrast is stark, yet somehow seamless.
The stand-out moments in Black Ops 2 are among the series’ best, but they’re few and far between. While the missions on offer struggle to spike to the dizzy heights of classics like “All Ghillied Up” or “No Russian”, the quality remains at a consistently high level throughout. Weapons pack that satisfying punch we’ve come to expect, movement feels real, weighted, and the interaction between your playable protagonist and the secondary characters is spot on as they fight beside you, swear because of you and occasionally hold your hand when you haven’t got a clue where to go.
My only real complaint is that the new Strike Force missions feel somewhat out of place. A mix of wave-based, Horde-style gameplay and puddle-deep RTS mechanics, Strike Force sees you defending key locations with a handful of units against wave after wave of enemy invaders. Pressing Back at any time will give you an aerial view of the map, from which you can cycle between units and order them to either move or attack. Highlighting and selecting a unit allows you take direct control, which is really the only satisfying way to play. Turrets, walking CLAW tanks and infantry units can all be controlled, and without taking the reins you’ll often find yourself watching them run around get slaughtered.
Perhaps I missed the point of these asides and my complaint is entirely preferential, but to me they felt completely out of kilter with the solo campaign, hamstringing the otherwise impeccable pacing. The majority are skippable, but if you miss them out the repercussions can damage the game’s outcome. If there was a little more depth to the RTS component, or even a little more relevance to the plot, they might not feel so bolted-on. Strike Force missions aside though, Black Ops 2’s campaign is a masterclass of action gameplay, and the narrative is genuinely affecting even if you do occasionally catch yourself cheering for the bad guy.
MULTIPLAYER: For many, this is where it’s at in any Call of Duty title. While the changes made by Treyarch to this mode are less severe than those made to the campaign, they will undoubtedly affect more players.
The biggest change, and perhaps the best, is the introduction of the Pick 10 method, a new Create-a-Class system that allows you to mix and match any ten perks, weapon attachments or grenades. For example, you might find you never use that secondary weapon or concussion grenade; well you can now swap them out for an extra attachment or perk instead. The result is the most malleable class creator CoD has ever seen, allowing for far more freedom and control than you’re used to. Also, you now unlock attachments by levelling your weapon, not your avatar, which makes so much more sense.
Killstreaks are gone (ouch), replaced by Scorestreaks (yay!). While such sacrilege won’t please stalwarts – at least initially – the change reflects Treyarch’s focus on more team and objective-based online modes. No longer is the emphasis on kills alone, no longer are you indirectly encouraged to obsess over your kill/death spread. Now you’ll earn streaks and care packages faster for completing objectives such as capturing the target location in a game of Hardpoint (an excellent new mode that is basically CoD’s version of Halo’s Crazy King with its moving hill). There’s a strange sense of freedom inherent in the shift of emphasis, and for the first time Call of Duty is more welcoming for newcomers whose lack of lethality would usually leave them languishing at the bottom of the leaderboard.
Added to this, League Play is a great way to hone your skills – perhaps even more than the improved Combat Training mode – as it pits you against players in your own skill bracket. Brilliantly, you can upload league games directly to YouTube, and even livestream matches across all the modes to “CoD-cast” your excellence. Additionally to Hardpoint, other new games switch up the action, like Sticks and Stones, that arms everyone with crossbows, knives and the rather awesome throwing axes. It’s indicative of Treyarch’s focus on fun and accessibility alongside serious competition.
This is further highlighted by the heavily-tweaked Zombies mode. A new focus on exploration and endurance adds depth as you scavenge each area for items to combine into defences against the undead hordes; though don’t expect any signposting. The fun of Zombies comes from frantic experimentation while your mates cover your puny rump, from messing around and seeing what works and what gets you killed. As a survival exercise TranZit works wonderfully well. All you have to do is stay alive each round until the horn Honks, at which point it’s a frantic race back to the bus before the creepy robot driver buggers off to the next zone without you. Miss the bus and you’re stranded until it comes around again, by which time you’ll likely be dead.
The constant Scooby-Doo-like murmurings of your player characters adds a further layer of tongue-in-cheek fun to Zombies; as does Grief mode, in which you can stun or otherwise harass other players as they try to survive against the undead. More than ever, Zombies feels like its own game this time around, and cements itself as an integral part of the Black Ops experience.
LONGEVITY: The campaign is one of the franchise’s longest, but you’ll still likely be done inside of 7 hours. However, this time it’s much more replayable, the narrative choices inviting you back to see what you missed. As always with Call of Duty though, the campaign is only a fraction of the package. The immense multiplayer element, from the League Play and wealth of competitive modes to the now-deeper Zombies, means there are weeks, if not months, of play in Black Ops 2.
VERDICT: Saying that a Call of Duty title is a contender for Shooter of the Year is almost clichéd but the truth is that Treyarch have taken a series that even staunch fans can’t fully deny was beginning to feel stale and rolled the dice – and not just with the multiplayer mode. Where Modern Warfare’s campaigns have become increasingly throwaway from game to game, Black Ops 2’s shapeable narrative changes the game and is hopefully portentous of the franchise’s future.
This year has seen some great shooters in Halo 4, Borderlands 2, Spec Ops: The Line and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, and to say that Black Ops 2 surpasses them all would simply be untrue – but only just. Despite its quality, Treyarch’s campaign falls slightly short of Halo 4’s sandbox brilliance, and can’t match Spec Ops: The Line’s harrowing narrative.
The multiplayer, on the other hand, remains peerless. Huge, deep, streamlined and varied, it raises the bar yet further for online shooters – especially with the new focus on eSports and CoD-casting. 343 Industries may run a very close second this year, but Call of Duty is still the boss on the battlefield.