Every year Activision unleashes a shooter with the Call of Duty moniker attached, and every year we write the same stories about how it sold more than anything else to date. We also see plenty of discussion about how the series never changes. Well, with Black Ops 2, Treyarch is aiming to change that mentality. This year, when gamers talk about Call of Duty, you will likely hear the same discussion about its multiplayer domination, but you will also hear plenty of people talking about how different, and interesting the campaign is. Black Ops 2 is a step in the right direction for a franchise that feels the same year-in and year-out.
Choice. It is something that has become a sort of focal point for gaming this year. Making moral choices part of your experience is definitely something at which games can excel. Black Ops 2 does this to an extent. You will have several instances during the campaign where that choice is obvious. Tap one of two buttons to kill or capture someone. This comes with consequence, but other branching points are not so obvious. For example, some sequences have you chasing certain people. Catch them and the outcome of the plot changes, let them go and they live to fight another day. These are littered all around the campaign, and most of the time, they aren’t pointed out.
The core campaign runs you through a gamut of missions, and manages to stick around longer than past entries. You can rummage through it in about 7-8 hours depending on difficulty and other factors. One of these is the new Strike Force mission type. Talk about bringing the action to a halt though. The first Strike Force mission pops up relatively early in the campaign. These are objective-based missions where you can pan out to an eagle-eye view of the battlefield and command troops. The problem is that it is broken. Troops often ignore your orders, and the easiest course of action is to simply take control of the troops manually, and mop up the enemies on your own.
More of these missions crop up as you progress, and they are optional, but only available for a certain set of campaign missions. After that they become unavailable. I found myself not even bothering as they are mostly frustrating thanks to the broken AI.
The rest of the campaign is where the single player mode shines. Bringing in the same guy who wrote the new Batman films definitely shows. This is a story more about the characters, and less about the overall conflict. Almost so much so that it becomes distracting. I lost track of what was really going on because I was so invested in each of the stories. I remember these characters, who they were and why they are fighting. This is something I can honestly say I have never encountered in a CoD game. There is also a rewind feature that lets you go back and make different decisions, but be aware it erases your previous progress so seeing all the outcomes could take some serious commitment.
This is still Call of Duty though. You will still pull the left trigger to aim down the sights, while firing with the right trigger. Waves of enemies will still crowd you until you move forward. The fundamentals are the same, but it does make some strides to keep it interesting. The levels have a more open feel in most cases, giving you a bigger sense of being on a battlefield. There are also vehicles and even a horse segment that work pretty well. The game is constantly throwing intense explosions and events at you much like a summer popcorn flick. This is Call of Duty, but it also feels more grounded thanks to the excellent writing.
You can now complete challenges and change loadouts before each mission. This gives you different weapons, and even perks to pick before taking on missions. If you want to ignore it, it always sets you with the recommended loadout. There truly is a lot of customization in how you tackle situations, and bouncing back and forth in the campaign between future warfare, and the events of the past helps keep it constantly interesting. You will still die from random sniper fire, or fail a stealth mission without warning, but these rarely caused me to want to put the controller down.
In addition to campaign, Zombies is now its very own mode. This time around you are given a vague beginning and from here need to explore to open up the world. You can use a bus to move between areas, and you still earn money to unlock weapons, ammo and of course new areas. It is still ridiculous and over the top, but also loads of fun. There is a new competitive mode that allows you to form two teams, and see who can last the longest. The catch is that you can toss meat at your opponents, or stun them while they try to heal. There is a reason it is called Grief mode, but you can’t directly hurt them.
Zombies feels nicely packed away in its own campaign, and should satiate the people who love it, but I am still disappointed that Spec Ops is not included. This was by far my favorite cooperative mode from the CoD series.
Now we all know that the big selling point of any CoD game is the multiplayer. Treyarch has not created a game you won’t recognize, but they have made some much-needed tweaks, making this easily the best online CoD game in years. For starters, they have changed the loadout system to what they are dubbing “Pick 10.” This bold direction basically lets players design their loadouts how they see fit. Want an extra perk? Not a problem. Want to carry more types of grenades? Sure thing, but it all comes at a cost.
The system works using ten designated points at the outset. Everything you assign counts as a point. What this means is that you can basically design any type of loadout you want. Want to carry three primary weapons and an axe? You can do that, but you will lose some of your perks in the process. It makes multiplayer fun to experiment with. It is also worth noting that perks now only affect your character, not your weapon. This is left up to attachments. This allows you to spend more focus on your play style.
Kill streaks have also been replaced by score streaks. This was implemented to encourage players to focus more on objectives, and less on killing. You can tell that the mentality has yet to take effect as most players still zoom around the map killing as many as they can. Hopefully this will work itself out once players get used to the new system.
Most of the standard modes make a return along with a couple new ones to keep it fresh. Hardpoint focuses on capturing random points on the map. You can also now have multiple teams battling it out which makes the standard modes feel more interesting. Treyarch has also tossed in the ability to stream certain matches over YouTube, with some specific restrictions. Overall, the online portion of the game is as addictive as it has ever been, and Treyarch has done just enough to keep it fresh and get players moving on from MW3 and even the original Black Ops.
The game looks great and again runs at that slick, CoD frame rate. Characters still have a plastic look to them at times, and enemies appear from imaginary spawn points, but this is one fine looking game. The sound and voice work though are outstanding. Using real actors voices and likeness really add to the experience. Seeing Sam Worthington reprise his role is great, and Michael Keaton takes over for Ed Harris as Hudson. We all need more Keaton, but at the expense of losing Ed Harris the switch is questionable.
Black Ops 2 is an excellent game. The campaign is well written and interesting, with only minor setbacks. The Zombies mode feels fleshed out and interesting, and the online is just one of the best you will play this generation. If you like the CoD franchise, you are in for a treat. If you have been passing on the series for the past few years, this might be the game to get back in with. There are enough new and fresh ideas here to make it stand out, and there is certainly plenty of content to keep you playing. Black Ops 2 will easily be the best-selling game this year, but it will also be remembered for changing the way we look at the CoD series.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.