Does changing the formula work for Call of Duty?
Major spoilers for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 follow. Read on at your own risk.
Look, I get it- Call of Duty is not the most dearly beloved franchise in the video gaming history. It represents everything “hardcore” gamers dislike about the business model so many publishers have now adopted- yearly releases. A focus on multiplayer. Mindless storylines. Hell, it represents Activision. CoD has to be one of the most hated franchises these days- our own review here at GamingBolt was less than enthusiastic about the game, and our author Ravi, too, criticized it quite a lot in his opinion piece. But somehow, each new Call of Duty game manages to sell in droves, crossing 15 million- and sometimes even 20- with each new installment.
People hate how games like Modern Warfare 3- the eighth game in the series- which is more or less exactly the same as Modern Warfare- the fourth game in the series which came out just 5 years before it did- sell more than games like Battlefield or Borderlands, which are carefully and meticulously developed games and provide you more than just 4 hours of single player gameplay. I’ve often bashed the series for the same reasons myself. I don’t just get the players’ anger towards Call of Duty in general, I share it with them.
But with Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Treyarch and Activision have attempted to do something we all thought Call of Duty would never even think of touching with a twelve-feet pole. Black Ops 2 changes the Call of Duty formula, mixes things up, and as a result, it’s the first game that can honestly be recommended to someone who has played 2007’s Modern Warfare and doesn’t want a similar experience. But does this change up of the formula work? Has Black Ops 2 taken a risk, trying to fix something that ain’t broke?
Some might say it has. Well, some might say Treyarch hasn’t even tried to change anything, but that would be untrue. Anyhoo, Black Ops 2, surprisingly, is the first game in the series in 5 years that has managed to achieve something that previous entries hadn’t already, and is, as a result, the best Call of Duty game since CoD4.
But what exactly is it that Black Ops 2 does that previous entries in the series haven’t done already? According to me, the biggest change is the inclusion of player choice. Throughout the course of its (still) short campaign, Black Ops 2 offers players to make some pretty huge decisions- shoot a person in the head, or shoot him in the leg; knock out one of your major enemies, or kill him altogether; kill an important figure- actually, several important figures- or let them live. These are all choices that are, on the face value, black and white. The guy’s evil? Of course he deserves to die! That guy’s a positive character? I’ll just kick him in the face and be done with it.
However, Black Ops 2 masks the true nature of these decisions really well. Sometimes, it may not even tell you that you have a choice at all. For example, halfway through the campaign, in one of the 1980s missions, we play as Frank Woods, and we’re told to take a headshot on a guy under the hood we’re told is the main villain of the game, whereas that person is actually Alex Mason, the protagonist of Black Ops and Black Ops 2. Here’s what happened with me-
My superior tells me, again and again, to take the headshot. Again and again, always specifically saying the word “headshot”. Something’s fishy here, I think. Hudson, my superior, is being suspiciously mum about this entire mini-operation, and urging me, again and again, to kill the guy under the hood. And all the while, he sounds as if he’s under great duress. I don’t want to take the headshot. I know something is wrong.
But it’s Call of Duty, I think. I have to take a headshot, it’s not as if I had a choice, right? I mean, if I did have a choice, the game would tell me… right? Wrong.
I take the headshot, and lo and behold, my fears come true- Frank Woods has just killed Alex Mason, one of my favourite characters to have been introduced this generation. I’m stumped, absolutely gutted. The people at Treyarch are cruel bastards. It’s only a few hours later while discussing this event with a friend that I find out that if I had shot Mason anywhere but his face, he would have lived and he would have made an appearance at the end of the game. And now I’m even more gutted. I killed Alex Mason. I could have saved him, but I killed him.
Looking back, I now realize that Black Ops 2 had too many opportunities for the players to change the way the game ends entirely. Mason could have lived or died, the Cold War could have been ended or it could be raging on, Frank Woods could have lived and died, Menendez could have committed suicide or could have died at the hands of David. Black Ops 2 not only offers you the chance to make some really radical, really tough decisions, it also makes them matter, and what you do has an actual effect on what the ultimate outcome will be.
What does this do, other than making the game feel that much more awesome? It adds a ton of replay value to the game, and the four hour campaign immediately becomes an 8 hour experience, or maybe even a 12 hour one.
But all of it would fall apart if Black Ops 2 had a weak script. Sure, we all liked the set pieces in Modern Warfare 3- the collapse of the Eiffel Tower has to be one of the most memorable moments in gaming last year- but it would have been loads better and much more enjoyable had it been backed by a proper, well thought out storyline.
Now, the original Black Ops had a good storyline. A genuinely good one. The conspiracy theories were at full play in the 2010 shooter, and characters like Alex Mason, Frank Woods and Viktor Reznov made the game come alive. Not to mention the fact that the final twist blew almost all of us away. But with Black Ops 2, Treyarch was on its own for the first time ever.
Infinity Ward had helped Treyarch with the development of every single Call of Duty game till now, and even the scripts had been co-written by the two studios. With Black Ops 2, Treyarch had full control over the game and the script, and it shows. They worked wonders with the story.
And that’s just the single player. Black Ops 2 makes so many much needed adjustments to the multiplayer component. Killstreaks have been replaced with Scorestreaks, the maps are all really well designed, there’s no more join-in matchmaking and it’s all much more balanced this time around. Even the Call of Duty newbies have a shot at getting to Prestige before Christmas, all thanks to Black Ops 2’s relatively balanced competitive online component.
And I haven’t even begun talking about zombies- it’s got zombies, and it’s full featured. How much more do you need to know other than the fact that you can easily get over ten hours of gameplay just shooting drooling zombies in the face with shotguns and flamethrowers? Instant win.
So yes- Black Ops 2 is the best Call of Duty game since Modern Warfare. No, I wouldn’t say it’s better than CoD4. The 2007 classic made too many revolutionary changes that still reverberate throughout the shooter genre- or gaming in general. But Black Ops 2 has to be the second best CoD game in the franchise’s second era.
Move over, Infinity Ward. Treyarch has taken the wheel, and it’s driving at a breakneck speed.