Giant Bomb Review

123 Comments

Call of Duty: Black Ops II Review

4
  • X360

The most dramatic changes in this year's Call of Duty come on the campaign side, with a story so full of choices big and small that you might not even be aware that you're making them.

By taking it to 2025, Black Ops II's multiplayer gives you some fun gear to fool around with.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II is the sixth COD game to be released since Call of Duty 4 came out and changed the way we think about first-person shooters on consoles back in 2007. It's also the first to feel like it's coming from developers that realize that this franchise is in need of some more meaningful changes than new maps and a retooled multiplayer unlock system. That manifests most clearly in the game's ambitious single-player campaign, which isn't without fault, but the way it integrates player choice into the proceedings is fantastic, helping you to craft a Call of Duty tale that feels like a product of the decisions you make along the way. The rest of the package? Pretty much exactly what you'd expect, but a little bigger and a little bolder.

The single-player portion of Black Ops II is split between two eras, giving you a chance to check-in on Alex Mason and Frank Woods as they tear up the CIA's hottest secret conflicts of the '80s while also giving you control of Mason's son, David, in the year 2025. The past is told via flashback as the younger Mason visits Frank Woods, now confined to a wheelchair, but almost every mission is focused on the same target: Raul Menendez. This terrorist is up to no good in the "present" day, but David Mason needs to know why this guy is so persistent and, seemingly, so focused on Mason himself. The reasons go back to when his father and Woods were hot on the guy's trail.

All of this story is set against a new Cold War with China, but the world's problems take a backseat to the more personal story of Menendez, his sister, and his over-the-top quest for revenge against the guys that wronged him. By the end, he's controlling huge drone fleets and bringing the world to the brink of war. It's outlandish and ridiculous to think that one determined man could bring all this about. It's the sort of thing you'd expect to see in a proper action movie, which, with all the jumping back and forth between quiet nights deep inside Noriega's Panama and the deck of an aircraft carrier as it comes under attack, sums up the pacing and feel of Black Ops II's campaign. Compared to the past games in the series, the story feels far more personal. It still jumps between characters in traditional Call of Duty fashion, but each character is meaningful and each conflict is more directly tied to the overall plot. It unfolds in a fascinating way, and you'll actually have some very real agency in how that plot unfolds.

The Strike Force missions put you on a multiplayer level with a crew of AI guys to control, but at times it just feels broken.

The Black Ops II campaign lets you make choices that can wildly impact the events that follow. Those choices start at the beginning of each mission, which lets you configure your own loadout and select some additional items and perks, further merging concepts from the game's multiplayer side into the campaign. It's a neat option, but the default configuration, which includes a tool kit that lets you pry open optional doors and chests to get some additional items throughout the game, is usually sufficient.

From there, though, the choices aren't always so obvious. Yes, you'll get a couple of "press X to shoot that guy, press A to spare him" sort of moments, and those are tense for their own reasons, but the interesting thing about Black Ops II is that it doesn't always telegraph its branches. Most of the decisions come as a part of gameplay. In one case, and without saying too much about the actual setting, you'll hear from other characters that some intel is in danger of being destroyed by the enemy. As you enter the area, you'll start to see characters scramble and attempt to burn paperwork. If you stop them, that intel is yours. If they manage to burn the information, that's one piece of the puzzle that you won't have. Some of these only payoff with additional lines of dialogue. Others make you suspect characters of wrongdoing by filling in a few more blanks than you'd have if you just shoot your way through the game without thinking about it. And others have a direct impact on who lives and who dies. It's not that every single choice is incredibly vital and Earth-shattering. It's that you're never quite sure that you're doing the right thing or behaving in the right way, and the route to what you'd probably consider the "happiest" version of the ending isn't clear. In a year filled with games that handle player choice in different ways, the Black Ops II campaign manages to be right up there with the best.

Strip away the interesting wrapper and, well, you've got something that pretty closely resembles the tone and pacing of most Call of Duty campaigns. You'll shoot your way into and out of situations in the past and in the future, and most of that gameplay boils down to pulling the left trigger to snap onto a guy and pulling the right trigger to take him out. At least it's better about not making you feel like you're just following an invincible AI character with a helpful "FOLLOW" tag placed above its head through the entire game. Some areas are much larger than you'd expect to see in a Call of Duty campaign, like an Afghanistan level that has you riding horses from place to place as you try to cut off a Russian attack. At times the action more closely resembles Halo's wide-open, multi-approach areas than the tight corridors and one-track focus you've come to expect from the franchise. Outside of that, however, things in the campaign start to fray under scrutiny. Parts of the campaign feel a little disjointed as you leap from one part of the world to another with thin connective tissue between some of the missions. And that jet flying portion that they've been showing off since E3? Not fun at all.

