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Call of Duty: Black Ops II Review

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On 12/11/2012 at 01:00 PM by Julian Titus , Jon Lewis

War has changed. Or has it?

Even if you're worn out with modern military shooters, Black Ops 2 does enough interesting things with the formula to make it worthy of checking out.

With Call of Duty coming out every November like clockwork and a slew of shooters jumping on that “modern warfare” bandwagon it can be easy to succumb to shooter fatigue. That doesn’t mean I can borrow a page from classic gaming history and turn in a review that reads “just another shooting game” though; each Call of Duty game brings something to the table that’s worth talking about. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 moves the franchise forward in some ambitious ways, but it’s held back by the very structure the series is known for.

Let’s get things out of the way right off the bat: Black Ops 2 features the same great multiplayer that the series is known for. By this point in the console cycle you’ve most likely already hitched your cart up to this horse, or some other shooter franchise. If it’s the former you know what to expect, and if it’s the latter there isn’t anything here that’s going to sway you over to the COD camp. I’m not a big multiplayer guy, and when I do jump into the realm of playing with “other people” I’m going to gravitate towards more forgiving games like Halo. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 continues that steady drip of reward and achievements that has become the norm since Call of Duty 4, so if those elements appeal to you and you don’t mind climbing that ladder once again, have at it. That’s not why Black Ops 2 interests me, and I want to be up front about that. 

What interests me about Black Ops 2 is the focused narrative and bold new additions to the traditional COD formula. For a long time, Treyarch was considered the “B” team for the Call of Duty franchise, keeping the seat warm while Infinity Ward cooked up the next major release. Things have started to shift, however, and Black Ops 2 cements—at least in my mind—Treyarch’s position as a studio to pay close attention to.

Black Ops 2 tells a split narrative, switching between the near future (2025) and a series of flashbacks as Woods from the first Black Ops tells the story of how he and Alex Mason went on a hunt for a man named Raul Menendez. It’s an interesting perspective change, showing the rise to power of Menendez in the 80's and his attempt to put all of his well laid plans into action in 2025 as he takes aim at Alex Mason’s son, David. Instead of the rapid shifting between multiple characters through various military branches seen in the Modern Warfare series, Black Ops 2 keeps things tight, instead focusing on just a few players. This gives Treyarch room to give these characters weight and motivation, simultaneously showing the shades of grey in military life as well as the brutal realities of war.

Naturally, between these story bits you’re going to shoot a lot of dudes in a plethora of ways. You’ll shoot dudes from behind cover, from horseback, from helicopter, and more. Call of Duty has refined the feel of first person military action, with the same highs and lows. Few can stand up to the frenetic set pieces of the COD series, and as long as you’re pushing forward and taking out the enemy it can be an impressive spectacle.

Once you die a few times and see those same set pieces unfold the same way each time, or step too far out of the tightly scripted path Treyarch has laid out for you, the magic wears off. At times, Black Ops 2 feels like an amusement park ride that will carry me through to the end with little need for interaction from me as the player. As long as I stay on the path and do things the way I’m expected to, the game’s a blast, but too often I’d see a failure screen because I didn’t follow the guy I was supposed to follow closely enough, or heaven forbid I moved to the left when I was supposed to move to the right.

This tight scripting—always a double-edged sword for the series—starts to detract from one of the coolest new elements to the game. Black Ops 2 has a branching storyline that go in some wildly different directions based on your actions and performance in the missions. These decisions aren’t always as binary or clear as “Press X to kill, or press A to capture”, and that was a refreshing thing to see. Oh, there are some of those choices to be made, but many of the places where the game splits may be based on things such as getting enough intel in a mission, or chasing down a target before he can get away with the precious cargo you’ve been tasked to acquire. It’s amazing to see a game that not only allows for you to mess up sometimes, but has entire dialogue and cutscenes ready to take you into a different direction.

The problem with this is of course the fact that Call of Duty has spent so many games teaching players to stay on the path and move forward that it can be totally unclear when you’re given more freedom to do things your own way. My reaction to the first “failure” in a mission was an incredulous “I didn’t know that was an option!” It’s a unique way of getting the story across, and I’m curious to go back and explore some of the paths I didn’t see. It’s just a shame that people are likely to not realize this is in the game until after the fact.

Tying into the branching story paths are the new Strikeforce missions. These are entirely optional missions that can be tackled for a limited amount of time between story sorties, and are best enjoyed right away. Just like the main missions, your success or failure in Strikeforce can have repercussions in the overall story. I was even able to undertake a Strikeforce op to try and rectify one of my screw ups in the core story, and it would be interesting to see how things would have played out had I failed a second time.

