Call of Duty Black Ops 2 Review – Future imperfect

Exactly 10 hours ago you were able to pick up a copy of Black Ops 2 in South Africa and if you were the dedicated type and haven’t slept yet you could have finished the single player campaign already; but only if you played it wrong.

Can anything be more annoying than being told that you are playing a game wrong? I don’t really believe that is even possible but let me clarify my little inflammatory statement up there. You see while Call of Duty has always had a blockbuster single player campaign, it was always pretty straight forward and linear –  but in a major break-away from the past Black Ops 2 has not only brought in multiple paths into the single player campaign, they have also added entirely new game types to the single player.

If you experience only one path but still play all the strike missions and your level is normal or up, your play through time should top 10 hours and on higher difficulties could well surpass that… but I’m getting ahead of myself here. So let’s start in the beginning.

Am I in trouble?

Single Player

The single player campaign follows the example set by the original Black Ops where the story is narrated through by a character; this time though it is Frank Woods who fought alongside Alex Mason in the previous title.

The narration takes place between Frank and David Mason, Alex Mason’s son. The story arch skips through the timelines of life and flitters all over the planet throwing you into battles in India, Angola, Vietnam, America and a secret floating city to name but a few.

Before each stage you are given your standard mission breakdown and are then given the opportunity to change your defined load out that you think will help propel you to victory.

The first stage is set in Angola and you are thrown into action alongside the Angolan army fighting against the rebels. The first thing you will notice is that the graphics have been substantially improved over the original Black Ops but this isn’t Crysis and it is quickly apparent that the aging engine is really being pushed to its limits now.

Love the African sky

 

“Insane Pace”

The next thing you will notice is the insane pace that this level pushes you through, from marauding rebels to turreted bakkies to tanks and mortars and that’s only in the first 5 minutes. The sheer number of enemies and action on the screen at one time is something to behold and while the engine may be getting on in years it is obviously still powerful enough to give us an experience we hoped for.

However this balls-to-the wall action isn’t all the campaign has to offer; right from the very beginning you are introduced to compelling characters, a hallmark of the series, and as you progress through the game the gameplay changes from all-out-action to stealth, vehicle sections and even strategy.

The stealth stages are just as annoying as all stealth stages are (for me). They follow the standard format of hide, run, hide, run, get seen.. rinse and repeat. I realise this gameplay has a lot of fans but for me it’s just stages that I have to endure –  but having said that I did find them to be some of the better stealth stages I have experienced. Your next hiding spot isn’t blatantly obvious leaving you with the feeling that you are actually playing the game instead of it playing you.

Your helicopter doesn't scare me

Vehicles

As for the vehicle stages they have thankfully not tried to shoehorn in some cockamamie racing game but rather have left them as high octane (besides the horseback sections) Michael Bay-styled set pieces where you will find yourself shooting rockets at attack helicopters from the back of a horse or ramping over collapsing freeways in jeeps while taking out hordes of attacking enemies.

Oh before I forget; the only thing worse than stealth missions are escort missions, I think everyone hates escort missions right? Well you are going to absolutely love the one in Black Ops 2… not to give away too much but you need to escort something using a jet fighter which seamlessly swaps between slow escort mode and high speed, building dodging, dog fighting with missiles and machine guns.. .It’s incredible.

And to round off the gameplay types you are also given the opportunity to don wing suits and infiltrate enemy bases from high up in the stratosphere.

But to be honest this was all to be expected; the fans of the series will be glad to know that the tried and tested single player formula for Call of Duty hasn’t been ruined and if you loved the previous campaigns you are going to love this one.

Will you see this stage?

Diverging Story Lines

But what about the critics who complained that the campaigns are far too linear, well Treyarch has been listening and for the first time ever they have embedded a decision system into the single player campaign where at certain points you are given choices and these choices will define your play through experience in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways.

“Embedded a decision system”

It also leaves you with some major moral decisions, if you are deep undercover and you are given the choice of killing a colleague to prove your loyalty or attempt to help him escape with virtually zero chance of survival and blowing your cover what would you do? Do the ends really justify the means and can you make the right choice when faced with it.. is there a right choice? I was horribly surprised at my initial choices and the fallout from them. I like to think I’d make the right decision under pressure and yet twice I blatantly made the wrong one and lost friends and loved ones as a result.