Black Ops II also includes optional missions that play out on a few of the game's multiplayer maps. These "Strike Force" missions give you multiple objectives to complete, such as a series of missile batteries that must be hacked in a way that makes you feel like you're taking over a multiplayer control point. But the catch is that you're controlling an entire force of men and drones. You can swap to any other unit quickly via the D-pad, or pull out to a tactical view. In either view, you're able to issue commands to the other soldiers, presumably to move them around the battlefield and have them fortify positions. If you fail a Strike Force mission, you'll be able to retry it, but you have a limited number of retries. If you fail to complete these missions, the outcome of the overall story changes. And, depending on how you perform in the "normal" levels, you might not even see all of the possible Strike Force scenarios. It's a fascinating idea that would work out a lot better if the AI didn't appear to be completely broken. On numerous occasions I'd issue orders to my AI-controlled troops and get no response. They'd just stand around their spawning area and do absolutely nothing, forcing me to take very direct control of the action. I was still able to complete the missions without much issue, too, which sort of defeats the whole purpose. It's a neat idea that feels completely half-baked, at best.

The game's got a good selection of multiplayer maps to keep you busy.

Once you've completed the campaign, you can go back and attempt to see some of the different ways it can play out, but you'll have to do this via a "rewind story" option that essentially rolls your save file back to an earlier state. From there, you can play out whatever alternate choices you like and see the game through to a different conclusion. You can also just replay any mission, but you can't alter any of your choices if you go that route. All told, it's a surprisingly satisfying campaign, even considering the failure of the Strike Force missions. The story is the star here, with clever care given to making the player understand Menendez's actions. It also goes in some gory directions, with a weird focus on forcing you to stare into peoples' eyes as they're being horrifically murdered, often by your hand. It's more hilarious or hokey than haunting, but maybe that just means I'm a soulless husk that has become completely unable to feel anything, ever.

Which brings us to multiplayer. Black Ops II rewrites the rules for unlocking things and creating classes yet again. You'd think that at least one of the studios working on this franchise would have gotten it right by now. But the way Black Ops II handles class creation is an interesting break from the norm that will feel subtle to casual players. Rather than just filling out the class creation form in a slightly different way, Black Ops II lets you rewrite it a bit. Want to take six perks into combat instead of the standard three? There's a way to do that, but it involves carrying no grenades and only one attachment-free gun. Want to go in completely bare? Sure, strip it all away and run in with no perks and just a knife to keep you company. All this is done in such a way that you can even further create classes that cater to your play style, and the results are interesting. But you still have to deal with weapons that unlock in a set order (though even then you need to cash in an unlock token in order to actually use any of the new things you're unlocking). That means you'll level up and, yay, you've unlocked a sniper rifle that you'll never use. Or, at least, I'll never use it. After six years of playing this game with varying degrees of prowess, I know what I like. Climbing up the unlock tree yet again only to see it filled with options that I'll never want to use just sounds like more trouble than it's worth at this point.

That said, the action continues to feel snappy and it responds precisely the way you'd expect a Call of Duty game to respond. It's covered with the same sorts of playlists and game types you'd expect to see, including last year's Kill Confirmed. A new mode, called Hardpoint, brings a King of the Hill-type experience to the game that recalls Headquarters but feels faster and more dynamic since you won't have to wait until an HQ is destroyed before you spawn again. The wager match modes of the original Black Ops return with full, proper matchmaking support, but it's a shame that more modes weren't added here, as they're still pretty cool, even if you're not actually wagering anything this time around. Diving to prone by holding the duck button while running is back in the game--hopefully to stay this time. Bots are also available and they appear in a new matchmaking mode for new players, too.

Around the action, some additional changes have been made. There's a new spectator mode and a weirdly limited ability to stream out some of your matches live on YouTube. There's also a league option that lets you go in alone or team up with players to play placement matches and make your way onto a StarCraft II-like ladder system, which should be pretty cool for people who take this stuff more seriously than most. Additionally, the 13 maps that ship with the game are quite good, ranging in size and shape while still retaining that core Call of Duty concept of ensuring that, unless you're working with a team, you'll probably get shot in the back a lot. It's easy to moan about the way that the core experience has remained largely unchanged across almost all of Black Ops II, but, for as much as I feel like I'm ready to say "OK, this is it, this is the last year," it still sucks me back in. But it does so a little less each time out. By this point, I've built up a solid tolerance to this game's multiplayer charms. It's well-made and looks great, but I find myself playing less and less of it every year. I don't see anything here that's going to reverse that trend, but the changes in multiplayer are intelligently designed.

