Another year, another Call of Duty. The tandem of developers, Infinity Ward
and Treyarch (the latter up at bat this year) continues to do the traditional
annual Call of Duty dance - Modern Warfare here, and ever-changing IPs there.
Treyarch's previous effort, the original
Black Ops, was refreshing in some
surprising ways, mainly its additional content, easter eggs, and short but
explosive annotated campaign. In true Call of Duty fashion, 2012 brought with it
the release of Black Ops II - triple A developers love their
sequels -the follow-up to the original game's campaign, placed even further in
the future than ever before. And while it's just as polished and feature-rich as
the rest of the games in the long-running series, it's beginning to wear a bit
thin. The ninth main entry into the Call of Duty series takes you on a worldwide
tour to escape the sand-browns and mossy greens of the prior installments, but
in the end it's just another slickly-produced, jingoistic shooter.
Where even the latest Modern Warfare was firmly grounded in reality, Black
Ops II flies off the track into full-on sci-fi, perhaps as a competitor for the
Halo or upcoming Bioshock: Infinite. At its best, it resembles the high
points of Crysis, channeling its souped-up armor and gadgets rather than the
sandy trenches of Spec Ops: The Line.
Alex Mason's son David Mason takes center stage here, in 2025's vision of
future warfare. It's like Hard Reset mated with the slick gunplay of Call of
Duty 4: Modern Warfare and shamelessly put all its glossy advanced technology on
display all at once, at least once you've dislodged yourself from the first few
missions of the game exploring brown sand exotica and scratching your head,
trying to figure out what, exactly, is going on. Once you've pieced everything
together, you're not going to particularly excited, however. It's not especially
as gripping as the bizarre numbers stations showcased in Black Ops, so it seems
to be using futuristic weaponry and aesthetics to stir the pot. And it actually
does a great job of switching things up on that premise alone.
For that reason, it's engaging to keep pushing forward through each shootout,
every linear mission that sees you piloting a specific vehicle, escorting
others, or picking off enemies like boogers from beneath a table to see what's
going to be thrown at you next. Electrified brass knuckles, cloaking camouflage,
suits that enable you to glide through the air, and a host of other niceties are
but some of the tools at your disposal once you've hit the future of Black Ops
II, and to be honest it's the most refreshing thing the series has done thus
far, save from the very first inclusion of Zombies and the excellent streamlined
ranking system of COD4.
Unfortunately, several missteps keep Black Ops II from achieving the
greatness of its predecessor, including erratic difficulty, strangely placed
checkpoints, and shoddy storytelling, as we already touched upon previously.
You're expected to divide your attention between three narratives running
parallel to each other, allegiances you may never have realized existed, and a
script that's frankly embarrassing, especially in bits and piece where you're
expected to feel for the long-running protagonist Raul Menendez. When you
consider the decisions you make throughout the game actually lead to different
scenarios (a Call of Duty with branching paths!) this is quite baffling. While
the mechanic is an interesting touch, its implementation is flawed.
As you complete the campaign mode, there are several different outcomes you
may find trucking through. Once you choose one pathway, you need to ensure
that's the way you'd like to continue your story. If you complete a level,
that's the path you will continue on for the rest of the game. Restart the level
and see different endings, but you are required to restart if you don't end up
liking the way things played out. While the decisions themselves are scattershot
and refreshingly not always clearly outlined, it's frustrating to have to press
on if you haven't quite figured out yet how you want to proceed. Because it's
not the best game to return to and replay over and over simply for a few
different results. Considering the addition of the Strikeforce missions
(optional RTS departures which serve as minigames that can affect your game's
ending), it's a frustrating endeavor that I can't see anyone actually taking the
time to go back and complete.
When you realize that every single ending and
unlock will likely be available to view on YouTube without killing yourself
having to go back and forth, making a list of each decision and fulfilled
objective, completing the campaign once begins to sound a lot more palatable.
What you and the rest of the world will come back to, however, is the
as-always excellent multiplayer, where Black Ops II exercises years of
experience and tweaks, offering a full-featured set of options such as "CODcasting"
for livestreaming via YouTube, Scorestreaks that award positive actions rather
than Killstreaks for simple slaughters, and a balanced "pick ten" system where
you're able to choose only ten items (weapons, grenades) and perks. What more
can be said about it, however, at this point than this is the game you'll see
other players flocking to as the year wears on? With new options for league
play, additional Zombie maps (as excellent as ever), customizable emblems, and
plenty of opponents out there to match up against, this is what youíll be
booting up that 360 for each time you crave a stop-and-pop kill session with a
few kiddies across the globe.
Black Ops II is one of the strangest Call of Duty entries
yet, for many reasons, and isnít quite as strong as its predecessor. The
campaign suffers from a mixed bag of a narrative and some truly frustrating
missions, and thatís largely what keeps it from being the ďmust-haveĒ
blockbuster if you can only buy one shooter this season (unless youíre grabbing
it just for the excellent multiplayer). But itís trying so desperately to break the mold
you can't help but to give it some credit. Itís no huge improvement over what we've seen
many times before, but at least itís not all brown. And I suppose thatís all we
can ask for these days.