Love it or hate it, Call of Duty has become more than just a videogame. Over the last few years, Activision has taken the series from the relative obscurity of the gaming culture and thrust it into the mainstream. While this is a great thing for Activision, it has made Call of Duty a rather polarizing topic in the gaming world. With a yearly release schedule, alternating these last several years between the Black Ops developers Treyarch and the Modern Warfare developers Infinity Ward, many gamers have written Call of Duty off as an evil scheme to milk them of their milk money. The frantic pace of Call of Duty releases may upset some gamers, but for millions of fans of the series it has become a steady drip of FPS bliss to keep them virtually murdering their friends online. Last year’s Modern Warfare 3 from Infinity Ward brought the series back to the present day and back to smashing last year’s sales records. How will Treyarch’s Black Ops 2 fare this year? No pressure, right?
In case you have been in a coma since May and you’ve missed the relentless marketing campaign, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is the followup to 2010’s Call of Duty: Black Ops from Treyarch. In the first game, we followed the story of Alex Mason, a USMC Captain who gets caught up in the story after being captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba after helping his buddy USMC Sgt. Frank Woods escape. Mason gets subjected to some messed up brainwashing that leaves him a little worse for the wear. Black Ops 2 opens in the year 2025 with some serious looking guys with guns storming into a secret military facility to find a much older Frank Woods. Turns out there is a bad guy they believe Woods has information on. The story jumps back and forth between 2025 where you will play as Mason’s son David, now a US Navy SEAL, and the late 80s where you play again as Alex Mason. In 2025 you are tasked with taking out the bad guy Raul Menendez, and in the flashback missions you uncover the back story of what turned Raul Menendez into the bad guy that he is.
The story is a little hard to follow at times, especially if you are playing the game in small installments. Also, a lot of plot details are often communicated to you over a remote comm, sometimes when you have other things on your mind like not dying. This makes it easy to lose the plot, as they say. This is made even worse with all of the jumping back and forth from the ’80s to 2025. If you can decipher all of the military speak, follow the jumps between flashback and “current” day (and aren’t distracted by the number of times the Admiral calls people cocksuckers), you will be witness to something truly remarkable in a First Person Shooter—especially a modern day shooter. Actually, there are a few remarkable things. First off, most of the time you won’t be fighting random generic middle eastern terrorists. Thank your personal deity and hope we’ve gotten past that in modern military shooters. Secondly, you might actually give a crap about the bad guy. But not because he is demonized and you want nothing more than to transport yourself into the game and murder his face. Treyarch made him human. He’s not just some random guy with a grudge against the world, he’s a guy who has had a lot of shit happen to him and he, perhaps rightfully, blames America for ruining his life. Granted, he takes that anger and dials up his revenge well beyond 11, but you can understand his motivations.
The actual gameplay is relatively standard issue, at least for the flashback missions. In fact, some of the flashback missions that take place during the 1980s are a bit glitchy and seem to lack polish. No, there is plenty of sausage. In fact, there is a distinct lack of prominent female characters in the game. What I mean is the flashback missions don’t seem as “done” as the near-future 2025 missions. For example, in one of the earlier missions you will be boarding a barge that is rapidly moving up the river. Of course there are dudes on said barge for you to kill, but when you kill them they seem to behave as if you’re cruising up a river on a planet with much different physics than our own. Instead of just falling to the deck, the enemies will fly towards you, like they’ve suddenly lost their mass and the motion of the boat is too much to keep them anchored to the ground. Another mission has you helping Afghanis repel a Soviet invasion. See, we’re not killing them, we’re helping them! But I somehow completed an objective before I was supposed to and I got stuck with an objective marker that didn’t do anything. After about half an hour of killing the same Russian soldiers over and over again I had to restart the level and carefully follow the instructions. Boo.
By contrast, the year 2025 missions are much more solid. The advanced tech makes for some variety to the usual point-and-shoot gameplay. With everything from flying squirrel wing suits, jetpacks, guns that can see through walls and all manner of robotic murder assistants, there is a lot of cool stuff to play with. While nothing is going to rock the foundations of the FPS genre, it is nice to see an established franchise trying to shake things up.
Speaking of shaking things up, after a few missions in the single player campaign I stumbled on one of the most interesting changes to the single player campaign. After listening to the Admiral curse about the latest enemy threat, you’re told that a military base in India needs to be defended. One would naturally expect your next mission to take you to India to battle through some well choreographed set pieces, see some things blow up and move on to the next mission. Instead, you’re greeted with a tutorial for the Strike Force missions. Strike Force is a mini Real Time Strategy mode where you will be commanding multiple groups of units to complete a number of objectives. The objectives vary based on the mission, but they range from Base Defense to Base Attack to herding a group of vehicles through a desert with quadcopters and mini AT-AT drones. You can direct the action using either a tactical view that feels more like an RTS, or you can take control of one of your units with a more traditional FPS view. At any time you can issue commands to your units, or take control of a different unit in FPS mode. It’s not nearly as deep as a “real” RTS, but again I have to applaud Treyarch’s attempts to do something different. Even if you just play as one individual unit the whole mission, you’re still getting a different experience than what you would expect from a Call of Duty mission.
