Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
Genre: First-person Shooter
Developer: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: 11/18/12

You can almost set your watch by the new Call of Duty releases anymore; there’s a new entry in the franchise every year, going on six years strong (at least) now, and gamers certainly don’t seem to get tired of them, as they all sell like gangbusters. The games more or less live or die on their multiplayer, of course, as their mechanics are generally set in stone regardless of which team is developing it, leaving the selling of the game to the single player setpiece battles and the tuning of the online play. Infinity Ward and Treyarch generally have different visions on where they want their multiplayer components to go, though Infinity Ward’s vision was somewhat derailed with Modern Warfare 3 on account of the massive hemorrhaging of the company’s employees and all. It’s not that the online was bad, per say, so much as it wasn’t what people were expecting or looking for after the generally strong product that was its predecessor. Treyarch, on the other hand, has had a full two years to refine their product after Call of Duty: Black Ops, as the multiplayer wasn’t impressive to many after Modern Warfare 2. They’ve certainly made those two years count, as it turns out, as Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is a fairly significant improvement and renovation over its predecessor. Between a timeline shift (meaning new, futuristic weapons) and some notable modifications to both the single and multiplayer elements, Black Ops 2 is a bit improvement over its predecessor. Whether or not it’s going to take you away from Modern Warfare 3 is a different story altogether, but it makes a solid argument, at least.

The plot, for those who are interested, is a direct sequel to Black Ops, and alternates between two primary perspectives: that of prior main character Alex Mason through various events in the 1980’s, and his son, David Mason, in the year 2025. Both plotlines revolve around terrorist Raul Menendez, who not only holds both men responsible for various failings in his life, but also has the money and power to make everyone’s lives miserable. Alex’s storyline sequences revolve around the events that built Raul into the hateful man he becomes, as well as how Raul deals with Alex, while David’s sequences revolve around dealing with Raul’s resurgence and how it splinters the world into another Cold War as a result. The plot’s generally solid enough to carry the game along and features multiple endings this time around, which may be enough of a reason to bring players back to the campaign for more, which is never a bad thing. The game also offers the full compliment of additional modes outside of the single player campaign, including the franchise standard online component with its varied match types and experience building mechanics, and the Treyarch standard ‘Zombies” mode makes its return as well. While there aren’t any new modes to speak of, the existing modes feature enough new elements and mechanics to make them worth returning to, and there’s a decent amount of variety here for solo or multiplayer, online and off, to give the game plenty to work with from the get-go.

Black Ops 2 looks fantastic, as the Call of Duty titles generally get the most out of the technical capabilities of the systems they appear on, and the engine here looks to be improved from its predecessor in all respects. The character models are as detailed and well animated as ever, even when you’re lighting them up like Christmas, as they move believably and respond appropriately in cinematics and when getting obliterated. The game environments look appropriate, whether you’re hunkered down in the jungle, racing through a modern or older city, or racing through the desert on horseback, and the game makes great efforts to vary up the locals so as not to fall into the trap of having everything be ‘brown and gray”, as the argument goes. The visual effects of weapons and explosions are also convincing and well done, and make tense firefights feel more satisfying than they would without. The visual engine also makes an effort to not feel similar to that of Modern Warfare 3, and while the aesthetic may not be as appealing to fans of that engine as a result, it’s no less technically solid. The game music is your standard ‘impressive orchestral score”, intercut with more programming-heavy tracks to emphasize that the game is meant to be more futuristic, and it’s fine for what it is, fitting the theme of the various setpieces as needed without being anything you’d want to listen to in your free time, as is the norm for the series. The voice acting is pretty fantastic all around, between the large amount of voiced dialogue that carries the storyline and the little snippets of dialogue that pop up in battle which help to bring the battlefields to life. The sound effects are generally fine as well, though the gunfire effects aren’t as convincing as they could be; they’re certainly not bad but they lack the power that other games, both in the series and in general, feature, and it can leave the weapons feeling unsatisfying at times.

