Call of Duty continues to march out a game every year, but has it managed to stay in line with what gamers expect from the series? How do you keep a game fresh, while keeping it the same? Is Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 a game you'll want to buy or put on your wishlist? Find out in our full review below!
- Cinematic storyline with branching moments feels truly epic
- Multiplayer has been kicked up several notches
- New options add lots of replay value
- Was the zombie mode worth the hype?
- Strike Force levels have atrocious AI
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Review:
The Call of Duty franchise has continually steamrolled the competition, and as Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 releases this holiday season, it enters a field crowded with competition. Just the past few weeks alone have brought us Borderlands 2, Halo 4 and Medal of Honor: Warfighter, with two of those games dominating our free time, and the other one… not. And that’s just the recent FPS lineup. Suffice it to say, there are plenty of games to divert your attention right now.
But Activision’s powerhouse title wants all eyes trained on it at launch as it tries to beat the massive “biggest entertainment launch ever” already set by its predecessor, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. So how does it stack up?
There’s a 2 on the Box For A Reason!
Black Ops 2 is a sequel in both title and story, although it does not pick up immediately where the first game left off. Instead, we’re years in the future, where the present time is now 2025. You’re still playing as Mason, although this time it’s David Mason, son of Alex Mason from the original Black Ops. He’s visiting Frank Woods, his father’s old (literally) partner who has information about Raul Menendez, and possibly a terrorist attack on the United States.
That’s where the train begins to pull out of the station in Black Ops 2, and it will take you on a wild ride around the world, and jump through multiple points in time. You’ll be back in the boots of Alex Mason, running missions again alongside Woods, and you’ll encounter historical figures in the game, like Oliver North and Manuel Noriega, who they casually nickname “Pineapple Face.”
You’ll see the bond between Woods and the elder Mason deepen, based on missions they carried out post Black Ops, and you’ll also find out just who Raul Menendez is, and why Treyarch considers him to be “the most dangerous terrorist since Bin Laden.” Although you’ve played through the campaign at least once, you’ll probably conclude that Menendez is much, much worse.
But for the majority of the game, you’ll be doing duty as David Mason and often following directly in your father’s footsteps as you trail Menendez and try to stop a global terrorist event by his hands. During your time as David, you’ll be partnered up with fellow soldier Harper, voiced by and modeled after Michael Rooker who does a fantastic job throughout this game. We’re just glad he never went full Merle Dixon on us.
The team was extremely proud to be able to bring screenwriter David S. Goyer in as a story consultant on this title, and it shows in the plot. This is a massive story with some truly horrific moments embedded in it. It entwines a fantastic story into the plotlines of Black Ops, and does a commendable job of pushing us 13 years into the future. While the Rare Earth Elements storyline might seem farfetched at first, if you do a little digging into the science behind it, you’ll find that it is eerily on target.
Little things like the fact that some of the missions (and a multiplayer map) take place aboard an aircraft carrier named the USS Obama, and the usage of biometric identity bracelets that insert your image into advertisements aboard a luxurious floating city seem grounded in the reality of today. Then there’s all of the future tech you’ll get to play with, like wing suits and flechette guns with exploding rounds. Most of the really nifty toys aren’t available in multiplayer, giving the campaign another notch in its replayability belt.
Replay’s The Thing
Speaking of replay, while the game has a fairly epic campaign that should take about eight hours to complete in full, for the first time in a Call of Duty game, there are finally reasons to replay the campaign besides just upping the difficulty level. There are branching decisions throughout that will affect your story, and ultimately the ending of the game.
Some of these decisions will also trigger Strike Force levels, which are optional levels that will appear from time to time within the game. While you don’t have to take part in these at all, your decisions here will also affect the endgame. Plus, you can also fail these levels, although you can try to replay them if you have the resources. But they will only be available for a limited time, and once the window closes, they are gone forever.
The branching events in the campaign are where the story treads into the “interactive storytelling” realm. Sometimes these can be somewhat trivial and cosmetic, and at other times they can have a bearing on future campaign events and on Strike Force levels. You can easily identify these moments as they happen in the campaign with certain achievements, or you can see them in the level menus where your progress is marked.
