One of the things I really like about reviewing games is going back over my reviews when a sequel or another instalment in a franchise comes out. The Call of Duty series takes the top prize for being my most reviewed franchise with not 1, not 2 but 3 previous reviews which I can draw on directly for comparisons. For someone who used to avoid any game that was based around one war or another it’s interesting to see how quickly I came around once I started playing the Call of Duty series, being hooked after a single game. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is the latest instalment in the franchise from Treyarch and I must say that they’ve really outdone themselves this time, firmly placing themselves on the same level as Infinity Ward.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II takes place in the not too distant future of the USA in 2025. The story centres around David Mason, son of Alex Mason the main protagonist from the original Black Ops, who’s tracking down a known terrorist called Raul Menendez. Much of the story is recounted in flashbacks from an ageing Frank Woods who David Mason consult with to try and find out where Menedez is and what he might be up to. It’s through these flash backs that you start to make sense of some of the events of your past and understand why things certain things have happened and why you’re still alive to see them.
For a primarily console game I wasn’t expecting a major update in graphics from any of its predecessors as I believe they were tapping out the capabilities of the Xbox360 some time ago. Compared to Modern Warfare 3 this seems to be largely true with them both having similar levels of graphical detail. However if you compare it to Treyarch’s previous release there’s most definitely a step up which they’re to be commended for. If I’m honest whilst the graphics aren’t a massive improvement over Modern Warfare 3 they are a hell of a lot more smooth, especially when there’s a lot of action going on. For a game that is almost entirely fast paced action this is a very welcome improvement, especially when it comes to multiplayer (which I’ll touch on later).
If you’ve played any of the Call of Duty series you’ll know the basic breakdown of the game play that I’m about to give you. It’s a First Person Shooter and so you’ll spend the vast majority of your time running around, letting bullets loose at varying arrays of enemies and utilizing your additional equipment (like grenades, flash bangs and remote C4) to tip the scales in your favour. Thanks to the ability to customize your load out before starting a mission you can also tailor your experience somewhat by say favouring sniper rifles over close range spray ‘n’ pray type weapons. For what its worth I usually played with assault rifles and SMGs, preferring to run carelessly into battle while unleashing torrents of bullets at my foes.
Black Ops II, like nearly all other titles in the Call of Duty franchise, has their trademark FPS experience that’s so well polished that it just flows with an effortless grace. All the actions (running, jumping, shooting) just plain work like you expect them to. Whilst many other FPS type games will draw my ire for one core game play issue or another I really do find it hard to find fault with the fundamentals of any Call of Duty game. Arguably this is due to the ongoing success of the series which has been allowed to refine every element over the course of so many games but it still doesn’t fail to impress me, even after seeing it for the 4th time in as many years.
Treyarch has recognized that simply running from point A to point B and shooting everything along the way does get a little boring after a while and has included many different distractions along the way to break up the repetition. Shown above is just one of the many little set pieces they include (this one was actually fairly early on in the game) which was an extremely fun way to start the mission off. They have also included a second mission type called Strike Force which is very different from the usual missions and is more akin to a game like Natural Selection, blending RTS elements with FPS game play.
The Strike Force missions put you in control of a squad of marines, robots and flying drones that you will use to accomplish a mission. They’re all different, ranging from a defend the objective to rescuing and escorting someone out, and whilst you can treat it like a regular mission by taking control of one of the units directly you’ll need to issue orders to the other AIs constantly if you want to finish it successfully. If I’m honest I didn’t enjoy them that much at the start but after a while I really started to get into them, employing varying tactics and just loving being able to play with reckless abandon.
After all this praise I feel its appropriate to mention the few minor issues with Black Ops II that can lead to you having a bad time. Like nearly all FPS games that lump you with AI friends to help you out they are, for the most part, completely useless and will likely cause your death more often than they’ll save it. For instance I’ve seen my AI buddies run around corner and proceeded to think it was completely safe however since most of the other AIs won’t target them, only you, this can often mean that there’s someone hiding around the corner but they won’t trigger until you run into their line of sight. This is in addition to them getting in your way every so often which can cause your death when you’re trying to take cover or, more comically, fail a mission when they put their head in front of your sniper rifle (“Friendly fire will not be tolerated!” apparently).
I also had an issue with some of the triggers not going off, causing the game to get stuck at a particular point. The one I can remember clearly was when I was in the bunker just before the Celerium device. I walked in and reprogrammed an ASD to fight for me but after doing so my crew just sort of stood around, not doing anything. Try as I might to get them to move I simply couldn’t and since there’s no “restart from last checkpoint” option in the menu I opted for the tried and true jump on my own grenade to get back to my last checkpoint. After that everything worked as expected but it wasn’t an isolated incident and its something that’s been present in previous Call of Duty titles.
In a very surprising change to the Call of Duty formula you actually have quite a bit of agency in Black Ops II with the game playing out very differently should you make different choices at different times. They are, for the most part, unfortunately binary but there are other softer choices like completing the Strike Missions which will have an influence on how the last hours of the game plays out. The Black Ops II wiki page (SPOILER WARNING on that link) informs me that there’s no less than 5 separate endings available to you which is far more than you average FPS. That, combined with the fact that they’re not presented to you in Endotron 3000 style means that Black Ops II is quite a step up in terms of story.
The story in and of itself is quite enthralling too, even if the beginning confused me somewhat (although that’s somewhat typical for me in Call of Duty games, if I’m honest). I was nicely surprised by how progressive it seemed as well with many characters being female, including the President, and subtle references to current social ideals like the 99% vs the 1% and so on. After my good mate’s take down of the last Call of Duty’s story and lack of agency I had a much more critical eye on Black Ops II’s story than I have for any other game in the series and it makes me very happy to say that they’ve stepped up their game and my expectations were more than met.
The multi-player is pretty much what I’ve come to expect from Call of Duty games bringing back all the classic match up modes along side the newer ideas like Kill Confirmed. Unlike the original Black Ops which allowed you to choose a server Black Ops II instead uses the same match making system that Modern Warfare 3 did. Usually I’d make a note here about how this sucks (and there are still reasons why it does) but since it works and can usually find me a game in under a minute it’s hard to complain about it. Treyarch has also brought back the much loved Nuketown map which has been revamped for the modern era. They also took it away which led to quite the uproar from the community (many of whom preordered just to get said map) but they’ve since brought it back so kudos to them for listening.
There’s really not a lot that’s new or inventive about the multi-player in Black Ops II that I’ve seen yet with the experience system, upgrades and challenges all being very reminiscent of both Modern Warfare 3 and the original Black Ops. It’s kind of hard to improve on that formula since it works so well but those who are looking for a wholly new multiplayer experience ala Battlefield 3 will find themselves disappointed. However for those like me who love the fast paced, spammy action that maps like Nuketown bring you it’s more the same thing we’ve come to love and I still can’t get enough of it.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II catapults Teryarch up from the doldrums of being Infinity Ward’s poor cousin and firmly places them right at their side, showing that they’re quite capable of delivering a game that’s every bit as epic and enjoyable. The graphics are a great step up, the game play smooth and polished and the story is very fulfilling, a rarity in the FPS genre. The multiplayer might not be much different from its predecessors but it works well and is just as addictive as its predecessors which will see me spending many more hours on it. I thoroughly enjoyed my time both in the single and multi player parts of this game and should you be in the market for some top notch, AAA FPS action then you really can’t go past Black Ops II.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is available on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox360 right now for $89.99, $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on Veteran difficulty with 7.3 hours in single player unlocking 71% of the achievements and 2 hours in multiplayer. A review copy of the game was provided to The Refined Geek from Activision for the purposes of reviewing.