I enjoyed Black Ops when it came out two years ago, but I always felt like Treyarch was lagging behind Infinity Ward when it came to developing its Call of Duty series. Most people consider Treyarch titles the 'go between' for the new releases of Modern Warfare. Modern Warfare introduces huge maps, Black Ops follows.
With that said, while some things stay the same, there are moments where things greatly change. Treyarch throws their Black Ops II hat in the arena determined to prove that they're not second fiddle, and they have taken the chances with Black Ops II to prove it.
Without further delay, let's get right to it.
Two storylines connect to create the overall opus for Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Part of the game is played as Alex Mason, who along with Frank Woods go through the 70s and 80s on several missions. The missions are directly related to what's going on in the future storyline of 2025 featuring Alex's son, David. Both timelines share a common enemy in Raul Menendez, who seeks revenge for the murder of his family by the hands of the United States. Much like the first Black Ops game, you move back and forth between timelines and the characters involved in them with Menendez being the central point of both. Along the way, you'll find famous faces from military past cropping up in the story, such as Manuel Noriega. It was kind of shocking to see him featured in the game, especially the brief role he plays, but satisfying to see his exit.
Anyway, the movement from past to present, with Frank Woods (and others) helping to bridge the gap is far less disruptive than the first Black Ops. This game seemed a bit more glued together than the last title, although there are times where you'll miss just a little detail in the story and the continuity gets lost briefly. In other words, don't skip the cutscenes.
Overall, the story pieced together treats the gameplay well. It's certainly not perfect by any means, but it doesn't feel as disjointed as the first Black Ops.
Campaigns in first-person shooters have become a training ground for multiplayer moments. Regardless if it's Call of Duty, Medal of Honor or Battlefield, the campaigns are short and get you ready for why you really bought the game. It's depressing to think about, especially if you've grown up with games from the 90s/2000s and appreciate a great story with some real beef to it. Don't misunsteand my cynical attitude, I understand that including a campaign mode adds value to the experience. What you typically get with the campaign mode is moments of gimmicks, where your man is flying down from the sky, sniping from across the mountain or riding in some vehicle. These moments are fantastic, though brief and sometimes non-repeating ventures. Again, it's just a means to an end.
Treyarch has thrown a bit of a curveball into that equation. While you still get that intense fighting action that you're use to, especially at the beginning of the game where you're sent out to take down the MLA in Africa, there are moments of honest-to-God change. For example, an hour or so into the campaign you're in a 1986 flashback with Frank Woods who is about to help stop the Russians in Afghanistan. Woods meets his Afghan contacts under an incredibly detailed Buddha at Bamiyan statue, who proceed to give him a horse to ride through the desert to their cave hideout. Riding a horse through the desert makes complete sense and doesn't feel at all like a gimmick. You can tell that Treyarch maintained this train of thought throughout the game. It felt like it belonged rather than forced. Don't get me wrong, there are one-trick ponies in this title, but they're relevant to the storyline, which is something that has been lacking in first-person shooters recently.
Staying on the topic of 'change', Strike Force is new to the series and a major step 'outside of the box' for CoD titles. If you're not familiar with Strike Force, it's a real-time strategy element. You command troops (and drones/robots) in battle, situate them in certain spots and then move/command them as you please. You can also enter the visuals of any of the troops (yes, even drones/robots) during the fight. The process of choosing and moving them isn't too difficult, as you simply use the directional pad and the LT button to execute their movements. Having said that, please don't skip over the tutorial, as you'll be more lost than Marcus Brody in his own museum (Indiana Jones reference).
