Call of Duty: Black Ops II Review
If you're reading reviews for Call of Duty: Black Ops II, you've either bought the game already and are looking to see if you agree with reviewers, or you're on the fence about it. If you love it, you're not bothering to look up reviews, and if you hate the Call of Duty series, then you probably also don't need to see a review. I don't have the experience with the franchise to tell you whether you'll be happy with this game's online play for a month and then suddenly sour on it - although I'm of the opinion that that's plenty of enjoyment for a $60 game - nor can I tell you whether the perks, killstreaks, or new class system are balanced.
My review is almost solely for those who are on the fence about this game and those who may have felt a bit burned by the Call of Duty franchise before. That's because I've been there, and I've experienced that heavy fatigue many gamers have felt with these never-ending releases of military shooters. Treyarch themselves haven't always done the very best with making Call of Duty fans happy, but they're still doing pretty well, and this year's release is intended to be the most diverse, jam-packed-with-content game in the franchise yet. They actually did pretty much deliver on this, but the entire package comes off as unfocused with something like a video game version of multiple personality disorder. Sometimes Treyarch has a huge success, and other times, the game falls apart. It's one of the most feature-packed shooters you can find on consoles, but then over on PC, the vaunted PC-only features like DirectX 11 support and dedicated servers don't really add up to much since it's the same tech, the same claustrophobic maps, and the same basic features.
The campaign swaps back and forth between timelines in 1986 and 2025. In the earlier timeline, you'll be flashing back to the first Black Ops' protagonist, Alex Mason, and in the future you play as his son David, with a few perspective swaps mixed in - including to the big villain, Raul Menendez, as he builds a globally organized insurgency like an Occupy Wall Street-style populist movement, but in this case it's to motivate them to rise up and violently smash capitalist governments.
That's about all of the plot set up I want to give since the game's more personal story moments - not the battles you saw in the trailers, not the military lingo and order-screaming that has become a hallmark of these games, but the interactions between the main characters - are probably the best part of playing Black Ops II's single player mode. The campaign is about as short as you expect from games like this, and the few plot choices you get to choose from don't really make much of a difference in the overall progression of the villain's plan or the locations you'll visit, but they do affect the ending, sure. Oh, and speaking of the villain's plan, it's silly - like, Fox TV show 24-during-the-bad-seasons-silly - and the developers love putting you in close contact with Menendez and then not letting you take him out. All I wanted to do was aim down the sight and pull the trigger and end this thing, but no, the game purposely creates multiple encounters where I get close to him, and then the game refuses to let me actually kill him. I suppose that these up-close meetings are Treyarch's way to flesh Menendez out, but hey, Handsome Jack was villainized just fine without me getting to see him in person for more than a couple of minutes.
You'll find plenty of stupid and predictably dense actions by the game's heroes - including by the ones you're controlling during non-playable cutscenes - but hey, that's pretty much par for the course in Call of Duty, right? At least it's got some nice twists and interesting bits, including a few fun and exotic levels like a luxury liner built as a massive, floating resort. You'll also get to configure your weapon loadout, perks, and attachments before jumping into a campaign mission. It's a small thing, but it's nice. Finally, new "Strikeforce" missions introduce multiplayer-oriented features like defend/capture modes where you direct troops in an almost RTS-style interface and can drop down to control any unit manually at any time - something that I wish Halo Wars allowed me to do - but sadly, the buggy and unreliable AI drags this mode down.
The campaign missions set in 2025 include a bunch of silly technobabble and battles involving unmanned ground and aerial drones, some of which you'll get to take control of, along with weapons that can scan for heat signatures, fire through walls, or mark hostile targets for you when you aim down the sight. Does any of it really add up to much? The developers wanted to use these features to breathe new life into the franchise and make this Call of Duty the most diverse and new in years, but I don't feel that it really plays out quite that way. These new features are minor, while bigger issues regarding the game's innovation loom: the engine's too old so the maps have to be relatively small, the action and plot are too predictable too often, and the developers felt the need to stick too much to years-old gameplay conventions - ones invented by the original Infinity Ward guys so many years ago - to really break through and make this iteration feel truly new. It's a damn solid game that's polished to a spit shine, but it's not groundbreaking.