Yup. Zombies.

The third main menu option in Black Ops II simply says "Zombies." This wave-based survival mode has become incredibly popular on its own and, now more than ever, it feels completely out of place when put next to the rest of the package. Tonally, it's full of a bunch of quirky, weird characters and dialogue that, as someone who didn't obsessively play the mode in the last Black Ops, makes no sense whatsoever. New modes have been added, including one that lets you get on a bus and move between multiple large areas, rather than being simply confined to a tight, single space. There's also a new multiplayer option that lets two teams of four annoy each other while also fighting zombies. In this mode, called Grief, you can't directly damage the opposing team, but you can shoot or stab them to blur their vision and shove them around the map, hopefully into a collection of zombies. This was a neat idea back in World at War, and I understand that people seem to like it, but I just can't stand it. All the dopey little upgrades and "monkey bombs" and its deliberately opaque story add up to something that deserves to be broken out into its own game, if only to get it out of this game that I otherwise enjoy quite a bit. I'll take Spec Ops mode over Zombies any day of the week.

The presentation end of Black Ops II is buoyed by a terrific dedication to making kick-ass weapon effects. On the appropriate sound system, each rifle shot sounds intense in a way that most other shooters don't match, and in cases where the audio designers have had to invent effects for futuristic weapons, there's a tasteful restraint that keeps them from sounding like ridiculous ray guns. The audio hits hard, even if the little "surprise" post-credit song sequence leaves you with a bad sound in your ears when all is said and done. Visually, the game looks better than its predecessors, with the most obvious improvement showing on the faces of the people you talk to in the campaign. They look more lifelike than they have in the past, which helps get the game's story across. It also handles large areas quite nicely, without huge sacrifices to the frame rate.

It's weird to come away feeling positive about a game right after you've just told someone that a full third of it is essentially useless to you, but then Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a big game with a whole lot going on. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, and some of the multiplayer changes feel more like they're propping up an aging concept rather than truly moving it forward, even though it's still a good way to spend time with your online friends. For me, it's the notion that Call of Duty is showing some terrific signs of life on the campaign side that left me the most impressed. It's got its share of flaws, but overall Treyarch has assembled a great, fast, and fun first-person shooter that, even if you were thinking about finally skipping a year, is still worth your time.

Jeff Gerstmann on Google+
123 Comments
  • 123 results
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
Posted by BuyBondsYo

@mbr2:

Weird, someone on the internet using sarcasm. That's never happened before...................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

Posted by MooseyMcMan

I'm glad to see the campaign and story are pretty good. I might be picking this up after all.

Posted by Colourful_Hippie

Cool, this may be the first CoD I decide to rent in a long time.

Posted by Flacracker

Follow the money.

Online
Posted by NightOnyx

This is the first COD I'll be skipping sadly. The game looks decent enough but I'm just kind of done with COD for now, at least for this year anyways. I know they say there are changes, and maybe they are, but they say that every year and it just is never enough anymore. I'm also like Jeff and I prefer Spec Ops to Zombies. So yeah, I'm sure the game is fine, I just need a break from COD and I really dont see nothing about BO2 that makes it anything more than more COD with tiny improvements. I'm really not bashing on COD though, I have loved the previous games and have played them a ton, I'm just kind of done with the same old games every year, not just COD. Great review though Jeff!

Posted by Winternet

I didn't think I would say this, but I'm kinda excited to play Black Ops II.

Posted by h0lgr

Cool. I might actually catch this game. 
Will probably get it for the 360 this time, been going PC strong for all the other games.. But I feel like control layout might actually be more comfy on the 360 pad. 
We'll see. 
 
(And yeah, I know Treyarch's games can be played with a 360 pad on PC, but that's a ridiculous disadvantage in Multiplayer)

Posted by AndyPhifer

Sold.

Posted by theodacourt

I'm so glad I skipped last years game!

Posted by MrKlorox

Sounds like there's still room for a Battlefield 2143 or some other game that brings a bunch of future gadgets into the mix.

Posted by AxleBro

Heyyyy, another one!

Posted by Blastroid

Great review now let the complaining begin.

Posted by Fistfulofmetal

godamnit jeff you're gonna make me play this.

