Is Black Ops 2 good enough to justify its hype? Read on to find out…
“Looks like the Russians are going to give us one last show of brute force, let’s give them one last show of courage!” If you are planning on playing through the single-player campaign, you can expect lots of moments like this. Team America is back, reeking of jingoism. The characters are mostly generic, apart from the Ulysses-quoting antagonist, Raul Menendez. His burning desire to see the West crippled is what drives the story along, and he provides a menacing presence throughout. Having the story more focused in this way benefits the game hugely, and it’s a nice departure from the tangled narratives of past iterations.
Treyarch has really endeavored to improve upon the tried-and-tested single-player formula in this sequel, but unfortunately its a mixed bag. Some of the missions feel a bit more open, sometimes you can go left OR right, but don’t expect an open-world. The choice to go left or right doesn’t really add anything, however, it’s just two linear tunnels, both filled with enemies.
Then there are the Strike Force missions, which are designed to bring some strategy to the campaign: taking command of an array of units, placing them in strategic positions and holding off waves of enemies. The idea is that these missions play similar to an RTS game, adding a tactical layer to the campaign. The player gets reinforcements at key points to fill up their dwindling ranks, and they have a set amount of time to hold off the enemy. You can zoom out and command the units from a birds-eye view, or control each unit directly whilst issuing orders to your comrades. The idea is great, it’s just a shame the execution is less than perfect.
Controlling the units was my default approach to these missions, as the artificial intelligence can’t seem to cope with the enemy without input from the player. When I was playing these battles directly, they felt like a wave-based objective mode where you run from one side of the map to the other, defending key points on the small maps. If the maps had been a bit larger, there would have been more scope for tactical input, but with small maps you only need to cluster your forces in a few key points.
The Strike Force missions also affect the games story, so if you are planning on skipping them, you will face the consequences. Branching story-lines are another new addition to Call of Duty, and aside from the SF missions, you occasionally get a binary choice in a cutscene. It’s a nice addition and it certainly doesn’t take away from the tried-and-tested formula. At the beginning of each mission you can also choose your loadout, picking weapons and equipment for the upcoming battle. You can see the intent to change, but the execution is slightly off.
The arsenal you can choose from is vast, and as well as the usual suspects: AK-47, M16 and so on. There are a variety of futuristic weapons to get shooty with. This is because the game’s narrative flits between near-future scenarios with flying drones and mechs, to not-too-distant past scenarios with horses and men with rags around their faces. There are scopes that detect people through walls (which is always handy in a game about shooting men through walls), there are sniper rifles that you can charge up; expending more ammunition but causing more damage, and you get a wrist-mounted gadget that fires grenades.
The future setting does help the single-player feel fresh, but it also serves to highlight how uninspired the flashback missions are. Even giving you control of a horse in the Afghanistan mission doesn’t serve to spice things up, you are doing the same stuff as always. You just have a horse’s head protruding from your crotch. When contrasted with the (admittedly more linear) nightclub mission in the future, it just seems like a step backwards.
In the nightclub there isn’t that much shooting, and it is mostly a barely interactive cutscene, but the amount of detail packed in tells the tale of an art team finally free of their shackles. The club is packed with detail: advertisements that read your biometrics, changing the face of the model to look like whoever comes near- it is jam packed full of detail. The level is baked in a black and gold hue, no doubt taking buckets of inspiration from Deus Ex: Human Revolution and its future-renaissance style. The advertisements you come across evoke the Mass Effect series, and you can see the team looked for inspiration in some of the right places.
The actual gameplay feels largely the same, which isn’t a problem because it has always been one of the smoothest, fastest shooters on the market. The graphics are also largely the same as past entries and they even re-use assets from the previous games. You come across a dog at one point, it’s the same dog from the last Black Ops and WaW. There are many instances of this repeated throughout the campaign. Some of the textures on the debris-like objects are looking rather dog-eared, especially when next to the chunky and detailed character models.
The game is still running on the same engine as COD: Modern Warfare, and now we are so familiar with it, it is much easier to see through the smoke and mirrors. There is one section where you are (barely) controlling your descent in a freefall, the ground is just a pre-rendered backdrop, and the game uses clouds to obscure your vision whilst it swaps it out for a new, closer pre-rendered background. Black Ops 2 still runs at a silky smooth 60FPS, which makes everything feel immediate and satisfying though, and this sort of technical wizardry still has not been matched by its rivals.
