Review: Call Of Duty: Black Ops II
The future is... black?... That's racist!
- Addictive?If you're into first person shooters, it's the premier experience.
- Worth The Time?More so than any previous Call of Duty title.
- Things LovedThe singleplayer campaign is the best yet. The characters and plot twists are all quite intriguing. The game takes some big risks with storytelling. The visuals betray the age of the game engine. The soundtrack feels so fittingly out of place. It all works to suck you in and engage you. When you're done with the singleplayer, there is so much more for you, still.
- Things HatedThe campaign feels rushed sometimes, as if it's in a hurry to go somewhere and isn't afraid to leave you behind. The new unit movements are finicky and can get annoying. In the end, it's still a Call of Duty game.
- RecommendationIf you're a Call of Duty fan, you've already bought this. The rest of you might consider this as well, read below to find out why.
- Quick ConclusionCall of Duty: Black Ops II is the best Call of Duty game to come out in a very long time, and I dare call it better than the previous 'best of the rest' Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It takes a lot of risks and does enough to feel fresh, new and as frantic as ever. This is the blockbuster action flick equivalent of gaming.
- Name: Call Of Duty: Black Ops II
- Genre: FPS
- Players: 1 - 4
- Multiplayer: Online competitive, co-operative, split-screen
- Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U
- Developer: Treyarch
- Publisher: Activision / Square Enix (Japan)
- Price: R 600
- Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Well this is a tough one. There are many of you reading this who have come in with an opinion that is set in stone, who will read every word of mine yet leave with exactly the same opinion as before.
Regardless of how I score this game, there are already those who would claim to love it, having pre-ordered it from the get-go, and now deem it the best game they’ve played this year, while on the other side of the coin there will be those who hate it, hate everything it stands for, and will never stoop to the level of paying actual money for what they feel is the worst game this year by default. Or, you know, they say that and then play it anyway because gaming.
That is a shame because what I have to say to you right now might just do for your opinion, what planes do to really tall buildings. Too soon?
This review, then, while relevant enough to be consumed by anyone who decides to read it, deals specifically with those people who are okay with the Call of Duty series and just need a final verdict on whether or not it’s worth their purchase. So basically the people reviews are actually meant for.
I’ll save you a lot of trouble and some reading: Buy it.
Buy it now and thank me later. But if you really must know my motivations then stay tuned and keep reading because it’s going to be a wild ride of intrigue and excitement, and guns. Lots of guns.
First let’s address the gigantic elephant in the room that is the game’s engine. It is based on the Modern Warfare engine that you’re used to by now, yes. This is true. However Treyarch have made extensive modifications to it, such that while it might handle the same (which is good), it certainly doesn’t look the same (which is also good). The thing is, people have always been up in arms about graphics and how the focus on visuals causes a sacrifice in playability, so why people complained about an outdated but perfectly functional engine, only Gordon Freeman knows.
Thankfully that makes no matter here, because Black Ops II is actually quite a pretty game. It even features DirectX 11 support on PC. The aged engine does suffer from slowdown during extremely busy sequences but for the most part it is quite playable and visceral enough that you forget you’re playing on an engine that is now well past its use-by date. It’s the little things that Treyarch have considered and you really notice them while playing through the game.
Such things as hit boxes that actually matter, where now a character that is shot in the leg won’t go down as if they were shot through the head. Where you shoot counts, and enemies will react accordingly, clutching newly created neck holes or grabbing a shattered knee cap, and so on. A non-lethal shot will cause the enemy to roll around, incapacitated, rather than die. And this time cover actually works, when it’s not degradable. It’s a refreshing change from previous titles from the developer where enemies went down in a single animation always, and for magical reasons were able to shoot you through walls while you were unable to return the favour.
It’s also really great to have some varied and interesting locations, some of the best in the entire series. Yes, the sandy, Middle East areas are still a thing and there are some levels which feel reminiscent of previous titles in the series, but for the most part they do enough differently to feel fresh and even then, at least it’s the cool parts from those other games from which inspiration is taken. More on this in a bit.
