Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 review: War on three fronts


Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
succeeds in many ways, living up to promises of a branching campaign, expanded Zombies mode, and a new spin on multiplayer customization. The ideas coming out of developer Treyarch are exactly what the annual franchise needs, especially under the intense scrutiny of a vocal shooter audience.

There's a charm missing from Black Ops 2, however, and it resonates throughout many of the enhanced modes. The mystery surrounding the characters from the original Black Ops is abandoned, and clandestine operations are pushed out of the way in favor of bombastic, public battles. That charm is especially missed in the open-world zombie mode, which expands at the cost of becoming less inviting.

Despite those missteps, Black Ops 2 showcases a powerful multiplayer component that betters its predecessors, setting a new series standard for customization and features.%Gallery-170816% Campaign

The Call of Duty franchise has arguably been spinning its wheels for years now, trying to once again tell a story as engaging and surprising as the one featured in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Although new games in the series haven't hit the same mark, they've managed some memorable moments and concepts in recent entries. Say "No Russian" to a series fanatic; ask campaign nuts about the numbers in Black Ops; mention the Paris level from Modern Warfare 3. You'll get a reaction.

There's nothing in Black Ops 2 that evokes such a response. There are peaks in the campaign, like a horseback ride through a great battle between Russia and Afghanistan, but Black Ops 2 mostly falls flat. Treyarch said its goal was to focus attention on telling a story that would give us moments of understanding and pause, with the idea being that we'd come to understand its antagonist's reasoning, perhaps even empathize with it. The underdeveloped characters of Black Ops 2, however, simply can't carry the weight Treyarch tries to heap upon them.

You will spend the majority of your time in the near future, intersecting occasionally with the original Black Ops cast, and become embroiled in a futuristic conflict executed by populist faction leader Raul Menendez.

The game attempts to show how Menendez was driven to become a villain, but the story falls apart as soon as we meet him in the game: he's already succumbed to insanity. Treyarch tries to depict his fall from grace with a short introduction video, but the result is ineffective. Black Ops 2 just puts Menendez through the wringer throughout the campaign, giving him more excuses to become less stable than he already was, but still never giving players reason to empathize with him. Knowing that horrible things have happened to him doesn't change your overall mission of putting an end to his plan, and being so close to the antagonist's past does away with a lot of the mystique an evil character can bring to a story. The mystery offered in the original Black Ops has been set aside here, even so far as to ignore questions from the last game. So, was Alex Mason involved in the murder of JFK? Forget about it, because it never comes up in Black Ops 2.


The campaign does offer one major addition that works well, at least mechanically. Your actions and decisions affect the narrative, offer incentive for replays, and can lead to multiple endings and scenarios. The story goes to some standard places, with far too many unsurprising twists, but the ability to make choices kept me interested. A handful of optional 'Strike Force' missions are also available – allowing you to play from the perspective of any soldier, robot, or as battlefield 'Overwatch' – and have the potential to affect global relations between the U.S. and China, which can alter the difficulty in campaign levels.

Black Ops 2 attempts to convey a sense of drama and elicit sympathy for the plight of its characters, but it's always too difficult for me to take one person's death to heart after I've mowed down a million dimwitted, respawning A.I. enemies, or watched my own allies fall to bursts of gunfire. One character, for example, is vital in achieving what you could call the "good" ending, so it's in your best interest to ensure their survival. You try being protective of someone who greets you with a gruff "Go to Hell."

While the idea of branching missions is something the franchise would do well to expand upon, it doesn't make the by-the-numbers, action-movie storytelling of Black Ops 2 any better. You can count on better pacing and more excitement than Modern Warfare 3, but this cacophonous ballet of destruction is what you've come to expect.

Zombies

Treyarch's trademark Call of Duty "Zombies" mode continues to grow, with Black Ops 2 offering an expansion so large it could probably be broken into its own release. "Survival" returns, but two new modes are the real highlight: "Tranzit" and "Grief."

Grief pits two teams, who cannot kill each other directly, against waves of increasingly tougher zombies. By using power-ups – like hurling a chunk of meat at the opposing team – you can attract zombies to attack your adversaries. Whichever team has the last man standing is declared the winner. You can't shoot the other team, but you can interrupt and push them around with your weapons. If an opposing teammate goes down, your best strategy is to make things as difficult as possible for his standing teammates before they can revive him. The end result is almost like a party game, adding a fresh distraction for you and multiple friends.