The big worry with Strike Force is how it fits into the scheme of things. Normally, Call of Duty (and any FPS game these days) is a fast-paced sort of deal. It has always acted like a Michael Bay film (expect with better writing) that is non-stop action from beginning to end. The only breaks in intensity have been those 'gimmicks' that I wrote about earlier. For me, Strike Force is hit or miss. The first instance of Strike Force is a mission to protect a shield complex in India. You have five or so minutes to protect the complex from the enemy force, who are attacking multiple points of the area. All the attack points lead up to a final attack point in the middle of a factory that brings down the shield, thus leaving India unprotected from invasion. Sending your troops moving in an organized, well thought out fashion to stop the invading force is more than difficult than one would think, at least at first. You may not know the map well, especially if you didn't play multiplayer first, which makes it nearly impossible to figure out the map on the fly. I failed to save India the first time around (had :50 seconds left and lost it), which brought me to a choice: retry the mission or accept the failure and move on. While I love being a perfectionist with games, I just didn't want to do the five minute mission all over again. I wanted to push on and see what else was in the game. Even if I had all the time in the world, I'm not sure I would immediately try it again. It just felt out of place and, again I honestly just wanted to get on with things.
Now, the second Strike Force mission, which involved blowing up a cargo ship in Iran, went a lot better. In this mission, I had to plant devices to disrupt anti-aircraft lasers that were guarding said cargo ship. I had to send in troops to take care of oncoming enemies, while this devices were planted. The mission started off incredibly rough, but once I finally got the hang of Strike Force commands and controls, it went like clockwork. Much like the first Strike Force mission, this one was also timed, but it didn't matter much once I got going. The success of this mission gave me some hope that India could be done better (and successfully), but again I didn't want to immediately go back and try it.
On a side note, you'll find some similarities between elements of Strike Force and a few games on the multiplayer side of Black Ops II. Usually developers separate the two modes (campaign/MP) from each other, but there are times in the campaign where you'll be happy you know multiplayer so well. It's the little things and changes make Black Ops II so likable.
Getting back to the topic at hand, Strike Force may not be the answer for the 'change' in Call of Duty, but it certainly is great effort to add something new with a different flavor to it. Give Treyarch a lot of credit for thinking outside of the box and incorporating a military element into their mega million dollar game. Great formulas are what makes big time publishers rich, and they just stepped outside of it to take a chance. You must commend them for doing so, as it shows they want to bring something new to the gamer, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Let's talk some other gameplay elements of the campaign.
Black Ops II improves upon two elements that drove me absolutely batty in Black Ops; the artificial intelligence of your troops and the enemy's intelligence. No longer are you standing there having to act like Rambo against an army, you actually get help from your fellow non-player characters (NPC). For example, when you're in the 80s raiding the Menendez home and up against heavy fire from Menendez's forces, you actually get help. When I ran up into his house's courtyard, my troops actually backed me up and got rid of some bad guys. Of course, I died several times trying to figure out the right places to hide, but each time I went one way my troops covered me to help out the best way they could. It was never the same way either, which speaks volumes about the improved A.I. .
The enemies are definitely improved, as well. While you still get the patterned movement that you're used to in nearly every game not called Crysis, the enemies at least try not to be in the open when you're killing them. For example, sticking with the Menendez raid level, as I was pushing uphill against his troops, I found some of them running and ducking for cover. That stuff never happened in Black Ops. I remember sitting in one spot during the opening scene of Black Ops and continually killing enemy after enemy without moving from my spot. Treyarch improved it enough to make it very respectable in Black Ops II. Kudos to the developers in a big way, as nothing irritates me more than dumbass enemies.
One small caveat about the enemies is that I wish their overall looks were different. The Menendez level looked like K-Mart was having a sale on white tank tops and jeans, as all the enemies pretty much sported them. Major issue? No, but come on give some variety to their looks.
Moving along, all of you Quick Time Event haters are going to be happy with what Treyarch has done with Black Ops II. Regretfully for you, yes they still have QTE in the game, but it's not as often as in previous years. The QTE seems very balanced in this edition of Black Ops and it makes sense when it happens. Like I said at the beginning of the review, this doesn't feel like a gimmick. It will activate when it needs to activate, which is great. There will even be times where you anticipate it activating and it won't. It's a fun game to play, especially when you're trained for those moments. Again, the QTE seems very well-placed. I'm a huge Dragon's Lair/Heavy Rain fan, so I welcome the QTE times in the game.