It’s a fantastic tweak to the campaign and while the story won’t change that substantially it does give you enough control over the experience to really fall in love with the story…

Not a nice guy

About the story. Without wanting to ruin it for you the story is loosely based on a charismatic terrorist, Raul Menendez, who has secured a religious following by a huge amount of followers. The followers follow him as he is completely anti-capitalist with a fair portion of the game showing us how the gulf between classes is not only vast but entirely sickening. I found myself agreeing with a lot of the reasons Raul was using to rile the masses, and that coming from a self-proclaimed capitalist.

But as always there is an underlying story that his followers aren’t aware of and the true reason why Raul turns the worlds drones against their respective armies becomes apparent towards the end, adding yet more reason to become emotionally invested in Raul.Then again how can you support someone who so blatantly hates everything we as a Western society hold so close?

Strike Force Levels

The other brand-new feature that Treyarch has introduced into Call of Duty Black Ops 2 is the inclusion of Strike Force levels. These levels follow the basic idea of the story but are optional missions you can undertake for a certain period of time during the game. These also subtly change the story line but instead of them being all-out action stages they are rather strategy based stages where you need to lay out your forces, patrols and then swap between different units to defend your objectives…

Strike Force

“… a bit annoying to be honest”

Well that’s what it is meant to be, but in the end I felt they were just a bit annoying to be honest. After my first attempt I just simply played as whoever it threw me into and when I died it would teleport me to something else and I continued with that one until it died.. rinse and repeat.

While the diverging story lines made the experience that much better I have to admit that the Strike Force levels left me feeling like they were a gimmick that should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Other Problems

I loved the single player campaign; it’s a great new addition to a franchise with a solid history of great campaigns and as it was less convoluted than the original Black Ops I really did enjoy it more but it wasn’t perfect.

“And let us not forget about invisible walls”

Besides the strike force levels, the squad AI still isn’t fantastic added to that the inability to kill your team mates (by mistake of course) really does take away from the realism of the experience.

Another major complaint was that in certain levels, specifically chase levels, it often felt like you were simply being forced to move from A to B and if you didn’t do it exactly as the coders expected then you would die and have to try again. One level in particular was particularly bad as I had to get to the riverbank but if I went around the right hand side of the rock I was killed by my chasers. I couldn’t figure out how to complete the level until the one replay I accidentally went to the left of the rock and escaped…

And let us not forget about invisible walls, the campaign is full of them and really there is no excuse anymore for invisible walls. There are better ways to stop people trying to escape the level.

But as I said above, as a single player experience Black Ops 2 was excellent and well worth the entry fee even if it was slightly short for a full-priced title.

But we all know Call of Duty is more than a single player experience

Protect that flag carrier

Multiplayer

During my review session (more info on this later) I was given the opportunity to experience around 8 hours of intense multiplayer action and while this is obviously not enough time to really check the in-depth multiplayer experience or balancing it did give me a solid understanding of what has changed since the original Black Ops and to have an opinion on whether it is worth upgrading from Modern Warfare 3 for.

I’ve previously covered a lot of the multiplayer experience here but to repeat a lot of that information.

The biggest first change to multiplayer is your custom class options. No longer are you forced to equip primary and secondary weapons, and 2 types of grenades. The system has been completely overhauled and is now far simpler and yet more in-depth.

You are given 10 points and you can spend these points any way you like. So if, like me, you always forget that you have a secondary weapon available then simply don’t equip one and rather add more attachments to your primary or load up on extra perks instead.

Not a fan of guns at all? Then stop playing a first person shooter title you idiotic and annoying stab crazy loon… yes knives and melee kills still exist and they still drive me insane.

Game Types

All your favourite game types from the previous titles still exist and haven’t been changed but there are 2 new game types that have been added and are instant classics in my humble opinion.

King of the Hill

Hardpoint

Hardpoint is an entirely new multiplayer experience where the objective is to secure the hardpoint (a section marked on the map) and while you have that point you gain points. The enemy will obviously then try and take it from you and while it is contested no points are awarded.

“It’s revolutionary, awesome, action packed “

After a set period of time the point moves to a new location and the rush to control it begins again.

It’s revolutionary, awesome, action packed and yes it is King of the Hill.