Tranzit, meanwhile, tries to change up the zombies formula by removing the world's size restrictions. This mode features multiple hubs (the store, gas station, farm, power plant) connected by a dangerous open road. Navigating between areas to discover secrets is possible, but treacherous. The handy inclusion of a roving bus, however, makes exploration of major areas much speedier and less dangerous. The open-world mode is still based on Survival, but there are a multitude of challenges you can complete to open new areas and gain better weaponry. Unfortunately, in the spirit of its previous zombie modes, Treyarch has offered very little to help players discover what to do. It's really up to you to find out its secrets for yourself. Fans who love Treyarch's spin on zombies, and scour wikis and piece together narratives, will enjoy the challenge, but new or casual players will be at a complete loss.

Certain limitations irked me. There are countless items in the world you can collect and piece together to build equipment – something the game never explains, by the way – but those items are nondescript and randomized throughout the world. Items rarely look out of place, so the first few times you play Tranzit it feels like going on a pixel hunt, searching for items you might be able to interact with. Furthermore, you have to stand very close to an item, with the camera positioned precisely, before the game allows you to pick it up. Even then, a slight bump from a teammate can halt the process, forcing you to reposition and start again. And that's all while zombies are out to eat your face.

It's understandable that Treyarch wanted to create a mode about discovery within zombies, but it's very unforgiving and none of the issues I encountered can be adjusted for custom games. A little direction is all some players might need to unlock the mode's potential. Going through the bizarre steps necessary to unlock a hidden area can be exhilarating, and give you purpose, but Tranzit does nothing to help you discover those steps. The mode will evolve over time for those willing to piece together its adventure game logic, though many may be left frustrated and confused.

Multiplayer

Black Ops 2 features some of the best multiplayer design the series has seen in years. With the new "Pick 10" system, you're free to customize loadouts any way you want, even forgoing equipment (or anything) in favor of additional perks or more weapons.

Black Ops 2 doles out this content in intelligent ways, giving you choices at every level and helping you shape starting classes, rather than putting money in your pocket and opening the floodgates like in the original Black Ops. With more content available to unlock than there are initial levels (in other words, you'll "prestige" before you unlock it all), the progression system gives plenty of motivation to keep going. Weapon experience also incentivizes dedication to an arsenal. It's a system built to continually provide content to those who will spend countless, sleepless hours scouring the fourteen included multiplayer maps for kills (if their dedication to Kill/Death ratios wasn't enough already).

In my dozen hours of multiplayer, I didn't notice any glaring balance issues between weapons and perks, but it will be the player biomass that ultimately dictates which further tweaks are necessary. Black Ops 2, like other Call of Duty games, is still a fast-paced, twitchy shooter, with some great additions. I'm particularly fond of the Guardian score streak – a microwave emitter that cooks nearby enemies.


Extended multipalyer sessions usually evolve into high volume discussions/arguments about memorable moments in previous matches, or trips to the enhanced Theater mode to watch clips and relive your best kills (now made much easier thanks to a nifty "Highlights" option that automatically extracts the best moments from a saved film).

League Play is built to place players in appropriate tiers of skill, meant to help players of all skill levels find an appropriate challenge. There is no character progression in League Play, instead opening up all items and equipment, leaving you to focus on rank and proper placement. It makes sense to "level the playing field," but I lost a lot of the excitement that comes from unlocking content.

The ability to stream games is certainly the most interesting expansion for the Call of Duty franchise, a series that – despite its critics – is active in competitive gaming. There's a limitation, however, in that players are only allowed to stream League Play games. Additionally, the control players have when Shoutcasting matches is great, but it isn't possible to stream this content outside of the game itself, nor is it possible to save your audio. To get something like the video we have above, for example, you need external video and audio capture equipment, which is disappointing.

Conclusion

Multiplayer is king in Black Ops 2, offering plenty of in-game and inherent rewards for its ravenous online community. It's paired with a lackluster story that fails the ambition shown by the branching campaign, reflecting the overall game's forward-thinking but imperfectly executed ideas. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 isn't the best or most charming entry in the franchise, then, but it takes risks, exploring more than is strictly required for an inevitably annual franchise.


This review is based on review code of the Xbox 360 version of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, provided by Activision. The game was played at an event hosted by Activision. Travel and accommodation were paid for by Joystiq, in accordance with our editorial policy. Additional testing was performed on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version, provided by Activision.

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