Case in point on the trivial side: During a later mission to a luxurious floating city, Harper remarks that if he was on his own time, he would get some “hot chick” action. When I replayed the game, in an earlier mission, where we were fleeing the wrath of Menendez, I accidentally steered our car under a jet of flame, badly burning half of Harper’s face. When made our way to the floating city, and Harper makes his “hot chick” remark, one of the other characters quips, “Not with that face.” Ouch!
With these decisions and levels boil down to is a first for the franchise: multiple endings. While it isn’t a new idea in the video game industry, it’s a novel approach for Call of Duty, and it will make you want to replay the campaign more than once.
A Strike Against Strike Force
While we fully support branching storylines and welcome decisions that have a direct affect on the outcome of your game, unfortunately these Strike Force levels are a bit of a misstep. First of all, they are meant to be strategic. Offering the player a satellite level top-down view of the battlefield, you can issue rudimentary commands to your units like move and attack.
Unfortunately, the artificial intelligence in these units just isn’t enough to get the job done, and after much frustration you’ll find that it is often much easier to jump down into a single soldier unit to get the job done. A good example of this was in a level where we had to plant three beacons at different locations on at a cargo ship port. After issuing movie commands to our units, they would frequently get pinned down by enemy fire, or easily taken out by gunfire.
While part many Call of Duty multiplayer matches involves you lone-wolfing it, we didn’t expect to be leaving squads and units behind in the campaign in order to secure or complete objectives. Thankfully you can gain the ability to continue trying Strike Force levels as you complete campaign missions, but they vanish after you progress past a certain point so if you’re a completist you’ll have to act fast or forego that level forever.
Our advice: after beginning a Strike Force level, figure out the objective, and then issue rough move commands to your units before jumping into a single soldier and then go Rambo on the situation.
Another first for the Call of Duty series is the ability to change up your loadouts before missions, giving you variety to how you play the single player missions. You’ll encounter challenges in each mission that will require certain weapons, and besides just completing a missions, you can now stat-track each one as well to see what your “score” was. While this doesn’t create a massive different, it is nice to see some variety here, and to select your preferred weapon set before launching a mission.
The loadout changes carry over into multiplayer as well, where the biggest change to that mode comes in the form of the new “Pick 10” system. Now you can pick only ten different items: weapons, perks, attachments, wildcards, etc. to outfit yourself with before a match begins. As you progress through multiplayer, you can gain wildcards that allow you to carry two primary weapons, or have more than one Perk 1 and so one, but you continually have to juggle your ten so you don’t go over.
Multipass, No Leeloo Dallas Required
If you’ve ever glanced at the top of the online gaming charts for the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, then you know that Call of Duty titles frequently own the top slot. But this presents the developers with a unique problem where they need to innovate, while adhering to the adage ‘If it ain’t broke… don’t fix it.” So while they haven’t radically changed multiplayer, they have definitely kicked it up several notches.
First and foremost is through the Pick 10 system, which introduces arguably the largest change to single player since perks were first introduced. The one real effect that the system has is that it will cause you to constantly fiddle with your loadouts. In Black Ops, Modern Warfare 3, Modern Warfare 2 and so on, players tended to find a loadout they preferred, and would just stick with it.
With Pick 10, you’ll find yourself diving into the menus between matches to change something minor, or alter your loadout completely by equipping two primary weapons, or by equipping no weapons whatsoever (which equips your melee blade by default) and trying to rank up your knife. It’s a simple system, but one that provides a ton of variety. We just wish it had a giant slot machine handle built in that could dial up a random loadout at any time.
There are multiple new attachments in the game that are unlockable as you rank up your weapons, many of which are new to the game. These include millimeter-wave scanners that can show enemies through obstacles, and shock charge grenades that stun enemies that get near them. Taking a page from Gears of War, your assault shields can now be embedded in the ground as well, giving you portable cover that you can move and place at will.
Scorestreaks are now replacing Killstreaks, and those have been tweaked as you would expect and updated with “future” 2025 weaponry. Some of these changes are small, but extremely welcomed. Sentry Guns now fight autonomously, or you can jump into them at any time to take control. The same goes for the Autonomous Ground Robot drone that you can jump in and out of.
