It’s that time of year again. Call of Duty is back to dominate sales charts and our free time. With its evolution of campaign, multiplayer, and zombies, this one sets itself apart as the biggest jump the series has seen since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. While anyone who’s played a Call of Duty game or two should already know what to expect, Treyarch has worked hard on making this unification of three separate modes feel bigger and better than ever; the single-player campaign has evolved very nicely, multiplayer has once again been refined even further and zombies has been expanded upon, even if ever so slightly.
Single-player Campaign mode in Call of Duty games are usually seen as a hit by some and a miss by others. Some people love the 6-hour rollercoaster ride of the Modern Warfare titles, but others find it to be too “over the top” at times. Things got predictable—helicopters would explode left and right, player-controlled characters would die unexpectedly, and you performed a breach more times than you could count. However, one of the most critically-acclaimed facets of the first Black Ops was its deeper take on story mode. I’m pleased to say that Treyarch has realized things got a little too wild lately, and toned down the explosiveness accordingly while improving the campaign in many ways.
The game certainly still is action-packed, but you’ll notice after a few hours that you haven’t played through nearly as many “turned-to-eleven” moments as you have in CoD games prior to this one. Instead, the focus has largely been set on making the story more emotional, (ever so slightly) realistic, and, honestly, pretty damn interesting.
Upon initially booting the game, you’ll be greeted with the story mode’s intro cut-scene—a gritty video showcasing some graphic content, introducing the villain, Menendez, and a little bit of his backstory. All the while throughout this video you’re presented with just as much dramatic slow-motion as possible and an extremely melodramatic song that immediately sets the tone of this story apart from all previous Call of Duty titles. Treyarch had the right idea here: tone things down a bit, continue the original Black Ops’ story, but do so in a way that engages the player and tries to avoid the fatigue of yet another Call of Duty campaign. Black Ops II tells the story of Call of Duty’s most likable and interesting villain ever, Raul Menendez. His story is ridiculous and his rise to power is almost unbelievable, but he’s just the right blend of insane and suave.
Menendez stands out as the most interesting character in the game by far, followed by returning protagonist Frank Woods, now an old man, who guides you through most of the campaign by recounting his glory days and traumatic life events by telling his story. No other characters ever pop up as much as these two did since most are very one-dimensional and uninteresting, including David Mason, whom you play as for the majority of the game. However, by making players jump back and forth in time from mission to mission, Treyarch manages to cleverly keep good pacing throughout the story, usually hinging on the futuristic levels to deliver the awe of new technology and epic moments.
All in all, the story mode is way less “Michael Bay” and way more “Martin Scorsese”—that’s one of the biggest compliments I have for the campaign. This is a great direction for the Call of Duty series, one that should be rewarded for finally breaking the mold of stagnant, soon-to-be boring campaigns.
I’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s new in the Single-Player Campaign by talking about story tone. Black Ops II features totally new mission types by introducing the Strike Force Missions—that are essentially Real-Time Strategy in genre—as well as branching storylines. That’s right: depending on how you complete each mission, which side-objectives you choose to go after and what decisions you make at key moments, you’ll be awarded one of many different story paths and endings—a first for the Call of Duty franchise.
I found myself caring about how I handled each mission way more than I ever have in a Call of Duty game. That, paired with the fact that you can now choose your loadout and special perks before a mission, make each level much more personal than ever before. You might be surprised at how different the outcomes of your choices can be; depending on your decisions some characters may ultimately live or die, accordingly.
As surprising as it may sound to hear that a new gameplay archetype has been introduced into Call of Duty with the Strike Force missions, you shouldn’t get your hopes too high. This was the single weakest aspect of the campaign mode seeing as I didn’t enjoy any of these missions—they weren’t fun, only frustrating. It’s important to mention that these missions are totally optional, but choosing to ignore them will drastically alter your ending and make things grimmer than they need to be.
The Strike Force missions add some non-linearity to the flow of campaign mode, as well as a new take on how Call of Duty can be played. In most of them (there are about half a dozen), you’re tasked with commanding a squadron from “Overwatch Mode,” a bird’s eye view of all units where you can order troops to move around, attack, or defend an area—just like an RTS! That’s not nearly as fun as it sounds, however; AI pathing and movement was often pretty broken, as I sometimes encountered problems with certain members of my squad getting stuck while walking to a waypoint. AI was never easy to deal with; they’d usually take way too long to take down an enemy and in turn die, making me wait for new units to respawn.
You can, however, assume control of any soldier/drone/robot that you have at your disposal. This ended up being the only way I played the Strike Force missions, since relying on the bird’s eye view Overwatch Mode never worked as well as I hoped it would. See, in Overwatch Mode, buttons have been remapped and ultimately not very intuitive when used to control multiple individual units. Even the first Strike Force mission, which acted as the tutorial, was a mess of broken AI, confusing objectives and repetitive gameplay. Again, it was much easier to play these missions as a First-Person Shooter—using one soldier to do everything.
It seems as though Treyarch wanted to add a twist to the campaign this time—separate from the branching paths—and failed. While I see the potential in the Strike Force missions, their execution was poor and this resulted in them being frustrating and not very fun. Standing beside the new, more dramatic story and what they’ve done with the branching paths (both the best parts of Campaign mode), Strike Force missions are easily the worst addition to this year’s Call of Duty game.