The same basic issues I had in offline play held true in the mulitplayer modes as well, although here the difference is that this samey feel is what Call of Duty players actually generally want in online play. The new gadgets and weapons make for some interesting changes in online strategy and the need for teamwork in some modes is increased as well, but it's still basically the same game on the same medium-sized maps that you're used to. One thing I like is that the class system has been mostly replaced with a system where you choose ten "things" for your character, be they weapons, attachments, perks, or the like. It gives players a bit more freedom than they might be used to, and that might lead to imbalanced setups, but even with this, I still don't feel like I can speak with authority over whether the online play here will last you a week, a month, or a year. At this point, what I can tell you is that if you've enjoyed Call of Duty online play in the past, what you'll find in Black Ops II is good enough for you to find out for yourself. Well, except for one thing: if you hated how you could spawn so close to an enemy in Black Ops, it doesn't seem like they worked on that issue at all, as it happened to me quite a bit. If that's a game-breaker for you, then run away now.
It's impossible for me to tell you in the first day or two of release whether there's some perk that will definitely turn into something that's horribly overused and overpowered, or whether you're going to like all the new additions over the relative simplicity of an earlier Call of Duty game. And even then, everyone has their own opinions and people often disagree on these things, so I'll give you the basic rundown: new gear and weapons and more class-based freedom, but it's the same engine and same basic action you have come to expect from Infinity Ward, and the same quirks and randomness you'll see from Treyarch. You'll get interesting new features like YouTube livestreaming on consoles as well as being able to populate mulitplayer maps with offline bots to test out new loadouts and perks, but these don't make much of a difference for most gamers; Call of Duty needs a reboot on new tech, not five facelifts in a row.
But hey, no one should have really expected much more than what Treyarch delivered this year. Even with an id Software-made engine that's essentially been reworked many times over the last fifteen (!) years, it's still pushing the current consoles to their limits for 60fps gameplay, and as long as consoles are where the majority of sales are coming from, that's what Activision and its Call of Duty teams will focus on. Anyone looking for shiny new tech, huge maps, large player counts and the like - while maintaining the silky smooth 60fps action - are going to have to wait on the next generation of consoles. If things go to plan and new consoles are announced for the end of 2013, it's possible that a new Call of Duty launches on that hardware, so people might get what they're wishing for - finally.
Zombies mode has had some decent changes done to it, including the usual Survival mode along with a new mode called Tranzit where you move around between the maps on an AI-driven bus, and even a versus mode with four survivors against four player-controlled zombies. There are some people that play Treyarch's games solely for the Zombies mode, but that's really not me, nor do I think those gamers need my opinion on this mode to make their decision; suffice it to say that Zombies mode has had just as much attention this time around as it has in Black Ops.
On Xbox 360, Black Ops II runs smoothly, with nary a hitch under the series' signature 60fps smoothness. The characters are generally well-animated with some fairly densely-packed scenes, and the feel of action is exactly what a Call of Duty veteran wants and expects. Livestreams direct to YouTube, as far as I know, is a first for any console game, and while the quality isn't amazing, you can link in your chat and even a webcam into the feed, all without any damage to the game's frame rate that I saw in the short time I played around with it.
Over on PC, there's just not a lot to really scream about. Treyarch brought DirectX 11 support, but that's just a graphics library; on its own, it offers little in the way of improvements except a very slight increase in graphics efficiency. This looks exactly like Call of Duty games have looked on PC for years, so you get what looks like mildly improved texture quality over the console editions, some modest FOV adjustments, and the basic image quality improvements a better video card can bestow, like higher screen resolution, depth of field, ambient occlusion, antialiasing, and the like. The maps are still small, the player count is still a rather intimate 18, and the online modes are unmodified. The best multiplatform releases come with unique features on PC that take advantage of all that extra horsepower most PC gamers have, like Battlefield 3's 64 players or Skyrim's mod support, and Black Ops II generally falls flat in this respect. It's certainly a workable port here on PC and it's technically the best version of the game available (unless you specifically need the split-screen support of the console version), but more importantly, you should play Black Ops II on whatever platform your friends are playing it on - that should really be the primary thing.
Treyarch aimed to widen the scope of Call of Duty with this sequel, and they did, but I don't feel like it turned out to be the vast success they hoped it to be. Everything's still limited by the technology, and while the new timeline offers plenty of additional weapons and gadgets, they don't really make the basic formula (in single player or online modes) really better. The voice acting is decent, the lip sync and facial animations are great, and the soundtrack by Jack Wall (with assistance on the main theme by Trent Reznor) are fantastic, but these are all things you probably expected. Black Ops II shows just how far a developer can go with nearly unlimited cash and the time to polish everything to a mirror shine, but there are several limitations being hit here - the biggest of which is a game engine desperately in need of retirement - that hold the game back from being as innovative as Treyarch wanted it to be. Black Ops II will sell millions of copies regardless, but for those on the fringes or on the fence and can't decide whether to pick this one up, know that despite the developers' valiant efforts, it's more of the same.
Disclaimer: This review is based on final PC and 360 copies of the game not provided by the publisher.