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Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Call_of_Duty_Black_Ops_II_Game_Cover

Everyone, get ready to load up, get in your marathon chairs, and wipe down your controllers.  Call of Duty is back and, as always, is ready to get obsessively played for hours on end (and then criticized for being formulaic by us hypocrites).

Wait… Scratch that above statement – that’s from my 2011 cue-cards.  Toss aside almost every preconception you have about the series – be it about the campaign, the side entertainment or the multiplayer – and come into this as an open-minded individual.   In fact, if you’re so inclined, stop reading this review and go buy this game now.   It’s not an experience you’ll regret, and you’ll thank me later.

For those who stayed, let’s get this out of the way: Black Ops 2 is the equivalent of Call of Duty‘s Second Coming.  The franchise peaked in 2007 and has struggled to regain that sense of innovation and relevance that Modern Warfare arguably displayed, but this instalment in the series makes such radical changes to the formula in such a successful manner that even I’m at a loss as to how to properly honour its achievement.

With that said, time to dive headfirst into Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.

What initially will stand out is the focus on storytelling this time around.  From the moment the game boots up, the player is treated to an opening cutscene that is arguably more meaningful and atmospheric than most of the series that has preceded it.  It also manages to lead directly into the campaign, which holds the current record for not only the best story told in the franchise, but also for being one of the most enjoyable and engaging campaigns in the series’ history.

Dark Knight saga writer David S. Goyer and Black Ops director Dave Anthony return to fully helm the script here, and it shows.  Initially, Goyer’s claim that the game would have ” a better story than a Hollywood movie” seemed overconfident and far too ambitious, but now it seems appropriate.  The campaign balances the ideas of parallels, of social inequality, of technological warfare, of cultural clashes and of the importance of family quite well with character development, emotional drama and fluid action.

A savvy reader may notice the vagueness of my description.  Black Ops 2 follows a dual-storyline, cause-and-effect structure: the influential and often controversial actions of returning “hero” Alex Mason (from Black Ops) in the 1980s, and the resultant reactions and consequences that Alex’s son, David, must face as commander of an international strike force unit.  What ties them together is a single man: Raul Menendez.

Through events and means that are explained in Alex’s portion of the campaign, Menendez has risen to power in developing nations as the hero of the 99% and leader of pseudo-activist/terrorist group Cordis Die.  This influence has allowed Menendez to seek out his own vendetta against the powers that be, using the existing tension between China and America over economic troubles and ownership of rare earth metals used in modern technology to ignite the flames of war.  Enter David, a.k.a “Section”, whose team is tasked with proving Menendez’s guilt and bringing down his operation before things take a turn for the worse.

The story not only plays out in unexpected manners (as we expect of modern action-thriller plots), but it also resonates on a more personal level.  This is because the characters are actually fleshed out better here, and their relationships are alluded to during quiet introspective moments in the campaign as well as cinematic mid-mission instances.  The cutscenes are not simply static and focused on mapping out the next mission; instead, they show the characters interacting with each other, showing off their dramatic skills as actors and their depth as people.  There’s even time left over for some humour (thank you, grumpy Uncle Woods and Harper), some scenes showing David and company in their downtime, and nods to Black Ops.

At a certain point in the campaign, which will not be spoiled, the sheer impact of player choice and non-linear gameplay comes to light.  That, besides the pacing, excellent acting and rock-solid script, gives the story its extensive value in both initial and subsequent playthroughs.  You, as the player, grow to care about the other characters and even the situation at large, which makes even the most binary of decisions heart-wrenching to watch unfold.  Don’t fear, though: what is both fun and emotionally engaging about the campaign is the wide gamut of choices at one’s disposal, from completing seemingly meaningless secondary objectives to deciding whether or not to take a life.

Which brings us to the next question: do any of these changes apply to gameplay? The short answer is, yes.

