First person shooter: CHECK
Non-linear campaign storytelling: CHECK
Multiplayer modes aplenty: CHECK
Ambiguous Third Game Mode: CHECK
Yep, it's Call of Duty all right. But, before gamers everywhere can begin to call it the same old, same old, Treyarch went and did something unheard of in a Call of Duty game. They took a chance on something new. And the result is pretty astounding.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is the direct sequel to the 2010 game and continues the story of Alex Mason, who we last saw in a photo, standing in the motorcade watching President Kennedy drive by in Dallas, 1963. That little plot point is never addressed as some time has passed and Alex is actually dead.
Instead, we meet his son, David, a soldier of the future as it is now the year 2025 and the world is about to become a storm of fecal matter. A very bad man named Raoul Menendez has a plan to hit at the heart of the Capitalists that caused, indirectly, the death of his little sister back in the 1980s. As we play the story as David Mason, we also go back to play as Frank Woods (Alex's partner in the original game), and we see the events that helped shape why Menendez hates America so much. It's a unique story, written by Dave Anthony and award-winning screenwriter, David S. Goyer (Blade, The Dark Knight Trilogy), and of course, it is told in a disjointed, non-linear way.
The gameplay in the 1980s has a certain feel that is more in line with Black Ops. Historical figures play into the story, including Lt. Col. Oliver North (providing his own voice for the part), who helps recruit Alex on a mission to Nicaragua. As the past story unfolds, we also meet Manuel Noriega, the disposed dictator of Panama. The story of the past also visits Africa and Afghanistan, back when the Russians were in the midst of an endless war, plus makes a stop in Panama during Christmas, 1989.
The future story is focused on David Mason and his partner, Harper, as they race around the world trying to stop Menendez and his Cordis Die movement, all while the U.S. and China are fighting a very real Cold War. In one "how could they have known" moment, recently resigned CIA head, David Petraeus, is the Secretary of Defense in 2025, complete with his aged likeness. The centerpiece of the future story is the assault on Los Angeles, which isn't a spoiler if you've seen ANY of the footage, including the TV commercials. This is where all of the choices that you, the player have made, come into play. And how this battle shakes out determines your ending. As you can see, there are many levels of intrigue and action at play here.
While I like the bold direction in the story, I wish that Treyarch would have kept the game in the '80s. With Iran/Contra and other well-known black op CIA missions (yes, I know that is an oxymoron by default), there are so many stories to tell, and the leap to 2025 really slams the door on all of that. Plus the questions surrounding Alex Mason at the end of Black Ops are never addressed. In fact, several in-game (and one post-credits scene) jokes are made about the whole "Tyler Durdin/Reznov is he/isn't he there" thing.
Black Ops II rolls out an arsenal of futuristic weapons and gadgets that aren't too far removed from reality. From gloves that make for epic wall scaling, to winged jetpacks, to sniper rifles that are powerful enough to see through and penetrate solid material at over 500 yards, there are a ton of fun toys in the chest to play with.
Where Black Ops II truly begins to shine is in the new additions that developer Treyarch has implemented. First of all, the campaign now has a branching story mode. There are certain events requiring a life or death decision to be made. That choice affects certain outcomes, and leads to one of many different endings. Never before has a Call of Duty game given us a reason to replay the campaign. Let's face it, the campaign is usually just a distraction from the real bread and butter, and that is the multiplayer mode. But I'll get to that, because the campaign still has one other huge new feature.
Strike Force missions make their debut as side missions offered up at different intervals in the story. The Strike Force missions are part FPS, and part RTS. An objective is assigned, and then it is time to become a field General. Hitting "Select" take you into overwatch mode where you direct troops to attack, secure or defend locations, and then the directional pad is used to select a specific group to take control of on the ground. A good field General will jump in and out, all the while making sure the objective is met.
This new mode is a BRILLIANT addition to a storied franchise, and easily the best part of the game. Adding to the uniqueness of the Strike Force missions is that they can be played as they become available, or saved, but each mission has an expiration date. The Strike Force missions lead indirectly to events in the main narrative. For example, one mission has soldiers defending locations from sabotage by the invading the Chinese, while another has the U.S. helping assassinate one of the Chinese military leaders, for which the Chinese next in command offers to assist in bringing down Menendez and Cordis Die. The ramifications of the Strike Force missions are very real, and in a unique twist, they can be failed. If all the units are terminated, then the mission is considered a failure, and the game's story readjusts accordingly. If certain hostages aren't saved, or the aforementioned leader isn't assassinated, it will make it that much harder to stop Menendez when the world goes crazy.
As you can see there is a ton of new stuff to do, and Black Ops II only gets better when pulling in buddies. New to multiplayer is the revolutionary Pick 10 load out system. No longer are we stuck with taking a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, a few tacticals and some perks into the fight. Now you get to choose exactly what is taken into a fight. Ten slots are assigned to fill and the combinations are near limitless. I've seen players with tons of perks and tacticals, and armed only with a knife, battle alongside a player loaded heavy with TWO primary weapons and zero tacticals. And the addition of the new future weapons like certain scopes and sights make for some crazy Create-a-class concoctions.
