Review – Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Review Call of Duty Black Ops II 2
It’s fair to say that gaming has taught us some rather strange lessons. Eating mushrooms allows us to grow, powerful critters can be caught and stored in balls, rubbing two differently colored plants together creates medicine on the fly – the list goes on and on to spiral around a few city blocks.

And considering all the ridiculous activities videogames enable, I have to find something better to say about Black Ops II, rather than simply stating that it has a ridiculous plot at the heart of its campaign – that would just be a silly and wasteful thing to say.

It would probably be fairer to say that the story of Black Ops II simply builds on the well-worn foundation of the franchise, which may feel plenty worn depending on how many of the numerous releases in the series you’ve soldiered through.

And yet to simply suggest this would be selling the game short.


Review Call of Duty Black Ops II 2
Black Ops II revolves around the agenda of a single man, terrorist leader Raul Menendez. Haunted by the death of his sister, in James Bond fashion, Menendez has conceived of a plan to turn the automated weapons of the United States against the world by hacking into the country’s drone network and delivering a blow against the capitalist machine. The game suggests that Menendez is a bit of an Internet celebrity for his stand against economic inequality, but revenge serves as the primary motivator for his cause.

As a result, players will find themselves eventually fighting through the burning streets of future Los Angeles in the year 2025, though not before a lengthy session of time travel offers the history of Menendez, and the relationship that ties him to Black Ops’ Frank Woods and Alex Mason, as well as this game’s protagonist, Mason’s son David.

The Call of Duty franchise has long sought to make war more personal to the player, with characters driving the plot behind country X versus country Y, and the trip through history as narrated by Woods attempts to humanize Menendez to a degree – not to justify his actions, but to explain how the man became a super terrorist threatening the future. There’s seriously nothing anyone can seem to do that Menendez hasn’t planned for, like some neo-Professor Moriarty.

Review Call of Duty Black Ops II 2
Black Ops II provides Menendez as the singular antagonist to focus on, and learning his story requires a roller coaster ride through history, with players leaping back to the past to save Woods from imprisonment, temporarily capturing former Panama leader Manuel Noriega, and fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. The key to Menendez’s story is the loss of his sister, and he otherwise turns up in flashback campaigns a bit like Waldo, in the sense that aside from him always being near fellow characters of ill-repute, there’s no real sense of learning exactly how this man built his infrastructure or developed his master plan.

It’s a leap away from the cold war cat-and-mouse game that held the first Black Ops up against the original Modern Warfare, as far as games with a plot that might mean something to the audience go. The bit that seems silly is the need to justify the end result the game is trying to get to – the full-scale attack on the future United States of America. I mean, if we’ve established videogames don’t have to have any rules in the narrative department, why stretch the game so thin trying to justify the end goal?

One could argue that the historical juxtaposition offers some subversions to discuss regarding the evolving nature of warfare – that rather than just dump players into the future, Treyarch is offering a very tactile sense of how combat has changed, and ultimately, how much of war hasn’t changed at all despite the shiny new killing toys. But the truly subversive bit here might just be how much more sanitized killing becomes as time shifts with the unfolding story.

Of course it might also be worth suggesting that Black Ops II is jumping through time in order to have its cake and eat it too, unwilling to risk alienating audiences that expect a certain degree of the familiar versus a full-on Metal Gear-like excursion.

It’s at least worth contemplating the idea that Call of Duty has grown up quite a bit since MW2’s No Russian chapter attempted to clock audiences over the head with the shock factor. It’s certainly true that Black Ops II presents tiny shocks to the system across its campaign, assuming bits and pieces catch your eyes along the way.

Review Call of Duty Black Ops II 2
Some small part of the story continues to attempt putting players into a different perspective. Although the game won’t have players swapping roles with the frequency and disconnect of Modern Warfare’s last two outings, players will spend a small amount of time playing as Menendez – racing to save his sister while slashing and shooting through soldiers. It’s hard to fathom why players do this however, with said section playing exactly like the second-half that see’s players back in American shoes and racing to capture Menendez, and the game providing no real distinguishing mark between the two situations. Maybe we are all the same in our actions despite our intentions? I honestly have no idea.

Call of Duty’s mechanics remain set on putting a gun in the player’s hands, and then twirling them around with the bullets that come from every conceivable direction. It will likely surprise no one that the game continues to do this very well, essentially by doing it much as it always has in many sections – capturing the chaos of the battlefield while leveraging a myriad of landscapes and the necessary, sometimes seemingly endless waves of opposition. Soldiers pour out of every nook here – they shoot from the bushes, they shoot from the windows, they shoot from the flunjers, capdabblers and smendlers!

It’s dizzying at times. Racing across a field to shoot fleeing soldiers, the game had only just begun and I’d already killed a ridiculous amount of people. Though I suppose you’re never really responsible for some part of it, with the history already established and players simply taking part in some minor bit of quantum leap warfare. At those points, I know that I wasn’t fighting for a cause but rather to uncover a history alleging to make the present clear.

Review Call of Duty Black Ops II 2
There is something more personal in the attempt to sweep through a brief history of war through a few specific eyeballs, as much as I couldn’t care less about any of these characters. The game sheds the cold detachment of war often felt with games featuring Tom Clancy’s clearly confusing danger – melting everything down to a few people and raw emotions that send the politics out the window, which seems fair given that players haven’t purchased geo-politics the videogame.

The result can come across short, reduced to battle zones between melodrama that leaves no space for player attachment. And in one sense, Black Ops II doesn’t want your love that way, but simply wants to get you to the future it promises and be done with it. But that isn’t the entire story here.