Before a given campaign mission, you’re brought to a loadout screen similar in style to multiplayer, complete with different types of grenades and weapon attachments that progressively unlock as the player completes missions and objectives.  It’s an understated addition that adds a nice sense of player control to each situation.

During missions themselves, the core structure is still somewhat the same: see an indicator, follow/shoot/destroy the associated target, gun down or slash any soldiers in the way.  The controls are tight as always, the variety of believably-rendered weapons across both eras is comprehensive, and there’s a general balance between enemy and friendly AI competence.  Granted, there’s times when allies might get in the way, but they tend to be helpful and useful to your efforts more often than not and enemies have enough sense to hide and dodge gunfire.

However, branches on the path to victory are key to this game’s success.  Hidden through levels are markers indicating optional weapons stockpiles that can be accessed for extra firepower – things like molotov cocktails, mortars, turret consoles, and so forth.  The main paths themselves also have more diversity in pathways, allowing for the player to flank or evade enemies more effectively.

Then there are the true story branches, the moments where the player breaks from the formula and directly effects future events.  These tend to be tense scenes that move quickly and ask the player to pay attention to the details, but the reward is an experience very unique to them.  Most likely, people will be discussing the game’s various endings and story deviations for quite some time, seeing why someone made the choice to kill or not kill, to risk their lives for a file or to ignore it.  For first-person shooters, this is indeed great progress.

The campaign’s ten to twelve hours (more, of course, for difficulty levels above Normal) is well-structured, giving both of the Mason men’s story arcs their dues.  Alex Mason’s missions in the 1980s are designed to contrast and compare to David’s 2025 segments, particularly in the way technology appears and is used.  David, for instance, has access to many, many high-tech gadgets like wing-suits, magnet gloves, cloaking devices and remote-controlled drones, while Alex’s appearances feature classic Cold War weaponry and more down-to-earth (if still intense and brutal) gunfights.   David gets to fly aircrafts, Alex gets to ride on horseback – you get the point.

As the campaign progresses, it seems clear that Treyarch wanted this to be as much as a “best of Call of Duty” compilation as it is Call of Duty‘s best.  One mission requires careful stealth in a flooded city that recalls the situational tension of “All Ghilied Up” from Modern Warfare.  Alex’s missions, particularly one highlighting Menendez’s darkest hours, call back the unabashed gore and violence of World at War and even Black Ops.  And let’s not pretend that walking through that security checkpoint in “Karma” didn’t remind us even a bit of “No Russian”.

So much can be said about the sheer goodness of the campaign: it’s well-paced, it’s varied, it’s atmospheric and engaging, it’s the most non-linear of the series.  What stands out as the weakest links, though, are the Strike Force missions.

A series of optional side missions designed to add more impact to the story by influencing China and America’s relationship, these real-time strategy segments are undermined by the interface for selecting and moving individual units being unwieldy to control, as well as a serious deficit of ally AI responsiveness to your orders.  For example, to have any one unit guard a location, you must select the entire group of those types of units and send them en masse to that location, which may or may not happen if enemies happen to attract the group’s attention. Luckily, you can take control of any respective soldier, turret, or drone directly and play these missions from the usual first-person perspective, so it isn’t a deal-breaker.

If the campaign has received improvements of this magnitude, one would think the multiplayer must have seen changes.  On the surface, Black Ops II sports many of the same qualities in its online suite as previous instalments: progressive levelling system,  classic modes like Deathmatch and Capture the Flag, vast weapons customization system.  Where differences lie are in the details.

One such detail is the Pick 10 system.  Basically, a player has 10 inventory slots that they can fill with anything they wish – primary weapons, sidearms, perks, grenades, the works.  Want to wield dual pistols and a Lightweight perk for increased speed? You can now do that. Have a desire to carry a ballistic knife and sneak around? There’s unlockable equipment for that.   Furthermore, there are three Wildcard slots which allow the player to add further equipment to their loadout by “cheating”.