Let’s first talk about the story, which I feel is an essential part of any Call of Duty experience, regardless of how many hours you clock up online. I will say this much of it: It is absolutely fucking bonkers.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great story and I will spend many words explaining why, but Treyarch are seriously the kings of doing crazy things with a serious tone, almost to the point that it seems more like parody. In the previous Black Ops you tore up an entire system of riverside-dwelling villages while Sympathy For The Devil blared on in the background. Black Ops II has more of those crazy moments, here favouring horse rides through the Middle East and slow-motion shootouts in a club to the backing sounds of Skrillex. Yes, seriously.
On the note of slow-motion, there is thankfully a lot less of that in this game. But everything else is still here in typically insane amounts. And the thing is, it really, really works. I would say that Black Ops II has one of the most interesting, relevant, and well-scripted stories I have played in the Call of Duty series, moving between time periods via flashbacks and throwing plot twist after plot twist at you, and it even takes some big risks by allowing you, at times, to see things from the perspective of the so-called villain, whom by the end of the game you might end up actually sympathising with.
Further, and for the first time in the series, your choices actually matter. Yes I know we’ve all heard this before with certain other games that I may or may not adore, but here it’s actually very nicely carried out. Every so often as you play through the game, you will be presented with a choice that you must make, before you may progress. Some of these choices are really difficult, and you will spend lots of time trying to figure out which to make, some others aren’t as important. Either way, every choice you make has some impact on the game, with variations in how the story is told depending on those choices. The endings might also differ, not as drastically sure, but enough to make you want to go back and try out the alternatives. What’s that, replayability in a Call of Duty game? Blasphemy.
As part of its narrative, which surprisingly features no tutorial whatsoever for the actual campaign, there are also a few unique Strike Force missions which attempt to bring strategy into the franchise. There is a tutorial for this, thankfully, and you will need it because these new missions are frantic and chances are you will fail a few times before you get the hang of it. Strike Force missions present you with an objective and a few squads of units, be it soldier or tech, with which to carry out that objective. It might involve defending a base or rescuing a person of interest, but each mission is tied into the campaign’s story while remaining entirely optional to the player. If you opt not to do them, the story still continues but the repercussions come to show later on.
What’s interesting here is that death doesn’t mean failure, but rather not completing the objective is what you should be attempting to avoid. Some maps have time limits, some have specific unit restrictions, but for the most part your units will respawn after they are killed so all you need to focus on is completion of the objective. The game allows an isometric view of the battlefield for tactical insertions and strategically guiding squads, however you may also, at any point, assume direct control (Harbinger-style) of a unit if you so desire. The result is a very, very challenging (seriously, don’t even try this on Veteran) game mode that feels equally rewarding upon successful completion.
Unfortunately it’s used very sparingly in the campaign and since it relies on the game’s equivalent of retries — called Strike Force Teams — until you’ve finished the game you can only play these missions a few times and even afterwards, assuming you are successful, there’s no point to playing them again because nothing really changes. Fun though they are. I feel Treyarch needs to add this as a separate mode or expand on this with downloadable content, because it’s got a lot of potential.
In fact, that’s basically how I feel about Black Ops II’s singleplayer component in its entirety. They took some risks and pulled off a lot, but the campaign, while by no means short, felt as if it was building up to something great and in the last three or so missions, it concluded everything. I was left afterwards, craving more and wondering what had just happened. It’s almost as if the game suddenly accelerates in pacing and if you’re not keeping up entirely, then you’re left behind. While I praise Treyarch for trying new things and presenting what I consider to be the best Call of Duty story so far, I feel they could have added on a few more hours of missions after a plot twist much later on, which implied (to me anyway) that the real game had only just begun. What’s even more of a bother is that Black Ops II touches on probably the most relevant and intriguing theme of our current era, towards its conclusion, without ever actually elaborating on any of it.
Keeping to the story for the moment, I think it’s also worth mentioning that the characters in the story are now fully fleshed out, voiced and believable enough. They also actually hit things with their weapons. While the reason for the main protagonist’s current state of employ is never quite fully explained, pretty much everything else is, which is great. Particular mention must go to Raul Menendez, the game’s so-called villain, who comes across as this poetic and proficient sort of fearless anti-hero with a heart, kind of like when Antonio Banderas was El Mariachi. His motivations are believable, and his methods seem almost justified considering what he’s been through.
Like a really good action flick, Black Ops II is a rollercoaster ride that if you close your eyes, you might miss out on entirely. This might make it feel rushed and forced, even tiring at times, but if you give it your attention then it will reward you with entertainment.