The plot will offer some utterly laughable moments, such as David Mason reclaiming memories of a traumatic event whilst standing in the planning room with fellow soldiers. And that the story boils down to one man’s quest for vengeance makes it all the easier to check the plot at the door and settle in for the bullet feast Call of Duty brings each year. The game unfolds in a way that would make it very easy to give it such a reading and be done with it, and yet the damn thing wants for more attention than this.

Review Call of Duty Black Ops II 2
On the surface, Black Ops II offers choices that seem relatively simple to comprehend – insomuch as points within the game will determine the fates of key characters. We’re very used to this illusion of choice alleging some sense of consequence within gaming, and I believe well aware of why choices rarely have a real impact on evolving narratives in the medium – because it would be maddening to create multiple outcomes unto infinity.

But Black Ops II also offers more subtle choices with its Strike Force feature, a series of missions that become available during the campaign. Strike Force missions task players with a key objective in relation to the story of the campaign – protecting key infrastructure, striking key targets. Players will find themselves in charge of units and able to swap on the fly to the overhead “Over Watch” vantage point, tasking units to take up positions and attack opponents. More importantly, players will be able to use this to instantly take over any unit on the battlefield, jumping from solider to mechanized unit and back again in order to quickly quell hot spots.

Where Special Ops offered a chance to quickly engage in the core mechanics and invite of the series, Strike Force allow players to chain the experience, in a way that must be as close as one could come to inhaling the game like a drug and becoming something of a machine themselves.

Review Call of Duty Black Ops II 2
It seems a bit awkward at first to find the mode embedded within the campaign – as players progress, new Strike Force missions become available and players will be warned that they must finish each before completing a certain amount of stages – as well, there will be a limited amount of strike teams to accomplish these missions, and failing a mission loses one of the teams available, unless you reset the game of course.

The reasoning for the campaign placement is that actions here, namely victory or defeat, have an added influence on the branching storyline of the game – which countries will resist Menendez’s endgame and which will not. It’s not quite digital risk in the way it plays out, but presents quite the interesting talking point all the same. Though when the larger influence is primarily on the final cinematic outcome, talking is all one can really do – specifically about the seed of an idea here that could dramatically change the series going forward should someone care to take it in that evolving direction.

As with the familiar ends of the campaign, Strike Force offers a mechanically sound and solid experience. But the addition feels strange all the same, with two layers, the deeply narrative focused campaign missions and the sandbox styled Strike Force vying for attention. Influencing one of these through actions in the other forces an elastic plot that explains much of the simplicity.

On the one hand, influencing the campaign through actions elsewhere in the world is a terribly clever idea. On the other hand, I still found myself wanting to focus solely on the campaign separate from the Strike Force missions. That said, one could ignore all but the first Strike Force mission and still reach a conclusion, with the invitation to revisit the campaign from the beginning felt more strongly here than with any other game in the franchise.

Review Call of Duty Black Ops II 2
The split of attention speaks to the entire package Black Ops II offers, with the campaign joined by the extensive multiplayer that will become a lifestyle for some players, as well as an expanded Zombies mode. Suggesting any game has too much content may be an entirely silly statement, so I’ll bite my tongue and simply nod at the fact that Black Ops II fits an impressive amount of content onto its single disc. Additional modes need only offer the tools and framework that allow us to keep ourselves busy of course, but Treyarch is generous with the serving all the same.

Scorestreaks keep the focus of multiplayer on co-operation with a team via earning points for actions versus only racking up kills, while the pick-10 system limits players armaments and perks in an attempt to further balance the online battlefield. Changes to Call of Duty’s online component are a beast all their own, waiting for the weight of a devoted community to come down on one side of the fence or the other. If that sounds like I’m skipping around adding an opinion to the matter, I certainly am doing that. The worth of that end of the game can only be determined overtime as said community sinks its teeth into the offering.

As overrun as we are with zombie game releases, Zombies mode continues to offer an important alternative for those not interested in committing themselves to the online lifestyle. Returning the challenge of surviving waves of the undead with human company, this mode also introduces a Grief mode that allows two four-player teams to square off against the undead and see which team will have the last player standing. The game also offers Tranzit mode, which starts players in one location and provides a bus that will take them to new areas with new buildings and weapons to unlock with cash. There’s this Tales from the Crypt / retro humor to the mode that is earnestly entertaining. Also, as I was riding the bus a few zombies tried to jump on and I had to blast them off the windshield. As much as Tranzit mode mimics a campaign, the experience is more a chaining of areas versus some sort of stab at a full on Left4Dead addition.

The overflow of content here ensures that Black Ops II doesn’t really come to any conclusion, but instead spirals on endlessly like the conflicts it details. The fairest of all statements is that the game retains Call of Duty’s annual status as war in a very big can. But along with the season’s other attention grabbing release, Halo 4, there are seeds scattered throughout familiar soil that expose fresh ideas brewing beneath the surface.

The introduction of Strike Force missions and their rooted impact is as interesting as it is jarring, worth any amount of turbulence for the attempt to shake up a formula essentially carved in stone. As much as I’d never wish for the awesome responsibility of ranking any one entry in the series against all others, I will suggest that there are elements at work here that make this one of the harder entries in the series to ignore. Compared against the original however, it’s hard to ignore that it weakens its narrative aims. Even if the game makes that sacrifice in the effort to accommodate an addition that proves of greater interest than a more linear tale, I think it’s okay to want both in equal measure here.


Developer
Treyarch

Publisher
Activision

System
PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows PC, Wii U (Xbox 360 Reviewed)

Modes
Singleplayer, Multiplayer, Co-op

Release Date
November 13, 2012 / (Wii U November 18th, 2012)

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review

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