War-themed shooters have been around for a while now, but none have ever reached the same level of popularity as Activision’s Call of Duty franchise. Breaking sales records on a regular basis, it happens to be the world’s most beloved video game series at this moment in time, something which likely won’t change anytime soon. After all, years go by and the annual iterations keep coming, with outstanding profit margins flowing into the publishing giant’s ever expanding bank account. The proof is in the pudding, and the public has spoken, which means that those who disagree can look forward to more arguments.
This fall, Call of Duty: Black Ops II – the sequel to Treyarch’s hit 2010 release – is the most talked-about interactive experience out there. Countless friends lists are full of people playing competitive multiplayer with their chums, and the game’s forums are lighting up faster than blinking Christmas lights. Of course, the fact is that we already know that this follow-up is a surefire hit, but the question remains as to how it is quality-wise, as folks want to know whether this is the best Call of Duty experience thus far. The answer to that question will vary from person to person, though it’s tough to deny that what’s presented here is a high quality offering.
As is expected from the land of sequels, Treyarch’s latest lead shooter continues the time jumping storyline that its predecessor made famous. The showcased action is split between the past and the future, featuring fictional conflicts from both the 1980s and the drone filled year of 2025. The good news is that, despite its narrative time travelling, Black Ops 2 never feels absurd. Its dramatic, action-packed and intrigue filled campaign is quite easy to follow, although certain elements could have been detailed further. Still, that downside doesn’t detract from what is an interesting piece of war-filled fiction, which once again tells the tale of soldiers Mason and Woods, albeit with a twist.
Considering the time difference between the missions featured within the original Call of Duty: Black Ops and the futuristic conflicts that its successor boasts, it’s no surprise that the two above-mentioned American heroes aren’t playable during the 2025 era. Instead, gamers take on the role of David Mason, the grown up son of former protagonist Alex Mason. Having followed in his father’s footsteps, he’s become a badass soldier with a high ranking, and finds himself in the middle of a terrorism plot that began when he was only a boy.
Without going into much detail, it’s important to mention the gist of the aforementioned plot. You see, a popular political activist named Raul Menendez has emerged as the epitome of the word villain. Willing to put years of devotion towards one specific and incredibly harmful plan, the maniac never seems to be in much of a rush. However, the same isn’t true of David Mason and his pals, who receive intel from wheelchair bound Woods, who has been residing at a hospital dedicated to veterans. His flashbacks help flesh out the storyline by sending players back to the days of hair metal.
Unsurprisingly, not much has changed on the gameplay side of things, apart from the inclusion of controllable drones and narrative-altering moral choices, which add extra replay value. Generally speaking, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 plays much like its peers, with fast-paced and action-packed gunfights. Expectedly, a plethora of weapons – both modern and futuristic – are available for use, with the same being true of vehicles. In fact, there’s one mission where the characters travel on horseback, though the fact that they use rocket launchers while riding on top of the galloping animals lessens the title’s immersion. Then again, it is Call of Duty, meaning that you shouldn’t go in expecting an incredibly realistic experience.
The interactive elements described above work well, but the brand new Strike Force missions aren’t as impressive. Simply put, their real-time-strategy meets first-person shooting gameplay is problematic, despite the fact that a helpful tutorial is offered. What’s frustrating about that specific set of several side levels lies in their controls. There are quite a few soldiers, drones and turrets at one’s disposal, but the ordering options are limited. Using the map is a pain, though ordering allies while on the ground is a bit easier, as long as you’re fine with doing a group assignment.
Longtime fans of the franchise will note that the Strike Force mini-campaign is something that is both new and unique. We’ve never had the chance to play Call of Duty with real-time strategy mechanics before, and that was for the better. Although the missions are OK, they’re more frustrating than enjoyable. The above-mentioned issue is the main problem to be found, but there are others. First off, the debut conflict is overly difficult, because it spawns so many enemies that victory ends up requiring a lot of luck. Then, there’s the major glitch I experienced, where I was unable to plant a necessary EMP and could not finish the final mission despite more than one try. Thankfully, it worked when I went through the level select option.
Although Treyarch put a lot of work into creating an interesting, immersive and entertaining campaign for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, it’s well-known that the series’ most popular feature is its multiplayer component. It’s obvious that the developers were well aware of that, because they’ve kept with tradition by delivering a polished and thoroughly entertaining competitive arena, which boasts a plethora of modes. There’s something for everyone, and the action is always turned up to eleven, which is part of the reason why the player versus player content is so addictive. However, connection issues tend to occasionally occur.
Looking at the list of available game modes, one will find lots to like. The ever-important deathmatch modes have returned, along with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3‘s great Kill Confirmed scenario, wherein teams must collect the dog tags of slain foes in order to receive credit for their kills. Those game types are complemented by returning favourites like domination and sabotage, in addition to party options that cycle available weapons and force players to use different tactics.
Other than the maps, which are quite impressive this time around despite some spawn location issues, one of the most notable changes relates to the class creation menu. You see, while Black Ops 2 does force its users to use tokens to purchase unlocked items, the creation kit is limited by a ten asset rule. You can create the greatest character type known to man, but will have to remove perks, weapons or add-ons if you’ve equipped more than ten things. That new system works well, and helps to keep players in line, but temptation is available in spades, because you can now use special perks to equip extra abilities.
Last, but not least, is the fact that those who love to share their kill streaks can now broadcast their matches. Like the Halo series before it, Activision’s number one cash cow saves videos in its theatre menu, which can then be shared. Of course, that isn’t something that most users will worry about, but those who love to shoutcast will be happy, especially since the editing suite has been improved.
Now that two of the main game types have been discussed, it’s time to talk about the third. That would be Zombies – a mode that Treyarch has turned into a phenomenon. Even though I’ve never been a big fan of the mode, partially due to its hit detection, which has always felt off, I was impressed by the quality of the brand new environments. Players can try to survive against waves of creatures in a burning town, within the vicinity of a fifties style bus, and out at a secluded farm. Going further, there’s one other unlockable scenario, but you’ll have to discover it for yourselves. I’m not interested in spoiling anything, but I can say that the new and improved mode is better than before, which will be music to the ears of its devoted fan base.
Visually speaking, the brain-eating arcade mode has also improved, much like the campaign’s character models have. However, with that being said, the series’ engine is starting to show its age. Some of the core environments look a bit dated, and the same is true of the multiplayer. Of course, dated doesn’t mean bad, and we’re only talking about graphics here. Granted, what’s presented here still looks quite good, although it’s not up to par with some of the industry’s best. That latter statement isn’t true of the game’s sound effects, however, because they’re as boisterous and effective as usual. After all, we’re talking about an action-packed series that is full of over-the-top content.
We’ve come to the end, where it must be said that Call of Duty: Black Ops II is not only a good game, but a very good game. Although it does have its issues, there’s a lot to like here, meaning that the series’ gigantic fan base will have lots to enjoy for the next year or more. Let’s just hope that Treyarch will decide to leave real-time strategy gameplay out of its next Call of Duty project.
This review is based on a PS3 copy of the game that was provided to us.