Holy Freakin' Hell!
Black Ops II is easily my favorite Call of Duty of all time. While early iterations were excellent and brought something new and fresh to the industry, more recent releases felt rather uninspired and stagnant. Everything about them felt the same. Same engine, same action, same environments, same formula in pretty much every way.
And, on top of that, a lot of the ludicrousness didn't really have that "fuck yeah" effect on me. I'm enlisting in the Marine Corps. While I can appreciate some crazy action movie hijinks, I am far more interested in a different kind of action.
Black Ops II does an excellent job of solving that problem by giving a new "thing" to push me through the game.
Surprisingly, it's the story and the characters that kept me so into the game. For one, it's a far more filmic experience. I don't mean that in the sense that it's "cinematic" but that it has a greater range of action. There are slow moments, personal moments, tense moments, balls to the walls moments, sad moments, happy moments. One of my favorite parts of the game was pretty much devoid of gameplay. It's a past tense sequence where you are on an American military base, visiting squad mates in preparation for an operation. The whole thing has a sort of "Act of Valor" feel to it, as you walk up to the door listening to a majorly pissed off wife who's tolerance for the stresses of a military life is clearly bordering on gone, before trailing around back to discuss the upcoming invasion and your role in it. It's a quite moment, but it all looks great, it shows off the facial animation, and is a nice change of pace from previous Call of Duty games.
Not only is the story just well executed, which probably would have been enough, but the way it branches is, from my experiences, pretty god damn impressive. It's not a bunch of video game choices, but instead an organic method of guiding the experience in different directions. All the way through to the very end, there were moments that made me think back on my actions and just grin with the realization that "Holy shit, I wanted that to happen and it totally happened. One thing in particular I have in mind isn't something I tested, but one of the very last things the game shows you pretty much nailed this. It wasn't the Gears of War thing of "you went left, fought different enemies" and certainly not like Infamous' "Press A to be an Angel, B to be the Devil." It was a guy telling you to do something, and if you don't do it, shit goes bad. The beauty of this is you start to play this more under the assumption that this is a more organic experience.
In past Call of Duty experiences, whenever someone screamed at me to "move up" or "hurry the fuck up" I just laughed and fought off the rushing hordes of almost infinite enemies until the flow stopped and I could finally move on without dealing with getting shot in the ass because my idiot squad mates didn't kill the one guy I didn't notice or was behind me. It was meaningless. But this game, I felt a constant sense of tension and a need to really push myself as hard as possible to get through things as quickly as possible. I felt the need to outmaneuver out shoot, and think about my encounters in a completely different way as I chased after some asshole or something to that effect.
It's pretty awesome knowing that your actions change the outcomes of these situations in such an organic way. And as a result, there are a lot of things that I wonder constantly "was that a dynamic thing, or does it always happen that way?" Which is cool. I desperately hope this becomes a "trend" in games going forward. I think this might be the pinnacle of choice in games, well beyond the binary nature of games like Infamous or Mass Effect.
The new setting and events make a pretty big change to the feel of the franchise, from the previous contemporary stuff. The original Black Ops felt a little too much like a skin of MW, but this feels incredibly different. The weapons all embrace the fantasy of the future, the world feels pretty different, and the structure to the campaign, bouncing back and forth between time periods, is pretty well done. I didn't play MW3, but I saw a lot of it, and it never felt all that intense, and the "end of the world" never seemed very real, very close. By contrast, Black Ops II makes that stuff really tense, really believable, and ya really want to stop it. Part of this I think is the focus on characters, part of it is an interesting path of events and the way that they show how things came to be the way they are through missions taking place 40 years earlier.
There were also a lot more impressive examples of great level design in Black Ops II than in previous CoD games. One level in particular, which takes you and your future squad through a flooding city through a number of differing encounters still stands out as being both fun to play, interesting to go through, and just generally great looking. This is helped hugely by playing on the PC with all of the settings set to maximum and AA to make things look nice and smooth. . The water rushing through the streets looks really awesome, the enemy encounters are interesting, and there's even a cool bit of stealth and a pretty kick ass driving sequence to round it all out.
There are some rough edges though. For the most part, the side missions in the campaign that put you in a sort of tactical mashup version of Call of Duty, are both pretty awful and totally broken. AI seems unwilling to do what you want them to do, die constantly, and are massively outnumbered by enemies. It gets really frustrating when you take control of a unit, expecting to have a squad to back you up, but that squad dies a bunch of stupid deaths and leaves you alone fighting about 30 constantly replenishing enemies.
The interface for controlling units is pretty piss poor, and I often felt totally overwhelmed in ways that I didn't think I should. Not only were there an incredible number of enemy units compared to my 2 squads and a couple of automated units, but there was never any feedback as to what I was doing. At the end of the day I spent 90% of my time in infantry soldiers just pushing a global move or attack command where I was going. I got through all of these missions, but only one was anything but miserable.
There are a few other issues along the way with sequences that just aren't much fun for one reason or another. The bit where you get to fly the jet around in LA? Controls very poorly and isn't much fun at all.
Beyond the Campaign, it seems like things have been pretty well fleshed out, but don't make the same strides forward that the single player campaign made.
Competitive multiplayer is about as close to previous games as you'll get. The weapons are a bit different, and I have to question some of the balance choices (laser sights and a certain high rate of fire machine pistol seem pretty over powered), but at the end of the day it feels like another really solid competitive experience. The maps aren't my favorites, feeling a little less organic than those in MW2, which were generally bigger, more varied. Black Ops 2 maps seem to focus on a particular style and stick to it through out the map. My favorite map so far in fact reminds me a lot of Afghan in MW2, because of it's long, narrow nature and it's more organic, winding layout. It's a great map especially for Kill Confirmed.
I have yet to get too deep in Zombies, not having a lot of friends to play it with, but it seems like a pretty ambitious expansion on the ideas they put into it in the last Black Ops game. I'm quite interested to see where it goes and what happens with the DLC, which is where Zombies really shined in past games.
All in all, I'm damned impressed by how sucked in I got with this game. I really enjoyed the way the events of the game unfolded, the way the characters were slowly outlined and defined as the game progressed. The action feels better than ever, with a lot of really fun new gadgets to play with. And the game looks surprisingly great thanks to some DX11 tricks and a powerful PC to help it along.