Another interesting twist to the Strike Force missions is depending on whether or not you choose to complete them (they’re optional missions), and whether or not you beat them will have an impact on the outcome of the game. There are also some decision points during the story where you will be asked to choose what to do. Your choices will have an impact later in the game. This is another big change from the linear stories in earlier games. This also adds some replayability to the single player. I’m curious to find out what will happen if I make different choices.
Since this is a Treyarch Call of Duty game, it would not be complete without Zombies. As with Call of Duty: World at War and Call of Duty: Black Ops, the Zombies mode is a co-operative mode where you party up with up to 3 other players and try to stay alive against endless waves of undead. In the first two games, these missions unfolded in a single area, often with hidden areas that could be opened up with the points earned by killing zombies. While this same style returns with the Zombies Survival mode, Black Ops 2 adds 2 more ways to play Zombies. In Tranzit, you start out in a seemingly similar scenario where you’re stuck with just a pistol and have to fight off waves of zombies. But eventually you’ll find that there is a bus outside. Hopping on the bus will take you to other areas of this new open world consisting of several different areas. You will find work benches and “parts” scattered around the world that you can use to craft some interesting gear or beef up your bus. If you’re feeling brave you can even venture into the fog between the main areas in Tranzit where you will probably just find a quicker death. Tranzit is another good example of Treyarch not being afraid to mix things up.
You can’t talk about a Call of Duty game and not spend a good deal of time talking about the multiplayer portion of the game. For many people, this is the game. Personally, I think that this is one of the best multiplayer Call of Duty experiences yet. If you excuse the inevitable server issues that crop up every year during the first couple weeks, when the game works it WORKS. Black Ops had been the most broken Call of Duty I’ve played when it comes to nitty gritty network stuff like lag compensation, so I was nervous about how well its successor would play. The handy dandy Call of Duty ELITE service tells me I have spent over four hours so far in actual multiplayer matches, not counting time in lobbies, in menus, etc. and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every match thus far.
Continuing with the theme I have seen thus far, Treyarch hasn’t been shy about messing with any of the tried and true formulas with multiplayer either. The most obvious change to the system is Create a Class. Previous games gave you the ability to create custom classes where you could choose a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, a perk from each of three different perk groups, a lethal grenade, and a tactical grenade. Black Ops 2 throws a monkey bomb into the system with their Pick 10 system. Instead of choosing one thing for each “slot”, you are allowed 10 points that you can use to setup your class. If you don’t ever use a secondary weapon like a pistol or a rocket launcher, you can skip it and save the points for something else. If you don’t throw grenades, use those points to add more attachments to your weapon. You will also start to unlock “wildcards” as you rank up, which give you even more flexibility. Some wildcards will let you equip multiple perks in a particular perk group if you’re willing to sacrifice something like tactical grenades or a secondary weapon. You can even go wild and not give yourself any weapons, just a bunch of perks and a knife. I am really enjoying the Pick 10 system so far. I am an obsessive tinkerer, so I love the ability to fine tune my class to fit my play style.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare introduced the concept of the killstreak to Call of Duty, rewarding you for your ability to murder dudes without allowing yourself to be similarly rendered deceased. Later games gave you the ability to choose what killstreak rewards you wanted and expanded them from 3 pre-defined rewards to dozens. Last year’s Modern Warfare 3 introduced the concept of the score streak, where you could also earn these rewards through completing objectives like capturing flags, planting a bomb in Demolition matches, etc. While Black Ops 2 doesn’t include the multiple sets of streak rewards for Assault or Support or Specialist rewards, it does reward you for completing objectives and otherwise helping your team. For instance, you get more points for capturing a flag in Domination that the other team was holding than you get for capturing a flag nobody had captured yet, and you get more points for capturing the middle “B” flag that is generally more difficult to control. I love any gameplay mechanic that promotes good teamwork.
The Combat Training mode from Black Ops also returns in Black Ops 2, but this time it adds a dedicated Combat Training playlist in public matches. The Boot Camp playlist will match you up with other new players and has a level 10 cap. Granted, it doesn’t take more than a few matches to get up to level 10, but the fact that higher ranked players are excluded will theoretically give new players a relatively easy introduction to multiplayer. Once you have reached level 10 you can continue playing Combat Training, but you have to graduate to the level 10+ playlist and you only earn a fraction of the XP. In theory this should discourage more advanced players from preying on noobs, but from the lobbies I joined I heard a lot of people that did not sound very new to the game. The verdict is still out on whether or no this will be a safe place for new players to hone their skills or if it will be a good way for advanced players to link up with fresh meat to pad their Kill to Death Ratio.
All things told, there seem to be a good mix of fresh ideas in Black Ops 2 to hold most players’ interest for another year. Between the single player experience, the co-op Zombies and the multiplayer, even the casual Call of Duty player is going to be playing for dozens of hours. For the more fanatical players, you don’t need to take my word for it, you’ve probably already bought the game and have spent the whole week taking some sick leave sitting on your couch in a diaper popping caffeine pills to stay ahead on the leaderboards. To you, I say — gross, dude. Change that diaper.
While some gamers may be getting tired of the feverish pace of Call of Duty releases, the series’ popularity does not yet seem to have peaked. The game engine may not be a complete overhaul from the engine that powered Black Ops, but if I learned anything from my Medal of Honor: Warfighter review it’s that a technically impressive game engine can not compensate for sub par gameplay. Black Ops 2 brings the same intense action the series is known for, with some interesting Treyarch twists. It may not be shiny and sparkly new, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to play.