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.