One thing rings true through each moment spent with Call of Duty Black Ops 2: this is now an institution.
It seems obvious, of course, but like Madden, Clint Eastwood Oscar-bait, and the old adage regarding “death and taxes,” Call of Duty has become a clock-settingly reliable part of life. Because of this, we know that each November will bring only so many new things to the table, and the question is here raised: “does this year’s outing, Black Ops 2, do enough with such a familiar formula that we will remember it beyond next year’s installment, or is it just another CoD game?”
The respective answer is “doubtful,” and yet, “decidedly not.” Black Ops 2 changes more about the series than we’ve ever seen, in ways that are both valuable and exciting. Unfortunately, its excellent multiplayer additions and revised plot structure are met with what is easily the most poorly written campaign of the series to date. It has gained much as a game, but it has lost much as a military thriller.
The frames-per-second count is 60. The left trigger aims down the sights. The right trigger fires your weapon. The DLC is overpriced.
These cardinal tenets of Call of Duty haven’t changed, and who expected them to? Black Ops 2 doesn’t handle them any better or worse than its forebears. The “pipe-cleaner of death” formula that CoD sticks to is pretty much exactly the same here, yet the way each mission factors into the overarching story has been completely rearticulated.
Treyarch has used the past two years to bring something seriously different to Call of Duty: a narrative that adapts to player skill and choice. To their credit, this isn’t just a simple series of binary decisions- although there are many of those as well -but a campaign that shifts and flows around what players are able to accomplish and where they decide to go.
The way this new structure is presented is somewhat disjointed, and the dialog that stitches the tale of cyberweapons and 99% outrage together is awful, but we’ll get to that. What’s great about this new approach to storytelling is that it trusts the players to prioritize pathways and objectives for themselves, leading to whatever benefits or detriments that await their actions. There’s no good or bad involved, just pure consequence. The two playthroughs that lead into this review produced two completely different conclusions, and the story has enough variables in place for about six different endings. Bad writing aside, here’s hoping that this campaign design becomes a regular feature of the series.
The campaign adds one more new feature that seems like it’ll either be refined in future installments, or dropped altogether: Strike Force missions. Crudely, these optional side-missions can be described as, “Baby’s First XCOM.” Players are dropped into a multiplayer map and given a discrete objective that’s tangentially related to the plot. The twist here is that players have direct control of several fire-teams, special drone equipment, and a tactical UAV that can be used to coordinate all of these assets for attack and defense. At any time, one can assume control of a soldier, or drone, or the UAV, and issue commands to the other units from that perspective.
Theoretically, this means that the game can be played either as a traditional first-person shooter or a light RTS. In practice, the simplicity of the “move here/shoot that” commands and the sometimes sluggish nature of the AI means that it’s usually better to take direct control of a soldier and play it through like a traditional CoD level. Nevertheless, these missions are enjoyable and don’t overstay their welcome, with a late game smash-and-grab in Pakistan being a particular standout.
Zombies mode: Treyarch has also brought back their self-curated Zombies mode to Black Ops 2, although this time it’s called “TranZit” (henceforth known as Transit, because that’s dumb). Transit is positioned as its own separate campaign, but in reality it’s just a slightly more cohesive 4-player co-op premise.
Four survivors find themselves on a bus controlled by a crazy robotic driver that transports them to different locations (read: maps), where they engage in the same zombie killing and point spending that Zombies mode is known for. Players who haven’t found themselves taken with this sub-game in the past won’t find anything new to love here, and vice-versa. It’s expanded, but it also feels like it’s treading water.
Multiplayer mode: This is Black Ops 2’s true standout. Treyarch has made a few key changes that put more customization and improvisation in players’ hands than ever before. Instead of archetypal classes and rigid class creation guidelines, Black Ops 2 employs a new system called “Pick 10.” With their entire array of unlocks before them, players can create almost any combination of perks, weapons and attachments. This lets players to do away with equipment they never use, such as secondary weapons, and replace those things with extra perks or attachments. It allows for uncompromising flexibility when crafting a class to fit a certain playstyle, to the degree that one wonders if the hardcore CoD-base can learn to adapt to a less restrictive class-system.
Treyarch has also changed the Killstreak system to the new “Scorestreak” system, which grants Killstreak rewards to successful players based on the points they earn in a single spawn rather than kills. The idea is to level the playing field for those who aren’t very adept at racking up a bodycount, but since points reset after each death and kills are still the best way to accrue points it really doesn’t change much. Still, that’s not a bad thing, as it’s not any worse, it just doesn’t really work as intended.
