Call of Duty Black Ops 2 Review: The Future is Black
Like it or not, Call of Duty is the most influential series in the modern era of gaming largely thanks to the revolutionary Call of Duty 4 taking the series out of its WW2 trappings and into a completely different and fresh setting. The series is a polarising one, with millions of fans as well as plenty who hate it for its formulaic structure, and this has become more obvious in recent iterations of the COD games. While I have always enjoyed the series I found Modern Warfare 3 in particular to be a ridiculously scripted experience, and the original Black Ops was guilty of the same. The multiplayer offering that the series has built its success upon has also remained largely the same throughout the years, and has failed to get me to stick with it since Modern Warfare 2. Infinity Ward and Treyarch have long swapped development duties with the COD games to ensure a new sequel each year, but Treyarch have certainly been the B team in the past and with the effective wipe out at Infinity Ward it was difficult to see how Treyarch would manage to keep the series in any way interesting. I was wrong, as Treyarch have created an impressive experience in Black Ops 2, and in some very unexpected ways.
Unsurprisingly, Black Ops 2 is the sequel to Black Ops, and takes place separately to the Modern Warfare storyline. The game leaps away from the Cold War based story of the first Black Ops and instead takes us to the near future of 2025, bringing the series into completely new grounds. The game jumps between this new setting and the 1980's as we jump between a small cast of characters Call of Duty style. While Call of Duty has used this mechanism to tell its stories many times in the past, the level of focus and intensity of time given to the characters in Black Ops 2 makes it the most personal and interesting story in the history of the series. The whole tale revolves around a man named Raul Menendez and his quest to take down the United States and the global system of governance with it. Menendez is a villain unlike any the series has seen before, with a strength of presence and ferocity that is intimidating. He is also a character that the game gives us ample opportunity to understand the motives of, making him the most sympathetic and interesting antagonist in the series.
Players jump between Alex Mason and Frank Woods in the 1980's as they pursue Menendez and attempt to bring him down while in the future we play as David Mason, son of Alex, as he attempts to stop Menendez's plans coming to fruition. It is all overblown in that same COD style, as the will of a single man is shown to be such a threat, but its a thrilling ride to experience. The 1980's missions are told in flashback form as David Mason visits a retirement home bound Frank Woods, who is one of the funniest grumpy old men in the medium as he tells his stories. The characters of Woods and Menendez are fantastic, and most of the rest of the cast are also strong.
Black Ops 2 has a variety of branching points and events in its campaign, and these change the ending depending on these layers actions or decisions. This is a first for the series, and puts some level of agency into the hands of the player, and in a meaningful way as the differences are actually profound between the different outcomes of the story. These decision points are often more subtle than "press x or y" and are often intrinsic to a level. The pace of the story is fantastic, and weaves real drama into this hollywood blockbuster story. Black Ops 2 is the most intense and interesting story in the series thanks to its level of character focus and pacing, and the branching endings was a real surprise for me in a series that is notorious for its short and scripted campaigns at this stage.
Black Ops 2 uses the same game engine that the series has been totting for 5 years now, and it is certainly showing its age. It is far from an ugly game, and looks really good in many parts, but the textures and effects of the game are just not up to the level of some major titles on the market. The likes of Halo 4 and Far Cry 3 put Black Ops 2 to shame in terms of sheer visual fidelity, and it is difficult for Black Ops 2 to combat this, but Treyarch certainly tried thanks to a largely strong art direction. Platers will go from poverty sticken urban areas to Buddah Statue adorned desert temples, lush jungles to futuristic almost Syndicate like cities, and this allows Black Ops 2 to escape being a brown dreary military shooter.
Black Ops 2 is a smooth and bright game, with fantastic consistency in its frame rate that keeps the COD action going at the pace we have come to expect. Character animations are fantastic and despite still suffering from that uncanny valley syndrome, the character models are more detailed than before. The menus have a lovely stylish design to them all and the game also has a strong amount of attention poured into the appearance of the weapons and armaments. Black Ops 2 also commits fully to being a violent game, and is uncompromising in this regard. Heads are cut off by machetes, knees are blown apart by shotguns, and decomposing bodies are piled up and allowed to rot. This is a grin game, and is the most satisfyingly violent game in the series, and I applaud Treyarch for going so far in this direction. I do hope that the next Call of Duty game has a new engine though, because this series needs a graphics overhaul at this stage.
