While Call of Duty moved into the realm of fictional wars with the first Modern Warfare game, the series has never strayed beyond modern technology; indeed, even jumping into today’s battlegrounds was deemed a huge leap for the series. Now that almost every era of modern war has been mined for inspiration (I’m still waiting for Trench Warfare), Call of Duty’s off-year team Treyarch decided to make a bold move and place their Black Ops follow up in the year 2025.
The whole game doesn’t take place in 2025, however, as there are several levels that occur in the 1980s that set up the origin of Raul Menendez, the antagonist of this particular outing. Switching back and forth between the shiny combat of 2025 and the shady battles of the 1980s, can Black Ops 2’s unique narrative break it out of the Call of Duty rut?
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 isn’t your usual fare, as Treyarch has taken some gambles this time around with the formula. Some of the changes work a little bit better than others, but at this point any attempt to shake up the usual proceedings of a Call of Duty campaign is welcome.
There’s still the standard sampling of CoD mission types: follow your AI partner and do exactly what he says to avoid being spotted, which now lacks even a smattering of the impact the Chernobyl levels of Modern Warfare had, or the turret sections, which have thankfully been decreased since Modern Warfare 3. Within the levels themselves, however, Treyarch has included a bit of exploration as there are a few secrets for you to find. While these aren’t that difficult to uncover (once you’re get close to them a giant waypoint marker appears), going off the beaten path can have some interesting returns, like a squadron of drones to control or electrified brass knuckles.
The biggest difference in Black Ops 2 is that your actions as a player can have different effects on the game’s plot, leading up to one of five endings. You get these endings through actions both in the main storyline and whether or not you complete the new Strike Force missions successfully (more on those in a moment). While there’s still plenty of run and gun to be had in Black Ops 2, the notion of player choice actually works in this setting, and it’s impressive that Treyarch pulled it off. While the game does require a complete playthrough to see any of the other outcomes, the game can end up drastically different depending on any number of small choices and a few major ones.
One of the ways to affect the ending, the Strike Force missions, could have been a nice change of pace from the main campign, but they’re bogged down by uninteresting gamplay and bad friendly AI. Instead of inhabiting the body of one specific soldier you take command of several squads of soldiers or drones, depending on the mission. While Strike Force does allow you to direct your troops to specific areas or assign individual commands through a real-time-strategy interface, the AI is so bad at obeying your orders in a timely or effective fashion that it’s easier just to possess one soldier and use him until the overwhelming enemy forces finally take him out. You do have limited reinforcements, but by Rambo-ing your way through the missions you can force a victory despite having the odds stacked against you.
Call of Duty has tried to do the “manhunt” type of story for the Modern Warfare titles, but Makarov’s puzzling position in the universe (why can he control the Russian army? What is his goal?) has always made that plotline ring hollow. The new bad-guy, Raul Menendez, fares a bit better in this regard, building up his mystique in the 1980s missions and showing why he has such a murder-boner on for Frank Woods and Alex Mason and his son David (the player character in 2025). Raul Menendez is built up to be a better villain than Makarov ever was, but let’s bet honest, that isn’t that difficult to accomplish.
Despite the trips to the future, the semi-exploration elements and the mutable story, Black Ops 2 is still at its heart a Call of Duty game. You’ll fight through waves of enemy troops and through set-pieces that fail to impress anymore, despite their bombast. The engine is really starting to show its age, especially in the area of character animation where the model in question isn’t holding a gun. Deviations from ground combat like flying a jet around Los Angeles are weighed down by wonky controls and as mentioned above, the Strike Force missions feel like a bit of a chore.
One of the central tenants of Call of Duty’s multiplayer mode since Modern Warfare has been the class system, which has been more or less rigid in what you can deck your soldier with: one gun, a sidearm, a thrown weapon, a non-lethal tool and three perks. Treyarch tries to address this with the Pick 10 system, where you get ten points to allocate anywhere you want.
Every item costs one point towards your total, and you can place them where you see fit. Want to run with only a knife and load up on perks and other equipment? Go for it. This is a smart change to Call of Duty’s mutliplayer, and that’s helped along by a revamped perk system where perks that previously affected the player’s weapon (Sleight of Hands, for example) have been replaced with attachments to your gun that give you the same effect. Going with the Sleight of Hand example, the new way to reload quicker in battle is a fast magazine. This gives a lot of flexibility to the player, so those of us who can’t get sidearm kills to save our lives can swap out the pistol with something a bit more effective.
It kind of makes Black Ops 2’s multiplayer mode feel like a bit of an RPG, carefully choosing where you want to use your ten points to their maximum effectiveness. Opening up the class-building system was a great move on Treyarch’s part. Kill Streaks have been replaced with Score Streaks, so helping out in objective gametypes will fill up the meter faster than just trying to get kills. Killing opponents will do this as well, but there’s a bonus for capturing a flag in that specific mode that you wouldn’t get from just brassing people up. The multiplayer takes place in 2025, so the Streaks are things like drone strikes and hand-thrown hunter-killer bots. Black Ops 2 shakes up the multiplayer offering in the best way, giving us a new type of experience-progression fueled competitive mode in an area of gaming that’s becoming a little played out.
Fan favorite zombie mode is back for Black Ops 2, bringing with it the same insane difficulty this gametype has had since World at War. The new zombie campaign, Tranzit, has players shuttling between different maps on an armored bus which is driven by an AI character. Like the zombie modes of games past, Tanzit has its own crazy backstory and Easter Eggs hidden in every nook and cranny and there’s a legion of people out there who live on this stuff. Newcomers to the mode may find it punishing, even on the new Easy difficulty, but for the zombie completionist there’s plenty to be done here.
While Tranzit is the main mode for zombies, there’s the classic survival gametype and the Grief mode where players attempt to kill each other indirectly by tricking the zombies into attack the other team. Grief is fun for a while, but it lacks the incentive to keep coming back once the novelty wears off.
While using the phrase “long in the tooth” to describe Call of Duty is getting cliche, there’s no denying that the series is struggling to stay relevant. Even though it throws up great sales number every years, it’s taking long for each game to reach the height of its predecessor. In what might be the last hurrah for the franchise on this generation, Treyarch has taken an admirable number of risks, toying around with the bread and butter of Call of Duty, the multiplayer mode, and implementing player choice into the campaign.
While Strike Force is a broken mess and some campaign missions go back to the well a bit too many times to feel engaging, Black Ops 2 tries enough new things to warrant at least a weekend rental. If you’re a multiplayer fan then the Pick 10 system will have you mix-maxing for hours and the co-op player will get a kick out of Tanzit.
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