Call of Duty has become the ultimate "no-win" situation for reviewers. What once may have been the biggest job of the game critic's year is now an annual exercise in being caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. Love it or hate it, the outcome is never going to be pretty.
Ever since the intense backlash against Call of Duty last year, those who commit the crime of enjoying the series are subject to bitter value judgments and outrage, while those who dislike it are all too familiar with the army of COD fans who eviscerate any fools daring to reprimand their shooter of choice.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II seeks to change many things. It adds a dash of sci-fi, a greatly expanded campaign, and all manner of fresh gadgets. It hopes to be a reinvention of the franchise that hardcore gamers have clamored for. There is one thing, however, that it cannot alter ...
... The fact we're all screwed no matter what we think of it.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Call of Duty: Black Ops II follows on from 2010's Cold War misadventure, this time making a dramatic leap forward to the year 2025 and giving the series its first taste of post-modern warfare. The near-future setting gives Black Ops II a lot more creative freedom, while still tying it to familiar scenarios. While there are no jetpacks or excursions to the Moon, there are attack drones, wrist-mounted grenades, and cloaking devices. Oh, and electric knuckle-dusters.
The solo campaign is where these changes are most readily felt, and it's here that Treyarch has truly stepped out from under Infinity Ward's shadow to craft a COD that's all its own. BOII's story takes place over two time periods, revolving around the search for a charismatic and dangerous enemy, the messianic Raul Menendez. In flashbacks to the 1980s, players follow Alex Mason and Frank Woods as they pursue the villain across war-torn lands and learn of his motivations. In 2025, we play Alex's son David, as his team attempts to stop Menendez's plans to cripple the United States.
Though starting haphazardly and doing little to make itself digestible, Black Ops II's story eventually calms down and settles into a genuinely enthralling tale of revenge (and an admiral who has a fascination with the word "cocksucker.") In Menendez, Treyarch has crafted a charismatic nemesis who remains difficult to dislike even in the face of his atrocities, while his plot to sow chaos across the world is gradually revealed with a fantastic sense of pacing and drama. Location variety is also a big part of the campaign, as players go from poverty-stricken countries to opulent cruise ships and urban cities, in a world more colorful and interesting than those of normal brown, dreary military shooters.
While combat is still quite linear, the corridors and arenas have been expanded and come across as infinitely more energetic. Fighting doesn't simply consist of hiding behind crates and popping off enemies in the distance, nor is it a case of running from checkpoint to checkpoint. Enemy soldiers can flood in from any direction, on large fields of battle that will eventually start tossing up robotic CLAW units, armored Quad drones, and mercenaries in cloaking suits. During the course of the game, players may also access optional rooms with unique toys inside, such as their own cloaking suits, or animal traps. Personal loadouts can be created prior to each mission, giving one plenty of stuff to play with -- and that's before vehicular sections, horseback combat, and remote-controlled air missiles come into play.
During each mission, player actions can have an effect on the story, determining when certain characters live or die, and even leading to alternate endings. In one mission, for instance, you're driving with your partner while enemies are in hot pursuit. At a certain point, you speed under a burst gas pipe that's spewing flame -- whether or not you avoid the flame determines what happens to your partner's face, and whether he spends the rest of the game disfigured. That's just one small example, with more dramatic and spoiler-flavored choices available throughout the game.
As well as story levels, players can also take on optional Strikeforce missions revolving around a military group and its attempts to overthrow the Asian continent. Actions taken in Strikeforce can affect the Cold War between America and China, and determine whether or not the two nations with be allies or enemies. Choosing not to do them, or failing them entirely, can have a negative impact on the narrative, but failure does not equal death. There are no checkpoints in Strikeforce -- if you can't meet the objective, the game will continue and the results will be logged.
