Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Review
While not free of issues, a gripping campaign and reasonably smooth multiplayer mark a return to form for this lucrative shooter franchise
As the Modern Warfare series has fallen from grace with the death of Infinity Ward, Treyarch, once known as being second-fiddle in their cycle of bi-yearly Call of Duty releases, have shouldered the responsibility of moving the franchise forward. Black Ops 2 isn't the huge revolution the series ultimately needs, but a well paced campaign that gives you a bit of breathing room and reasonably competent multiplayer make it a strong entry into the franchise that manages for the most part to keep stagnation at bay. The same cannot be said for the co-operative Zombie mode which is far inferior to the spec-ops levels found in the last two Modern Warfare games, especially in the face of so many quality zombie games on the PC. Despite this weak link, If you are looking for a gripping but brief single player experience and a enjoyable but somewhat creaky competitive multiplayer layout then you might want to put your hate of the mainstream aside and give Black Ops 2 some consideration.
A handful of alternate paths lend some replay value to the campaign
Since World at War, the Call of Duty series has been leaving authenticity behind in favour of tyrannical sociopathic villains and 'what if' nuclear warfare scenarios. Black Op 2 finally breaks free of any sort of pseudo-historical or marginally grounded premise, launching itself into the realm of futuristic science fiction shooters whilst keeping one foot in the ideas and structures that characterize the Call of Duty entries of the last few years. The campaign ties in to 2010's excellent Black Ops, with you playing as James Woods in the 1980s immediately following the events of the original, and switching to Alex Mason's son in the year 2025. The story flips back and forth between the two time periods, thoroughly antagonizing the impossibly fiendish and clever Menendez who has personal ties to both of the protagonists. The story is full of the usual worldwide nuclear war bravado that you would expect from a Call of Duty campaign, but the characters are interesting and well written, and the scenarios the game throws you into are often very interesting. Treyarch's vision of the future is full of believable politics, with the alliance between China and the United Stated playing a central role, although the technologies seem a bit too advanced to exist just fifteen years in the future. The game ends sooner than you might expect and doesn't wrap things up very well, but everything up to that point is well told and engaging.
For the most part you will be simply be shooting your way through the levels, but there are times when you get to make a choice. Some of these choices are obvious, with button prompts forcing you to decide between two courses of action. Other times they are more subtle, and require you to listen to what squad mates are saying. For instance, when you come across a group of terrorists throwing documents onto a fire. Your squad mate says something about grabbing Intel before it has been burned, and if you do this it changes the outcome of the mission even though it would be easy to not pay attention to what he is saying. Black Ops 2 does less hand holding than the last few Call of Duty games, and even has some levels that open up a bit allowing for some tactical freedom. While this breathing room definitely makes the campaign better, it also serves to showcase how brain dead the artificial intelligence can be. Vehicle segments abound, and you are given control of a variety of drones and cars that handle rather poorly with a mouse and keyboard. There is even one truly outrageous sequence where you ride around on horseback while firing RPG's single-handedly(literally you only use one hand) at tanks that would cause the likes of Clint Eastwood and John Marston to raise their eyebrows. These segments are still much preferable to the one-rails turret sequences that have been more common in the past.
Some say the Masons are direct descendants of the Marstons
While apart from the choice all of these elements have been present in Call of Duties past, the new 'Strike Team' missions are something totally new for the series. These combine RTS elements with multiplayer maps to create sequences in which you must control a small force of troops and drones in completing a timed mission. You can give orders to the troops in an isometric perspective and also control and swap between individual units. The ideas present here are good, but the terrible AI fails these missions, meaning it is most effective to just run through and complete the objectives through direct control rather than by using the RTS mechanics. The Strike Team missions still make for a welcome change of pace in the otherwise relentless campaign, and completing all of them served to pad my completion time for the game by around thirty minutes. It took me about six hours overall to work my way through the campaign, a bit longer than some previous entries but I was left wanting more when it ended, a testament to the high quality of the missions present especially in the final stretch.
Another addition made to the singleplayer is the ability to choose your loadout before each mission. You can select your primary and secondary weapon as well as attachments, grenade types, and perks. There are a number of cool gadgets you get to use, such as a stealth cloak that can hide you from enemies for a few seconds or a wrist-mounted grenade launcher that help make the future setting feel like more than just visual makeover. The guns themselves however are slightly less interesting; everything still fires bullets, and many weapons look and feel extremely similar. The gunplay is improved somewhat over Modern Warfare 3; enemies react more to being shot, and improved sound design helps firearms feel more powerful. Recoil is still a term foreign to the series. The gunplay is still miles behind industry leaders such as Battlefield 3 and Red Orchestra 2 in terms of visual and auditory feedback that indicates you hold something that is more than a pop-gun.
Brews and Bros nail home the more personal tone of the campaign
Once you tire of watching the sad dance of the artificial not-so-intelligent you might want to wander over to the great gaping maw of the game's competitive multiplayer. Every new game in the Call of Duty series seems to add new modes and ideas while retaining all of the old ones, and they have piled up to a massive rather bewildering array of different modes, options, menus and sub-menus. The tried but true standard multiplayer that blasted the series into the financial stratosphere is at the forefront of these modes, and it is in very good shape compared to Modern Warfare 3. The 'pick ten' system allows you to fill up to 10 slots with whatever combination of equipment and perks you so desire, with each weapon, attachment, perk and grenade taking up one slot. Fancy ditching firearms all together and running around like a fool knifing people? Yep, you can do that. The new load-out system is a great, but a few ideas, both good and bad, manage to seep in from last year's game.