Black Ops 2 plays similarly to the last several games in the Call of Duty series, so if you’re a fan of the series, you can jump right in and figure everything out inside of about ten seconds. For those who like the genre but not this specific series, some of the control mapping may require a little relearning, however. The left stick and right stick work as expected, controlling moving and looking around respectively, and the left trigger aims your weapon while the right trigger fires it. The bumpers toss out whatever two types of grenades or other portable explosives you’re equipped with at that moment, the A button jumps and allows you to vault onto stuff, and the X button reloads. None of the above should be too confusing for FPS fans, but the rest of the controls might take a mission or two to adjust to. You press in the left stick to make your character dash and the right stick to melee attack enemies, for instance, neither of which is the ‘default” location for such actions, hence the assessment of taking time to learn the ropes a bit. The B button controls whether you stand, crouch or lay prone, while the Y button switches between the two weapons you’re allowed at one time. Finally, the D-Pad is laid out with whatever odd accessories you might have on your gun or person that don’t fall into the above categories. So, for example, if you have Claymores, they’ll be mapped to the D-Pad. If you have an underbarrel attachment of some kind, it’ll be mapped to the D-Pad. You can arm whatever item you need by pressing the appropriate direction, allowing you to switch to what you need on the fly. This will all come as second nature after a couple missions with it, honestly, but it might feel a little odd to newcomers at first.

Black Ops 2 makes a pretty good effort to add more elements to the campaign mechanics beyond what’s listed above, however. There are a few sections where you’ll have to jump into some kind of vehicle to make progress, including an interesting section where you can alternate between driving an assault vehicle and firing on enemies from a tactical drone, so you won’t just be sneaking around killing dudes on foot. The game also brings a whole new element to the campaign in the Strike Force missions. Basically, a few missions (which are strictly optional, mind you) pop up during the campaign that task you, as David Mason, to direct a team of combat troops in battle using a combination of normal first-person combat and overhead tactical direction. You’re generally given a set amount of teams to work with, usually consisting of a couple sets of human troops and one or more sets of computer-assisted weapons, such as gun turrets or robotic walkers. You can direct these teams either from first-person view or from the overhead view, allowing you to direct assets to various locations to either attack or defend specific targets as needed. Since you’re playing as David from a control room, you can instantly jump into the viewpoint of whatever asset you want at any time, so you could send a team to guard a target while playing as a human character to plant a hack tool, then swap to a turret to mow down guys who try to attack your team, for example, giving you a wider variety of options in battle. The concept can take some time to really adjust to, though you can skip the missions entirely if you’re not into them (though this does change the ending), but the missions don’t honestly require a lot of effort to complete. You can certainly make good use of the tactical elements and spread your forces out effectively, but you can also just plant your teams near tactically important assets and run around as one guy, slaying everything you see, and end up just fine as well (depending on the difficulty level chosen, of course).

Strike Force missions aside, though, the main campaign is as much a tutorial of the basic game mechanics as it is a single-player mode, and while you’ll certainly have fun with it to one extent or another, eventually you’ll want to move on to something else. Where Black Ops 2 stands out, as you’d expect, is in its multiplayer, and unless you’re specifically opposed to the concept, this is where you’ll spend the majority of your time in the game. The basic concept is that you’ll play online in various different matches against other people, and as you kill your enemies and assist your allies, you’ll earn experience points which level up your online ranking. As you level up, you unlock new options, such as match types you can play, weapons you can use, enhancements you can add to your weapons, clan tags, pieces of equipment, Perks that improve your overall performance in various ways, and other fun and useful things. You’ll max out your levels at Level 55, though the ability to ‘Prestige”, that is reset your level to 1, allows you to basically continue leveling as you wish. Of course, resetting yourself to the start wouldn’t be very productive on its own, so you’re also given new loadout slots that you can build with different weapons and accessories, as well as new gameplay modes that can only be unlocked after doing this thing. You also keep all of the gameplay modes you unlocked the first time around, though you’ll have to earn weapons and Perks again.

Now, this is all the status quo for this series, of course, and the past several games have done exactly this same thing, so from the get-go fans will know what to expect and will, instead, be looking for what’s new. Well, the COD Points system of the prior game has been tossed out the window entirely this time around; instead, when you level up your character, various weapons, perks and such are available to you, but you’ll have to spend an Unlock Token in order to unlock the things you want. Now, weapons are tiered here, meaning that weapons unlock as available once you reach a set level, but you’ll only have so many tokens available to unlock weapons as you level up. This is where Prestige comes in, as the system has received some modifications here to make it more useful and appealing, potentially, for players. For one thing, going through a Prestige no longer resets your challenge work, so if you’re only so far from completing one, that sticks with you rather than resetting this time around (which may or may not be good depending on your perspective). More interestingly, however, is that when you unlock a weapon using an Unlock Token, that weapon is instantly unlocked again when you reach the appropriate level to use it in your later leveling sessions, so by going through multiple Prestige restarts, you can eventually unlock everything you’d ever want. When you Prestige, you also get a token that allows you to set one unlock as instantly unlocked at all times, regardless of your level, so you’ll find that Prestige becomes less of a hindrance as you progress since you can carry your best tools with you. Your weapons also earn experience points as you use them, allowing them to level up and Prestige as well, though there’s less of a point in doing so with weaponry as this mostly just unlocks the ability to apply tags to the weapon and such. The actual leveling of the weapons, however, unlocks various attachments for said weapon, so you’ll no longer have to aim to complete crazy challenges to unlock specific attachments, which makes life easier if you just want to build your gun a specific way without it being a hassle.

