Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Sony PlayStation 3)

Call of Duty: Black Ops II
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch
Genre: First Person Shooter
Release Date: 11/13/2012

To call Black Ops II the biggest release of the year would simply be an understatement. The Call of Duty franchise has taken off in a way that other games can only dream of. Each release is a bona fide event. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in a matter of hours. I’m not exaggerating. The hype and anticipation for Black Ops II has been no exception. After all, most games don’t have Robert Downey Jr. in their freaking commercials.

Personally, I was both excited and wary of this sequel. I spent hundreds of hours with the previous Black Ops, and found the setting and features to be just about where I like them. BO2 offers numerous changes to the status quo. While this could lead to an evolution for the series, it could also set it back.

Let’s find out which way things fell, shall we?

Story/Modes

Black Ops II picks up with the same characters as the first BO. Mason, Hudson, and Woods are still working to bring down baddies around the globe. This time around, the leader of a drug cartel, Raul Menendez, is the target. A good portion of the game takes place during the Cold War, when Menendez rises to power. The events in these sections have direct correlations to the future.

That future is in the year 2025, where Mason’s son leads a team of Seals to stop Menendez before he can unleash a cyber attack that will cripple the United States Military and possibly lead to war with China. To make matters worse, Menendez has managed to become the leader of a vast organization that reveres him as a savior to the lower classes. The story takes predictable but exciting twists and things get a whole lot worse before they can hope to get better. The size and scope of the goings on are up to COD standards, and while there is nothing quite as dramatic as the airport scene from MW2, there are still plenty of strong moments.

In particular, BO2 does a fantastic job of creating characters that you start to care about. Menendez is by far the most interesting villain in the series thanks to a detailed back story. He’s not just some power hungry maniac out to take over the world. Everything he does has a purpose. I also started to care more about the characters from the first game. Not only did I start to love Woods, but I actually respect Hudson now. Section, Mason’s son, is also interesting. I should note, however, that the script is often silly, thanks to an overly excessive case of potty mouth.

Best of all, the story deviates greatly from previous games in the franchise. At various points throughout the story, you’ll be able to choose between one or two paths. The accumulated sum of your actions will lead you to one of several different endings. Different characters can and will die depending on what you choose, and the various endings are actually worth going through and trying out different options. It isn’t the best example of this kind of progression, but it works quite well and makes for the most compelling story in the series.

Multiplayer is back and in full force. However, several big changes have been implemented here as well. You can now play in multi-team matches with up to four teams. League play is a new feature where you’re ranked and put into a division based on your wins. This mode is outside regular online, and allows you to access all of the weapons/perks from the start. You can earn some experience for your online profile here as well. Combat training is back as well, though it has been changed up. You play against players and bots, with your kills/deaths not counting towards your combat record. You earn experience to unlock new gear, but at a much slower rate. You can also use the new “codcasting” feature to broadcast and commentate on an online game.

The basics are all here. There are several modes, including team deathmatch, free-for-all, headquarters, and others. Kill confirmed from MW3 makes an appearance, and the new hardpoint mode is chaotically good fun. The wager games from Black Ops are back, but work differently. You don’t earn money in this game, so there’s nothing to bet on. Instead, the games are there for fun. The top three performers do earn some experience for their profile though. You can also create and participate in custom games, which allow for all sorts of rule manipulation and shenanigans.

Also back this year is the Zombies mode. There are now three different types of games you can play. Survival is the basic mode of play that players have come to expect, Grief puts two teams of four players on the field where they can work together to take out the undead but eventually are forced to turn on each other, and Tranzit has players working to move from location to location via vehicles. It’s much more involved and includes leaderboards and rankings.

I could keep going, but I need to start talking about the rest of the game. Suffice it to say that this is the most fully featured COD yet, and it has the best campaign mode in franchise history. There is a lot to see and do here, and it’s all good.

Graphics

This engine is definitely showing its age. Several COD titles have used it as this point, and while each has seen a small improvement over the other, the series is rapidly falling behind the curve. One thing I greatly appreciate is that the game doesn’t resort to using cut-scenes when it doesn’t have to. It uses in-game assets to tell the story, and does a great job there.

For problems, the humans look a bit off. While there is some great detail and the game looks good when not in motion, there are some serious issues. Hair looks awful. It’s a shame more people aren’t bald, as the straw-like hair just doesn’t look natural. The animations are janky and clearly missing a few frames. When characters die, they look less like human corpses and more like crash test dummies. It can kill some of the dramatic tension.

Overall, the game still looks quite good. The environments, though occasionally marred by muddy textures, are full of detail, color, and some great lighting. There are several set piece moments that stand out, such as fighting through a flooded street, coming out to see the deck of a carrier completely wrecked, and running through a burning building. Black Ops II looks good, but it just doesn’t set the bar like it did a few entries back.