The music of Black Ops 2 lacks the sheer power of Modern Warfare 2, but it fits perfectly to the atmosphere and settings of Black Ops 2. Music spikes in levels at the exact appropriate moments and really fit into what is being portrayed at that point. There are skrillex beats for the futuristic nightclub, chilling Latin chanting for the pivotal scenes of the villain, and overall its a strong soundtrack that doesn't take over the scenes but rather compliments them. The weapon sounds are also good, especially the futuristic weaponry. Voice acting is largely top notch, with Woods and Menendez being particularly superb. Alex Mason is better this time round than in the first Black Ops, and the side characters are generally good, though Admiral Briggs is a little obsessed with "cocksuckers".
Black Ops 2 maintains the same fast paced shooting that the series is known for, and if you have not enjoyed that in the past then Black Ops 2 will not change your mind in that regard. The combat is still largely linear, but many levels have larger areas with expanded enemy numbers. There are also new enemy types, with the future levels having drones and walkers that will hunt the player down, making an exciting and energised change to the series. These CLAW units and aerial drones massively enhance the feel of the games setting, and all the new gadgets and items at the players disposal increase this again. There are also fantastic level set piece moments, including a horse charge into Soviet tanks, a shootout on a nightclub dance floor and a pitched battle on an African plain.
The game also has strikeforce missions, which are basically specialised missions that compliment the main campaign and double up as preparation for the multiplayer maps. Speaking of the multiplayer, the Black Ops multiplayer is the same as what the series has provided in the past. It has not changed to anywhere near the same extent as the singleplayer, and while it is as excellently designed as ever before it is also getting a bit stale for my own taste, despite the maps being generally good. Zombies is also back, and improved from the original Black Ops, though I do prefer the spec ops missions of the Modern Warfare games.
Black Ops 2 is designed to feel like 3 games in one, with the campaign, multiplayer and zombies feeling like individual parts in a greater whole. This is not a game to play for any one of these modes, and when willing to play all three this is one of the most whole and cohesive shooters on the market at the moment. Black Ops 2 is still filled with scripting and scripted controlled moments, but it is also a master class in how to do these properly, putting the imitators like Medal of Honor to the sword with its level of design in implementing these sections. The maps for both singleplayer and multiplayer are well designed, and the addition of larger more open and tactical areas which are not scripted to nauseous levels is a change that I have wanted for years in this series.
The AI behaviour is improved and the multiple difficulties make the game worth going through multiple times, as well as multiple endings contributing to this. There can also be bots in the multiplayer now, and you can play the multiplayer modes offline with bots yourself. Customisation has been enhanced, with the player enabled to bring their custom character equipment into the campaign as well as build character classes in the multiplayer in a greater way than ever before.
Treyarch have struggled for years with the COD games thanks to the superiority of the Modern Warfare line, but with Black Ops 2 they have finally stepped out of the shadow of Infinity Ward. The singleplayer has never been better in a COD game than what Black Ops 2 has to offer, and if this game had come out in 2010 instead of the first Black Ops I feel that it would have got a lot more attention. Overall Black Ops 2 is a top of the line fps in terms of its mechanics. It is a most refined version of the COD formula in the series, and the multiplayer is exactly what you have come to expect. It is not a revolution in the series, but it is better than Modern Warfare 3, more interesting than Black Ops and I feel it is the best COD game since 2007. This could be a significant step in taking the series to fantasy settings, and if this is brought forward in the next COD games then they may be able to keep their grip on leader of the shooter genre for some time to come. If you have any interest in the Call of Duty series at this point, and you can't be blamed for not being interested, then you should give Black Ops 2 a try.
- Greater player agency
- Outstanding scripted moments and a good story
- Exciting pace and level variation with a new time period
- Engine is showing its age
- Some technical issues with frame rate drops
- Multiplayer fails to shake things up
- Briggs really hates "cocksuckers"
- 8/10 - Great