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Call of Duty: Black Ops II Review

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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
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Posted by Mendelson9

Looks like another good Call of Duty game

Posted by rotorious

woo

Posted by fuzzy510

COD!

Posted by Kissedtravisc

cool

Posted by Smashlampjaw

cool

Posted by Javes

Cool, Jeff likes it.

Posted by RE_Player1

I'm waiting for the WiiU version.

Posted by bloodsoul5

cool.

Edited by Smashlampjaw

@Kissedtravisc said:

cool

You stole my comment buddy!

Posted by Legend

World Exclusive!

Posted by MindOST

DROP A BOMB ON IT!

Posted by jakeh

Wonder how the PS3 version is holding up, was a bit miffed but the gfx quality of BLOP.

Posted by tablefloor

Seems fine...

Posted by RecSpec

Hell yes, glad to see Treyarch put some serious work into the story. Playing through the story has been my favorite parts of these games each year. 
Sometimes you just want to ride a roller coaster, you know?

Posted by Animasta

goddamnit jeff I have no money now I really want to play it ;_;

Posted by Mystyr_E

kinda funny the guy that got first did a full sentence...sorta, rather than all the "woo" and "cool" ones

Posted by Moosey

The storyline quite good. Spoiled myself with a walkthrough xD. But.. feels like any other Call of Duty titles.

Posted by President_Barackbar

I'll pick it up on sale sometime for the singleplayer.

Posted by NintendoNaut

Couldn't afford to pick it up on launch day, but I'll grab it sometime next month I'd say. I always enjoy Treyarch's CoDs more than IW's.

Posted by wumbo3000

"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."

Reading a review rarely makes me laugh. That line had me chuckle.

Posted by ThePurpleWall

...maybe that just means I'm a soulless husk that has become completely unable to feel anything, ever.

Which brings us to multiplayer.

Brilliant.

Posted by SlightConfuse

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

Posted by Dark_Lord_Spam

It's nice to hear the term "interesting" used seriously in conjunction with a Call of Duty game after... however many years it's been. I haven't picked one up since MW2, so it might be worth taking a look.

Posted by Demoskinos
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.

Um....Hitler did this exact thing with just words. Just saying....the idea that one man can affect the fate of millions isn't so far fetched.

Posted by Skronk61

Think I'll give this one a miss. I'm kinda done with shooters, too much franchise fatigue.

Edited by Cybexx

It was fairly easy to guess what Jeff would score this but its nice to hear that the campaign stuff he was enthusiastic about on the Black Ops II podcast mostly carried through to the final game. I'm going to grab this but now I just have to decide what platform. I'll probably grab it on 360 or PS3 but I've been mulling over waiting till the weekend and grabbing it with my WiiU just to give me a solid game to play on that (should probably wait for the platform-specific reviews though). I would be banking on a fledgling online community, so maybe not.

Posted by PokeIkzai

Ahhhh this game actually sounds interesting in a way that I'll have to play it. Gosh darnit.

Posted by KemoSabe

Even though I have high kdr with this franchise, Im going to concentrate on PlanetSide 2.

Posted by Soap

Great review as always, I really don't want to buy this game, but I can't help feel like I'm going to....

Edited by Darro

"I'll take Spec Ops mode over Zombies any day of the week." My sentiments exactly with that statement! Never understood the appeal for Zombies and preferred the co-op mission structure of Spec Ops from MW2 even if the MP in that game when I played it was completely broken! Interested to hear the campaign is good since the last game, MW3 consisted of so many predictable scripted events that it got tiresome half way through! Then again, Black Ops had an interesting campaign so at least Treyarch try to add that into their COD games!

Posted by Scotto

Well, prior to reading this I had pretty much resolved to not buy COD this year. The Modern Warfare story was done, and the BLOPS story was a little dumb (even though I enjoyed the game). MW3 struck me as a game that signified a franchise that was running aground - just more and more ludicrous bombast, layered over the same, tired old mechanics. Nothing looked wrong with BLOPS2, and I was glad to see Treyarch get their props (I always thought their COD entries were unfairly maligned by players). But after reading this, maybe I'll reconsider.

I only ever play the campaigns in the COD games, and if that area of the game got some genuine work put into it with interesting results, I might give it a go. Still a far cry from standing in the rain for the midnight launch of MW2, though.

