Black Ops 2's campaign is absolutely worth seeing if you care about player choice in games. And hey, the multiplayer is still great.
For as long as I can remember, I was one of the many detractors of the Call of Duty series, even though I never played a single installment. There was just something about Activision’s popular military franchise that rubbed me the wrong way. But all of that changed when I bought Modern Warfare 3 on a whim and spent a weekend getting way into the multiplayer. The eighth installment convinced me that maybe the series is worth defending.
Today, I will admit that I like Call of Duty whenever possible. It’s not a perfect series, but some of my weekends are frequently lost to the multiplayer, and the single-player occasionally threatens to be exciting. So maybe it wasn’t a shock when I found myself legitimately excited for the latest installment. Thankfully, that excitement wasn’t misplaced. Between the multiplayer, the campaign, and the Zombies mode, everything about Call of Duty: Black Ops II is solid, culminating in a whole that is very much worth it…even if the experience feels a little iterative at times.
Black Ops II’s campaign is set in the 1980s, a few years after the adventures of Alex Mason and Frank Woods shown in the last Black Ops. Except not really. You see, the missions set in the 1980s are, in reality, stories that Woods is telling David Mason (Alex’s son) in the far future of 2025 in the hopes that said tales will help David catch a bad dude. It’s a fairly effective framing device, and it helps provide as much variety as a release in this franchise can offer. Whenever I thought I was getting a little tired of the 2025 aesthetic, the game jumped back in time for a relaxing break from drones and EMP grenades. The campaign doesn’t jump too much between characters, though; it’s usually Alex, David, or Woods.
The reason the campaign isn’t like playing an incredibly violent episode of Quantum Leap is a result of the more focused plot. Raul Menendez, former drug kingpin and current terrorist leader, doesn’t like the Mason family. The game spends most of its 6-7 hour running time dealing with this vendetta. Instead of just telling you this guy is a big ol’ jerk, you spend a surprising amount of time learning Menendez’s backstory and motivations. At times, I almost felt sorry for the guy before he started murdering people. Perhaps that’s a testament to the quality of Black Ops II’s storyline; usually I’m excited to murder the villain at the end of the game. This time around, it was a little different.
Oh yes, you heard me right. Black Ops II has a good story. I frequently talk about how more developers need to take advantage of gaming’s potential for telling more interesting stories by making the player the agent of change, and Black Ops II does that quite a bit. A surprising amount of that stuff is just below the surface, but there are a few binary choices that determine who lives and who dies. By the time the credits rolled (or by the time the credits started rolling and my Xbox locked up on me), I felt like my actions had influenced this world. That went a long way. And when I decided to pull back the curtain after finishing the game, I was even more impressed with how it splintered. It doesn’t go to any drastic heights, but for me, the subtle touches were far more effective.
Another way to change how the campaign plays out is by playing the Strike Force missions. Wait until you hear this one: the Strike Force missions are basically Toy Soldiers: Cold War. That’s right, Treyarch put RTS tower defense in a Call of Duty game that influences the game’s branching story. Crazy, right?
Every so often, you have the opportunity to play a Strike Force mission after finishing specific points in the campaign. They last for about 3 or so campaign levels, and your success determines how the story plays out. I always got real excited for a Strike Force mission, because they are the best part of Black Ops II. You can play the entire mission from a top-down perspective, sending soldiers and drones to complete objectives, or you can assume direct control and attempt to handle the entire thing yourself while still maintaining command over your troops. Since you’re never asked to do anything too complex, the Xbox 360 gamepad is perfectly suited to giving orders. I never had a bad time while playing a Strike Force mission, and would gladly buy a Strike Force spinoff in a heartbeat.
Story branching and RTS elements aren’t the only new things in Black Ops II’s single-player. The levels are surprisingly more open than your usual linear shooter corridors, which means you can dispatch your foes in a few different ways. It’s not quite to the level of Halo, as you’re stuck with the guns you have, but it’s more than Call of Duty has ever done in the past. You can also pick custom loadouts before you start a mission, which I found incredibly beneficial, even though I did encounter an odd glitch where the game froze just a little when I was switching between gun attachments.
After looking at all the changes made to the single-player, you would think Treyarch must have really made serious changes to Call of Duty’s famous multiplayer, right? That’s not really the case, although I’d argue they didn’t need to fix something that wasn’t broken in the first place.
The biggest change to Black Ops II’s multiplayer is the addition of ‘unlock tokens’. You get a token for leveling up, and then you can spend it on whatever you choose (within reason). So if you don’t want to get a new rocket launcher, you don’t have to. Instead, save that token for when you want something down the line. Your custom classes can only hold 10 things; for example, if you want one unmodified gun but a ton of perks, you can go that route. It’s great to have more freedom in how you level up your character, and I found it helpful in bridging the gap between professional Call of Duty players and gamers who are new to the franchise.
Treyarch did a few other things to help out new players. Anybody below level 10 can play in the ‘Bootcamp’ playlist, which throws AI opponents in with the human players. It’s a decent way to level up, but I still think Kill Confirmed is the best way to go if you need to level up and start competing with all those crazy people who got to 1st Prestige on launch day. You can get points just for grabbing dog tags off the corpses of your fallen comrades, which is very useful when you need to gain a few levels. Beyond that, not much else has changed.
Oddly enough, there have been a fairly significant amount of changes made to the fan favorite wave-based Zombie-themed survival mode, aptly called ‘Zombies’. If you’ve played any kind of wave-based co-op game before, you’ve played this. From what I understand, the Zombies mode in Black Ops II follows a new group of survivors as they fight their way through flaming 1950s Americana. And I mean ‘flaming’ literally; the maps are covered in fire, which harms both players and undead flesh addicts. This makes the matches look silly, as the players hop around constantly trying to avoid the fiery pits.
The maps are much smaller than before, although that may be a concession made to permit one of the two new modes: Tranzit, which is the way to go if you want survivors with any personality. In Tranzit, the survivors can move from one map to the next via a demonic bus, or by foot if you’re totally insane. How much you enjoy the Zombies mode will, as ever, depend on the skill of the players you’re matched with. There were a few occasions where the bus left without me, totally screwing me over and leaving me at the mercy of the walking dead.
Once you’re done swearing at buses, the second new mode is called ‘Grief’, and it’s either brilliant or insane. Eight players are split into two teams and put on a regular map, but only one team can leave. Considering how small the maps are, it eventually turns into a total mess, but a very entertaining mess. You could either try and screw over the other team, or you could grab 7 like-minded friends and try to survive together for as long as possible. It’s as close as you’ll get to a ‘versus’ mode when it comes to Zombies, so if you want that competition aspect, it’s there.
Luckily for us, one of the few things Treyarch hasn’t changed are the high-quality production values. Despite the levels taking a wider focus than last time around, everything looks fantastic and the game still runs at the usual 60 frames per second. The team over at Treyarch must be really pushing the current generation of hardware to its limits to yield results like these.
So even if the multiplayer is basically the same thing as last time, it’s still very fun to play, and can be dangerously absorbing from time to time. The campaign does so many interesting things, especially when you consider where Call of Duty was last year. And the Strike Force missions are quite addicting, I’ll take any more of that stuff I can get. Black Ops II takes risks in all the right places, while coasting in others where such behavior is still acceptable.
(Version Reviewed: Xbox 360)