The way Strikeforce ties into the narrative is great. The actual Strikeforce missions, on the other hand, could use some work. These missions are basically played in the standard first person style with some light real time strategy elements bolted onto the existing framework. At any time during the mission, you can go into an overhead command view to see the entire battlefield. From here, you can issue orders or take control of a specific unit.

That’s how it works in theory, anyway. Strikeforce seems like a half-baked idea that could have used more time in the oven, sure to be nice and toasty brown in time for Black Ops 3. Units seem to stand still until ordered, but that’s easier said than done. I ended up just selecting “move all” towards the objective, hoping for the best as I controlled a unit directly. Strikeforce gets points for taking place entirely in 2025 with all the cool new weapons and gadgets that Treyarch cooked up for the future era. As it stands, Strikeforce is a quasi-frustrating mode that would be worth skipping if it wasn’t for the relation to the story.

I keep coming back to Black Ops 2 in my thoughts even though the campaign is over. I really think that Treyarch is on the right track for the series, infusing some bold narrative choices into a series that would sell millions of copies with a slapped together, phoned in single player mode. Even though some of the best bits are hamstrung thanks to the aging Call of Duty engine—and aging consoles—the more personal story set against an outrageous terrorist attack really worked for me. Treyarch knows when to dial things back a bit, allowing those crazy, action-packed missions to breathe. I can only hope that they continue in this direction, and I’m now anxiously awaiting what they do with Call of Duty when new hardware finally comes out.

Black Ops 2 is much more than just another shooting game. It represents the “B” Call of Duty team stepping up and trying something new with the series. While it stumbles in places, I’m far more interested to see what happens in 2025 with Treyarch’s next game than what comes out of Call of Duty a year from now. The branching story objectives are a welcome addition to the series, but probably need another game—and possibly another generation of consoles—to really move the franchise forward.

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:

All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.

These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.

This is our middle-of-the-road ranking. Titles that receive three stars may not make a strong impression on the reviewer in either direction. These games may have some faults and some strong points but they average out to be a modest title that is at least worthy of rental for most.

Games that are awarded two stars are below average titles. Good ideas may be present, but execution is poor and many issues hinder the experience.

Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.

A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.

Side By Side - The Wii U Difference

Nintendo finally gets a fully realized version of Call of Duty with Black Ops 2. Thankfully, everything that Julian has mentioned in his review is in the Wii U version, with a few added bonuses. The ability to play the game exclusively on the Wii U GamePad is one of the highlight features. There are plenty of control configurations to match your play preferences. One can use the GamePad, Wii U Pro Controller, and even the Wii Remote and Nunchuck to play the game. Each works pretty well, though Call of Duty vets might have a hard time adjusting to the re-worked control scheme. Since the right analog stick is above the buttons, they optimize the controls to work with that layout. After playing for a few minutes, you can definitely get used to the controls, though things like drop-shotting can be pretty uncomfortable (depending on your preferred control scheme). The Wii Remote and Nunchuk controls work well after some practice, and if one takes the time to customize their settings it’s possible to mow down foes with great accuracy.

Online play is also largely the same on Wii U. Every option is intact, from Team Death Match and Domination to the party games like Gun Game and One in the Chamber. The connection works as smoothly as it has (for me anyway) on PS3 and Xbox 360, but there is one major flaw here – and that is with the online community. I have never seen player numbers beyond 700, which is baffling with a game like Call of Duty. This means something even worse for the game, as there are a ton of game modes that are virtually unplayable because there is nobody playing them. For example, I wanted to try out Gun Game, one of my favorite modes from the original but couldn’t because there were no players in the room. The only game types with some amount of population were Domination, Kill Confirmed and of course, Team Death Match. Naturally, this mostly has to do with Wii U being a new console, but players might be turned off by the low population and never return to this console for their online experience which otherwise works pretty well.

On a technical level, the game preforms almost equally to its PS3 and Xbox 360 counterparts. The frame rate in campaign is a few frames slower, but nothing too noticeable. My experience was pretty standard affair, with exception to a major bug I found in the campaign. This bug occurred after I loaded up a save in the middle of a mission, and upon completing the mission, the whole entire console locked up. This happened multiple times and required me to unplug my system to fix it. To make matters worse, I had to restart the ENTIRE campaign to fix the issue, and ultimately it had a negative effect on my time with the campaign, which otherwise, is pretty great.

Overall, if you like diversity with control types, and a smaller online community, then Black Ops 2 on Wii U is a safe bet, but otherwise, you have probably already made up your mind about your system of choice when it comes to Call of Duty.



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