Easily the most useful and devious Scorestreak at our disposal was the Guardian. This sets up a microwave-based turret that can be aimed in one direction. It will cause an enemy to slow down, become disoriented, and if they don’t get out of the way of the beam fast enough it will kill them. In one of our Search & Destroy matches, a teammate planted the bomb and set up a Guardian on the bombsite. He was subsequently killed, but the lone remaining enemy could not get close enough to disarm the bomb without cooking himself. Ultimately, he sacrificed himself while trying, giving us the win.
A La Mode
Multiplayer has also shaken up the modes this time around, and thankfully gone is the CoD Cash/Points system from the original Black Ops. So instead of Wager Matches you just have Party Games, but they bring back Sharpshooter, Gun Game, One in the Chamber, and Stick & Stones. Combat Training is also more integral to multiplayer as well, with up to three live players and three bots being able to take part in Bootcamp, where you can also rank up from one to ten. You can also play Objective modes with bots beyond level ten, although you’ll only earn half XP.
Objective modes are now round-based, so for instance in Domination, players will now switch sides in the attack and defend back and forth. There are some new modes as well, including Hardpoint, which is basically King of the Hill with a constantly changing target. Or it might be more appropriate to call it Headquarters… without the Headquarters. Custom Games are back as well, with multiple options to tweak including bots in all game modes, and the ability to change Pick 10 to Pick 3 up to Pick 17.
Also new is League Play, where you can team up and rank up as a league. There’s a large, ladder-based tier system in play here, framed loosely after the Diamond etc. ladders in StarCraft 2. However in our brief time with the game, we weren’t able to see how accurately it rates your play here. Although like StarCraft, you do have to participate in a number of placement matches before you get an actual ranking, which is promising. Hardcore Clan players, this is probably where you’ll want to take your teams to play.
Another addition is Multi-Team play, which has up to 18 players and six teams competing with each other. It’s somewhat chaotic when multiple teams are on the map, sometimes forcing you to try and work with another team if one of the others starts to pull way ahead. At least, it forces you to do that as much as you can in CoD multiplayer, where kill first, ask for cooperation later is normally the rule of thumb.
The Theater mode has been tweaked as well, with players able to store 20 clips (which can all be merged into one big clip), and the ability to attach the camera to objects in the game, like the Dragonfire quad-copter scorestreak, or the RCDX remote control car. You can also now CoDcast recorded games, which
But easily our favorite addition was the ability to create an instant highlight reel. Simply pull up a match and select this option, and a reel of your best moments in the game will be created on the fly. You can play with the settings for the moments it captures, but right out of the box it does a fine job of making a brag reel to share without all of the video scrubbing and editing.
How Prestigious is Prestige?
Prestige has also been revamped here, with level 55 as the target number for Prestige, and at 10 levels deep. But this time hitting Prestige does not wipe your slate clean. It now continues your level progression, and your weapon XP and attachments are not reset, nor are the challenges. Your unlocks stay unlocked. You’ll be able to choose one of three rewards whenever you hit the magic number, allowing you to add a new Create a Class slot (up to 5), get a Refund of unlock tokens, or get a Fresh Start which actually does reset all of your stats and kicks you back to level one.
eSports Are eHarmony For Some, Not For Others
Treyarch has bent over backwards to satisfy the eSports community with Black Ops 2, which includes the aforementioned League Play and also encompasses shoutcasting and livestreaming as well. With CoDcasting (their version of shoutcasting), there are multiple controls in the game that allow a commentator to navigate through any game with a variety of tools including picture-in-picture, map view, a score panel, name plates, and the ability to drop in and out of player conversations.
During our review event, professional shoutcaster Hastro watched a match we played in, and then CoDcasted out the entire game in commentary mode, and we captured the video here for you to watch. While it might only be a very small group of gamers that take advantage of this mode, expect it to pop up frequently as people try it out. One thing we learned: it’s tough to make an entire Call of Duty multiplayer match sound exciting the whole time.
