Has Treyarch really brought the innovation?
COD: Black Ops 2 Got Right
- + Solid campaign with multiple endings
- + More loadout freedom
- + Electrifying multiplayer, quirky zombies
- + Great league-based and broadcasting options
COD: Black Ops 2 Got Wrong
- - Core gameplay for the most part is unchanged
Another year, another Call Of Duty. A staple in the pre-Christmas release period, the series has, for better or worse, redefined the way gamers and developers approach first-person shooters. Black Ops 2 does an admirable job of trying to change things up again, and for the most part it offers an experience with more originality than any other CoD game since 2007’s Call Of Duty 4. It’s just a shame that the core gameplay remains essentially unchanged: with a few new additions that mix up how we engage with the game’s more popular features, the execution feels very much like every other game in the series. However, its changes ring in an admittedly timid breath of fresh air, and it’s still the most explosive, demanding and satisfying console multiplayer experience out there.
First up, the campaign. Where games like Spec Ops: The Line climb the ladder of morality, Black Ops 2 plays the “necessary evil” card in pitting the Western world against its more formidable and powerful foes, as a new Cold War with China threatens world peace. The most notable difference between this campaign and others in the Call Of Duty series is its personal affiliation with terrorist Raul Menendez and his drive to punish those that have wronged him and his family. The game moves back and forth between the 1980s, where Alex Mason and Frank Woods reprise their roles as the CIAs most efficient agents, and 2025, where Mason’s son, David, interviews a wheelchair-bound Woods on Menendez’s persistent hostility.
The game does a sound job of explaining plot points, as ridiculous as they can be, and the pacing and flashbacks give good reasoning to the characters actions both in the past and future settings. It’s definitely a more open-ended story than previous CoD campaigns, and your ability to alter how it progresses is a great inclusion, although not especially well explained by the game. You’ll occasionally hear AI-controlled friendlies point out to compromised intel and other important assets, but there isn’t really any sense of urgency to race over and ensure they remain safe.
Black Ops 2 does an admirable job of trying to change things up again, and for the most part it offers an experience with more originality than any other CoD game since 2007’s Call Of Duty 4
The game’s story can change depending on whether you address certain spontaneously relevant objectives, and its inability to demonstrate the importance of secondary goals certainly keeps the game’s story tightly wrapped up in mystery and intrigue. For the most part, the game does a fantastic job of keeping things subtle in that regard, never really pushing you towards either the good or bad side, pitting control of the story’s progression solely on your own spontaneous decisions. That’s fantastic.
The most powerful effect this has on the game’s experience are the “Strike Force” missions. These play out a bit like a match of Domination, only you have control over an entire fleet of soldiers and futuristic weaponry. It’s a complex, cool, tense and challenging way to mix up the campaign. You have a limited number of retries with these missions if you fail, and an inability to complete one can have an adverse affect on the story. Certain decisions in the game also determine how many of these missions you even gain access to, so it’s clear that both your moral decisions and skill play a part in shaping the game’s story. These missions would be even better if the AI wasn’t completely moronic, but they still offer mild satisfaction in their complexity.
Beyond the game’s mildly innovative storytelling techniques, it’s basically the same old Call Of Duty experience. Environments are at times far larger in scope than in predecessor’s, although the core objectives remain pretty much the same: follow the marked friendly, push up through enemies, break through enemy barriers, blow-up enemy tanks and armor. It’s really all familiar territory. For some that might be OK, but I feel that the game’s resilience in always returning to the same old style of progression as other CoD games is wearing a little thin, and it dilutes the worth of probably the more coherent and structured of narratives in the series. Additions like being able to alter your loadout pre-mission are cool, although the game always gives you more than enough to handle enemies, even on the higher difficulties, so it feels like a bit of an afterthought. Still, it’s cool nonetheless, and it’s hard to fault the fact that it’s there.
And now for the multiplayer, the bread and butter of any Call Of Duty experience.
