The Call of Duty franchise practically prints money for Activision shareholders. It is for this reason that an annual release in November is as certain as Thanksgiving. 2012 marked Treyarch’s turn in the development driver seat and they are looking to show that they aren’t just the Call of Duty “B-Team.” Unfortunately, Call of Duty: Black Ops II falls short of the lofty expectations set forth by the stellar World at War and the original Black Ops.
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360 (Version Played)
Genre: Modern Warfare FPS… Again
Release Date: November 13, 2012
ESRB Rating: Mature
Many gamers will jump right into multiplayer first. Why not start with arguably the most important feature of Call of Duty? I’m not even sure disappointment is the right descriptor to use. Underwhelming seems fitting. It is mostly the same basic multiplayer and Treyarch really didn’t do much to innovate or move this mode forward like they tried to do with the campaign in any way, which I’ll get to in a moment. For those okay with forking out dollars for status quo, you’ll likely feel right at home and can live with the incremental changes that plague every release of Call of Duty going back to the first Modern Warfare. I can’t live with status quo when it comes to this billion dollar franchise. It always feels like I’ve been there and done that.
The multiplayer game modes are mostly unchanged with a minor addition called Hardpoint, a King of the Hill-style mode. Everything else is present and accounted for. You can choose to play in a new League Play option, but I found every match I participated in to be full of lag. I can only assume that is because there are less people playing those modes and the game is going to match you up with anyone it can find in the appropriate division you are in. My biggest complaint when it comes to game modes is the lack of hardcore. The game should ship with a version of hardcore for all game modes. Yet, like previous releases, the hardcore modes are limited. These kinds of things should be included when the game ships.
What seems to bother me the most about multiplayer is a subtle change that has occurred I admit is nothing short of conspiracy theory. I’m not a big conspiracy theorist but, the multiplayer in BO2 feels as if it has been designed to restrict the intangibles that appeal to the hardcore CoD gamer, thereby making the game more accessible to the average gamer, thereby giving everyone an even playing field. What happened to honing skills to become competitive? What happened to learning to adapt and improvise based on things like connectivity, other gamers’ skills, and loadouts? The multiplayer now reeks of rewarding mediocrity and bad connections like handing out participation awards in sports. It isn’t about winning or losing anymore. It is about making sure that even the weakest of links are satisfied enough with their experience enough that they’ll keep coming back.
It isn’t all bad. The graphics and gameplay provide great looking levels and character details as well as top notch control and customization. Certain ideas have been tweaked for improvement, like unlock tokens. You can unlock something as long as you have the tokens to spend on them, thereby improving the customization experience. The catch is you still have to be a certain level to unlock some weapons, which I just don’t get. Other positives include setting the max level of hitting a Prestige to 55. If there’s one thing CoD has perfected, it’s the carrot-on-a-stick reward system. Finally, Scorestreaks replace the overwhelming and utterly confusing streak system implemented in Modern Warfare 3 by condensing it down to one loadout with a variety of choices for your loadout. It is an all-around better reward system for kills and objectives.
The multiplayer can be fun, but it comes at a cost. I had to completely reinvent my play style within the parameters set forth by the insistence of gameplay catered to the run-n-gun lone wolf gamers. I wish I didn’t have to go to such extreme lengths to get any kind of satisfaction that ends up feeling bittersweet in the end.
The campaign (do many gamers even want Call of Duty campaigns anymore?), while serviceable, didn’t do much to endear itself to my expectations for greatness. I consider Treyarch the better developer when it comes to the single player experience. They could’ve used a mulligan on this one. Black Ops II tries to follow up on its predecessor’s formula of Hollywood plot twists and turns in an effort to tell the somewhat convoluted story of Raul Menendez and his efforts in starting a new Cold War. The 2025 adventure features characters new and old, but you’ll primarily control David Mason, son of Alex Mason from the original Black Ops. You’ll control David in the “present” day 2025 missions while flashing back to the ‘80s for the Alex missions, both of whom are firmly entrenched in the plans of Menendez.
Unfortunately, the whole thing comes off as a poor man’s episode of 24. You already know the humdrum formula. The good guys are always a step behind, people die, other people return from the dead, bad guys want revenge, and there’s the now-fashionable threat on U.S. soil. Didn’t we just do this plot in the Modern Warfare series? Action set pieces that are the staple of a CoD campaign can only go so far to save this one.
One of the more surprising disappointments was the lack of inspiration in the cast. The voice acting is bland. This game misses a character like Reznov (who makes a cameo for but a split second). None of the characters have charisma. Sam Worthington brings his cardboard acting back to Alex Mason who seems rather peachy considering he should be a certifiable nutjob after the events of the first game. It also seems odd that they didn’t have Ed Harris reprise his role as Hudson, but they enlisted Michael Rooker to voice David Mason’s partner. So, I guess it’s a fair trade.
Strike Force missions are a new addition to the campaign. They’re Treyarch’s way of integrating tower defense gameplay in order to break up the monotony of running in a straight line and blasting everything in your path. It’s an interesting side note in the campaign, but they aren’t critical to beating the game unless you want to achieve a better ending. It might have been better served to make them mandatory because this game is a breeze, even on veteran difficulty. You don’t even need to attempt them if you don’t want to.
The signature mode to Treyarch’s version of CoD returns: Zombies. What started out as an intriguing time-waster has morphed into its own little phenomena and is a mandatory addition for fans of slaughtering zombie hordes. I’m not one of them. I find the whole zombie thing to be overdone, though I can appreciate a good zombie game. I summarize Zombies in CoD in one word: boring.
I will commend Treyarch for improvements made to this mode over the years; interesting characters with funny one-liners, new variants of modes like TranZit and Grief (which adds another team of four to the mix, but you can’t kill them), and some fun noteworthy maps. The gameplay is still dull and each version and their add-ons feature obtuse missions with hair-pullingly hard Achievements that takes the most remarkable coordination and luck to pull off. Frankly, all of that effort can go right back into multiplayer as far as I’m concerned. Zombies doesn’t detract from my CoD experience. I just ignore it like it wasn’t there.
Call of Duty as a franchise desperately needs some R&R. The multiple developers need to get together and strategize on how to reinvent and reinvigorate this series for the many disenchanted fans that have grown tired of the stagnancy. The single player has lost any luster it used to have. The multiplayer just continues the same trends we’ve seen for years. Activision should do the fans and this series a favor and take some time off from the annualization and bring it back to glory, even if that means waiting for a new generation of machines. You can’t stay on top forever with the same game year after year.
Review Disclosure: A retail copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops II was purchased by Warp Zoned for the purposes of this review.