Strikeforce is a very different beast from story missions, giving players command of a battlefield made up of multiple units, which can be ordered into position from above and directly controlled. Objectives range from attack and defense to assassination or rescue, and players can treat the mission like a real-time strategy game, a straight FPS challenge, or a mixture of both. As well as regular infantry, here players directly control CLAWs, Drones, and other machinery, hopping from unit to unit to fight where the action is fiercest. The action certainly does get fierce, with enemies pouring in aggressively and victory often coming right down the wire as forces close in and threaten to destroy key objectives or repel your units without mercy. It's a hectic experience, but a thrilling one all the same.
Strikeforce is fantastic, and my only complaint here is that there aren't many Strikeforce missions to complete. They certainly contribute to making Black Ops II's campaign one of the lengthiest and deepest in the series (and really, the whole military FPS genre at this stage), but I really would have loved more of it.
One criticism of the campaign overall is the weirdly laggy loadout screen. For some reason, browsing new weapons, skins, and perks for the solo missions are excruciatingly slow at random points, with item selection remaining smooth for a few moments before taking a large number of seconds (and multiple attempts) for the game to recognize your commands. The actual game itself runs perfectly smooth, but it got to the point where I was feeling discouraged from altering the preselected loadouts due to the hassle involved.
That said, I'm fully confident that this is the very best Call of Duty solo experience on offer, and while many fans will write off the campaign and look solely to the multiplayer, I'd posit that doing so shall be a major disservice to all parties involved -- both player and developer alike. As well as crafting a genuinely intriguing story, Black Ops II provides elegantly paced action and the kind of sheer enthusiasm that has been missing from so many soulless shooting games of late. At its core, it provides the kind of COD action that will be instantly familiar, with a new injection of vitality that permeates the entire affair.
Similar efforts have been made with Treyarch's own unique contribution to the series, Call of Duty Zombies. This mode has been given a significant boost, with a campaign-like game more akin to Left 4 Dead. In Zombies' main mode, Tranzit, players build power sources and open doors to access an automated tour bus that takes them from location to location, eventually leading to an underground base and beyond. This attempt at a story mode is certainly interesting, and offers something that feels more dynamic, but I have to say I'm not overly fond of it.
The largest problem is that weapons and ammo are severely limited. There are some areas of the Tranzit run that are completely bereft of weapons to buy, even if you're swimming in currency points that could be spent on crucial supplies. It's quite possible to get stuck in a dead end, as you find yourself out of bullets and trapped in a basement with no way to fight back. The zombies, as well as being incredibly durable to bullets from the start, take multiple melee attempts to put down, and the player feels helpless more often than not -- not in a fun, survival horror way. More of an annoying, time-wasting way.
It's a shame that Tranzit is so disappointing, because I really appreciate what it tries to do, and I love the premise of a bus that trundles relentlessly through the wasteland, beset on all sides by the undead horde. It sometimes threatens to entertain, especially if you get a good team and happen to be lucky with Max Ammo item drops, but I fear this particular spin on Zombies is more meanly oppressive than gratifying.
Fortunately, this attempted campaign is not the only slice of zombie action on offer. Traditional survival modes are readily available, as are competitive "Grief" matches that have two teams compete to see who will be the last side standing. Both of these modes are far less frustrating, and prove themselves better able to give players the kind of undead-slaughtering joy they require. Grief's four vs. four dynamic is exactly the kind of shot in the arm Zombies needs, making the action more hectic than before, but nowhere near as overwhelming as Tranzit. The whole idea of having to choose between screwing over your opponents or working together to hold off the common enemy is a very nice touch, too.
Finally, we have ourselves the competitive multiplayer, which I do have to confess is not quite as dramatic a change of pace as the campaign, and I must warn potential players that they will not get the fresh air they were hoping for if the online offerings are all they desire. This is not to say that the experience is identical to the last game -- there's a ton of new weapons, new maps, and overall new content to explore -- but the foundation is far more readily familiar than that found in solo play.
All the obligatory game types are in place, with the expected Deathmatch, Domination, Kill Confirmed modes and more on offer. The biggest changes come as players level up and gain access to the theoretical near-future weaponry and attachments on offer. From sights that highlight your targets to scorestreak bonuses that include personal attack drones and lightning blasts, the additions are subtle overall but do give the game a different feel to Modern Warfare or the last Black Ops release.
