Every possible year is graced (or plagued if you’re a hater) with a Call of Duty title and, since we’re in an even numbered year, Treyarch has been the studio behind Call of Duty: Black Ops II, 2012’s entry in the explosively popular franchise. Rather than sticking in the past both in design and time period, Treyarch has made this operation take place mostly in the year 2025, along with attempts at making the campaign match this fresh, futuristic feel. Black Ops II sticks to its golden and tried formula, but tries to wedge new features in the nooks and crannies. A noteworthy effort on an annualized franchise even if some choices aren’t implemented as well as others.
Whether I’m alone on this or not, I’ll just say it: the original Black Ops had the strongest, most interesting narrative in a Call of Duty game and one better than a fair chunk of shooters desperately scratching for the same fond remembrance. Personalizing the tale with only a few iconic, ballsy soldiers and intelligently weaving the “numbers” gimmick in the plot allowed for a story with a smaller scope and, in turn, made it easy to follow and engaging along every step of the way.
Black Ops II tries to relight a similar torch with the story it tries to convey. Woods from the first Black Ops, who somehow survived multiple simultaneous grenade explosions, is now telling his story to Alex Mason’s son, David Mason. Now old, wise, and still a jackass, Woods informs Mason of Raul Menendez, a terrorist bent on… well, being a terrorist and all-around terrible person. While his motives can be a little muddy sometimes and can just be shoehorned on his precious memory of his sister, his ultimate goal is to cause an attack on the United States and China. This leads the player to control both Masons in both 1985 and 2025 to uncover Menendez in both time frames.
Even though it is a loose sequel to Black Ops, it doesn’t share many of the same qualities. Black Ops had a more intimate story of a few guys, ones you got know really well as the game went on. Each had a unique, badass personality and it was easy to track and love. Black Ops II goes for a more global story and loses some of the finer details along the way. In this grander scale, it was easier to forget why certain events were playing out as they were or why we had to journey to certain areas. Saving the world from evil is a fairly easy to way to raise the stakes and force the player to feel like he’s the savior, but I ended up feeling like an unimportant cog in the machine in the latter third of the game. While some events were memorable and it was enjoyable to watch all the way through, the cracks begin to show when you reflect on what actually happened.
Also, it may have a more iconic villain, but one with disjointed motives. Why exactly does he want to set the world on fire? I tried to pin it on his sister’s early death, but couldn’t come up with a more direct cause.
Swapping out Ice Cube and Woods for Harper as your main squeeze during the campaign may have left big shoes to fill and, even if Harper is pretty cool, he’s just not as cool. He’s a total tool bag in both voice, phrase choice, and hairstyle, but honestly, he’s a likeable tool bag. Harper evokes a different feeling than that of the last squad and doesn’t exactly match their levels of charisma, but in the end I felt for him, even if he’s lies within the confines Ice Cube’s long shadow.
What it lacks in a coherent story, it makes up for with choices along the way. Call of Duty titles have always prudishly funneled the player as hastily as possible from objective to objective with no chance to offer deviation. Treyarch has taken responsibility and veered off the main path, allowing players to craft a narrative depending on what objectives get done in time. Failing to save someone or refusing to pull the trigger can yield a different storyline near the end, something the franchise hasn’t even flirted with in the past. In a series that is rife with fail states, it’s a good choice to offer a sense of consequence in a seemingly strict story which allows for both replayability and discussions about the plot with fellow peers. The fact that Call of Duty isn’t as linear anymore is a solid step in pressing the series onward.
Strike Force missions are a factor in this new dynamic storytelling, one of the new strategy-like modes. The story ramifications will halfway force you to play these optional missions, but given how fun they aren’t, you may want to bite the bullet and refrain from touching these black sheep objectives. From a top down view from a drone, you’re given access to an array of soldiers and robots to take control of. So far, so good. These disposable units are given an objective to achieve. Again, we’re in the clear. Execution is where this mode crumbles.