The new Pick 10 system rings in a bunch of new changes to the multiplayer component, and unfortunately I feel that it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Not because it doesn’t work, but rather because it just feels like every other loadout system dressed up as being something that offers you more freedom than you actually have. There’s more freedom in terms of the minimum number of things you can bring onto the battlefield, but there’s still an absolute maximum that any veteran CoD player should be able to recognise as just a basic loadout implementation. You’re still unlocking weapons and items as you level up, and the COD Points system from Black Ops is replaced with a Token system, which is basically the same thing.
Still, it’s an admirable attempt at giving players more flexibility in how they enter matches. Balancing the perks out a bit more seems to accomodate the system, as things like the Ghost perk will limit how many players run around maps carrying only a knife. But for the most part it’s just the same system with a shiny new bow on top. As a freakishly obsessive CoD player I don’t really have any issues with that, but those not overly impressed with other games in the series probably won’t be swayed over by what is essentially the same loadout system.
As for the experience itself, it’s still the same old CoD: frantic, fast, explosive and, at-times, rage-inducingly frustrating. With such a large community comes a large variety of different players, which I feel gives the experience much of its competitive charm. If you’re not prepared to die frequently and be constantly bombarded by random grenades and air support, then this definitely isn’t the game for you. It still feels relentlessly individualistic, although Treyarch has done a good job of offering better reward for actions that benefit your team. Capturing a neutral flag in Domination, for example, rewards you with 50 points, while capturing an enemy team will snag you 200 points. It’s basically the game’s way of rewarding you for putting your kill-to-death ratio on the line for the benefit of the team. You’ll also snag 10 points for a “UAV assist”, which I can only imagine means a teammate has killed an enemy while your UAV is active.
The maps offer plenty of variety in terms of scope and design, although there definitely seems to be more cover than in previous Call Of Duty games. I felt that the experience felt more confined to a cover-based tactical approach rather than a run-and-gun one, and I found myself sticking with teammates and taking advantage of cover more in five-plus hours of online game time than in days worth of play in all other CoDs collectively. Maybe that was purposeful design direction, and I think it works well. The maps are fun, not too big, not too small, and certainly help replicate the core CoD experience while offering some freshness to a six-year old experience.
The league and broadcasting options are a nice touch for the more dedicated CoD player, although the YouTube live streaming feature is especially limited in what it offers. The league ladder system, where you can either go at it alone or join up with a team, is something that should definitely appease professional gamers that need even more self-gratification for their successes in an online game. It’s great that Treyarch and Activision are providing so much for such a large and dedicated online community.
Then there’s Zombies, a mode that is, for whatever reason, insanely popular among the CoD faithful and haters alike. I’ve also thought Modern Warfare’s Spec Ops mode was far more rewarding and satisfying than Zombies, but Treyarch’s attempt at a survival mode still brings plenty of enjoyment for those looking for an alternative to the campaign and multiplayer. The new Grief mode works well, pitting teams against each other in the midst of zombie waves. Players can’t directly kill each other but they can reduce health, making enemies more susceptible to zombie attacks. Overall I personally feel that by now the mode deserves a game on its own, preferably set within the World War II era, but it’s still worth playing through for the quirkiness and randomness it brings to the Black Ops 2 experience.
The Final Verdict
Treyarch promised a lot of change and innovation, and for the most part it’s kept its commitment to keeping the experience fresh and enjoyable. Sure, the game feels the same, but new additions do a good job of separating it from its predecessors. The multiplayer is still spectacularly fast and explosive, and the Pick 10 system is a cool new way to engage with the component, despite its obvious similarities to previous loadouts systems. Does Black Ops 2 offer enough change to persuade the naysayers to return to the Call Of Duty series? Probably not, but it does enough to keep the faithful coming back, and there’s enough originality and new ideas here to tide the fanatics over until the inevitable 2013 release.
By Gaetano Prestia