Posted by Skanker

Personally think Zombies has always been more fun than Spec Op stuff, but the new Zombie modes in BO2 are pretty fuckin' terrible.

Posted by Flubagalub

@Kissedtravisc said:

cool

@Smashlampjaw said:

cool

@bloodsoul5 said:

cool.

cool cool cool

Posted by Bell_End

CoD solid as always.

do not why so many spend all year complaining about it.

Posted by Phished0ne

I'll give it a rental, if it feels good and i like the story, i will buy it later for the multiplayer. Thats how you do this, right?

Posted by Dan_CiTi

Seems pretty cool, but yeah I will never understand the Zombies thing. 

Posted by L44

GOD FUCKING DAMMIT. AGAIN?

Online
Posted by aceofspudz

Jeff said:

but the interesting thing about Black Ops II is that it doesn't always telegraph its branches.

That's actually super interesting. One of the worst things a game can do is to say HEY YOU'RE MAKING A DECISION SO REPLAY THIS SHIT IF IT DOESN'T GO YOUR WAY. Choice in games should be organic and irrevocable.

Edited by MarkWahlberg

So you could say, the more CoD changes, the more it stays the same?

@wumbo3000 said:

"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."

Reading a review rarely makes me laugh. That line had me chuckle.

It's not a video game unless it makes you re-examine the last remnants of your own, rapidly dissolving humanity.

Posted by iceman228433

Jeff you should have maned up and gave this game a proper review! Reading you Review it read like a 3 but you chickened out it seems.

Edited by xMrSunshine

"...even if you were thinking about finally skipping a year, is still worth your time."

I skipped MW3 because I couldn't have given less of a fuck about it and it seemed unappealing in pretty much every way, I liked the first BLOPS because of the setting and the story but on a technical level it was pretty much completely broken on the PC for me which meant I barely played any multiplayer and MW2 was ok at the time as at that point the fatigue hadn't hit yet but looking back at it... eeeeh.

The things that Jeff says about the story seem interesting and while the familiar CoD multiplayer format and gameplay are too easy and fairly boring, there's nothing wrong with it on a mechanical level other than it's been very similar for too long. My thought about this game has been that I should just keep on ignoring it but are the new things really worth checking out? Is the stuff that happens in the story as crazy action dumb as in let's say MW3 or more grounded in some kind of reality but still dumb like in BLOPS?

Anyone here touched the PC version yet? When I played BLOPS multiplayer it always crashed on the second map load during one session meaning I could basically play one map at a time and there was no fix for it as far as I know. At least one didn't come up during the time I was still interested in fixing it. Performance was also an issue, especially in multiplayer, where it was almost playable at best but most of the time complete junk with hitching and sudden deep FPS drops even though my machine was way more powerful than the requirements and the singleplayer played fine. Also, what's the server situation? BLOPS-like or MW2-like?

Posted by MrXD

Well...single player, he I come!

Posted by Vertrucio

Hm... Black Ops 2 review, right underneath a giant flash banner/movie ad for Black Ops 2.

Kinda wish it was just Doritos and Mountain Dew instead. :P

Posted by Gruff182

I wonder if people get as butthurt about this as teh Halos.

I'd assume CoD fanboys are the worst breed, so far I'm wrong :)

Good review Jeff.

Posted by slowbird

Maybe this will be the year when I get back into COD, if only for the campaign.

(Haven't played a COD game since MW2.)

Posted by golguin

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.

Posted by Tennmuerti

huh

Well I'll be damned. Before reading this I could have sworn that even a 5 star glowing review could not have persuaded me to pick up Blops2.

But the description of the campaign and the MP load out system actually made me interested again. At least in a way that I will now actually pay attention to some of the games other coverage. Rather then ignoring it outright.

How deep these 2 systems go will probably determine which way my decision penis swings.

Posted by Atwa

I don't understand why people try to make this game out to be a big change, it still sticks very close to the Call of Duty formula. A painfully short campaign that skips around in time and places, a multiplayer mode with some new hook to the same unlock formula, and zombies that looks very similar to what even was in World at War just at a larger scale. Pack in a few choices in the campaign and suddenly we have a revolution? Blargh I say. 

Posted by mbr2

Weird, a big franchise game getting 4 stars from Giantbomb. That's never happened before..............................................

Edited by probablytuna

Let's see how well this one sells.

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