Do you like Call of Duty? Do you dislike Call of Duty? Never played a Call of Duty? Well, I have news for you! You’re probably going to like this one either way! Black Ops 2 throws in a little something for everybody to enjoy, provided everybody likes first-person shooters that is.
The biggest changes come in the campaign mode, which serves as a direct sequel to the previous Black Ops. Players jump into the year 2025 to take control of David Mason, a Navy Seal commander and son of Alex Mason, the protagonist from the last game. Most of the missions have you controlling the younger Mason in the future, working to stop terrorist evilbad-guy Raul Menendez from manipulating his billions of Twitter followers from starting a revolution (really). The key to uncovering Menendez’ plans is revealed to David by Frank Woods, the now quite elderly MACV-SOG soldier from the last game, which gives players the opportunity to control the elder Mason in the 1980’s via Woods’ flashbacks. Also, Michael Rooker’s in there somewhere. and so is David Petraeus!
The story, as we’ve come to expect from Call of Duty, is all kinds of stupid. At it’s heart, the story of Black Ops 2 is all about Raul Menendez and how much he hates Woods and the Mason family. I won’t spoil much beyond that, suffice to say that the motivation given for Menendez to try and destroy Western culture is paltry enough to be laughable. Throw in some vague references to the 1%, China being a superpower, and a computer virus made from a new element and you’ve got a story that is 100% ridiculous. It doesn’t help that the flashback levels provide some genuinely uncomfortable feelings as you relive the imperialism of the Cold War. Still, it is infinitely preferable to listening to Mason scream about “the fucking numbers!”
I’m happy to say that none of that really matters, because this is the best Call of Duty campaign since the first Modern Warfare. For all it lacks in quality storytelling, Black Ops 2 more than makes up for with bombastic action sequences. It’s almost cliche to say so at this point, and I bet some of you reading this are rolling your eyes at another game that gets a pass because of big explosions. But I hope you’ll trust me when I say that it really is great. By Modern Warfare 3 and it’s toppling of the Eiffel Tower, I’d gotten pretty tired of ridiculous set pieces that happened independent of player involvement. But Black Ops 2 is a breath of fresh air in that regard.
On that note, the futuristic setting with a sprinkle of the Cold War is a real refreshing breather from an endless sea of modern military shooters, Call of Duty and otherwise. The technology featured in the game is sufficiently advanced to match the ridiculousness of everything happening around it. It just feels right using a gun that can see through walls while accompanied by flying robots when you’re fighting a war in downtown LA. The Cold War levels also frequently offer an enjoyable change up from the traditional level formula, like riding a horse around an open-world desert canyon while helping some mujaheddin fend off the Russians.
Besides the future timeline, the two biggest additions to the campaign are the new Strike Force missions, and player agency. The Strike Force missions are sidequests of a sort; they’re optional missions that you don’t need to play to beat the campaign but add a little something if you do. You won’t directly be playing as David Mason for these, instead you control several units in an RTS-like command view where you can tell units where to go and what to attack. Unfortunately, those units are pretty pathetic at listening, and if you don’t use the ability to assume direct control of one, be it Navy SEAL or CLAW robot, you’ll likely fail the mission. That’s pretty forgivable considering the missions are about a third the length of normal ones and provide some neato scenarios, like escorting a convoy using only drones.
Now, I bet you’re wondering about the player agency I mentioned above. In a first for Call of Duty and an extreme rarity for first-person shooters, Black Ops 2 offers players choice. I don’t just mean mean pre-mission loadout customization — although there is that (another first for the franchise’s campaign). Black Ops 2, at surprisingly many points in the story, allows players to choose between options that lead to clearly divergent paths in the story. These aren’t A-B-C choices at the ending like Singularity either, there are several different endings based not only on explicit choice moments but also success or failure states, the completion of optional objectives and missions, or subtler things like shooting someone in the stomach when you’re told to aim for the head. This agency for the player is a huge step forward for the franchise as well as the genre, and something that’s really commendable for a franchise commonly regarded as being stubbornly resistant to change.
Speaking of change, there’s a fair bit of that happening in multiplayer modes as well. Probably the most immediately evident change is the overhauling of the class system. Classes are now based around a 10 point “inventory” that can be filled by weapons, attachments, perks, or the new “wildcards.” The point system ostensibly offers a lot more freedom, for example, allowing players to have two attachments on their SMG in addition to an extra perk. These are both gained by sacrificing the points from lethal and tactical equipment, but ultimately feels more constraining. It doesn’t help that perks from previous games seem to have been split in two, Blind Eye, for example, rendered players invisible to all aircraft including UAVs in MW3 ,now only works against AI-controlled craft. The worst bit is that, once again, it feels like every weapon worth using is locked away until the latest levels of progression, and the starting ones felt barely usable.
How do I know what the high level weapons are like without being high enough to unlock them? Well, that’s because absolutely everything for your loadout is unlocked during League Play, the best part of the new additions to the multiplayer mode. League Play, similar to Halo Reach’s Arena mode, gauges player’s skill levels and puts them up against competitors of compatible ability. During this mode, everything felt like it went a lot smoother than public matches, teammates seemed more coordinated and focused, and mercifully devoid of customized emblems that looked like a penis.
Lastly for multiplayer (and this is really more of a personal side note), everything in multiplayer feels a little faster than previous games. In MW3, with the right combination of perks and killstreaks, it was relatively easy to get maybe 20 kills without dying. Now, however, I don’t think I ever made it to the Black Ops 2 equivalent of an AC-130 killstreak, everyone seems to die faster and more frequently. Also, losing the ability to attach different killstreak chains to custom classes as you could in MW3 feels like a step backwards.
Finally, there is the zombies mode. Ever since it’s inception in World at War, Zombies has gradually involved to be almost an entirely separate beast, particularly with it’s incredibly strange secret-based story featuring such divergent characters and locations as fictional Nazi scientist Edward Richtofen and Area 51, to Michael Rooker and Sarah Michelle Geller. The strange, separate nature seems to have culminated with the newest addition of Tranzit mode. Players are given control of one of four new characters, Samuel, the middle-aged man who quite literally hears voices, Russman, the deranged elderly man, Misty, who is a grossly over-sexualized tomboy, and Marlton, a nerdy jerk who I’m pretty sure was the human star ofShort Circuit 2. The old classics are there too, guns off the wall, boarding up entry ways and drinking perk sodas, but they’re joined by the peculiar addition of a bus. Players start at, well, a bus stop, and from there can take a bus, or walk if they’re brave enough, to several other locations. All the disparate locations and their connecting paths combined make for what is definitely the largest Zombies map in franchise history. Aside from the size, more crazy to activate secrets, and new weapons, the new mode doesn’t really add anything. There’s also Grief mode, which has two teams competing indirectly for survival. It’s a neat idea, but is only as fun for as long as it takes to get bored of trolling others players via zombies.
In that way, Zombies mode reflects upon the entire game. It’s really only fun as long as it takes you to get tired of it. Thankfully, I think it’s going to be pretty difficult to get tired of this one. Even if you absolutely swore off of Call of Duty after some previous iteration, Black Ops 2 does enough new things and does them well enough that you should welcome it with open arms. If you’ve never played a Call of Duty before, this would be a great jumping on point, and some of the negative changes I mentioned earlier won’t be a problem for you. And if you’re a die-hard fan, who has played every single entry, there’s certainly not anything here that will push you away.
This review is based on a copy of the game for the Xbox 360 sent to SideQuesting by the publisher.