While Black Ops 1 had a great system for unlocks, providing you with 'CoD Points' that you could spend on items of your choosing, MW3 decided this was too balanced and instead used a weapon level system. Not only did leveling up weapons grant you attachments, but it also gave you access to 'weapon perks' which were the worst thing to happen to the multiplayer since it was conceived. Thankfully these weapon perks are gone, but bewilderingly weapons levels remain, although they are only tied to the attachments. Apart from this the unlock system is similar to Black Ops 1, with tokens being granted upon leveling up that can be used to unlock weapons, perks, equipment or score streaks. The one good idea that MW3 had also makes its way into Black Ops 2; instead of rewarding players exclusively for stringing kills together, you are rewarded for accumulating a certain number of points before dying. This encourages playing objectives rather than just camping in a corner racking up your kill count.
Science! Now officially supported by Call of Duty
The biggest problem with last year's release was that it all but forced you to run-and-gun with claustrophobic map design and poor perk unlock progression. While SMG's lack recoil when fired from the hip and are a bit too effective at range in Black Ops 2, I was able to succeed using every weapon type and a variety of play styles. The maps aren't quite as well crafted as those of Black Ops 1, but many of them are at least good, with a mix of open areas and mazes of corridors. There is only one new game mode, Hardpoint, which is like King of the Hill where the single capture area moves every minute or so. This mode feels a bit too similar to Headquarters, but it also encourages teamwork and tactics on a level rarely seen in the franchise known for its chaotic multiplayer matches. The other addition is multi-team matches which allow for three teams of three to compete in a variety of game modes that make for some tense and frantic action. All of the old modes such as Domination, Headquarters and Kill Confirmed return, as well as the party games like gun game and stick and stones, but you can no longer place wagers on these which is greatly disappointing and makes them a bit pointless.
Combat Operations also returns, letting you play against bots, but the other main addition made to Black Ops 2's multiplayer is league play. This gives you a chance to play in ranked games that then place you in a league based on how you perform similar to the system used in Starcraft 2. All of the unlocks are available right away for this mode, and it's fun to play around with load-outs for weapons you haven't yet unlocked in the normal multiplayer modes. The competitive multiplayer loses some if its addictiveness when the constant stream of rewards stops, but the biggest thing that might prevent you from getting in to league play is the lack of people playing it. The matchmaking used for league play will only start a game when the lobby is full, and it can take a very long time for a lobby to fill up. It also ranks you based on wins rather than kill/death ratio, which means you could get placed above or below your actual skill level depending on how your team performs during placement matches.
While the multiplayer is well designed and a lot of fun, there is one serious issue that might be a deal breaker for PC gamers. Treyarch's previous games stuck to dedicated servers and a server browser, but Black Ops 2 adopts matchmaking similar to what was used in the last two Modern Warfare games. The matchmaking does put you into Treyarch-run dedicated servers, but the option to manually pick the lowest ping server to play on is sorely missed. While I was generally placed quickly in games, they were usually in servers that were not optimal, and I experienced some noticeable lag, made worse by the lag-compensation technology that tries to even the playing field for those with slower internet connections. In League Play and the co-operative zombie mode inferior peer2peer matchmaking is used, meaning host-migration screens will pull you out of the action and the host has a distinct advantage over the other players, which rather defeats the purpose of competitive league play. The spawns in multiplayer are also somewhat problematic at times; I spawned on several occasions right in front of or behind enemies, and often saw enemies spawning right on top of me. While most of the small issues with Black Ops 2's otherwise competent multiplayer can be dealt with in patches, the return of matchmaking is not welcome.
Treyarch protects against multiplayer hacks by making them unlockable attachments
If you become frustrated with fighting human opponents online, you can team up against waves of the undead in the returning Nazi Zombie mode. The basic survival mode returns and is a passable distraction for a short period of time, but it seems most of the work has gone into crafting the new Tranzit mode. Tranzit sees you and three others hopping on a bus that moves between the different survival maps, completing some basic objectives like turning on the power and finding and building upgrades for the bus. While good on paper, Tranzit mode is obtuse and rather dull, not explaining itself in the least and providing no real benefits over the normal survival mode. The different regions you travel to are all rather dull and the zombies take a good deal of damage before they go down, making them very unsatisfying to kill. While there is some fleeting fun to be had with survival mode, the zombie modes feel out of place in Black Ops 2 and fails to provide a co-op experience on par with Spec Ops in the Modern Warfare games.
While the Call of Duty series has been using the same engine for a very long time, it has seen some appreciable upgrades this time around. The game looks sharper overall, with much better shadows and crisper textures. Direct X 11 is now supported, although its impact was not readily noticeable in game. Facial animations are particularly impressive; people actually look like people in Black Ops 2, and the terrific voice acting further supports this notion. As mentioned earlier the sound design has been improved over previous games, although it is still weak compared to genre leaders. The musical score is another high point, with Trent Reznor's main theme setting the tone for the game, and excellent electronic tracks playing in the background of the futuristic missions. Black Ops 1 suffered from some pretty severe frame rate issues at launch, but the sequel runs very smoothly save a small amount of stuttering in a few indoor areas. The option to cap frame rates is welcome, as is a field of view slider even though it only goes up to 80.
The creepy Tranzit bus should always be approached with caution
The Call of Duty series desperately needs to change in order to remain relevant beyond a sales level, and Black Ops 2 marks a step in the right direction. While the campaign is the only area that has seen any significant developments, the multiplayer is well made and highly enjoyable despite the matchmaking system and associated occasional laggy game. While Black Ops 2 isn't the revolution the series ultimately needs, it is a step in the right direction that fans of the series should lap up and those who have taken a break it might want to check out.