Audio

Musically, the game is a hit. There is a large variety of tunes, covering more electronic songs for the future levels, classic orchestral sounds for big battles, fun songs for radios that you pass during levels, etc. The music is implemented exceptionally as well. For example, one scene in the past has you rescuing someone as the victory music from the first game starts to play. Then, someone gets shot and it all goes to hell. That sense of victory is quickly deflated as the music comes to a screeching halt. During prolonged gun fights, turning the corner only to hear nothing but smooth Latin beats from a radio is a surreal and amusing experience.

It can be a pretty big gamble to hire a bunch of celebrities to voice your game, but it has paid off well here. The standout of the bunch is Michael Rooker (of The Walking Dead fame) as newcomer Harper. As always, his high-pitched voice manages to carry a certain sound of menace that seems unnatural and awesome at the same time. Woods is probably the best voiced character in the game, as he goes through a variety of emotions. Though he’s got more cussing than the lot of the other characters combined, it’s still a pretty bang up job.

The most important part of the aural experience for this game is clearly the effects. Nothing hurts an FPS quite like weak sounding guns. I’m happy to say that each gun sounds better than ever. When you blast someone with a shotgun, it feels like you’ve just blasted someone with a shotgun. Each gun feels powerful. The difference between a silenced weapons and a non-silenced one is pretty telling as well. You start to miss the dramatic booms that come from not worrying about being stealthy. The other effects are just as impressive. When people start throwing down multiple score streaks at once, the cacophony of explosions, gunfire, and screams makes the game feel like a true war zone.

This is one of the best sounding games of the year.

Gameplay

The basics of Call of Duty are still here. L1 looks down the sights, R1 fires the gun, L2 is for tactical grenades, R2 is for lethal grenades, X is jump, Circle is crouch, the analog sticks control movement and the camera. It all works well and is pretty much the standard for which all FPS games must be compared.

During the campaign, you make your way through a series of levels that alternate between tight corridors and more open spaces. Objective markers keep you from getting lost. It can feel overly constrictive at times, but the pace is strong. You’re rarely standing still for more than a moment or two before you’re being herded to the next marker.

New to this year’s campaign is the ability to set up your equipment before each level. You’re no longer beholden to a specific gun. You can choose various guns, grenades, attachments, and perks. More stuff is unlocked as you complete the game and complete various optional objectives for each mission. This is a definite improvement, as it allows you to tackle missions in more ways.

Also new are Strike Force missions. These missions put you in the command seat as you try to lead a squad to victory. You can take over any unit under your command, including drones and sentry bots. If you prefer, you can command from up high as a UAV. Using a combination of the directional pad and shoulder buttons, you can order your troops to attack certain enemies or camp out at specific locations. The AI is pretty weak though, and is utterly unable to win the fight alone. It’s up to you to take direct control and win the day. The mode tries to be something akin to an RTS, but fails thanks to unintuitive controls. While you can order a specific unit or unit type, you can’t form squads. This means if you want to send three of your troops to an area, you have to send all of them individually. These missions are technically optional, but have dire consequences on the ending you get. It’s a nice concept, but one that needed some more time in the incubator before it was released to the public.

Online multiplayer is as fun and addicting as ever. While the controls and gameplay haven’t changed at all, some of the mechanics that effect how you play have seen definite improvements.

First up, the create-a-class system has been completely overhauled. Gone are COD points, and in are unlock tokens. You earn one of these each time you rank up. While you’ll still have to rank up to gain access to new options, you can use those unlock tokens on whatever you want. More importantly, the game uses what it calls the “Pick 10” system. For each custom class, you have ten points allotted. Every gun, attachment, grenade, and perk counts as a point. You’re free to use whatever combinations you like, provided you stay within ten points. Special wildcards can be purchased to allow you to further specialize your class. With these, you can take extra perks, extra grenades, or even use two primary weapons. This system allows you to create a class just the way you want it. For example, a class built on speed might want to take extra tier one perks and ditch a tier three perk. Someone might simply forgo a secondary weapon in order to have more attachments on the first. There are plenty of options here, and this is a pretty great system.

Kill streaks have been eliminated. In their place are what the game calls “Scorestreaks”. For these, you must earn points to get access to things like air support/sentry guns/etc. Pretty much anything you do improves your score. This means you can earn score streaks by playing the objective, assisting others, taking down enemy equipment, etc. This not only puts less emphasis on pure kill totals, but rewards players for trying to help the team instead of just helping themselves. For example, a kill in “kill confirmed” is worth fifty points. Confirming a kill by grabbing the enemy’s dog tags is worth one-hundred. So, it’s better to confirm kills rather than hide in the back and snipe away to improve your own personal statistics.

These two changes make the game a much more enjoyable experience online, while doing nothing to hinder the fast-paced shooter action that made the series a hit in the first place.

