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Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Review - A Killer Sequel
Date: Nov 18, 2012
Author: Rob Williams
Introduction and Story

I have a confession to make: I enjoy the Call of Duty series. Some may scoff and hit me with a splash of Haterade, but the fact of the matter is, there's something that remains consistent with each new game in the series: I have fun. Fun is the operative word here, because while the series, like many others, has its obvious faults, what I care about most is whether or not I'm enjoying the game, and am intrigued enough to carry on. So far, no Call of Duty has let me down.

One of the obvious faults is that the series, by some respects, has begun to grow a bit stale. Well - depending on who you ask, that ship sailed long ago. While I'm a sucker for any new Call of Duty sequel that crosses my path, I can sympathize with those who are not. After all, we're talking about a class of games that sucks $50+ out of your wallet. You should be happy with it and feel that it's a worthy addition to the series.

It's time to head back into battle...

It's not only the fans who realize this, but Treyarch as well. With the original Black Ops, the developer began to follow a similar Call of Duty path as Infinity Ward, by kicking off what was to become a continuing, unique story, much like we see in Modern Warfare. But that's not unique, so Treyarch cashed in on the zombie craze for the second time and added a robust split from the main game that had many fans addicted. 

With the original Black Ops, Treyarch wanted to prove that it wasn't the "underdog" of the Call of Duty series. They were set to prove they deliver titles as good, or better, than Infinity Ward. While the success of that game versus Modern Warfare could be disputed, it seems to be widely agreed-upon that it was the best Call of Duty the company had ever created.

Improving on past success -

With Black Ops II, the developer wanted to up the ante - and by all accounts, they have. Treyarch has proven Black Ops II to be the biggest evolution in the series, with key additions ensuring re-playabilty of the single-player campaign - something pretty non-existent with previous titles. A zombie mode has returned from the first game, but rather than only stick with the "survival" implementation, Treyarch introduced an entire zombie campaign - one that can be enjoyed with up to 7 friends.

Wings built into your suit? Check.

It's hard to say if I've been enjoying the story in Black Ops as much as the one in Modern Warfare, but there's no question that the level of story-telling done by Treyarch in Black Ops II is beautiful. I admit that I'm not much of a "story guy", and in a game like this, I could take it or leave it. But this game was different. The story was being told to me so well, that hours into the game, I decided to hop online and figure out which storyline elements I glossed over earlier on. I wanted to understand everything that was going on, and no longer skip over details.

Sympathy for the Devil -

Part of the reason for the success of the story-telling ties in with a mainstay of the series: being able to play through certain events through the eyes of different characters. This is an area where Treyarch pushes things forward again, because the player is actually given an opportunity at some point to play as the game's villain, Raul Menendez. You're not forced to take the word of what others have said about him, but rather see things through his eyes. You might even begin to feel bad for him. Yes - feel bad for the bad guy; a little sympathy for the Devil.

When I was placed into Menendez's role, I sat there, making sure I was seeing what I actually thought I was seeing. I don't remember playing a game before that actually let you play as the bad guy in this way, and see through entire events via their perspectives. The fact that part of his role felt reminiscent of the movie Machete only added to the intrigue.

A hint that this really is no ordinary Call of Duty

Another first for Call of Duty is that a good portion of the game takes place in the future. The original took place during the Cold War in the 1960s, which followed special forces operative Alex Mason staged with the goal of seeking out and destroying the Soviet-built chemical weapon Nova-6. This sequel features two conjoining storylines; one taking place in the 70s featuring Alex Mason once again; the other in 2025 featuring his son, David. The goals now include seeing Menendez's rise to fame as Alex in the past, and seek him out as David in in the future. As a leader of Cordis Die, Menendez is on a rampage to hack everything that he deems valuable. 

The game needs little help with keeping things interesting, thanks in part to the large number of geographic locations featured. You start out in Angola, and ultimately pass through Pakistan, Singapore, Yemen, Haiti, Myanmar and Cayman Islands - just to mention a few. You'll be wiping the dust from your eyes in the desert, soar through vast jungles and even engage in battle in a high-end shopping mall.

Game Mechanics and Multiplayer

Treyarch has infused the single-player campaign with many different multiplayer elements, to both help the player game how they like and to also add to the re-playability factor. Before each mission, you'll be able to customize everything about your loadout. Guns, projectiles, attachments, perks - it's all up to you. You'll even be able to change the skin for each weapon. Like the multiplayer portion, almost everything will have to be unlocked, either by completing a mission or accomplishing a certain objective.

Yes - this is in fact still the single-player campaign mission briefing and loadout.

Single Player Campaign Mode. Decisions, decisions -

Then comes the most important addition to the Call of Duty series: choice, and consequence. As you progress through the game, you'll encounter optional "Strike Missions" which require you to be successful for the best possible outcome. Those that you fail will result in the story being affected. At the end of the game, you'll be shown how your failures have impacted the world. This being the case, Black Ops II has multiple endings - another first for the series.

Strike missions are varied in their design; some feel like a game of tower defense, while others merely have you infiltrate houses to find a target. Some are very difficult, and failure is not pleasant. You're given an opportunity to replay a Strike Mission over, but with a penalty. If you ultimately fail all of your chances at a mission, replaying it will mean starting a new campaign. The biggest complaint I have with these missions is that the tactile overview (seen below) is finicky. Ordering units to specific location offers a true exercise in patience.

