Black Ops 2 is a much-needed shot in the arm for the Call of Duty franchise.
Booting up my review copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, I tried to keep my expectations to a minimum. Back when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare dropped in 2007, nobody expected the franchise to take the world by storm the way it did. However, once it was established as a bona fide license to print money, it could be argued that Infinity Ward rested on its laurels a bit. Last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was a competent shooter, but it was very formulaic, and the series just felt tired. With Infinity Ward’s team missing key players, and Battlefield 3 hot on its heels attempting to usurp the FPS king, many wondered if Call of Duty’s best entries were behind it. This year, however, Treyarch has stepped up to take the crown.
Witnessing the screenshots and trailers released over the past year, I found myself excited by the change in direction that Black Ops 2 was taking. Set in the near-future of 2025, players take control of David Mason, son of Black Ops protagonist Alex Mason. Amidst a chaotic landscape of unmanned robots, cyberwarfare and drone armies, David is tasked with taking down terrorist Raul Menendez, a man from his father’s past who has misled the populace into following him, as a champion of economic equality. It should come as no surprise that Menendez has far darker intentions, but Black Ops 2 features some genuinely surprising twists and turns. Between the extremely polished gameplay, insane set-pieces and generally great voice-acting, I found myself playing well into the night just to see what happened next.
The plot of Black Ops 2 jumps back and forth between control of David in 2025, and Alex in 1986-1989. Some people felt that jumping into the future with Call of Duty was equivalent to jumping the shark, but I honestly felt that the future segments were the best parts of Black Ops 2. There were a lot of good moments in Alex’s storyline, and I felt that the characters got much more fleshed out this time around (especially Woods), but I definitely found myself looking forward to the advanced weaponry and tech of the 2025 Cold War. The future plot sees the aforementioned Menendez invoking a war between the U.S. and China, over something called Rare Earth Materials. These materials are needed for everything from cell phones and TVs to the drone army that the U.S. has built up as its protectors. They’re essentially the new nuclear materials (or MacGuffin), and they’re running out.
Treyarch succeeds in making Raul Menendez the greatest series villain yet, as he’s a tragic character. You witness his traumatic experiences from his perspective, and at times I genuinely felt sorry for his character. He has very valid reasons for hating the U.S., and the game’s central characters. The writing and acting is undoubtedly the finest yet in the Call of Duty series. I felt that Michael Rooker (The Walking Dead’s Merle Dixon) was a standout; he gave real humanity to his character Harper. The graphics in Black Ops 2, while nothing jaw-dropping, are surprisingly solid. The facial animation and great lighting really help pull you into the story; you feel like these are real people talking and not just NPCs wildly flapping their mouths.
The time jump is far from a gimmick. Treyarch has definitely gone out on a limb this time, and in turn have crafted the most impressive, engrossing Call of Duty yet. The intriguing single-player campaign has branching paths, and even multiple endings – which may be a first for a FPS. Everything from collecting intel, to completing the new Strike Force RTS missions, to deciding whether or not to take a life actually affect the direction of the narrative, and it’s a compelling change of pace. I’ll put it this way- I’ve never felt compelled to replay a Call of Duty campaign ever, but I actually felt regret over my actions (and inaction, in some cases), which let to a calamitous ending. I have every intention of going back and replaying the missions for a different outcome. For that, I have to say well done, Treyarch.
However, I think it was a bad move to place such an emphasis on the Strike Force missions in Black Ops 2′s campaign. Completing these strategy segments are not necessary to progress and see the ending, but they do have a radical effect on its outcome. I attempted the first Strike Force mission three times before quitting in utter frustration. It’s a cool idea, in which you order your troops and mechs around to stop an enemy invasion, but in practice it’s Black Ops 2′s weakest link. The allies are just about brain dead, and I found myself needing to assume direct control over troops constantly just to keep them from rushing into their deaths. In this regard, Strike Force mode fails at feeling like the team effort it should; it rather feels like setting up dominoes for the enemy to knock down while laughing at their incompetence.
The meat of the franchise, the shooter segments and set-pieces, are as great as ever. The wingsuit mission and the water-logged Fallen Angel level really stuck in my memory, as well as the cruise ship level Karma. There’s plenty of chances to jump into vehicles, and you’ll even get to pilot a fighter jet- its controls may be questionable, but it’s exciting nonetheless. Aiming feels precise- you never feel cheated by wonky controls. If you die in Black Ops 2, its usually because the other guy was simply a quicker draw. That said, some of the later missions can get incredibly chaotic and frustrating when 10 guys are shooting rockets and flying drones are swarming on your position. Luckily, this time around you can choose your loadout before a mission, so you can at least pick the weapon you’re best with. All the levels also feature additional challenges and leaderboards, which is a nice touch.
Multiplayer has always been a huge draw for this franchise, and it’s as fun as ever in Black Ops 2. I especially love the new Pick 10 system, where you can freely customize your loadout to your heart’s delight- so long as your loadout equals out to 10 points. This means you can pick two primary weapons, or one weapon and a bunch of perks, etc. There’s also wildcards that can allow you to bend the rules a bit, such as letting you pick an extra perk- but that probably means you’ll need to drop your grenades or laser sight.You’ll spend a lot of time building the perfect loadout, and your time will be rewarded with a combination that’s tailored to your specific multiplayer strengths and weaknesses. There’s a lot of other subtle tweaks, such as replacing Kill Streaks with Score Streaks, so players are more focused on accomplishing the goal at hand rather than keeping their Kill/ Death ratio up. The changes to the Prestige rewards and leveling rewards in general make the multiplayer feel more addictive and fun than ever. Another great change is the Combat Training mode, great for your first 10 levels, as you can battle new players and bots. After level 10, the experience rewarded in this mode is halved, but it’s still great that it’s included for those that don’t want to join public matches all the time. You can even play an all-offline deathmatch like the old Nintendo 64 GoldenEye, which is awesome. There’s even split-screen online multiplayer! I mean, seriously, what more can you ask for?
I’ve never been a huge fan of Call of Duty’s Zombies mode, and this year’s entry didn’t quite change my mind. Those who were fans before will still love it, though. With a tacked-on campaign, it feels a bit more fleshed out, but it’s really still there as a way to laugh and de-stress from the level grind of multiplayer or seriousness of the single-player campaign. In that regard, it succeeds, and really, you can’t complain about extra content. Come to think of it, Black Ops 2 is one of the most content-packed releases this year so far.
All told, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is a refreshing FPS that bucks the trend, refines the gameplay to near-perfection, and adds a huge amount of engaging content. With Black Ops 2, it can’t be denied that you definitely get your money’s worth. Hopefully Infinity Ward’s next Modern Warfare entry builds upon the great foundation Treyarch has built, and if not, I’ll be looking forward to Black Ops 3.