A few new modes have been added as well. The wager matches from Black Ops have returned as “Party Games,” and a new mode called “Hardpoint” brings Halo’s “King of the Hill” mode to the series for the first time. These are fine and dandy, but the best new feature by far is the Multi-Team playlist. In this, 3 teams of 3 players each square off in elected rounds of Team Deathmatch, Hardpoint, and Kill Confirmed. The three-team interplay works perfectly for CoD’s turn-on-a-dime pacing, and the smaller team size means that big streaks feels more rewarding to the team and more impressive as an individual combatant. With the right use of Pick 10 and a good set of friends for backup, this is "the best timeline" for Call of Duty.
Black Ops 2 is pushing its nine-year old engine and the consoles it runs on heavier than ever. Treyarch loves ambient particle effects and fire to be on display as often as possible, and in the earlier levels of the campaign it leads to some dropped frames and even slowdown. They also seem to have done a lot of work on the post-processing, because while the game generally has a ton going on, textures that aren’t in motion have a certain blurriness to them that feels like they’re not intended to be held up to still scrutiny. It’s a trade-off, slightly more action for slightly lower-res assets, and for better or worse that makes it nearly identical to its predecessors.
Treyarch has also greatly improved their sound design on this go around, but this too has a few shortcomings. While guns, explosions, and the ambient effects that help to place them in the environment sound much more convincing than they did in Black Ops, the sound library for each gun seems like it was cut down to the bare-essentials. Put simply, the new assault rifle recording is pretty awesome, but hearing it used for nearly every assault rifle robs the armory of its personality.
Treyarch has choked this disc with content. Out of the box, Black Ops 2 feels like it has more to see and do than any other CoD game before it. One could easily fall into the multiplayer’s endless challenges and class variations as they could replay the campaign for better placement on the leaderboards and more insight into the story. But no matter what mode players come to this for, it’s the story that gives the clearest indication of where Black Ops 2 will sit in the series’ legacy. While the single player has been overhauled and absorbed more of Treyarch’s time than any other part of the package, the areas where it fails are also the most glaring and disappointing since the unfortunate Call of Duty 3.
The problem here is twofold: presentation and writing. Treyarch doesn’t share Infinity Ward’s eye for fluidity, and the slick plot momentum of the Modern Wafare games is completely at odds with Black Ops 2’s lurchy, disjointed loading screens and summarizing exposition. Nearly every story scene concludes abruptly, but without going straight into gameplay, and it makes these transitions feel very awkward. Likewise, Treyarch has added a bizarre “planes returning to base” interstitial between each level that disrupts the urgency usually found in Call of Duty. The best stories in this franchise have adroitly never stopped progressing long enough to give players time to think through anything other than necessary information, but Black Ops 2 seems bent on generously allowing its audience time to pick apart some of the more nonsensical turns in its plot, of which there are many. This brings us to the second problem.
The dialog in Black Ops 2 is some of the saddest, most immature and grating mix of foul language and military jargon that’s been put into the genre. In so many words, the script has more unearned “f**ks” than Marilyn Manson’s middle-school math homework. Again, this is an area where the series traditionally avoids such a common pitfall by never allowing characters to speak more than they need to, but the characters here (many of whom return from the first Black Ops) are all flagrantly Type-A jackasses who each have unrealistically personal stakes in the larger plot. It makes them not only irritating, but unintentionally funny when they start realizing just how many of the plot turns are directly related to things that happened to them in the past. It’s contrived on a planetary scale.
Most of this is due to the game’s villain, Raul Menendez. Treyarch has made an honest effort at crafting a truly sympathetic villain for the series, rather than just a bad guy. However, Menendez’s characterization, to say nothing of his motivations, is neither compelling nor original, and it makes him look overdone compared to the simpler but more threatening antagonists of the series’ past. Without spoiling anything, Menendez doesn’t work because the character who catalyzes his descent into vengeful rage is never seen or heard from in any meaningful way. How can the audience sympathize with the villain when they don’t know who he’s fighting for?
Activision’s massive budget did its best to compensate for the substandard writing with an amazing voice cast, which makes the story’s frequently incredible performances look even more embarrassing. James C. Burns’ intense turn as Sgt. Woods is undercut by the character’s transformation into a geriatric Tourette’s patient; Michael Rooker’s best line isn’t even audible, and the inclusion of the venerable Tony Todd seems focused entirely on getting him to say “c**ksucker” as many times as possible. The script is rarely above the level of Tom Clancy fan-fic, and a disgrace to the stories that came before it. Nowhere is this better displayed than after the credits, when the entire affair jumps a shark so huge that its dorsal fin pierces the Troposphere.
And yet: it’s reaching farther than the series has to. And yet: it’s still hugely enjoyable, taken in aggregate. And yet: there is always next year.
And so the institution rolls on.
Black Ops 2, in thematic solidarity with the sacrifices of its protagonists, will likely not be remembered among the best of its brethren. And yet, the best Call of Duty installments yet to come will succeed because of the work that Treyarch has done here.