The Call of Duty franchise has come a long way since its inception in 2003. At the time, its depiction of 1940s warfare was revolutionary for video games, and much critical praise was heaped on developer Infinity Ward. The Russian campaign of that game, where players were put in the boots of a foot soldier during the siege of Stalingrad, remains one of gaming’s most memorable moments. Since that time, the franchise has gone through two re-imaginings with the introduction of the Modern Warfare series and more recently, Treyarch’s Black Ops. As Call of Duty cast off the shackles of the crowded World War II shooter genre it found itself at the forefront of another gaming revolution whereby the multiplayer portion of the Modern Warfare and Black Ops games became as popular, if not more, than the single player campaign. Now, one can set their watch to the annual pre-holiday Call of Duty release and the record setting sales figures that comes with each new iteration.
Two parallel storylines unfold throughout the Black Ops II campaign. One arc features Alex Mason and Frank Woods as 1980s CIA operatives during the tail end of the Cold War. From Angola to Afghanistan to Panama, Alex and Frank find themselves in the midst of several historical real world proxy wars with each location linked by a mysterious criminal Raul Menendez. The second story features Alex Mason’s grown son, David in the year 2025. A second cold war has bogged down international politics and once again Raul Menendez is at the centre of a global conspiracy which threatens the peace. David’s understanding of the geopolitical chess match is facilitated through his discussions with an aged wheelchair bound Frank Woods who developed a unique perspective having participated in the missions of the earlier timeline.
"The game hits its stride when it presents features that move beyond your traditional shooter, whether that be shooting at helicopters from horseback or diving out the back of a crippled plane."
The majority of Black Ops II is in the same vein as its predecessor consisting largely of gun fights in exotic locales. The battles range from large scale desert warfare to more intimate room to room fire fights. The multitude of locales encountered in the 1980s globetrotting are varied enough such that each level feels fresh and all of the environments are ones I hadn’t encountered in previous shooters. This is no small feat on the part of the developer given the recycled backdrops common in the FPS genre. Most noteworthy is when the game travels to Afghanistan circa 1986. Riding on horseback players are pitched in battle against Soviet troops supported with heavy armor. This is one of the few examples of asymmetric warfare I can recall in a video game where the technology of each side is a century apart. The environments encountered during the futuristic levels in 2025 are less interesting. A significant number of these levels entail traversing corridors such as below deck on the USS Barak Obama. The sanitized environment only becomes interesting once the action moves to above deck. While the locations in the future storyline are a bit of a letdown, the gadgets and gear are not. From gloves that adhere to a rock face to winged gliding suits for aerial drops, the high tech equipment is not too sophisticated as to be unbelievable for a time period thirteen years from now.
In addition to the standard levels which move the story forward there are a series of optional special Strike Force missions in the single player campaign. The missions are objective based and normally consist of capturing or defending a person or some high value real estate. These levels marry FPS gameplay with real time strategy (RTS) elements. From the macro RTS view of the battlefield players can jump into the shoes of any soldier, turret or controllable machine. These levels were a nice palate cleanser from the regular missions encountered and had more of a multiplayer feel than single player campaign. While I did enjoy the variety that the Strike Force missions brought to the game, the choice to make them optional preceded with only a quick mission briefing meant that they felt disengaged from the greater story arc and could have been their own separate mode. Therefore, while enjoyable from a technical standpoint they lacked the resonance of the campaign.
The controls for the game are tight and responsive. One of the difficulties with a FPS is finding the proper aiming mechanic. Modern Warfare II was an example where the game’s aim assist was far too generous and the aiming cross hairs magically moved over the nearest enemy when attempting to target. Black Ops II scales this assistance down to where you barely notice the game’s subtle hand guiding crosshairs towards the victim. The ability to run, duck, jump, and reload are effortless. I never suffered a death that I could blame on the controls or my character not responding how I had wished.
In regards to in-game deaths, it should be noted that my deaths were few and far between. This was not due to any grand gaming skill on my part. Rather it can be attributed to an auto health recovery feature that is far too forgiving. As is standard fare with most shooters, whenever your character is severely injured, players must duck behind some cover and wait for a short period of time to recover their health and regain their strength. This recovery period is ridiculously short in Black Ops II and there is little fear of death because health regenerates so quickly. Had I a greater fear of death, many levels would have played out quite differently. Instead I found the standard “Rambo” approach to suffice in most situations where attacking full steam with guns blazing could clear out a room of a half dozen baddies. The AI of the enemies also dumbed down the difficulty of the game a little too much. Most enemies had predictable actions and movements and rarely presented a challenge. Only when a multitude of enemies were present, or I was outgunned, did I feel like it was a fair fight. Even then, flanking an enemy position almost guaranteed that I would get behind the enemy defensive positions spelling a quick end to them.