You can also livestream your matches out directly to the web, giving everyone the ability to become a YouTube superstar. Again, this is going to result in a ton of content, but it will be up to you to separate the good from the bad.
The Undead Just Keep On Coming
Much has been ballyhooed about the new Zombie mode in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, and while it initially feels huge, it’s not quite what we were hoping for. Black Ops provided a rich undead experience with so much Zombie DLC for the game made available after launch, including the fan-favorite Call of the Dead, and the Rezurrection DLC which was only zombie maps.
We fully expect that trend to continue, as right now Zombies in this game feels like only part of a sprawling puzzle that has yet to be unlocked. That doesn’t mean that the zombies aren’t fun here, we just expected something bigger given that the mode now has it’s own menu screen and selection system. Although it’s a statement unto itself that we’ve come to expect to much from this game mode, which almost felt like an afterthought when it was included with Call of Duty: World at War.
The largest change to Zombies is the Tranzit system, which finds you and up to three other survivors struggling to stay alive at several different locations, which can be visited via an automated bus on a looping route. Starting out at a semi-destroyed bus depot, the animatronic bus driver (think Johnny Cab from Total Recall and voiced by Nolan North) will kindly honk before pulling out and taking the journey to the next stop. You can opt to stay on the bus (yes, it will get attacked by zombies on the way and while stopped), or stay at your locations. But as a warning: if you try to run from location to location without the bus, you’ll get attacked by these nightmare-inducing baby things that leap onto your skull. Don’t try it unless you have a death wish.
But Zombies is all about exploration, and to augment that fact the team has created “Buildables” in the world of Zombies now, giving players the chance to combine parts at workbenches in order to create useful items. For instance an electric fan and a dressmaker’s mannequin make a power turbine. Naturally, right? You can also find single-use items such as a ladder that can be attached to your bus to allow rooftop access, or a wedge for the front of the bus to shove zombies aside.
There are a wealth of secrets to unlock in here, just like any good zombies map, and while we like to think it will keep gamers busy for weeks, we have no doubt that there will be full unlock guides on YouTube by the end of launch day, augemented by the fact that Zombie games can now be loaded in the Theater. The development team definitely played coy with us here, and there’s still a lot to find even after our team managed to stay alive through 15 waves of zombies.
Zombies also adds a new grief mode where you can play another team of four (it’s always the FBI vs. the CDC, as an FYI) in humans vs. humans vs. zombies. The goal here is to outlast the other team, and thankfully there are some mechanics to aid you in that goal, like chucks of meat you can find and toss into the midst of the enemy team, bringing with it rabid hordes of the undead.
What we recommend: Jump into Survival which has up to four players trying to survive waves in the locations from Tranzit. The Buildables are still there, and it will give your team a chance to learn how they work without having to worry about multiple locations for now.
All On Accounta Pullin’ A Trigger
Honestly, the most impressive thing about Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is that Treyarch and Activision didn’t just dump a few new maps and weapons in here and slap a “TWO” on the box. A ton of work has gone into this game from top to bottom, and it stands as a real testament to the developers who didn’t want to just coattail this one into the books. Nearly every system and aspect of the game has been tweaked or overhauled, and it certainly shows in the final product.
While the Strike Force levels are welcomed because of their eventual affect on the outcome of the game, the presentation and AI in them needs a serious overhaul. Call of Duty has always been about the first-person shooting experience, and attempting to add a strategic element to that could work at some point, but it doesn’t really come together here. Likewise, the Zombies mode feels slightly hobbled, and while that will probably be filled out via DLC, we would like a more complete package out of the box.
But despite the slight dings in Strike Missions and Zombies, the series continues to shine with its incredibly ambitious, globe-spanning, epic single player campaign, which is now augmented with an incredibly high replay factor. And it should come as no surprise that the multiplayer continues to shine, and will dominate the online game boards in the weeks and months to come. The series has come to be strongly identified by its online multiplayer, and the same holds true in this latest release. They’ve perfected the scratch to the itch you have when you feel the need to jump online and shoot things.
And as with most Call of Duty titles, stay tuned after the credits for something extra. Although this time, be prepared for the truly bizarre. Seriously. It still has us simultaneously scratching our heads and tapping our toes.