(Xbox 360 Review) Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Developer: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Players: 1-18
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

With the release of Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II, the Call of Duty franchise has finally settled into its alternating yearly release cycle. Black Ops and Modern Warfare 3 helped to establish the pattern of what gamers can expect from each line, but it’s with Treyarch’s latest outing that the differences become more concrete. Despite the similarities in gameplay and tone, longtime fans of the series will note some considerable differences between the two, with Modern Warfare offering a more traditional experience and Black Ops following a more experimental route. Cutting a new path is fraught with danger, and although not everything worked out in Treyarch’s favor, their attempts to add some much-needed replayability to the campaign and expand the supplemental modes has laid the groundwork for what should be a much more interesting future.

Black Ops II picks up some years after the original, with many of the old crew now deceased or infirm. That doesn’t mean you’re through with Mason and company just yet though, as you will see them through a few more adventures while tracking down omniterrorist Raul Menendez. Through his group Cordis Die, Menendez has not only begun to win over many by using social media to spread his anti-capitalist message, but he has also established a large, highly trained army. The charismatic killer might be a global power in the 2020s, but in the 1980s, he was a lowly gun runner out to make a name for himself. He had found a profitable niche for himself supplying arms during the Afghan Civil War—that is, until he crossed Mason and Woods. As you ricochet through time chasing Menendez around the world, bouncing between the 1980s and 2020s, you will not only get to the heart of why Menendez wants the West to burn, but also see how the old squad from Black Ops fell apart, and how their quest was taken up by a new Mason, Alex’s son David.

To say the campaign follows a nontraditional narrative is an understatement. The second might not be as big on hallucinations and brainwashing as the first, but that doesn’t mean it won’t get downright bizarre at times. Quick question: When’s the last time you went on a running gunfight alongside former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega? Or better yet, battle alongside the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union? Me? About a week ago. Then there are the curious sequences with Secretary of Defense Petraeus, a scenario all very plausible just a month ago; I can only imagine the amount of wincing going on at Treyarch HQ over recent events. Bouncing around time can get a bit confusing, but I came to find that to be the desired result, with the game’s basic tale of revenge dressed up to give it the appearance of a barn-burning thriller, as opposed to Modern Warfare‘s approach, which was to take everything up to 10, and then go a few notches higher.

The callbacks to the original do a good job of tying the two games together, but I found the delivery to become uneven towards the end. The increase in reveals and twists and fake-outs leave more than a few answers by the wayside, and the supernatural awareness and genius of Menendez quickly has him fall into trope territory. A few of the bigger reveals are painful obvious early on, which makes the surprise of your highly trained characters all the more suspect. The story does hit some high notes, though, and is at its best when it delivers a sci-fi-themed what-if tale seeded in the Cold War era, especially when the player is called to take part in key plot points, and less so when it falls back on gimmick sequences to do any of the heavy lifting (e.g: when you play as a rampaging, shotgun- and machete-wielding Menendez who is all but impervious to bullets).

Despite its at-times rocky narrative, Black Ops II represents a major step in the evolution of the standard campaign. Scattered throughout the story are key decision scenarios that give you the option to choose whether someone lives or dies. Given that the game does not allow for manual saves, these sequences really ratchet up the tension as you are truly stuck with your choices. These highlight just how players can become more involved in the story without the plot taking a dive, and offer a way to add some replay value to the campaign because of the choices having an impact on which ending plays out. These decision points are only one of the new additions, along with custom loadouts and Strike Force missions. Custom loadouts bring a touch of multiplayer into single player by allowing you to tweak what weapons, gear, and perks you bring with you into a mission. This feature actually plays into the decision points because the game allows you to go back and start the game from a completed level to make a different call and see how it impacts the story, and it also allows you to take futuristic weapons back into the 1980s. While some might consider it cheating to go back into 1986 with a gun that can target enemies behind cover and send a charged shot straight through said cover, I consider it a well-earned reward.