So what about the presentation? Well, you get a vastly improved Black Ops engine with the sequel. This includes better details, lighting, shading and texture blending. You'll see all the improvements in the facial structure of the characters, which no longer looks like everyone is sweaty and gross. The jungle stage at the beginning really displays how improved/upgraded the Black Ops engine is on this go around of the series. The water effects alone will convince you of the hardwork that Treyarch put into improving the presentation of the game. Everything visually looks ten times better than the previous title. Vast landscapes that don't look cheap, better environments with a lot more life in them really make for a better graphical experience.
As usual, the acting is top-notch. You get the talents of Sam Worthington (who has less of his native accent in this one) playing Alex Mason, Michael Rooker (love this guy) as the gruff Harper, and the 'Candyman' Tony Todd as Briggs, just to name a few. On top of the quality acting, you also get a badass soundtrack from Trent Reznor, that drives home the game. Truthfully, I'm a huge NIN fan, so I'm a bit biased when it comes to Reznor's music, but honestly it's quite good.
You won't be disappointed with the presentation improvements and additions for Call of Duty: Black Ops II. It's all quite significant and properly done.
Campaign aside, let's get right into what most of you have been dying to know about, multiplayer.
Pick 10 and Wildcards
Let me start off by saying that this is the first year I was somewhat disappointed in regards to breaking away from multiplayer to play campaign. That isn't a knock on the campaign, it's a huge compliment to the improvements that have been made to the multiplayer portion of the game. Let's start with the technical aspects of the MP side of things.
The 'Create a Class' mode has been expanded to hold three perks, one secondary weapon, three additional abilities, and a wide variety of wildcards in the game. You get more of pretty much everything. In addition, the abilities allow for expansion of perks, so you can have two perks for each slot (so a total of 6 at a time). You also have the option to give up a perk for other abilities, such as the ability to have a secondary 'main' weapon instead of a measly sidearm. Want to carry a shotgun and a rifle? Well, you have the option to do so in Black Ops II. The layout of the class creation is a helluva lot easier to understand visually, as it is laid out sensibly. You don't get the lists upon lists of words like you find in Modern Warfare 3. It's all sensible, easy to understand and, more importantly, easy on the eyes. I spent more time putting together custom classes than I have in previous iterations of Call of Duty. This is honestly the first time I found the process intriguing and less burdensome.
Having said that, you have limitations on how many things you can carry and select at once. Select too many things and you are asked to let go of something else. For example, if I put together two abilities and try to add a third, I have to drop an item or a perk. You would think after reading this that it's potentially a pain in the ass, but it's not. It actually makes you think about what type of strategy you're going to implement in that particular customized class. Are you going to choose the better impact attachment over the ability to select two perks? Is having two perks worth it if it means you have to drop a special weapon? It creates a intriguing sense of 'choice' and playing multiplayer over and over again will dictate those choices. You have to play the game to see if your setup works. Choices are a great thing, especially when you have so many different good/bad combinations. Also, this didn't feel senseless and sloppily put together from Treyarch. It felt like it was thought out pretty well.
One of the biggest improvements over the first Black Ops is the size, design and detail of the maps. The maps look less like Battlefield 1943 in Black Ops II and more like Modern Warfare 3 (in some cases better than MW3). Here are the maps you should expect in this one:
Carrier - Probably one of my favorite maps. You have a very restricted space to run up and down the length of an aircraft carrier. The levels mostly are flat, with a slight tilt on one side. Amazingly fun map.
Drone - This is the drone facility out of the first Strike Force mission in India. It's a huge map that allows for plenty of places to hide, camp and snipe. There's plenty of space to maneuver here, which says a lot about the improvements that Treyarch made with Black Ops II.
Express - A wonderful train station that has stalls, second floor firing opportunities and hiding. Cramped in some places, loose as a goose in others, this is a very fun map, if you can get used to it.
Cargo - Not a huge fan of this map, as it's just too disorienting. It's tough to identify enemies because of the containers. I consistently lost on this map. It does offer up the opportunity for sniping and for camping. Beware.
Aftermath - A ruined downtown Los Angeles, which isn't too far from the truth. It's very 'hilly' when you're playing the map. It's best played when you're doing a capture the flag type of event. One of the features is that you can swerve in and out of buildings and end up behind enemy lines once in a while.
