The Call of Duty franchise has arguably been spinning its wheels for years now, and while sales and popularity have remained strong from title to title, you’d be hard pressed to argue that fresh ideas have been plentiful. Treyarch might have just changed all that with Black Ops II, the most ambitious COD game to date.
The single player campaign jumps between the perspectives of Alex Mason, Sam Worthington’s character from the original game, and David Mason, Alex’s future son. As their perspectives shift, so does the period of time. Alex’s portion of the campaign picks up where the original Black Ops left off – at the end of the Cold War (that’s during the 80’s and early 90’s if you’re not a history buff), while David’s deals with a future conflict in the year 2025. Despite the quantum leap, both storylines are tied to a central villan by the name of Raul Menendez.
Alex’s campaign lets you experience Raul’s rise to power, whereas David’s deals with grizzly outcome once the world is on the brink of collapse. Both have significant highs and lows and are spattered with a fair selection of set piece moments, vehicle sections and cut scenes. But for all of the story’s ambition, which is commendable, it ends up feeling a little disjointed. Not only do you have to keep track of the cross-time conflict but there’s a whole murdered father/betrayed son subplot raging behind the scenes, you’ve also got Alex’s original mental conditioning woes from the first Black Ops to contend with.
A much more focused approach with less B-Movie subplottage would have been far better. While I’m sure this convoluted angle was taken to boost Call of Duty’s often lacklustre narrative direction, it feels as though Treyarch branched a little too far from their strengths as developers and the game feels worse off for it. It’s not all bad though because the shifting time periods and multiple plot threads do pave the way for some fresh gameplay.
Anyone who has ever accused the Call of Duty franchise of being a recycled cash grab will want to take note, there’s plenty of innovation here. While the basic, shoot and progress, formula remains largely the same, the future set missions really shake up the variety. One level you’ll be scaling a cliff face and gliding down a valley in a wing suit, then in the next you’ll take control of a hulking tank-bot. Level to level I never really knew what to expect and was generally surprised by what was on offer.
There are a few misses in the formula though
Strike Force missions, for example, are a serious low and are crammed down your throat more than a few times. Long time series fans will no doubt remember the incredible AC-130 section from the original Modern Warfare. In an effort to recreate the same feeling of omnipotence and power, Black Ops II’s Strike Force missions give you control of several unique squads. Your task during these sections is to direct the movements and attack patterns of each squad across a raging battlefield. In theory it sounds like a blast but in practice it turns into a garbled mess.
Squad controls are severly hindered by a poorly implemented control scheme and the AI is abysmal. Rather than working to military precision, your controlled squads will basically rush to your command marker and die, leaving you to solo the entire mission yourself. Where single player campaign really sets itself apart from others in the series, however, is with the introduction of player choice. For the first time in a Call of Duty game, players actually choose how certain situations play out. Deciding whether to properly explore a level for every bit of intel or sparing that seemingly insignificant side character can have serious repercussions in the later stages of the game. Likewise, failing objectives may net you a more challenging follow up mission rather than a load screen.
These branching paths give you a sense that you’re actually taking part in the conflict rather than just going through the motions.The mechanic is also helped along by the ability to tweak your single player loadout. Instead of being stuck with whatever weapon the game decides to give you at the start of each stage, a pre-mission menu gives you the option to customise. You’re still locked in to certain choices in some regards, like not being able to use future weapons in the sections set in the 1980’s, but it makes for a refreshing change and acts a small precurser to the new multiplayer options. (More on that later.)
From a technical standpoint this is easily the most refined Call of Duty ever. Realistically speaking, all Treyarch needed to do was reskin the original Modern Warfare, mechanics and all, to deliver a top notch experience, but they’ve gone one better and tightened the entire package. The eb and flow of shooting is responsive as ever and the new, futuristic equipment is intergrated so flawlessly into the design that you’ll never have to think twice before busting out that hovering drone or lining up a sweet wrist mounted grappling hook shot.
While it does stumble here and there, in both story gameplay, the single player campaign remains enjoyable throughout and will account about 6-8 hours of gameplay. Once you finish, you’ll likely want to give certain sections a replay to experience the diverging story paths. But, as any Call of Duty player knows, the game’s incredible longevity has always come from its multiplayer.
Each edition, while not radically different from its predecessor, has seen steady improvements to the basic formula. A loadout tweak here. A killstreak switch up there. Black Ops II, however, shakes up the series with perhaps the biggest change in the franchise since we were taken from WWII to the modern day.
A radical change to the loadout system, Pick 10, as the name suggests, lets you to choose ten ways to customise your character. It sounds trivial at first but this ability allows you to create a class truly tailored to your individual play-style. It works by reducing each weapon, perk, attachment and piece of equipment to a single point value rather than a slot necessity. You’ve got ten points and how you spend them is up to you. For example: Have you ever wanted to smack three attachments on your ACR, ditch your grenades in favour of an extra perk and round yourself out with two sets of throwing knives? Well now you can. Likewise you can equip yourself with a sniper rifle for long range, stock up on extra claymores to be an annoying little bitch and complete the package with a secondary main weapon over a sidearm for when the enemy gets a little too close.
Pick 10 basically gives you all these options and more – paving way for the most finely tuned classes in shooter history. After spending a few minutes with the system you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. Just as iron sites and the little crosshair splay effect have become FPS staples, Pick 10 is sure to set a precedent for years to come. Loadouts weren’t the only thing to receive an update in Black Ops II – the core multiplayer gameplay has seen sweeping changes across the board. As far as online functionality goes, one of the biggest complaints with previous iterations, aside from the bounce between dedicated servers and matchmaking, has been player accessibility.
Although it’s never a gripe I had personally, being matched alongside top tier players with inexplicibly fast reflexes and the best tech didn’t exactly make for enjoyable gameplay. Treyarch has attempted to rectify this with the addition of combat training. Pitting you against bots, combat training allows you to level from 1-10 at a steady pace while learning the maps, weapons and perks. Once you’re comfortable enough with the new system you can branch out to live games or continue to stick with the bots for a bit of light fun. Bot games from level 10 onwards only grant half as much experience as the real thing, but it’s a breezy option for casual gamers just looking to enjoy themselves.
While I don’t think Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a revolution for the franchise, the game has undoubtedly pushed the series forward in a big way. Single player stumblings aside, this is a huge and well rounded package absolutely chock-full of content (and I didn’t even mention the zombies! Mostly because I didn’t have anyone to play it with. The rest of the DC crew were too busy pumping iron and arguing over whether LoL or DotA is better).
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