Posted by warley

I skipped MW3 so I'm due for another COD.

Posted by laserbolts

I was going to skip the campaign and go straight into the multiplayer. After reading this maybe I'll check it out.

Posted by Phatmac

I loved BLOPS so I'm sure I'll love this one!

Posted by VibratingDonkey

They motion captured a horse.

Posted by HyperionXR

For me BLOPS 1 was the only Call of Duty that really had me hooked, both story and multiplayer. I have faith in Treyarch, and I'm up for another ride with them.

Posted by WiqidBritt

when Modern Warfare 2 was in development, the IW twitter account started taking suggestions from fans. I suggested being able to choose weapons before campaign missions... interesting that Treyarch is the studio that ends up actually doing just that.

Posted by Butano

Sounds like a good game, but is the PC version as broke as the first BLOPS was?

Posted by Toxin066

I'm surprised to hear that BLOPS2 shakes things up in a good way. I tried my best to avoid hearing anything about the single player until a QL/review, so this is all news to me. I might grab this a little later in the season.

Posted by McGhee

4 Stars? I smell pizza bribery.

Edited by CornBREDX

BL OPs is the only series in the call of duty MW franchise I've enjoyed so I'll probably check this out at some point. I much prefer it's "not really modern" style and direction as opposed to something like the other ones. I have nothing against those but it's not something I am in to. So for me I have not played a lot of these over the years and to me it looks and sounds like something I'd dig.  
 
Plus, it's hard to turn down anything with Michael Keaton in it- even if he is unfortunately replacing Ed Harris.  
 
    

Posted by DasUberOgre

I kinda hate that we've hit a point where no one can say legitimate good things about CoD without being accused of wearing a money hat or being bribed.

We are too damn cynical for our own good.

Posted by Skytylz

Fingers crossed my friends don't buy it! I don't want to deal with Call of Duty when I hang out with them, the reprieve MW3 gave me has been glorious.

Posted by GaspoweR

@CornBREDX: The Modern Warfare franchise is separate from the Black Ops franchise. I think its better to say that Black Ops was your favorite series in the Call of Duty franchise since the "Modern Warfare era". :)

Posted by thornie

Looks like fun, but I prefer the Battlefield style multiplayer over CoD's frantic laser tag shooting gallery. Not worth the $60 IMO. Especially since all of the modern CoD games look bad and perform poorly on PC.

I will say that I genuinely feel pity for people who have already prestiged in this game. Perhaps "pity" is not the right word, but it is kind of sad.

Posted by SlinkDickens

After watching Wreck It Ralph, I can't take the name Call of Duty seriously anymore. haha.

Posted by HellBound

I'll take zombies over spec ops any day.

Nice review, actually makes me excited to play it. Also the fact I played maybe only 10 hours of mw3 online might be why I want to play this.

Posted by Baal_Sagoth

I'm glad their thoughts on changing SP up a bit weren't pure marketing babble. Good such an influential and popular franchise at least moves a little bit now and hopefully inspires some more sweeping changes down the line. The QL campaign bit did look more varied than I would've expected. Furthermore I'm actually really glad Treyarch fucking finally get some credit for their good work all this time. I'm not a real CoD fan past the very first one but I do seem to prefer their style a little more so cool that they became more important than being the eternal "B-Team".

Posted by TheSouthernDandy

@golguin said:

Jeff is straight up crazy when it comes to the zombie mode. I went to the 9pm thing at Best Buy to let us try the game and almost everyone who went up to play asked if they could play zombie mode, but we were limited to team deathmatch against AI players. A lot of people were saying they were getting the game specifically for zombies.

Zombies is light years ahead of Spec Ops. Then again if you don't have a solid team to play with I could understand not liking it. It's all team all the time.

Jeff hates anything zombie related, it was pretty much a guarantee that he'd hate that part of the game. I'm with you though, Zombie's has always been a good time in previous games. Great review otherwise.

Edited by umdesch4

: "The audio hits hard, even if the little "surprise" post-credit song sequence leaves you with a bad sound in your ears when all is said and done."

Wait. Are you saying the Trent Reznor music is bad? I pre-ordered the edition with all the bonus crap for my nephew (I don't play COD myself, just not my thing), on the condition that I get my mitts on the soundtrack CD that comes with it the moment it comes in the door. I'm really hoping it's good.

Posted by MikkaQ

@umdesch4 said:

: "The audio hits hard, even if the little "surprise" post-credit song sequence leaves you with a bad sound in your ears when all is said and done."