Kill streaks have been replaced with scorestreaks, and hitting certain scores trigger the perks. The good news is that now, once a perk is earned in battle, it doesn't expire when you do. You can actually save up the higher-end perks and rain hell down on your opponents. There are 22 scoresteak perks to choose from, from dogs, to air strikes, to UAVs.
Also new is the League play mode. Players can join a league, and after playing a few "placement matches," they are assigned to a league with other players of the same skill set. Then, you battle with the folks in your set league for supremacy. This helps the noobs get into the fight on a level playing field, and keeps the hardcore veterans playing hardcore veterans. It's a nice addition, and climbing the League Ladder in points in pretty addictive.
There are the requisite multiplayer modes, such as Team Deathmatch, Domination, and Capture the Flag, but Black Ops II includes over 12 different multiplayer games. I've tried out as many as I can, and find the majority of them fun. I particularly like Hardpoint and Headquarters, and Kill Confirmed returns from last year's Modern Warfare 3.
I also want to bring attention to the maps, as the 14 included are some of the best in the series. There are huge maps with tons of hiding places, and small maps, like Hijacked, which takes place on a luxury Yacht. Hijacked is easily Black Ops II's version of Nuketown with in your face, claustrophobic action and no place to hide. I can say with great authority that the maps here supersede the maps of Modern Warfare 3 in almost every way.
Also back in Black Ops II is a Treyarch favorite: Zombies. Zombies has grown from an unlockable survival fest (and whatever that top down mini-game was in the original Black Ops) to a full-fledged game mode. There is a Zombies story mode, called TranZit, and there are multiple game modes, played either solo or online with friends, or enemies. Yes, you can fight the zombies, in competition with another team. You can't shoot the other team, but you can herd the zombies to them, or even plant meat on them as bait. It is an interesting game mode, to say the least. Call of Duty - at least THIS Call of Duty - is no longer a multiplayer-first endeavor.
Game modes aside, Black Ops II starts to show its problems in the technical side. The Havok engine is really outmatched here, and Black Ops II doesn't look as good as previous CoD games, or even that other Military FPS currently on the market (but really, what does? That game looks fantastic). The multiplayer looks fine, but in the campaign, and again in the Zombies mode, the graphics aren't as sharp as they can be, and I'm not sure that the game is running a full 60 frames per second. Pop outs and texture issues are also evident. It's a shame, as a game that has taken such a huge leap in the Military FPS genre is bogged down by something (graphics) that it normally does so well.
Trent Reznor wrote the campaign score and it is fantastic. Right from the beginning menus, the dulcet tones tell the player that Reznor is at the top of his "game." My only gripe with the music is the lack of licensed songs to set the time period. Black Ops used period music to set the mood, especially in the Vietnam levels. Black Ops II has opportunities to do the same and lets them go, other than a Nat King Cole holiday song played as the Panama mission gets going. It is a rare miss from a developer doing so many things right.
The voice acting is generally good, with Michael Rooker (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Walking Dead) and Tony Todd (Candyman, The Rock) joining Black Ops vets Sam Worthington (Avatar) and Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Batman). Tony Todd does tend to devour the scenery, which is incredibly difficult to do in a video game, but his weird voice transgressions could be chalked up to Todd the actor trying to give his cardboard character a rounded side.
It's so easy to go through the motions and put out the same drivel year in and year out. Activision wrote the book on it with the Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero franchises. But leave it to developer Treyarch to amp up the stakes with the greatest leap of new features in a Call of Duty game since the series jumped 50 years and went modern. The additions of the branching campaign story and multiple endings, and the brilliant Strike Force missions, give cause that maybe the Military FPS isn't dying, as some have predicted, but it is finally evolving. I personally would love to see MORE Strike Force missions in the next Treyarch game (Black Ops III, perhaps?) and I would like to see the envelope pushed further and further. If anyone can do it, it's Dave Anthony and his team, as Black Ops II is actually the third in the series, which began with 2008's World at War (characters - real or imagined - appear in all three games), and the steady progression of innovation has been there in each chapter.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is one of the best, most content-heavy Call of Duty games ever. It will have it's detractors, as it usually does, but in the end, the people complaining are doing so into their headsets as they are playing Team Deathmatch on the Express map, having plunked down their hard-earned cash and even opted into the Call of Duty Elite program.
When I hear these complaints, I think back to the launch of the original Black Ops in 2010. A buddy and I were playing Team Deathmatch online, and he got frustrated, and said that he was going back to Modern Warfare 2 because Black Ops "sucked." And last year, a week after launch, he got upset at Modern Warfare 3 and called it "terrible," saying he was going back to Black Ops because it was "so much better." And guess happened last night? Yep, he's angry and going back to Modern Warfare 3 because that game is "so much better."
Successful games will always have their naysayers, but when it comes down to it, the good games are the ones that people are still playing weeks, months, and even years after launch. My buddy sure does like to play "sucky" games, I guess. Too bad it will take him a year to figure out how good Call of Duty: Black Ops II really is.
- Jon Hueber
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is available on PS3, Xbox 360, PC and Wii U. This review is based on the Playstation 3 version of the game, which was supplied by the publisher.
Shop for Call of Duty: Black Ops II on the platform of your choice for a discounted price at Amazon.com (November 13, 2012 release date).