Deep breaths when you're tactile view ordering units around. Prepare to be a bit frustrated.

That gripe aside, everything mentioned here comes together to deliver the best Call of Duty campaign I have ever experienced. At the same time, this game also becomes the first in the series that makes me want to play the single-player campaign over again right away.

Multiplayer Ch-ch-changes -

Multiplayer will feel familiar to anyone who's played any other Call of Duty, but some significant changes / additions have been made. The most noticeable is the "Pick Ten" system, which limits the amount of equipment, perks and score streaks you can have. If you sacrifice equipment, you can add something else. Never use your side-arm? That's a good reason to get rid of it and add a perk or attachment. Overall, it's an interesting system, and one that's likely to be "love it or hate it".

"Pick Ten" is a significant change to the Create-a-Class feature

Unlocking equipment and weapons has also changed a little bit. Instead of automatic unlocks, players can earn tokens as they level to use for purchasing equipment. While there are still level requirements that first need to be met before you can purchase most things, this does allow you to overlook certain equipment in favor of saving some coin for something else later.

Kill Streaks are now a kinder, gentler "Score Streak" but you can still pwn.

Instead of "Kill Streaks", we now have "Score Streaks", which means XP you earn is for more than just levels. It results in the kill / death ratio being less-important than before, and it means things like Assist bonuses are actually useful during a match

While I'm appreciative of all the changes to the single-player campaign, I'm still up in the air with regards to the changes in multiplayer. It's going to take a lot more gametime to be able to reach a final conclusion, and in the end, players will likely have wildly varying opinions of each and every changed feature.

Ah yes, and something for the newbs -

Although Call of Duty has been around for a while, there are still players who haven't ever played it online. Realizing this, Treyarch has introduced a "Combat Training" mode that allows people levels 1 - 10 to team up with others and wage war against bots. XP here is earned at a normal rate, so it allows newbies to get into the action quick, but not against other live players.

Some new modes that come with Black Ops II include Multi-Team, one that presents three teams of three people each to dominate their section of the map and various "Party" modes that aim just to be silly, including "Sticks and Stones" that only allows projectiles to be used, and "Chamber", which gives you a single bullet until you make a kill.

Based on the immense popularity of the "Nuketown" level from the original Black Ops, it has made a return here as if it were styled in 2025. The layout is identical, but the graphics updated. With teams of at least 6 people each, this level still delivers absolute madness.

Zombies, Technical Details & Conclusion

Time to nut-up or shut-up -

The last major addition to the game is the zombie campaign where up to 8 players work together to get through each level and not succumb to a bite from the undead. There are three modes, including the official campaign "Tranzit", and Survival and Grief - the latter of which is competitive.

Tranzit's environment is 1950s-esque, and looks quite good overall. You're rewarded for exploration, with hidden easter eggs to find along with vending machines to purchase weapons and other perks. The story here is delivered in a minimal way, with subtle hints thrown at you from time to time. What makes the campaign intriguing is that you're not simply stuck in a small environment like in Black Ops and World at War. You're free to explore and move onto brand-new areas.

Call 4 Dead - Killing zombies with up to 7 friends.  Good times.

For fans of zombie games, and especially survivor mode, there will be a lot to love here. The zombies and other characters utter humorous lines from time to time, so it's clear that Treyarch really wanted this to be different from the rest of the game. While I'm not particularly a fan of zombie modes such as survival, I'd be much more apt to hook up with some friends and push through Tranzit together.

PC platform performance and graphics; minor upgrades -

Let's talk a bit about the technical details. A pet peeve of mine has been the lack of multi-monitor support in the series. Once again, fans with 3x1 setups are forced to use a hack that fixes a problem that shouldn't even exist. As an online game, this is never an ideal route for someone to take, but it's necessary if anyone wants to enjoy it on the setup they've invested in.

Graphics-wise, there haven't been major improvements - though this is undeniably the best-looking Call of Duty to date. We don't have anything close to Battlefield 3's level of detail in the high-end, but what's here is still quite good. It's a console port, yes, but definitely one of the better ones.

Improved configuration options in Black Ops II

While previous Call of Duty titles only allowed up to a 4x anti-aliasing setting, Black Ops II offers 8xMSAA and 16xCSAA options as well. It's about time. Also new are ambient occlusion and depth of field options. Treyarch has taken strides to improve the game on the PC, and it's much appreciated.

On my PC, equipped with a six-core Intel Core i7-980X, 12GB of DDR3-1600 memory and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580, I averaged out to 110 FPS during a multiplayer match with maxed-out settings (16xCSAA) at 1920x1200. If you could run previous Call of Duty games, you can assuredly run this one just as well.

When all said and done - Black Ops II brings a lot to the table. It offers a refreshing single-player campaign that adds a bit of complexity and consequence, multiplayer that doesn't stray from its proven formula but does add some extra flair and of course, a seriously-improved zombie mode that fans of the previous games will undoubtedly enjoy - even if it's not the richest zombie experience out there.

Treyarch is offering a tremendous package with Black Ops II. If you're a fan of the Call of Duty series or first-person shooters in general, be prepared to clear off an embarrassing amount of time from your schedule.

  • Features a lot of content
  • Great story-telling
  • Huge replayability in SP
  • Additions to multiplayer keep things interesting
  • A robust zombie mode
  • Strike Force tactile commands hit-or-miss

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