Annual game releases are quite dichotomic for gamers. On one hand, you have a large group of folks who eagerly await each year's Madden or Call of Duty, pre-order months and months ahead and eagerly wait in line to pick up the game at midnight launch events. On the other hand you have a group of gamers that look down on these practices, viewing them as money grabs and cheap cash-ins on a name brand. Whatever these games are to you, there's no doubt a franchise like Call of Duty brings recognition to the game industry in a way smaller titles can never do.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is this year's release of the franchise, and I consider myself to be someone able to see both sides of the argument presented above. But this is the first year I truly feel that the series has taken a step back in some regards. Whether that's because of a shorter development cycle or poor implementation of fresh ideas - Black Ops 2 just doesn't seem to resonate with me the same way Modern Warfare 3 did last year.
The original Black Ops had a story I found to be a muddled mess. It was disjointed, disorganized, and I was disinterested completely by the end. Thankfully some solid gameplay and some amazing set pieces offset the shortcomings in the narrative. Black Ops 2 is a direct sequel to the first game, putting you in the shoes of the original character Alex Mason for missions taking place in the past and David Mason, his son, for missions taking place in the future. Along the way you'll jump into some other character's boots, including a view from the enemy side. The narrative is a bit more clear cut, and it's also more believable - a international madman has created a virus to control computerized military assets.
Perhaps the most ambitious element of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is also it's most confusing. The story itself is non-linear. Missions feature objectives you can fail yet still complete the mission overall, changing the dynamic of later missions. Further there are optional "Strike-Force " missions which play out with a bird's-eye view "Commander " element, allowing you to control multiple military assets and jump in any of their shoes as well. They tie together nicely - for instance one mission I failed to rescue a hacker from being kidnapped, so a Strike-Force mission opened up which allowed me to rescue her. Sadly, I found the Strike-Force missions frustrating, many of them being played out against a clock.
My final disappointment with the game comes from the combat itself. It's incredibly linear with very little deviation from the game's script. Perhaps Halo 4's "puzzle " combat has spoiled me, but every situation basically boils down to - "here's this gun, go down this path, and shoot these guys. " Sure you can customize your loadout before a mission bringing different "tools " with you - but they all essentially feel the same. I don't feel like I'm accomplishing something different. These scripted moments are most evident in the simplest of things - for instance - if an enemy is going up or down a set of stairs - they'll completely ignore you until they get done with that action.
All that said Black Ops 2 still does some amazing things in terms of set pieces. From the game's opening sequence on an African plain with hundreds of soldiers in a battle, to riding on horseback and shooting down helicopters with an RPG, there's some truly Michael Bay-esque moments. Perhaps none of those are greater than some of the later levels which include a giant Aircraft Carrier - the USS Obama - and the downtown Los Angeles level we've seen from E3 last year. Black Ops 2 never skips a beat during any of this large sequences and it looks amazing while doing it.
The campaign is only one piece of the Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 triangle this year. The other two are Multiplayer and Zombies. Zombies is actually where the co-op is at, but we'll briefly touch on multiplayer. Sadly there's no "combat training " this year for co-op players, though you can play matches with bots, it's a bit more disorganized than before. The multiplayer itself got a huge overhaul, and I'd do it a disservice to explain the intricacies of these changes. The biggest of which are the way loadouts and killstreaks work, the latter which are renamed score streaks. Overall I'm just not a fan of the Black Ops 2 multiplayer experience - but I know there are people that enjoy it. Just know if you liked the previous game's, there is a bit of a learning curve to figure out the new progression system.
Zombies is our final menu item and obviously the most important to us. Treyarch created this game mode in the original Call of Duty: World at War as a bonus and it's grown with every successive Treyarch developed Call of Duty. The original Black Ops saw some insanely high production values in this mode with DLC like Rezurrection and Call of the Dead which featured Hollywood likeness and voice talent. Zombies in Black Ops 2 is split up into three modes - Tranzit, Survival, and Grief.
Tranzit is the main draw here putting players in an "open world " of zombie infestation. Several areas are connected by a bus that players hop on and off of, each area holding new secrets and items as well as goals to accomplish. While the core of this mode is still survive zombies, defend buildings, and get better weapons - there's a metagame that runs underneath this. It's not entirely apparent all of what that game is or entails as Treyarch doesn't spell out objectives. Instead, if you're like me, you rely on the 12 year olds playing the game online to tell you what they are. For instance you can collect parts to build objects that generate power to open doors, find objects to upgrade the bus - like a ladder or a defense bumper for the front.
It's all well and good but developing a co-op strategy is just hit or miss because nobody knows exactly WHAT to do next. The only end game goal that anyone knows of is to survive. But the nature of the mode, with the bus, removes the element of strategy that makes the Survival mode so addictive.
Survival is the familiar zombie mode from the previous games, though it takes place on any of the smaller areas found in Tranzit. While the maps are somewhat modified, they do feel weaker compared to some of the previous offerings. I just never felt like we were forced into the decision of - "Do we open this door to get this gun and risk another entrance point, or just suck it up. " That balancing act isn't present, especially with the mystery box being so prevalent and easily accessible. Still - if you want the more strategy oriented gameplay - this is where you'll find it.
At least there's 4 player split-screen support.
Finally Grief is sort of a versus mode where there are two teams - CDC and FBI - as well as zombies. While everyone can work together, the winner of the match is the team to survive a round with at least one man standing. This means the earlier levels are incredibly easy and the later levels become a bit crowded. The biggest problem? Actually finishing a game. Once you get to the point where the zombies are actually able to overrun most of the players, having at least player left to kill the remaining zombies is a chore and can be damn near impossible. I sat in a match stuck on wave 10 for 45 minutes before finally quitting.
It's admirable that Treyarch didn't rest on their laurels and release a simple "Call of Duty map pack " into the yearly mix. They honestly changed up and tried some different things in every game mode - single player, multiplayer and co-op. Unfortunately while I think some of the changes are heading in the right direction, I don't think the limited time frame allowed them to mature fully and be realized. Oh well, there's always next year.
The Co-Optimus review of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is based on the 360 version of the game which was supplied by the publisher.