Perks have also seen a bit of an overhaul, as there are now perks and ‘wildcards” to work with this time around. Perks no longer level up, instead allowing you to just buy a Perk with an Unlock Token and go on your merry way, and the effects are a bit more spread out so you’ll have to consider things a little more when building your loadout. Wildcards can potentially circumvent that, however, as they can be equipped to allow you options like being able to equip multiple Perks from one category, equip multiple attachments to one gun, equip two ‘main” weapons instead of a main weapons and a smaller secondary weapon, and so on. You’ll have to pay attention to your loadout, however, as there is now a limit of ten total options you can equip at any given point in time, inclusive of all weapons, attachments, Perks, Wildcards and so on. As such, you can’t just load your character up with the best of everything, so you’ll have to consider your choices a bit before heading out into the battlefield. Killstreaks have also seen an overhaul, as they are now called ‘Scorestreaks”, and no longer pop up simply from killing other players. Instead, the streaks themselves tie into your score, hence the name, which can be improved through kills, specialty kills, assists and other actions, so even if you’re basically terrible at getting your own kills, you can still build streaks in other ways. However, players who find themselves to be very good at cycling Killstreaks by buying streaks that, in turn, earn more Killstreaks will find Scorestreaks to be more challenging to earn. Scorestreaks generally pay back into your score in various different ways, so you might find that using a UAV can be rewarding in ways other than just showing enemies on the map for example, but the payouts are lower than they would be for actual actions made by the player. In other words, if you kill ten people that’s worth more than if your Scorestreak item kills ten people, so you’ll have to put more effort into getting your Scorestreak cycles going. This makes the streaks less easily recycled and abused, but it’s not going to play well with players who were very good at doing so, to be sure.

There are also some new additions outside of the modified character building format, with the most notable being League Play. This is essentially a multiplayer system that allows players to get together and play without any of the leveling systems of the primary multiplayer mode, giving players a mode that challenges them based on their skills over anything else. When you jump into the League menus, you’ll note that every possible tool is available to you for your custom loadouts immediately, so you can build your loadout for this mode as you see fit. Scoring is ranked through wins and losses in play, which you can influence before league matches start through simply playing in qualifiers, and you’ll be matched up with players who are within your general range of capability when going into league matches. You can also goof around with the online modes in private sessions on and offline if you’d rather, with everything unlocked, though this doesn’t improve your level at all, making it good for fun and practice over anything else. New play modes have been added in normal multiplayer as well, including training modes that allow low level players to acclimate to the experience by strictly pairing them up with other low level players or by focusing on challenges over anything else. There are also new Party Modes for those who want to get inventive, like Gun Game, where you start with a gun and each kill you make gives you a new gun until you cycle through every gun available, or One in the Chamber, where you have a gun, one bullet, three lives and instant kills, and killing a player gives you one more bullet, among other equally goofy options. Zombies mode is also back and overhauled, allowing for more players and zombies, larger levels, and new play modes beyond the simple ‘here’s some zombies, kill them” mechanics from before. You’ll see the standard Survival system here, as well as Tranzit, which allows you to move between maps via bus to expand the play environment, and Grief, which is a four on four match where everyone’s trying to survive, which give the mode a lot more options for chaos.

The single player campaign can be completed in about six to eight hours, give or take, though you’ve got multiple difficulty modes to play with if you want to plow through the game on a higher level, as well as the multiple endings available based on your actions in the campaign. The online, between the level up system, the many different play modes, and the Prestige options, is where most of your replay of the game will come from, as it’s addictive and in-depth, and offers a lot to do from start to finish. The expanded customization mechanics, as well as League Play and regular play options should offer a good amount of variety to players, and the expanded Zombies mode should also give fans a lot to do on and offline, depending on what they’re looking for. There will also be DLC for the game, because of course there will, that should add new maps and Zombies maps to the game beyond what’s here, and you can tie your performance into COD Elite for activity tracking and such if you’re a competitive player. Obviously, the game is going to have a lot to offer to the sort of person who buys new releases in the series year after year, but there’s a lot here to work with for the more casual fan or newcomer as well, as the retuned online options, expanded mechanics in single player, and expanded Zombies modes offer a lot of new options for play. As such, you could find yourself spending a good amount of time with the game just seeing what’s been changed alone, and the game makes a compelling argument to devote a large amount of time to it if you’re any kind of fan.

