Call of Duty's annual ritual has become one of the biggest events in gaming. It challenges developers to push the franchise in new directions while carefully retaining what has worked. Treyarch has tried to shake up the series, whether it's by taking players back to the apex of the Cold War or blending together Nazis and zombies. With Call of Duty: Black Ops II, the developer has injected a few new ideas into the aging Call of Duty colossus in an attempt to keep up with the times.
Like its predecessor, BLOPS2 plays fast and loose with history, slipping players into conflict zones in 2025 to interventions in the 1980s, ranging from the invasion of Panama to the capture of Manuel Noriega to Afghanistan aiding the Mujahedin against the Soviets.
Black Ops II revolves around Raul Menendez, a former Cuban spy whose tragic past has shaped him into a man of vengeance. After nearly losing his sister to a fire started by a greedy warehouse owner for the insurance money, he wages a personal war against the privileged, eventually rising up as the leader of Cordis Die, a worldwide movement.
Using the vast wealth accumulated by his family's drug empire, he uses asymmetrical warfare to wage a global struggle against who he sees as the instigators of inequality. As in the previous games, players take on the roles of a variety of characters to see how it all fits together and eventually save the world.
Like the first Black Ops, the game mixes its fiction with real-world locales and people, such as Noriega and retired General David Petraeus as the secretary of defense. Unfortunately, a lot of it comes off as a discombobulated mash of neat-sounding military terms and bizarre stretches of logic that make it as forgettable as its characters. There's no Viktor Reznov to make any of it as memorable, but there's plenty of miracle tech that allows Menendez to speed-dial Armageddon.
The title shows some promise when it touches on the power of social media, the current topics of worldwide unrest and the global disparity between the haves and have-nots, and the moments Menendez spends with his sister before her death. Part of the problem is the deus ex machina that transforms Menendez from an interesting, tragic figure, into a vengeful punch line with about as much subtlety as a train collision.
The choppy flashback-style narration and instant armies of thugs turn Menendez into a caricature of a messianic Tony Montana. It's never really convincing, especially when the story drops a miracle element called celerium into his hands and he uses it to create a quantum computing device that enables him to "hack the planet." Invasions by drones and walking tanks later ensue.
The theme that the past can mold such men into monsters is an old tale, but BLOPS2 doesn't give it a chance to percolate before force-feeding the player in a way that robs it of any credibility. Even so, Treyarch has pushed a number of great ideas to help players become invested in the story.
Few first-person shooters consider doing this because of the development overhead needed to realize all of the possible threads, but as subtle as it is here, it lends a great degree of replayability to the campaign. For example, failing to rescue someone or taking out a VIP actually removes him from the rest of the story, altering events for better or worse. The good news is that you can opt to replay the campaign from certain missions to rewind history and try a few things differently.
Level design has also been reworked to leave behind Call of Duty's "door kicker" in favor of multiple paths and open spaces, both of which offer different combat opportunities for completionists. Challenges unlock equipment and perks that can be used within mission replays — such as taking a gun from 2025 that can shoot through walls back to the '80s. Accomplishing two challenges in a mission often unlocks a perk, but accomplishing five opens up a new weapon, such as a crossbow. Between the story branches and the challenge unlocks, the single-player campaign is a lot more interesting than it typically would be.
Strike Missions also appear during the main campaign to shake up the formula by taking things into an action-packed, real-time strategy tangent. Given a number of soldier squads and drones, players are tasked with a specific objective, whether it's reprogramming anti-air lasers or trekking to a downed VTOL to assassinate a VIP. You can point and click buttons to direct your assets, but I found it better to take charge on the ground in first-person view because of how terrible the AI is when it wades into a hail of bullets.
Aside from these additions, the basic gameplay still relies on massive numbers of bodies hitting the floor in new settings. Though the high-tech weapons and Strike Missions add different layers of action for solo players, it's the same, familiar approach: huge explosions, detailed backdrops that take the player from the flooded streets of Pakistan to a besieged Los Angeles, gobs of guns, and vehicles that are not on rails. It could turn Michael Bay green with envy.