Hijacked - Anyone who doesn't like this map needs to return their game or give it to a friend. This is an amazing map located on a yacht. Three levels to play on (upper, mid and lower). Plenty of fun action that's fast and furious. It helps there is a hot tub to hide in. Definitely one of my favorites.
Meltdown - I wasn't a huge fan of the nuclear reactor the last time I saw it in a CoD game, and I'm not much of a fan now. Just didn't enjoy it, but others will love it. Multiple levels will keep you interested in this one. The level doesn't offer much when it comes to movement.
Plaza - Bright lights, big area. You get multiple rooms and a large outside (very open) map to work with in Plaza. It reminded me of many episodes of Miami Vice (plenty of neon).
Raid - This is sorta, kinda a rip-off of the house level in Battlefield 3. This isn't quite as confusing (or as large), but it's fun to blow up cars and break windows in a house. Also, beware of the giant pool, especially if you find yourself in a capture the flag situation.
Slums - This is a pretty enormous map that features a giant fountain, where my ass was handed to me multiple times. It's mostly a flat map, but it has plenty of buildings and corners to hide around.
Standoff - I played Capture the Flag many times on this map. It has multiple levels in buildings to catch unsuspecting victims in. It's not a huge map, but it's got some depth when needed. Watch for folks on roofs with this one.
Turbine - A set of hills and mountains with the a giant turbine in the middle (hollowed out). This is a pretty spectacular map that will definitely gain you plenty of XP. PLENTY OF XP.
Yemen - Team Deathmatch works well here, and there are enough multiple levels on this map to make any sniper (or camper) happy as hell. It's fun, a little unfair at times for the weaker gamers, but offers up plenty of challenges.
To be honest, I haven't gotten around to Nuketown just yet, but I'm sure it's a blast (no pun intended). I think that Treyarch has certainly put a ton of time and effort into making these maps more than worth their weight in gold. I was highly impressed with what they put together in comparison to the first Black Ops. I felt like that most of the maps in the first game were bland, with some interesting items here and there, but Black Ops II makes that a distant memory. I'm very impressed with what they've done with the above maps. They really seemed to put some thought into it.
Maps aside, there are new ways to play in the game as well. Treyarch added the following types of games to the mix:
Multi-Team - While I didn't play much of this, it offers up three teams with three players each to battle for map control. The concept seems interesting, but sometimes it can lead to unfair advantages to a weak team. I like the concept, but not a fan of the execution.
Hard Point -- Picture capture the flag, but without the capturing part. Hard Point is a hold and earn points sort of game. It was one of the more enjoyable games added to this year's title and one that I'll be playing for a while.
Party Games -- Gun Game, One in the Chamber, Sharpshooter and Sticks & Stones returns in this category. Fan favorites for sure, but I'm not a huge fan of them. I'll stick to the old regulars.
While there are other details on the multiplayer side of things, these were the main modes I enjoyed the most with Black Ops II, in addition to Team Death Match, Kill Confirm, etc. Having said all this, if you want to go hardore and start preparing yourself for the Major League Gaming (MLG) events, then it's time we visit League Play.
League Play and CODcasting
I know some really hardcore league guys who meet up every week to have a session at Battlefield 3 and/or Modern Warfare. While they won't be gunning for MLG anytime soon, they take their gaming seriously and demand some sort of organization. Well, Treyarch introduces their League Play in this edition of Black Ops II. It's quite an interesting concept to see in action. The League Play focuses completely on wins/losses in the game and not ranking. You should know that from the get-go. If your'e interested in leveling up in the game then you have to skip this one. When we played this game, we had a team of four players that had the option to choose any weapon, perk, ability or special items; in other words, everything is unlocked in league play. What this does, as far as I can tell, is that it evens the playing field to its purest form. It puts you through the ropes and requires you to play at the best of your abilities. People may not take to this tactic too well, but I think it's more than a fair setup. If your'e truly good at MP team-based fighting then you should have no bitching/moaning complaints to go along with what Treyarch has put together. It's bold, simple and a great idea if you're into league style playing.