Which is not to say that Black Ops 2 is manna from the heavens, cast down to FPS fans as the perfect experience, or whatever. The game is still basically the same as the last five or so games in the series on a base level, and while a lot of the more advanced functions have been retuned, the core game is fundamentally unchanged in a lot of the core elements. Further, a lot of the changes that have been made may not appeal to everyone, and while that’s always a risk one takes when changing elements, it’s problematic when attempting to draw players in from older games in the series. Eschewing the COD Points system in favor of Unlock Tokens, and everything that implies, isn’t going to win universal appeal, nor is putting players into a position where they can only carry ten total points of upgrades and modifying how Perks work while introducing Wildcards to further modify things. Change is certainly good, and there are only so many changes one can make, but this is likely going to be polarizing to a lot of players, as it both brings more in line with how the Modern Warfare side of things works while also pulling away from that series in odd ways that, if general discussion is any indication, is being awkwardly received. On the more minor complaint side of things, the game shows spots of lag here and there when playing online, though it seems to handle kicking the offending players out well enough. Further, the Strike Force missions, while fine, aren’t going to appeal to everyone, so making them a requirement to see the best possible ending for the campaign is going to annoy people, as is the Scorestreak system, given that it can take much longer to earn streaks because of how the system is structured. The changes aren’t specifically bad, you understand, and some people will like them, but there’s going to be a large segment of the community who won’t, and already don’t, which is problematic.

To be honest, Treyarch deserves a pat on the metaphorical back for being willing to take some risks with Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, as they’ve added to the game noticeably and tuned a lot of the experience in a way that makes the game feel like less of a retread than its predecessors, albeit one that may cause some wailing and gnashing of teeth. The plot of the campaign is solid, with the option for multiple endings based on your actions giving it more life than in prior franchise entries, and the game still looks and sounds fine across the majority of the experience. The game is as simple to learn as it ever was, but new mechanics added to the single player campaign, online play and the Zombies mode make the game feel more fresh than its predecessors in a few respects. The online has been notably retuned, with new level up and unlock systems, a restructured loadout setup, and League Play added to the mix, and with the expanded play options in Zombies and the overall expansion of the game, Black Ops 2 feels like a much more robust expansion than it might otherwise. Of course, it’s still the same basic framework underneath the additions when you boil it down, and many of the modifications aren’t going to appeal to everyone because of how they change the multiplayer and single player experience. Many of the decisions made are going to be polarizing, if not wholly unpopular, and while the changes are generally fine and work well, there’s likely going to be a lot of tuning and patching to try and get things just right for a while. Black Ops 2 is a good effort from Treyarch, one that manages to make the game feel like a step towards not being the same old thing every year, and for that they should be applauded given the sarcastic reputation the series has earned. Whether or not the changes are popular is another matter altogether, but whether you’re a current fan, lapsed fan or brand new player, you’ll certainly find something to enjoy here.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: CLASSIC
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: CLASSIC
Balance: GREAT
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: GREAT
Miscellaneous: GOOD


Short Attention Span Summary:
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 retains the core essentials of its predecessors while adding in enough new elements to show that Treyarch wants to make more than just ‘the other Call of Duty games”, but for all the positives that come from wanting to change, the changes themselves will take some getting used to. The storyline is as fine as ever, though the addition of multiple endings is one that will certainly add life to the campaign, and the game looks and sounds as solid as its predecessors, relatively speaking. The game is easy to pick up and learn and fans should be able to jump right in immediately, but the addition of Strike Force missions in the campaign, coupled with a retuned multiplayer progression and customization system, as well as an expanded Zombies mode and League play, make this a much more impressive release than its direct predecessor. The modifications made to the formula across all modes may not be popular amongst the fanbase, however, as they insert changes that can noticeably modify the experience in ways that will take some adjusting to or generate much complaint from those who don’t want to bother, and for all the additions, the core game is still the same as ever. Treyarch should certainly be commended for taking some risks with Black Ops 2 instead of just pushing another entry in the series out the door, but there will likely be much fine tuning and adjustment from the players, as the changes made here are going to be contentious, at the very least, for a while.



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