There are a couple of vehicle sections throughout the game, which mostly feel like controlling a child after ten cans of energy drink . The driving sections are largely choreographed, penning you into a road that is only wide enough for a couple of vehicles. Then there is the jet section later in the game. I absolutely hated this part with a vengeance, the plane controls like you are playing a game of Quidditch. In fact a length of wood would probably be easier to tame.
The control scheme stays the same for flight as it does for shooting and I had to go into the options and invert them for flight, as it just feels weird not to. When you are in the small area the game wants you to be in, the jet turns relatively fast, but if you stray mere meters away from the zone the game wants you in, you will fail the mission. If you crash into a building head-on, you will just bounce off. The whole section is just weak and should have been either more fleshed out, or cut out completely. The vehicle sections would have benefited hugely from a control tweak, as they often feel like controlling a man on skates, not a machine.
The guns are deadly as always, but I found the sound design lacking the heft of similar titles. A shotgun shouldn’t sound like Puff The Magic Dragon with hay-fever. Nevertheless the guns are lethal and a couple of well placed shots will down the organic enemies. Yes, you wont just get to control robots, but you will get to shut them down too. Bored of killing? Shoot some synthetics.
The multiplayer has undergone a few changes. You still have score-streaks instead of kill-streaks, which encourages team play. However, most of the players I came across still preferred to play as lone-wolves. The perk and equipment system has undergone a drastic change too, and you can pick from ten things: attachments, perks, equipment…etc. So you can build much more personalized loadouts this time around; want more perks and aren’t bothered about a secondary weapon? You are now Sir Perkalot.
The maps are classic COD, tight funnels, with death coming from most angles, no spot is truly safe and there are multiple entry points to most sniping areas. Another new addition to the multiplayer is Codcasting; you can stream your matches online with someone commentating over the action, in a bid to make the game prominent in the world of E-Sports. The reason games like Counter Strike are big E-Sports titles, is because of purity of design: no respawns, no killstreaks, every time you die is because someone has a higher skill level. With COD, sometimes the deaths feel unfair, and only time will tell if the game is balanced enough to carve a foothold into the scene. There are also League Matches, which track your skill against the rest of the world, all the equipment and perks are available in this mode, allowing for a completely level playing field.
The new additions are great, and there are a multitude of game modes to play with your friends. It is still a fun, solid online experience, but it is essentially a re-skinned version of the same game. If you are buying the game because you are a big fan of the series and just want new maps and guns for the online mode, you won’t be disappointed.
You can directly control most of the scorestreaks, and the majority of them have a pretty clear tactical benefit, besides just killing people. The knifing seems to be a touch harder to pull off, although that could be down to my skills being a bit rusty. I didn’t have a problem with mowing down the enemy with gunfire though. Every assist you get feeds into your score-streak, even if you have a UAV up and your allies are netting all the kills, you will get a healthy boost for every kill they score, as long as your UAV is active.
The Zombies mode has also undergone some changes. There is a new mode called Tranzit, where you can travel between the maps on a bus, which is controlled by a weird robo-skeleton… thing. If everyone boards the bus and leaves you alone, you had better hunker-down and survive until it makes its way back to you. Moments like this can trigger desperate dashes to the bus, as its horn signals its imminent departure. You can also upgrade the bus, with parts found throughout the game world: fixing rams to the front, ladders to the roof, allowing bus-surfing zombie shooting.
Another addition to zombies mode is called Grief, where you face off against other players, but you can’t attack them directly. The idea is to draw the shambling dead towards the enemy, essentially outliving them and trying to hinder their progress. Or, if you want the vanilla zombie experience you can play the traditional Survival mode. If none of that takes your fancy you can create custom games and decide your own rules.
As a package it’s easy to see why the franchise is so popular. The game offers so much content, and here’s the kicker- it’s free. Not the game you understand, but there isn’t a whiff of the dreaded “online pass”, you buy the game and you have access to all the features from the get go. If you want to buy the inevitable map-packs down the line, that’s optional. Remember that subscription service “Call of Duty: Elite”? Yeah, that’s free now too. Every shooter tries to ape Call of Duty, but nobody is aping its value for money. Maybe that’s where they are going wrong.
This game reviewed on the PlayStation 3.
Slick shooting, 60FPS, addicting multiplayer, Tranzit mode.
Sticks too close to the original concept, sound design not superb, too much smoke and mirrors, Strike Force missions.
“Looks like the Russians are going to give us one last show of brute force, let's give them one last show of courage!” If you are planning on playing through the single-player campaign, you can expect lots of moments like this.