Decision points also tie in to Strike Force missions. These five optional side missions take the form of a hybrid real-time strategy game, with you playing the role of a commander capable of not only controlling the units by satellite but also transplanting yourself into any of the infantry or armor and controlling them as you do throughout the story. In truth, the Strike Force missions are a pain. The friendly AI in the standard campaign missions is very competent and even more aggressive than in Modern Warfare 3, which represented a large leap forward. Your enthusiastic allies not only made the battles feel more engrossing but also kept the level sequence flowing smoothly by triggering events prior to your arrival on scene, and that same level of aggression is present in Black Ops II. However, the AI in the Strike Force missions is far less proficient, and as a result, your squadmates are little more than meat shields. While I can certainly appreciate Treyarch’s attempt to add some variety to the campaign, having to babysit squads of inept soldiers and rudimentary mechs does nothing but rip you out of the flow of the story. This is also something of a mirror of the enemy AI in the story missions, where on Normal they can at times seem to forget they’re in a war and serve as little more than target dummies. Despite their trying nature, completing the Strike Force missions does have an upside as victory not only edges you towards the best ending but also evens the odds during the story.

Being a Black Ops entry, the campaign comprises only one of the three pillars that make up the entire experience. And while Campaign might have been given a few tweaks to increase replayability, it’s the other modes, Multiplayer and Zombies, that will consume the lion’s share of your time.

Multiplayer as a whole is very similar to previous Call of Duty titles in that fast-paced action is the order of the day. The basics are supported, with online and local play available with both splitscreen and bot support. Playlists also return, allowing you to choose game types based on the broad categories of Core, Hardcore, Combat Training, and Party Games. The game types are what fans would expect, with Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Free-For-All, Demolition, Ground War, and Domination joining six other modes for a well-rounded selection. An entirely new mode is League Play. After going through five matches to gauge your aptitude, the game then places you in one of six Divisions with similarly skilled players to go through Seasons. Seasons can be played in one of three series, each with different rule sets: Moshpit, Champions, and Team Deathmatch. A weekly experience bonus is available to draw from as an incentive to play, with each victory bringing in the experience earned from the match plus some from the weekly bonus, which goes towards your overall experience level. Each victory or defeat also alters your standing on the ladder. The tradeoff for playing in League is that all weapons and gear are unlocked, so you will not earn experience from using your favorite guns or gear. The positive is that, from my experience, matchmaking was much more accurate and led to better games. That’s not enough for me to give me up on public matches, but it’s an especially nice addition for those who aren’t terribly good and are tired of being pockmarked up by the pros.

Building on this sense of competition and community is COD TV and Theater. COD TV hosts videos from Treyarch, as well as videos, screenshots, custom games, and emblems from other players that can be viewed and rated with either a like or dislike. Going by the fact that the majority of items under Most Viewed have view counts in the low double digits, this seems to be the most underutilized mode. Theater is where videos of recently played games are loaded to save and edit for uploading for others to check out. If you sign up for the now-free Elite service and finagle with account linking, you can also upload the videos to Youtube. The feature is simple but decent, with options to switch camera angles, automatically cull rated highlight clips, check out views from other players, and swap clips around on a timeline. Theater won’t replace a capture card and proper editing software, but it’s surprisingly handy with a controller and a great way for gamers on a budget to share their better moments.