Whether you’re playing in the flashback sequences or the current-day future of 2025, the differences are easily distinguished by the technology available to you, including some really awesome weaponry such as a sniper rifle that shoots through walls and a motion sensing reflex sight that lights up your vision with enemy movement. All of this is complimented by the vibrant and varied locations which include jungles, deserts, flooded streets, military bases and more. There’s enough going on in each level that you might actually forget you’re in a shooter and feel a need to explore your surroundings.
I might warn that some of these levels are not for those who suffer motion sickness, with some vehicle segments — again, best in the series — really trying even my ability to see straight, and I’m the guy who turns off the crosshair in Mirror’s Edge… I’m that hardcore.
Another issue for me which is more related to how the game has been designed, involves the new unit movements which to me feel finicky at best. Often times, I’d sprinted towards a low piece of cover and attempted to prone, only to watch my character vault over that cover and then crouch in front of it. While playing on Veteran. You cannot believe the annoyance. I get that diving is cool and these things work great contextually, but sometimes I just want to be able to sprint into cover and not die. Is that too much to ask?
Thankfully this doesn’t happen too often and nor does any sort of real frustration, which is a unique sort of thing for a Call of Duty game on Veteran, and that’s thanks mostly to the soundtrack which I can only describe as aurally arousing. Done by none other than Trent Reznor himself, of Nine Inch Nails fame, the soundtrack is… well, to call it fitting would be a stretch (inb4 sex joke) but that’s the beauty of it — it’s so perfect in that it’s not at all fitting, yet it works well with the game. There are times while sitting in a menu for example, where I had to remind myself that I was playing an action game with mass murder and excessive use of the word ‘fuck’ — although heaven knows why they censored the word ‘pissing’ that one time.
Moving onto other modes, it’s amazing just how much of game this game packs. The Zombies mode is still a thing, and in Black Ops II there are… shall I say, levels you have never quite experienced before in a game. It all seems well and good initially, and then you open up a door and discover a bus which you proceed to jump into, and it starts moving. The next thing you know, you and three friends are shooting up zombies from what you’d call a party bus (Xbox 360 gamers will get the pun) and wondering where this game has been, your whole life. It’s equally as ridiculous as the main story, and rightly so.
In Zombies, you also build items now, collecting parts which are scattered across the map and assembling them to create random items which offer their own upgrades. You can still buy weapons and unlock doors as normal, however this time around some items might offer a means of doing those without spending points. There are new zombie types as well, now, and the new playable characters are each quite entertaining, spouting off one-liners at random times and comically blaming things whenever you go down, thanks to yet another zombie-slap to the face. It would be nice if one could pick between them instead of being randomly assigned one, each time. Still, Zombies is Treyarch at their absolute wackiest and nothing has changed, this time around.
I’m not going to talk too much about the multiplayer aspect of the game because by now, you already know the deal regarding the Call of Duty series. And really, is anyone here looking for help deciding whether to buy one of the best multiplayer offerings around? Black Ops II brings futuristic, over-the-top weaponry to online multiplayer, which throws balancing right out the window yet remains equal parts fun and frustrating, like the online multiplayer experience you know and love.
The usual story of character levelling, progression and so on are still around, and you are free to create clan tags and emblems as before. The usual Treyarch game modes still feature, my favourite being Gun Game in which you have a single weapon and get a new, better one each time you get a kill. Getting through all the weapons means you win. Unfortunately, perhaps thanks to South African lag or bad matchmaking, I was unable to get into a Team Deathmatch game despite trying countless times and waiting for up to half an hour. This might have been different for those with faster lines or more patience, or perhaps friends to play with. It makes no matter, because we already know that as far as addictive online experiences go, that was never in any doubt from Black Ops II.
In all, Black Ops II is an amazing package, so packed full of content that at R600 it seems almost a steal. Whether it’s the excellent albeit short campaign, the Zombies mode which you can co-op with some friends, or the online Multiplayer mode which throws out the rulebook and does things its own way, there is so much of game on offer and you would be remiss to pass up the opportunity to experience what I believe to be the best Call of Duty
care package yet.
The game has a lot to offer, and it does so much so well that really, the aged engine and the rushed feel of the campaign seem almost insignificant by comparison. Set aside your beliefs of the Call of Duty series and try this one out, you won’t regret it.