Along with League Play, Treyarch also introduces a neat feature called CODcasting. This allows for friends to watch your battles on an iPad, iPhone or their computer while the match is going on. It separates you from the television in a sense, which is a great thing somedays. Personally, I'm not sure I would use it, but I could se how it's a neat thing for those hardcore league players. You can also record and upload the battles directly to youtube as well, which is something Elite introduced last year.
You didn't honestly think that Call of Duty was going to skimp out on the Zombies this year, did you? Ever since running into the undead at the end of World at War, the idea of being trapped in an unsurvivable situation against the undead has enthralled CoD gamers year after year. To this point Zombies have been kind of a cute gimmick to change things up albeit briefly for the series. Treyarch, like they have with a few things in Black Ops II, has taken that perception and performed a complete 180 on it. To be quite honest, Zombies could be a game of its own and after playing it extensively I could honestly see it becoming a game of its own in the future. It felt like a worthwhile DLC at the very least. Let's get into it.
Zombies is broken into three initial towns (maybe more) and in three different types of modes. You can play Transit, Grief or Survival in Zombies, with each bringing its own flavor to the gameplay. With Transit, you basically survive from place to place, trying to achieve small goals to keep the undead adventure alive, as well as yourselves. You can have a max of 8 people on your team in Transit. You start off in a bus depot where you have to put together a very odd looking piece of machinery to get you out and onto a bus. The bus is controlled by a 'Johnny Cab' (Total Recall reference - 1990) type robot that isn't in the best of shape. Each stop of the bus allows you to get out and earn some major points in killing endless amounts of zombies. You have to be careful with Transit, though, as the bus will periodically leave without you. There were a few times in the game where I had to literally run and jump on the bus as it left whatever location I was currently residing. What's sad is that even though you get left, you can still stick around your town and create carnage on your own, although it's much easier with teammates.
In the game of Grief, you basically get the same type of Transit gameplay, but with additions to make the hopeless situation more interesting. The point of Grief is to survive. To survive it means that you might have to sacrifice members of folks around you. There will be times where your team is overwhelmed with a zombie attack and you have to quickly choose a sacrificial lamb -- without the sacrificial lamb knowing. For example, you can throw a particular scent on an individual in Grief that attracts the zombies to that person. It's horrible, it's vicious and it's damn fun. Picture a game of king of the mountain, except that the mountain wants to come alive and eat you. It's amazingly fun and a great way to screw someone over.
The final game of Zombies is Survival. With survival, it plays just like Transit. What's fun about Survival is that you can set it up to start at any town and customize it play at the hardest level with the most amount restrictions set. For example, if you want to start at level 20 (the highest level that involves hordes of zombies running at you) with 'headshot only' turned on and the hounds of hell coming after you then you can do this. With each adjustment, you get more money, which allows for instantly better weapons to purchase (the weapons are located on the walls in each stage of the game and you purchase them through killing zombies).
The basic premise to all of these is that you need to survive and rebuild your environments around you to fight against the endless oncoming hordes of undead. For example, when you're trapped in the bus depot, you have four spots where the zombies are trying to enter the building. They wisely tear down the boards blocking the windows in the building to try to make their way in for fresh brains. Once you dispose of the zombies then you have the option of replacing those boards quickly, which also gains you points. Replacing the boards works well when you're on a team that isn't trying to kill you, but beware of your timing if you're playing a solo match (which is very much an option). Timing is everything in Zombies, as well as keeping check of your ammo as you're killing the wretched.
The monetary system is interesting in Zombies. You have to kill zombies to make money. How you kill those zombies dictates how much money you get from the kill. For example, you get more money by stabbing the shit out of a zombie then you do by unloading a clip in one with a handgun. Also, you can earn more money by a single headshot with a rifle/shotgun. The money isn't just used for purchasing weapons/upgrades/ammo, it's also used so you can enter the buildings you encounter. Overall, the monetary system adds another element of fun to the entire Zombies game.
I played Zombies for about four straight hours. The only reason I couldn't go on was because of motion sickness. There's a lot happening in this game from Treyarch, so it wasn't surprising. You will be terrified, entertained (especially by the voice acting) and addicted. This feels like a separate title and probably could have been from Activision. It's quite the value and I'm positive there are a lot of easter eggs to discover in it.