The presentation here is on par with that of any Hollywood blockbuster. The cut scene action moments presented from the first person perspective have an unsteadiness that conveys the vertigo of heights and the concussive blasts of explosions. Non-playable character animations are fluid and natural and environmental damage is realistic. This coupled with near photo realistic lighting results in a living breathing world populated with believable characters. Not just eye candy, the graphics convey the tone of each level whether that be the anxiety inducing chaos of open battles or the white knuckle tension of slinking up on an unsuspecting victim for a stealth kill. Many of the finest moments in Black Ops II occur when it deviates from the standard FPS tropes. Laying bear traps on the ground during a retreat provided one of those satisfying moments. So too was flying a futuristic jet and laying supporting fire for a ground convoy or running from turret to turret to repel a group of enemies trying to board my boat on a jungle river. These moments are the ones that are the most memorable and in terms of replay value, are the ones I want to revisit.
The audio presentation is serviceable with the standard bang, pop, and booms of the genre. Voice acting is above average, although some character dialogue has a bit too much faux angst that can be evident from over acting. The most agitating part of the game’s overall presentation does come from excessive audio during the Strike Force missions. The mission control is continuously providing updates and comments with suspect usefulness. The unrelenting screams of “he’s bleeding out” and “we need support” were obnoxious due to their proliferation. There seemed to be hardly a moment without some comment that I would likely be disinterested in.
In addition to the single player campaign Black Ops II has two additional modes for online play, the standard multiplayer as well as zombie mode. The multiplayer features many of the gameplay types Call of Duty fans are familiar with, and the actual gameplay of hunting down others online feels virtually unchanged. What has changed and will encourage countless players to stick with the multiplayer is the addition of league play. For those unable or unwilling to put in the time to get very good at it, multiplayer has always been punishingly hard with a steep learning curve. This year, Black Ops II has introduced league play. Players will partake in several matches and based on their performance they will be placed into skill-based leagues. This results in multiplayer matches having rosters filled with similarly skilled players. It cannot be stated enough how much this affects the overall enjoyment of the game. It is now less likely that a top tier player will be annoyed by encountering a rookie just learning the ways of the multiplayer arena. Those unskilled in the finer points of online play, like myself, will also be less likely to lose interest when they are unable to join the experience on the ground floor. More games could learn from this balancing system. The load out screen also allows for players to customize their weapon configuration allowing players to jump into the action with their pick of primary and secondary firepower. No longer do players need to gain experience to unlock weapons as they are available from the onset.
Zombie mode is more of a mixed bag in terms of lasting appeal. Players can join up online as a group of survivors to hold off a zombie horde as long as possible. In trying to put my finger on why I felt this mode didn’t have the same cachet as a similar themed game such as Left For Dead I came to the conclusion that the gameplay didn’t necessitate the need for cooperation. Sure it was helpful to search out other players and to stick close to them in case I needed to be revived, but the zombie mode does not require the individuals to act as a team. Those familiar with Left for Dead knows that anyone wanting to be a cowboy and go it alone will find themselves pushing daisies in no time. The same can’t be said with zombie mode which tends to defeat the purpose of having fellow survivors. The animations of the actual zombies and their reaction to gunfire also seems to lack the polish found in the other game modes. Zombie mode does hit the mark with its sparing provision of ammunition. This saving grace of the mode is that there is always tension and a pending crisis because zombies greatly out number bullets.
Infinity Ward and Treyarch’s constant back-and-forth re-imaging of their Call of Duty franchise is the reason it continues to feel fresh and deliver kicks these many years later. Black Ops II presents interesting backdrops and fine shooter action. The game hits its stride when it presents features that move beyond your traditional shooter, whether that be shooting at helicopters from horseback or diving out the back of a crippled plane. The game could be more challenging by generating craftier AI and a less forgiving health recovery system. Multiplayer leagues based on skill level is this year’s crowning achievement and should hold gamer’s interest until next year’s version.
Release date : 2012-11-13
Publisher : Activision
Developer : Treyarch
Gameplay : Shooter
Here we are. The next generation of consoles is among us and it is finally time to start thinking about finally unplugging our beloved current-gen systems. Could there be a better swan song for one of these systems than taking a trip back to Rapture?
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Let’s face it: staying in just your underwear, FTW.
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