The unlock system goes by tokens earned per level up; as a player’s rank increases, they can choose what to unlock and equip as they see fit, spending one token per weapon or item.  This adds to the sheer freedom this game wants to emphasize by allowing players to transcend the whole “one size fits all” ideal of most online multiplayer experiences. This also manages to apply to the Kill Streaks, which are now called “Score Streaks” and focus on completing various objectives rather than just trying to kill enemies. For those seeking a classically hardcore challenge, though, Prestige returns as a way of marking a player’s experience, and can be done 10 times across 55 ranks to earn all of the items.

Some less common modes also managed to find their way into the experience.  Alongside the aforementioned mainstays, party modes like One in the Chamber (earn a bullet for each kill) and Sticks and Stones (run around with combat axes, ballistic knives, and crossbows) have been brought back from Black OpsModern Warfare 3‘s Kill Confirmed – where players must grab the dogtags of fallen allies and enemies to gain points –  returns with greater experience payoff, and a new mode called Hardpoint (requiring players to capture and hold a position to earn points) has been included.

There is also a greater focus on including gamers who don’t frequent online shooters, through the addition of Combat Training.  This allows players to fight AI-controlled opponents – or “bots” – while still having access to an upgrade system and a limited number of match types.  It allows players to build up their skills and test the waters before trying their luck with more players.

Last, there are features here meant to add to Call of Duty‘s appeal as a social interface and as an extension of e-Sports.  The Theatre mode, for instance, allows you to create a modest highlight reel of your matches, as well as enabling live-streaming of a person’s games to YouTube.  The Player Card returns with League Play rankings, and the matchmaking system for Black Ops 2 allows for players of approximately equal skill are matched up.

Then we come to Zombies Mode, which has seen its fair share of restructuring and revamping beyond the simple “build barriers, fight off hordes of zombies and survive” premise.  First off, there are now three modes available to players: the classic singular-location Survival, and the new Grief and Tranzit modes.

Don’t expect any drastic changes with Survival, beyond the characters (who don’t seem as entertaining as those in Black Ops) and the weapons.  Grief is a new twist on Survival: two teams of four players compete for survival, doing their best to direct the zombies toward the other team since neither team can kill one another.  The premise sounds interesting, but chances are this might wear out once people realize how repetitively treacherous the matches can get.

The standout, therefore, is Tranzit, a mode allowing for a party of players to travel from Survival location to Survival location via a robot-piloted bus.  As you and your team progress, parts of gadgets can be picked up and put together as part of blueprints, creating all sorts of useful gadgets.  Part of the appeal, besides the variation in map locations and the danger of being left behind to survive, is the trial-and-error process of figuring out what parts go with which blueprints and building the resulting contraptions.

I’ve babbled on and on about the gameplay, but its presentation truly is worth noting.  Yes, the IW3.0 engine is aging – evidenced by some particle effects here and there.  No, it does not prevent me from still being impressed.  The detailed and nuanced visual quality works with the high-quality animation of characters’ faces and bodies and the variety of beautiful locales to create an immersive experience.

Sound quality is equally impressive in Black Ops 2.  The return of voice actors from Black Ops, combined with household names like Michael Rooker and Michael Keaton, give the story and overall experience more depth and resonance for the player.   Also, while nothing truly stood out in the soundtrack, every orchestral theme played felt appropriate to the situation and added atmosphere that few Call of Duty instalments have ever managed; special mention goes to the main theme, which is on the verge of memorability.

Now we reach the end.  2013 is on our doorstep, marking Call of Duty‘s tenth anniversary.  If the series were to end here, I’d be satisfied knowing that it left on its highest note yet.  Indeed, this game, while still tied to its formula, did all it could to inject meaning, relevance, personality and even closure into its franchise.  With that in mind, I applaud Treyarch: you’ve given us what I am calling – and forgive me for the fanboy-esque tone – the best of the series.

The future is black, indeed, but that’s not a bad thing at all.

Score: 9.5/10

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