It's too bad that none of the campaign missions are co-op ready. Strike Missions — with streets, alleys, and multiple vectors of approach — are prime candidates but also aren't available in co-op. These elaborate maps are lonely exercises until you see them again in multiplayer.
Most series fans gravitate toward the multiplayer anyway. The usual culprits are back across a swath of familiar game types, including Treyarch's traditional co-op addition to the franchise, Zombies.
If you've never played Zombies in a Call of Duty game before, it's a co-op mode where four players team up to survive. Killing zombies adds cash to enable players to purchase weapons, open doors, or fix things. Instead of simply surviving waves of zombies, a campaign mode called "Tranzit" attempts to add a story element and an open world to the action.
Tranzit can be played solo — though it's incredibly boring that way — or co-op with up to four would-be zombie mashers on a quest to survive. Different areas are linked by a bus that makes a stop at each one, and it leaves with or without you and your friends.
You can also try to hoof your way to the next stop, but it's a bad idea as the fog and open road are rife with the undead. Scattered clues reveal snippets of why everyone is there and what may have happened. It offers an incentive to explore, collect pieces of important props, discover new weapons, and do your best to survive the waves of zombies. There's no revival here, and unless a friendly player reaches you first, dying kicks you back to the start.
There's also a mode appropriately called Grief, which pits two teams of four against each other for a total of eight players mashing it up to survive the zombies. You can't directly kill each other, but only one team can be left standing, so players can get in the way of the other team to screw them over. There's also basic survival mode that pits four players against waves of zombies, just like the series has been doing since it started in World at War.
Even with the changes, Zombies feels like a secondary experience as it did when it was first introduced. It's an interesting distraction, and the open world of Tranzit provides plenty of opportunities to explore and plan defensive strategies, but it pales in comparison to the bread and butter brought in by the multiplayer everyone knows.
Treyarch's changes make the stock multiplayer a more personal experience. Custom tags allow you to design a calling card using a number of elements, more of which are unlocked after you fulfill certain conditions. It allows players to show their colors online, whether it's something as simple as a star or something so explicit that it explains why the ESRB won't touch online interactions with a rating pole.
The developer has also tweaked it from being a straight up, level-based progression fest to something a bit more nuanced with the introduction of the token system. Tokens are earned at every level and can be used to customize perks and weapons, adding a greater degree of control over your class. Another option is to roll with one of the standard types and jump in with a solid set of perks and weapons.
If you're not impressed by what is made available at one level, you can save your tokens for the next and splurge on what you think is best. Weapons can also level up to unlock new enhancements, which can also be purchased with tokens. It builds on the sense of specialization, especially for players who want to develop certain play styles or completionists who love the RPG-flavored tweaks. The experience is no longer just about earning experience point bonuses.
Map-wise, there's a decent collection across the standard modes: Deathmatch, Domination, Hardcore Mode, Headquarters, Team Deathmatch, and a few others. The maps range from large, outdoor areas such as Turbine's dust-filled, rocky landscape to Aftermath's focus on a ruined skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles. Spawns felt a lot more polished — I never felt trapped by campers — and the maps leave plenty of alternative approaches, reducing the threat of being bottlenecked since it's easier to find new ways to tackle familiar problems.
Killstreaks are gone in favor of scorestreaks, allowing other actions to contribute to bonuses, such as calling down a UAV or sending in a VTOL to cleanse streets and alleyways. By making it much more inclusive, such as how you take out an enemy versus simply taking them out, it's compelling to experiment with new tactics since you get the impression that every time you do something neat, you're contributing to a bonus for yourself or your team.
Despite all of these changes in Call of Duty: Black Ops II, the single- and multiplayer aspects can't quite shake the feeling of déjà vu. On the other hand, it's the same experience that many players have known since Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare. It's a consistent, if not innovative or groundbreaking, formula: a fresh campaign, new multiplayer maps and tweaks, and a presentation that doesn't bug out. At the same time, it's also as disappointing to see Treyarch's bold steps weighed down by sticking so closely to that consistency. It dulls the daring risks that they've taken to keep Activision's titan alive and kicking.
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