Save America from being destroyed by its own war machines.
PC Release: November 12, 2012
By Ian Coppock
The Call of Duty series tries to change more than most gamers give it credit for. The series’ annual release schedule hasn’t done wonders for this fact, but there are a few titles in the series that make a genuine effort to change the franchise’s “get to the chopper!” guise. Typically, the Black Ops games are the ones that try to push the envelope the most, introducing radical (for CoD) changes like new level design and protagonists who actually talk. Black Ops II is one such envelope-pusher.
Black Ops II was developed by inveterate CoD studio Treyarch and was released in 2012 as a sequel to the highly popular Call of Duty: Black Ops. Black Ops II was also the first Call of Duty game to feature a futuristic setting, and kicked off an agonizing half-decade of CoDs that sported nothing but drones and laser guns. Fortunately, Black Ops II also catalyzed some more positive changes for the series, such as branching storylines and letting players choose their starting weapons.
The bulk of Black Ops II‘s narrative is set in 2025 and envisions a new Cold War between the United States and China. Players assume the role of David Mason, son of Black Ops protagonist Alex Mason, as he hunts down a Nicaraguan terrorist who’s trying to hijack America’s shiny army of drones. The game features a second storyline set in the 1980’s, which chronicles Alex Mason’s own attempt to apprehend that terrorist during the original Cold War.
Black Ops II‘s storyline features a few innovations not seen before or since in a Call of Duty game. The campaign includes branching plot paths that are determined entirely by players; what decisions the player makes during certain missions can lead to different endings. It may seem ludicrous to read, but Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a choice-driven title. Black Ops II also allows players to spend one level as the game’s main antagonist, in an effort to make that character somewhat sympathetic.
Apart from these changes, series fans and shooter enthusiasts can expect most of CoD‘s traditional gameplay to be front-and-center in Black Ops II. Though players have the option of picking their loadout before each mission, the game features a linear shootfest not unlike every other linear shootfest in the series. Occasionally, players can access cooler hardware like invisibility cloaks and wingsuits, but these items are almost always restricted to specific scenes in the mission before disappearing for the rest of the game.
Black Ops II is to be commended for attempting to change CoD up, but just because a game attempts to change doesn’t mean the outcome is guaranteed to be good. Black Ops II does indeed feature a choice-based storyline, but that narrative element is clumsily implemented. Oftentimes, players won’t know that an interlude is choice-determined until after it happens. Sometimes the choices are absurdly hard to spot, like that shooting a hostage in the heart instead of the head guarantees their survival.
The thing about choice-based gameplay that Black Ops II doesn’t understand is that the choices are supposed to be easy to spot. They can be subtle, but the storyline should set them up in such a way that players understand that they’ll have ramifications later on. Black Ops II does a ham-fisted job of not only letting players spot those decisions, but also in portraying their significance later on in the story. Innocuous events can radically alter the narrative, and players often won’t realize that until it’s too late.
Black Ops II also represents a significant step down from its predecessor when it comes to storytelling. The original Black Ops was a tightly wound Cold War thriller with elements of psychological horror; Black Ops II, by contrast, is neither tightly wound nor thrilling. The futuristic storyline is particularly uninteresting, with level objectives that spring up in apropos of nothing presented in previous missions. Leading man David Mason is one of the Call of Duty series’ most forgettable protagonists, offering up the occasional quiet line about completing the mission and little more than that.
Not that the 1980’s missions are all that great either. Players who enjoyed the original Black Ops might be excited for the return of Alex Mason, Frank Woods et al, but this segment of the story is little more coherent than the futuristic part. This section of the story is also where the game’s voice acting woes are at their worst; Alex Mason voice actor Sam Worthington continues his habit of randomly alternating between Australian and American accents, while CIA ice cube Jason Hudson is now voiced by Michael Keaton instead of Ed Harris. Keaton’s a good actor, but… he sounds nothing like Harris.
The writing in Black Ops wasn’t all that great, but Black Ops II‘s is much, much worse. The dialogue seems especially rote and the plot points especially non-sequitur; even the drones that the game, well, drones on about seem to stay in the background for most of the story. So does the much-hyped new Cold War between the U.S. and China, as well as virtually all the other details that Treyarch harped about while promoting the title.
Unfortunately, Black Ops II now has little else to offer series and shooter fans. The game’s multiplayer mode is pretty dead, and has been for a number of years. Once again, publisher Activision’s insistence on putting these titles out every year has had a detrimental effect on multiplayer, but players seem content to keep paying it $60 a year, so… (shrug). Black Ops II also has a zombies mode, but its offering of shooting up undead house intruders is also offered up by pretty much every other CoD.
Any PC gamer who’s less interested in a narrative than a mindless shooting experience can rest assured that Black Ops II runs well. Black Ops II is pretty bug-free; the game is well-optimized to run on PC and any problems that do crop up can probably be sorted out in the game’s in-depth options menu. In an age when so many games release dead on arrival, there’s nothing wrong with going back to a years-old release even for some guarantee of system stability.
Then again, Black Ops II gets a strike for not looking all that great. The CoD series’ IW engine ages remarkably well, but Black Ops II‘s aesthetic suffers from blurry textures. Whether it’s the surface of a Soviet escape plane or the hull of a futuristic water-city, textures in Black Ops II tend to look shockingly muddled. That certainly throws a wrench into the game’s attempted presentation of a slick-looking futurama.
Tragically, Black Ops II also stumbles in the sound department. The aforementioned voice acting problems are distracting enough, but the game also offers up a selection of typical action music and muffled gun sounds. For anything positive that Treyarch achieves with its CoDs, the studio is leagues behind Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games when it comes to dynamic sound design. A war zone shouldn’t sound like it’s being heard through earmuffs.
Black Ops II‘s regression from the excellence of the original Black Ops is cause for concern. It’s certainly cause for wondering if there were some major staff shakeups at Treyarch after Black Ops released back in 2010. Whatever the case, the series’ shift away from gritty Cold War CIA ops is a disappointment, made worse by Black Ops II‘s mishandled attempts at everything from cool future gadgetry to choice-based storytelling.
As stated at the beginning of this review, the Call of Duty series tries to change itself more than most gamers give it credit for, but the operative phrase there is “tries to.” An attempt at innovation means little to players if that attempt falls flat on its face, and really, that’s what this entire game ends up doing. Black Ops II throws all sorts of new gimmicks at the wall, but almost none of them stick. Players are thus better off sticking with some other shooter.
You can buy Call of Duty: Black Ops II here.
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