It’s been around in gaming since time itself but this is the first time it has officially existed in Call of Duty and it is an incredible amount of fun. Seeing that eSports requires game types that force interaction this is an obvious winning formula.

Multi-Team

The other new addition is multi-team which is my personal favourite.

The idea is simple; the game is now divided into 4 teams of 3 and you need to work together to claim total victory. It’s a tiny move away from your typical team death match but with 3 players being the best kill team it goes without saying that teamwork is vital here.

I can see this formula being used for a ton of local tournaments and that can only be a good thing

Maps

But Call of Duty wouldn’t be Call of Duty with crappy maps and so far so good. I oddly enough didn’t get to play the Nuketown 2025 map, maybe because I called it stupid? But I did get to play an array of new maps and I am yet to find one that I dislike.

This map is also fun

You can read the official explanation of all 14 maps here but the two that I truly loved were Carrier where you go head to head against each other on an aircraft carrier. There are some fantastic sniper spots, close quarter areas and general run and gun or ambush spots.

I actually dominated on this map which led to my love for it I think.

The other great one is Turbine which is the scene of a plane crash in a valley with high mountains on both sides and a vast array of attacking opportunities. It’s a beautiful map that I was always happy to see pop up even though I was actually useless at this one.

Score Streaks

The next big change for Black Ops 2 is the new way Killstreaks work, firstly they are now known as Score Streaks and it’s not just a name change. Now instead of having to rack up kills to unlock options you simply need to rack up the points.

So if like me you are more of a support player then this is a great change to the system. You can hang back and lay down suppressive fire and rack up the assist points while your front runners take the weakened opposition down.

“Not just a name change”

Then once you have unlocked the Sentry Gun and Guardian (microwave turrets) you can place them in strategic locations and rack up the kills with the sentry while the guardian racks up points by keeping people away from your sentry.

It was an awesome strategy that I used to great effect but one that can be undone with the use of a simple EMP grenade if your opponents remembered to arm themselves with those.

eSports

And that brings me to the biggest and most revolutionary part of Black Ops 2 and that’s eSports.

eSports is something we have been covering more and more in recent times and is something that is becoming big business in the world of gaming. As such,  it’s no surprise that the first entirely eSports integrated shooter title comes from the stable of the leading eSports title in the world, Starcraft.

eSports is deeply integrated into Black Ops 2 from the previously announced Codcasting which will allow live and delayed coverage of multiplayer matches, something we were given a fantastic demonstration of, to live streaming of your current game via YouTube (pity that won’t work in SA; more info later).

However what really excited me about the eSports section is that Treyarch have also included league play in the title which means my biggest problem with Call of Duty has now been removed.

Seeing through walls is fun

I’m not terrible at Call of Duty and so in the first few weeks I love having competitive games with people around the world but normally by the third week the people with no lives and tons of spare time are so far ahead of me that the game simply becomes a spawn and die simulator.

“restart the Evil Alpacas “

Now with league play you need to play 5 ranking matches and then you are placed in a division with other players with the same level of inability as yourself. As you continue to progress you move up or down the divisions with the end goal being that you are always playing against people of a similar ability.

You can also do it with teams so maybe we need to restart the Evil Alpacas as a Call of Duty team and show the world what real drunkards game like…

Zombie

Zombies

From what started off as a secret addition to World at War zombies have grown to be a substantial part of Treyarch’s offering and honestly one that I could see Activision spinning off into its own series one day.

The zombie section in Black Ops 2 is far, far larger than any previous iteration with estimates of the size of the map being 100 to 150 times larger than Black Ops 1 and now for the first time there are actually 3 different game types in zombie mode, and an entirely new menu system for the zombie section which is actually a burnt out earth which follows on from how the zombie DLC ended in the original Black Ops.

You choose a location to start in. There’s only one town in the beginning but more will be unlocked via DLC throughout the year. Then, in that town you choose your starting point and jump straight in.

Transit

Transit is the new story mode version of Zombies; you and three of your fellow survivors are dropped and given some low-powered guns to protect yourselves from the incoming horde.

As before you kill zombies to unlock money which allows you to upgrade your weapons with each wave getting harder and harder but the difference here is that a bus will come by and stop every now and then and you can then jump aboard and it will take you to the next stop in the stage.