I found the most significant change to Multiplayer to be to Create-a-Class. In addition to a handful of pre-set loadouts, you can now take a custom class that allows you to mix and match items to create custom loadouts that fit your style. Each loadout is limited to 10 points, and those points are split between all of your equipment: primary weapon, secondary weapon, attachments, lethal kit, tactical gear, three Perks, and three Wildcards. As before, experience is gained by completing in-match objectives, downing enemies, and accomplishing goals (e.g., surviving a shootout, taking down multiple enemies within a set period of time, taking revenge on an opponent that killed you last, etc.), which increases your rank as well as the level of the weapons used. By leveling up, you unlock new equipment as well as the Tokens that are required to make unlocked equipment accessible. Wildcards are Perk-like loadout extras that switch things up by adding a third attachment slot to weapons, allowing for two primary weapons to be equipped, looting ammo off bodies, and so on. The 10-point system allows for a great deal of customization, with everything, including Perks, both replaceable and tied to the loadout instead of the weapon. Scorestreak Rewards are the call-in weapons and attacks that were known as Killstreaks, which are now increased by completing objectives as well as downing enemies. Some of the old standbys return, such as the UAV scout, and a few have been updated, with Sentry Guns now autotargeting and controllable via remote, but a few feature some of the futuristic gear available in the 2020 levels, including the Hunter Killer attack drone and Dragonfire aerial drone. I didn’t encounter too many players who were able to save up enough points to call in some of the high-end rewards, such as the K9 Unit or Warthog, but the mid-point rewards were common, and those seemed almost too deadly. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a balance patch in the near future.

I found myself clicking with the multiplayer more so than in Black Ops or Modern Warfare 3. The maps are solid all around, though there is an annoying tendency for enemies to be able to reach spawn points and for the game to spawn you near opponents. There are also times when the game foregoes realism for fast-pace action to its detriment. I can’t count how many people I’ve seen hopping and flopping around, like in the Counter-Strike days of old, but seeing a sniper hop around and headshot people has been the topper. But these things get adjusted with time, and as with the mid-tier Scorestreak Rewards, I don’t foresee the rabbits staying around for too much longer. Despite the remaining fine-tuning, Multiplayer’s steady stream of bonuses and unlocks for so many weapons and so much gear, from extra experience to gun skins to new reticules for scopes, keeps it as addictive as ever.

Zombie mode has also been expanded. The most significant addition is the four-player Tranzit mode. Playable off or online, Tranzit features a bus that makes a circuit around several locations on a large map, Green Run. Each stop is a navigable mini-area that has several buildings and slots to purchase drinks and weapons. You can also venture out into the world and find other locations that are only accessible by those brave enough to fight through the hordes of creatures that lurk in the wilds between areas. Taking the bus doesn’t mean you’re that much safer as zombies will rush in from all sides to overrun it, forcing you to reenact scenes from Dawn of the Dead as you plow through them while blasting others off of the boarded-up windows and doors. Areas also offer buildable contraptions for those who can find the parts, which include automatic turrets and zombie shields, several of which require making several rounds of the circuit in order to set up items at multiple locations.

Tranzit is joined by two other four-player modes, Survival and Grief. Survival, also playable off or online, is the more traditional mode of the two and has different rules for each location to offer a variety of challenges. The limitations don’t drastically change up the Zombies formula, but they do make for a decent diversion when you want to play a quick standalone session. Grief is only playable online, and that’s because it tosses in a versus element by having human teams square off against one another as well as the undead. Taken together, all three modes provide for a substantial package that makes for a nice break from the standard run-and-gun action of Call of Duty; however, they also don’t alter the fundamentals, which is fine for those who prefer to stick to the traditional modes but might not be enough for those who’ve been cutting their teeth on the undead for the past few years. Regardless, taking the fight into the open was definitely a good call and a welcomed change of pace.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II is undoubtedly superior to its predecessor, but in its attempts to expand the franchise, Treyarch stumbled into a few pitfalls. The campaign is less frantic than before, but the frustration of the Strike Missions, occasional AI hiccups within the main and optional missions, and increasingly erratic last act do dampen the strength of the new decision points and fantastic future sequences. Multiplayer has been improved with a new 10-point Create-a-Class system as well as a League feature that offers more accurate matchmatching, though enemies being able to wreak havoc in spawn points and some incredibly deadly mid-tier Scorestreak Rewards remain a point of contention. Zombies’ improvements also help to increase the game’s longevity, with Tranzit mode offering a neat gimmick that introduces an open-world design into a mode that’s increasingly coming into its own. Not all of the experiments worked out, but Treyarch has done an admirable job shaking things up and, in the process, delivered a very strong package.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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