Wait. Are you saying the Trent Reznor music is bad? I pre-ordered the edition with all the bonus crap for my nephew (I don't play COD myself, just not my thing), on the condition that I get my mitts on the soundtrack CD that comes with it the moment it comes in the door. I'm really hoping it's good.

He's talking about the in-game Avenged Sevenfold "performance" that plays after the credits. It's on youtube, the lead up is kinda funny, but then the band starts to play and you wanna throw up.

Posted by darkcargio

Nah no more call of duty for me.

Posted by R3DT1D3

Wow, this might be the first CoD I eventually buy in a while. No way I'm touching their shallow MP but a heavily discounted price for the campaign/zombies sounds ok.

Posted by umdesch4

@MikkaQ said:

He's talking about the in-game Avenged Sevenfold "performance" that plays after the credits. It's on youtube, the lead up is kinda funny, but then the band starts to play and you wanna throw up.

Thanks for the clarification. Maybe I'll end up being the one to write a review on the music aspect of this game. Since I only generally watch these games while others play, I'm in a good position to pay more attention to things like music/ambience/sound effects. In general, as a big fan of things like Video Games Live, and as a musician who's done a tiny amount of indie game music myself (and stuff like sound effects for Quake mods), I think I pay attention to game music more than the average player. A Trent Reznor soundtrack has me very interested.

Posted by NekuCTR

A halo Review, then a COD review next a Mario review. What is this 2010? what is this 2009? What is this 2007?... Video games are dead you guys.

Posted by Dick_Mohawk

Ah, the latest game in the spunkgargleweewee genre. I'll probably get it when it's under 20 quid.

Posted by MikkaQ

@umdesch4 said:

@MikkaQ said:

He's talking about the in-game Avenged Sevenfold "performance" that plays after the credits. It's on youtube, the lead up is kinda funny, but then the band starts to play and you wanna throw up.

Thanks for the clarification. Maybe I'll end up being the one to write a review on the music aspect of this game. Since I only generally watch these games while others play, I'm in a good position to pay more attention to things like music/ambience/sound effects. In general, as a big fan of things like Video Games Live, and as a musician who's done a tiny amount of indie game music myself (and stuff like sound effects for Quake mods), I think I pay attention to game music more than the average player. A Trent Reznor soundtrack has me very interested.

I did not know that, that's really cool. I feel like Trent has had a streak of some really amazing soundtracks recently.

Posted by Shaanyboi

@SlinkDickens said:

After watching Wreck It Ralph, I can't take the name Call of Duty seriously anymore. haha.

Hey, I'll be right back. It's the call of duty....

Edited by falling_fast

choices in a call of duty game? what? does not compute

edit: and jeff doesn't really explain it super well... am I supposed to go in expecting a degree of choice similar to that in alpha protocol?

Posted by CptBedlam

@NekuCTR said:

A halo Review, then a COD review next a Mario review. What is this 2010? what is this 2009? What is this 2007?... Video games are dead you guys.

Add Assassin's Creed to that list. Yeah, I was thinking earlier how gaming these days feels like a one-year version of Groundhog Day.

Posted by Solh0und

I skipped out on purchasing MW3 last year and this seems WAY better than that game.

Edited by falling_fast

call of duty 4 had open areas. I don't get why jeff is making a fuss.

it's pretty funny that in an "open area" you can still move like five feet off the path and be "leaving the combat zone"

Posted by HellBound

The only other thing I have to say is that knwoing Jeff does not like Zombies and barely plays it, why not get someone else who at least is indifferent, but has played a lot of it and get them to review it separate or something.

Edited by falling_fast

this seems like a cakewalk on regular judging by the quick look

it's a good thing that that helicopter doesn't try to shoot you...

Posted by xMEGADETHxSLY

REDBOXING SINCE BLops 1

Posted by civid

@damnable_fiend: I'm pretty sure it's on normal... Like most firstperson shooters, it's more ideal to play on Veteran (or Hard or whatever)

Posted by Palaeomerus

@SlightConfuse said:

Wow Jeff really dislikes Zombie mode for some reason. I think it's fun and adds to the game

I think I could do one last WW2 games if it was real WW2 weapons and a few made up ones vs. the undead. But treat it like a serious war FPS game that devolves slowly into a supernatural horror game. And no the two Wolfenstein games really don't count though they both have some elements that I would like to steal.

Posted by nail1080

@NekuCTR said:

A halo Review, then a COD review next a Mario review. What is this 2010? what is this 2009? What is this 2007?... Video games are dead you guys.

lol good point

  • 123 results
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3