Now, when you think “Call of Duty,” most think of how it revolutionized online competitive multiplayer this generation. CoD fans largely flock to Black Ops 1 for its critically–acclaimed multiplayer component, however, it now seems as though Black Ops II has dethroned the original in terms of having the best all-around multiplayer. Black Ops II’s multiplayer is so refined and fun that it’ll keep you coming back night after night—if multiplayer is your thing, anyway.
Treyarch has once again stripped the nuts and bolts out of multiplayer and rebuilt it so that you can customize your loadouts more than ever. Starting from level 1, you never feel like you don’t have access to any powerful weapons; everything feels just as balanced, familiar and new as it should. Levelling up and creating your classes is noticeably more addictive and fun, thanks to the new way you equip your weapons and perks. Instead of having a set amount of item you bring with you into battle, you can choose how much equipment you bring with you versus how many perks you have. Want to focus on having a god-like primary weapon with three attachments and perks to complement it? No problem, but you might have to leave your lethal/secondary grenades behind, or even your secondary weapon. You can even go into battles without any weapons equipped (except your knife, obviously) but have a large amount of perks equipped, practically making you a superhuman when you do actually pick up a gun.
Scorestreaks have also been reworked and balanced, with all-new futuristic rewards like the Dragonfire, a flying robot that you control in the air and use to shoot down your opposition, or the Guardian, a turret that spits out a wall of microwaves to slow and damage your opponents. Don’t worry: you’ll still find the familiarity of UAVs, Care Packages, Sentry Guns and more in Black Ops II though. Scorestreaks—unlike Killstreaks—are also rewarded for completing objectives and helping out your team in various ways, meaning that you’ll still do well if you’re a support-style player.
New features to multiplayer include CODcasting: a replay/spectating mode where players can record audio over their recorded game sessions, a feature Treyarch hopes will be adopted by the competition scene just as much as the YouTube scene. Also worth mentioning is Black Ops’ new ability to Live Stream any game from the console to the web or, in theory, to a mobile device.
There are more small-to-decently-sized changes that make Black Ops II multiplayer arguably the best Call of Duty multiplayer experience yet. The addition of League Play, where players can create ranked teams with friends to progress through skill-based matchmaking and seasonal ladders, is a nice addition that should cater to the competitive crowd. Being constantly matched with a team of your skill-level, winning matches in League Play means that you move up in rank, from bronze to gold and higher. Other changes like maps being generally smaller, shareable and greatly customizable emblems, as well as the rebalancing of weapons and when you unlock them are all just small examples of why Black Ops II multiplayer is so fun to play. New and returning game modes aside, at the end of the day, it’s more of the same, but just different enough where it feels fresh and fun again.
It’s worth mentioning that Call of Duty ELITE is now free as of Black Ops II’s release. This means you’ll be able to access the app on either your console or mobile devices/tablets to access a multitude of multiplayer stats and options, as well as the ability to find friends, start your own clan, win prizes and more.
Now on to the third and final piece of the pie that is Call of Duty: Black Ops II: Zombies mode. Unfortunately, I don’t have nearly as much to say about this whole part of the game since it’s without a doubt the most uninteresting to me. I’m just as big a fan of the “zombie genre” as the next guy, but Call of Duty zombies never really lived up to either Single Player or Multiplayer modes in each respective game it’s been in.
The biggest addition to this game’s Zombies portion is “Tranzit,” a mode where you can take a bus from level to level in order mesh all stages into one big adventure. You’re also able to play “Grief Mode” where your team of four survivors can interact with another group of four players by shooting/attacking them. You can’t damage other players, but you can blur their vision and knock them back into zombies to—as the game mode names implies—grief them. It’s a fun little addition, but nothing that makes Zombies any more special.
“Zombies” just doesn’t match the calibre of neither Single Player nor Multiplayer in terms of quality and refinement. That being said, there’s still a lot for zombies fans to do here: hidden easter eggs, the ridiculous and un-funny dialogue and the usual “Survival” mode, where you’ll take on hordes of zombies, round after round, until you die, is all here. If you absolutely love CoD Zombies, then you’ll be happy with this offering. If not, don’t expect this mode to attract new players in any way.
Instead of Zombies, I would have much preferred to see an update to Modern Warfare 3’s Spec Ops mode, which is, to me, a more fun co-operative experience all around, but I understand that zombies is Treyarch’s thing.
In terms of presentation, Black Ops II is the series high-point for Call of Duty. Rather impressive facial animations and expressions really help the dated graphics engine from showing its age. The sound design was also very impressive this time around, with a focus on making guns and explosions sound more…explosive than ever. Voice acting is top-notch as well.
I spent a good amount of time with both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game, and I’m disappointed to report that the PS3 version suffered from slightly blurrier textures and slightly lower (and less consistent) frame rate throughout. It didn’t ruin the Single Player experience, but side-by-side, the PS3 version just seems to pop less than the 360 version. You do have the option to install textures to the hard drive, but that does little to help the overall look of the game.
In the end, I’m surprised to hear myself recommending another Call of Duty game after so many have been released this generation, but my craving to play the game speaks for itself. Even after the time I spent playing the game for review, I’m still eager to jump back on and rank up in multiplayer or see each different ending and how different scenarios play out in campaign mode. If you’re a big fan of Call of Duty games, you’ll probably buy this game anyway. However, even if you’re not, take comfort in the fact that Treyarch didn’t drop the ball with Black Ops II. Instead, they showed that there’s still more juice to squeeze from this formula and that it not only works, but is still fun and very welcomed. Sure, the changes in Black Ops II feel more like alterations that make things feel less stale instead of actually evolving the franchise to its next level, but that’s okay so long as it feels this fresh.