“this is going to be a fantastic experience for you.”

You can walk it if you really want to show how hardcore you are and to find some secret easter egg levels but you’re going to want to be awesome at the game before trying that.

I don’t know how many levels are in transit mode as we journo’s were useless at the game and only managed to make it to the third level before being completely overrun.

If you are a zombie mode fan this is going to be a fantastic experience for you.

Zombie2

Survival

Upset that they tinkered with your beloved zombie mode? Then don’t panic, Survival is still there and is the typical mode that you are used to.

Not much to add to that, it’s a nice touch that they left it there.

Grief

Grief mode is my personal favourite.  It’s no longer you and your friends vs the zombies but now it’s you and a partner vs the zombies vs another team of humans.

The goal is to be the last human standing, or last team standing but the catch is that you can’t kill the other humans. No, but you can grief them.

To explain how this works I’ll talk you through a quick match I played. It was me and my Slovakian (or something) partner who couldn’t speak English against two French colleagues. The match started and after they realised they’d left their white flag at home they started shooting at the zombies.

“Yes system link is enabled in Black Ops 2.”

For the first 10 minutes I fought side by side with the French contingent so much so that they started to feel that we were an awesome team against the zombies. Then I saw some zombies approaching from the rear, instead of taking them out I waited until they got close to us and then ran out of the group and started aiming at the French journalists. This doesn’t kill them but it does mean they start moving a lot slower and can’t turn as fast.

Within seconds one was overrun and being torn apart on the ground. I then targeted the second who was now trying to shoot back at me not realising that this makes no difference to me as the zombies were closing in on him. Seconds later he was lunch and we just then needed to clear out the remaining zombies and take the prize.

It was hilarious and while it’s a bit ridiculous I can see this mode being played a lot by friends at a LAN.

Yes system link is enabled in Black Ops 2.

And that ladies and gentlemen brings me to the end of the 3 in 1 experience that is Black Ops 2. With each section of the game being so in depth it isn’t possible to cover everything fully but if you have been a fan of the Call of Duty series then this is an absolute must buy.

If you’ve never played one before then this is also the best one to get into the action with as the league play will keep you entertained online for months to come and the single player experience is better than any movie that I’ve seen this year.

Do it

Scoring

Gameplay: 9.0/10

Call of Duty is the leader in the current FPS segment and it’s no surprise that they have once again refined the gameplay even further. It’s the Call of Duty you all know and love but just slightly better

Design and Presentation: 8.0/10

The engine is starting to show its age but even so it does a fantastic job at giving it its best and while there are better graphics out there it’s not like Black Ops 2 is ugly by any stretch of the imagination.

Some of the set scenes are quite awe inspiring in fact.

Value: 10/10

I have never given a 10 before, but Black Ops 2 contains a 10 hour single player campaign, well over 100 hours of multiplayer and well over 100 hours of  Zombie entertainment.

If that isn’t the definition of value then I don’t know what is.

Ah you ready for the final score?

Overall: 8.9/10

This is by far the hardest overall score I’ve ever had to decide on. The game has some excellent parts to it but at the same time it isn’t vastly different from previous titles. Does that hold it back or is it unfair comparing it…

Put it this way if this was a brand new IP it would easily get a 9.5 but thinking now and discussing it with the team it is impossible to ignore the fact that the engine is creaking and there are some fundamental gameplay issues that have stagnated.

BUT the huge addition of eSports can’t be ignored either… so it’s nearly a 9. Let the hate begin.

I’d rate this as the best experience Treyarch has created to date

[Reviewed on Xbox 360 mostly on Hardened level]

Disclosure: The review was conducted over a three-day period at a review event.  The single player review was conducted on an Xbox 360 at my own pace in my hotel room in private  with no intervention from PR or the game’s developers. The game was played to completion on hardened, and took in the region of 10 hours. The multiplayer component was played in a specified room with other media representatives. As multiplayer information is verified online, the multiplayer sessions were conducted over Xbox Live, although certain modes were tested using system link. We will have more information on the event with full disclosure later. 

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Author:Gavin Mannion

I'm cranky, arrogant and ever so amazingly annoying but when you get to know me you will also realise I'm honest and incredibly good at describing myself... now pass me that beer

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