Units can either not listen to commands or fail to assist in anything remotely helpful. Even though it said I had a plethora of soldiers and gizmos to help slay the opposition, I only felt like a fragile one man army against a whole battalion of enemy units since I was the only one actually doing anything. To show their ineffectiveness, every time I’d respawn (which throws you in a soldier currently on the field) the guy I’d inhabit would just be prone behind a wall with his finger up his ass instead of on the trigger. Possessing unit after unit was a death wish, which leads each objective to almost seem impossible… until you just win. In every single objective, I was pretty confident that I was about to defecate in the bed then I’d just achieve a victory out of nowhere. It would be like bashing your head against a brick wall and right as you were about to succumb to your concussion, you’d look to see that the last layer was just wet tissue paper. The sudden and almost undeserved victories felt artificially easier near to the to stave of further frustration.
Even in Strike Force, the core act of shooting remains to be a highlight. No shooter can match the fluidity of Call of Duty, proving why the franchise has stuck to its guns and why Black Ops II keeps the same awesome feel. It’s mostly the same but it’s hard to complain when it is still the king control-wise.
The futuristic setting allows for more creative liberties to stick on the robust shooting skeleton. Rather than the bland, uninspired, and repetitive modern warfare setting, 2025 is mainly where the story takes place, allowing you to pilot some interesting gear and technology. Guns, while functionally identical to most modern day standbys, are given enough of a cosmetic makeover to have them at least look different to remain a little fresh. Let’s be honest, we’re tired of shooting the M4, so even a different skin to what is fundamentally the same thing is welcome. Grenades, airstrikes, sniper rifles, and more have also been given a new skin and it’s hard not to shout excited expletives when you use the Spider-Man gloves or descend from VTOL via jetpack. Settings are usually ancillary to the experience but it does a solid job of separating it from other the modern brown hodge podge of most shooters.
Like a viral porn video, Call of Duty‘s online modes have always infected the Internet and gained a loyal following that extends far past the prepubescent, racist YouTube-commenters of today’s online community. Black Ops II is more or less the same game its foundation, so if you didn’t care for past titles, not much will sway you here. Those who are not outliers get to enjoy the same fast-paced online action, but one with a better create-a-class option. The Pick 10 system lets players craft a more custom class to better fit their style of play. By assigning point values to perks, weapons, mods, secondary weapons, and equipment, players are given the reigns to design almost whatever they want, given they meet and not exceed the point limit. You can bypass a secondary weapon and grenades for more perks or just stack up on perks and hope to scavenge weapons fresh from corpses on the battlefield. Possibilities for this system are quite high, letting freedom take control over the strict-by-comparison class systems found in other games. The Pick 10 feature may seem small, but its balanced and open nature freshens up an online setting that has been sitting rather still as of late.
Treyarch has been infected with the zombie plague for the past few iterations and Black Ops II aims to add some key improvements in the facet of the game. The basics remain the same: survive against waves of zombies in an ever-growing arena, gathering points and slaying the undead with your friends until you all meet an untimely end. Such a core is still a winning formula, but they have added the TranZit mode to make it feel a bit bigger. A robotic conductor commandeering a beat-to-hell bus can come pick the team up and send them seamlessly to a different map. While each map is smaller than classics like Kino der Toten, the ability to trek to a different area adds a new tweak and lets an old co-op classic keep its legendary status. An Easy mode has also thankfully been added for those thinking the two hit system was a bit unforgiving. Also, fire can be an annoying but it is but a small blemish on this fantastic, secret-filled mode.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II goes in some bold directions for a series forced to reinvent itself every twelve months and walks away with more success than failure. Of course, like I’ve said many times here, the formula is so strong that I’m not sure failure would even be an option, as stagnation would be the more obvious threat (which still can be present at times). Placing Black Ops II in the impending years was a smart move and adding certain systems to multiplayer and zombies keeps each fresh enough, even if similarly packaged titles come out yearly and evoke a slight tinge of “I’ve done this before.” Each holiday season I ask myself if they can keep doing what they do and continue to hog the throne. Black Ops II is a reminder that they can still push forward and fit the crown at the same time.
+Future tech is visually impressive and fresher than modern warfare
+Shooting retains that smooth feel
+Multiplayer is the best the series has seen
+Zombies, while mostly similar, is a fun additional mode with TranZit adding a bigger scope
+Wider campaign that offers branching paths
-Strike Force missions are a lame, frustrating addition
-Story falls off in the latter third and can be a bit muddled at times
Final Score: 8.5/10