Basically, everything about the game has seen some sort of improvement. Players have more options, more incentive to play for the team, and more modes to play around with. The only thing that could make this better is if Treyarch added a Spec Ops mode. I’d be ecstatic.

Replayability

Every single mode has a surprising amount of replay value. Between the SIX different endings, customizable loadouts, and optional challenges, the campaign is stronger than ever in this department. You also have multiple difficulties that up the challenge, should you wish to do so. Zombies has three different mode types and more maps out of the gate than the last game. Online has those spiffy new league matches, multi-team matches, and all of the modes you know and love.

Each of the three primary modes is likely to soak up many hours of your time. The online is still the star. Between ranking up, improving your classes, learning the maps, and simply playing for fun, it can last hundreds of hours for the dedicated player. You could safely leave the disc in your system until the end of year and not do everything there is to do. With the foreknowledge that the game will have plenty of user and DLC support, this package just keeps getting better.

Balance

The campaign manages to be as simultaneously easy and cheap, as always. Most foes are mere cannon fodder to whatever weapon you have at your disposal. Still, you never know when some RPG-carrying jerk is going to start blowing you to bits from an unseen location. The grenade indicator doesn’t always show up when it should either.

Bots during multiplayer are equally nuts. While some will stand in front of you and let you slowly pick them apart, others will react faster than light to toss a perfectly timed grenade at your feet or snipe you from an incredible angle. Granted, you never really have to fight these bots, but it makes for some bizarre situations. On the “Hijacked” map, I have witnessed AI bots that fight over the Jacuzzi. The winner stands atop and hops up and down until someone takes them out. This happens throughout the entire match, and made for one of the funniest games I’ve ever played. I suppose it’s good the glitch was funny instead of game breaking.

Online, the game is nicely balanced, provided you have been leveling yourself in order to get better equipment. The good news here is that even non-ranked matches offer some experience to help you out. Also, league play has everything unlocked to make sure everyone has a fair shot. The game also does a better job of matching you with players of a comparable skill level. I was part of many more close battles than massacres this time around.

Originality

While I’ve been talking about the new and impressive changes throughout the game, I’d be hard pressed to call anything the game does original. The Pick 10 system is pretty much the same kind of thing used in recent Star Wars Battlefront games. The Strike Force missions are merely an extension of various gimmicks the series has used before as well. Scoresteaks instead of Killstreaks is probably the most important change, but really represents a change in philosophy rather than ground breaking new territory. As for the campaign, there are a LOT of other games that offer branching storylines. COD is just joining the party.

Let’s face it. This is the newest entry in a series that sees a new game released every year. It’s more focused on making improvements rather than breaking the mold. Even with some of the changes, veteran COD players are going to be able to jump right in without even the slightest of hitches.

Addictiveness

Black Ops II is at its most addicting when you have a group of friends to play with. It’s even better if everyone involved has headsets. My longest play session of the game was probably five hours at once. That was spent online with a friend. All we did was goof off with custom matches that neither improved our rank or unlocked new gear for us to use. It was still some of the most fun I’ve had with any game this year.

The best thing about Call of Duty is that each game has so many modes. Any time you get bored of one, there’s another to take its place. You can’t play team deathmatch the same way you play demolition. Party games are rule-bending affairs that are still oh so much fun to play. Plus there’s the campaign and Zombies to occupy your time.

Skeptics may say that all you do is run around and shoot people in this game. To them, I say that you’d be surprised at the variety that entails.

Appeal Factor

Who are we kidding? This is the biggest release of the year, sure to sell millions and millions of copies. The online multiplayer has become something of a sport in its own right, and the game tailors to that with league play and casting features. This game is going to be such a huge hit that Activision is one of the few companies that doesn’t have to bother with online passes. They know people are going to buy this game on day one rather than waiting for a used copy to appear.

For veterans, enough has been changed to justify the purchase. For newcomers, how the hell have you managed to completely avoid COD all these years?

Miscellaneous

I’ve been rambling on for about seven pages in word at this point. There isn’t much more to say really. You most likely already have this game if you want it, and I’m not going to change your mind one way or the other about its quality.

I will say that this is the most fun I’ve had with an FPS this year, and a LOT more fun than I had with Modern Warfare 3. It’s rare that I find pretty much every change in a sequel to be an improvement, but that is the case here for sure.

I suppose it does loose some points for not offering playable Zork this year.

Just kidding.

The Scores
Story/Modes: Classic
Graphics: Good
Audio: Classic
Gameplay: Incredible
Replayability: Unparalleled
Balance: Good
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal Factor: Unparalleled
Miscellaneous: Great
Final Score: Great Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

Call of Duty: Black Ops II does enough to put itself above its predecessors without alienating series veterans who have come to expect certain things from the franchise. The new Scorestreaks, Pick 10 system, and campaign changes have made this a good step in the right direction. More importantly, it offers the same tight gameplay, addictiveness, and replayability the series is known for. This is about as safe a purchase as it gets.

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