Class creation is more customizable, as players have an expanded pool of perks, attachments, weapons and wildcards to combine. Perks themselves have taken a backseat to provide a greater focus on the guns and technological toys, which I feel is a pleasant move forward. Weapon attachments are definitely where the fun is, as players can make use of the new "Pick 10" system to mix any number of extra gadgets in their arsenal and essentially build their own weapons. If you want a suppressed target-finding assault rifle with a laser sight, you can have that. It certainly takes some work, and there's no denying that newcomers will be creamed by the experts who already have superior firepower, but the effort is worth it. Just give the pre-made starter classes a spin and you'll see what I mean.
Praises aside, I must confess that I'm somewhat "over" the core Call of Duty multiplayer experience at last. The bells and whistles are more than welcome, but this is Activision's sixth time at the rodeo since COD4 changed the market, and I'm ready for something more dramatic than this. That's not to say what Black Ops II does is bad -- it's not at all. In fact, Call of Duty still provides one of the very best online FPS products available. However, for all its new clothes, I have grown tired, and stand ready for something to truly disrupt the market in the same way Call of Duty 4 did. I have had fun with BOII's online mode, but it's no longer the kind of fun I see myself obsessively enjoying months from now, as I have had with previous installments.
It should also be noted that, five years into the series, the game's engine really can't do anything to hide its age anymore. Black Ops II is not an ugly game, but its textures and effects just aren't up to par with other major blockbusters, especially in a release period that's just given the world Halo 4. This is made up for considerably with a great art direction, especially since so much of the drabness of other military shooters has been replaced with all sorts of lush jungles and smooth, bright, futuristic compounds, and Treyarch has upped the scale for some of its huge battles against whole cadres of opponents. Nevertheless, I feel this is the last time a COD game can get away with simply modifying IW 3.0. It's time to replace those innards.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II isn't a game to be bought on the strength of one mode. This is, in essence, three games in one, and those who are playing for at least two of them are the ones who will ultimately get the most of out of it. If you're just in it for multiplayer or Zombies, you're likely to leave unfulfilled, while the campaign is brilliant but perhaps not quite worth the price of entry on its own. Taken as a whole product, this is a robust and varied game that suffers mostly due to market saturation and growing exhaustion with military FPS releases.
This is an exhaustion Treyarch was clearly sensitive to, and it's worked its ass off to counter it. It does not succeed completely, but it makes impressive strides with its effort. Black Ops II is not quite a "fresh new take" on the franchise, and it's not going to shake up the genre in some revolutionary manner. However, it brings back a sense of vigor to the world of military shooters, and it's hard not to find that spirit infectious. As you're firing wrist-mounted grenades, shooting enemies through walls with heat-tracing penetrative weaponry, and making robots cut down entire squads, it's difficult to feel the fatigue that recent years have inspired. Released a year or two ago, this would have turned a lot of heads. In today's light, it's still an excellent shooter in many regards, but those who choose not to dive in can't really be blamed anymore.
Love it or hate it, Call of Duty inspires strong emotions from those entrenched in the gamer community, and people on either side of the fence are regularly at odds with one another. It's seen as a mark of shame by many to love the series these days, and while the detractors may be looking forward to seeing their favorite target of hate critically decimated, I'm afraid that, once more, I cannot be the hitman you're after. I had a blast with Black Ops II, and I'm not sorry for that.
It's a great game from a studio that's done everything it can with the tools at its disposal to reinvigorate Call of Duty, even if it doesn't refashion the series completely. You won't appreciate that just by playing its online mode, and you will be disappointed if you're wanting the property to be turned inside out and spun on its head. Those that simply love to play military first-person shooters, and were looking for something that finds what life is left in the genre, however, should find themselves perfectly catered to.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II finds that life and holds onto it for all it's worth. Love it or hate it, you have to at least respect it.
THE VERDICT - Call of Duty: Black Ops II
Reviewed by Jim Sterling