This has been an unpredictable year for FPS games, especially when it comes to the yearly rivalry between EA and Activision. With no Battlefield game releasing this Fall it was up to the Medal of Honor franchise to compete with the Call of Duty behemoth – an impossible task you say…but keep in mind that this year’s Call of Duty is Black Ops II, created by Treyarch, which has had a troubled past with the franchise, at least when compared to the staggered release of Modern Warfare games by Infinity Ward. So basically, 2012 is the battle of the B-franchises.
Medal of Honor Warfighter knocked our collective socks off at E3 this year and even managed to snake the “Best FPS” award from Call of Duty and other nominees, but it wouldn’t be until four months later that the Frostbite hype and glamorous trailers were stripped away to reveal the game to be perhaps the ultimate disappointment of 2012. That left Activision and Treyarch to redeem the military FPS genre and judging from the limited amount of content being trickled out prior to release, we were skeptical at best.
Now, after several weeks of having played Call of Duty: Black Ops II, both the single-player campaign, the new and improved Zombies, and the drastically enhanced online game, I can safely say that this is the best Call of Duty game Treyarch has ever released, but there is still room for improvement.
Up first is the campaign, a relatively short adventure through a handful of missions than not only span the globe but two timelines, taking us on historical missions set in the 1980’s that lay the groundwork for the events that unfold in the present – or in this case, the future of 2025. To potentially expand the length of the narrative, Treyarch has added a branching storyline, so at several key decision points your choices will affect the ultimate outcome of the game. It’s certainly nothing major like entirely new missions, but it does provide a minor incentive to replay the game or at least check out the alternate endings on a Wiki or YouTube.
The main story is set around David Mason, a son in search of the truth about his father’s death. This quasi-revenge tale is juxtaposed against a similar quest for vengeance by our newest and perhaps most satisfying villain in the franchise to date; Raul Menendez. We experience his motivational loss in one of those 80’s flashback missions that triggers a lifetime plan of worldwide revenge, as he plants a computer virus in our automated defense network and takes over our very own robotic drone forces to wage war on the USA and China. Co-written by David S. Goyer (Dark Knight, Man of Steel), when it comes to story and plot, this is one of the best, even if it can be difficult to keep track of with all the time travel and globetrotting.
Mixed in with the story chapters are the new Strike Force missions that try to put a fresh RTS spin on what should have remained an FPS game. While I appreciated the ambitious nature of these missions and the way they were presented, both in their limited availability and their possible repercussions in the story, the simple fact that these missions are clearly BROKE destroyed all potential enjoyment. Strike Force missions present you with a set of forces divided into three selectable units that can be controlled individually or grouped together. The premise is simple. Playing from a top-down tactical map of the level you pick your units and click on the map or enemy units to have your men and/or drones move and attack. At any time you can click on a single unit and take control of that person or drone and play the game in traditional FPS view.
This would be all fine and good (and even fun) if it worked, but your men will frequently ignore your orders and the D-pad is not entirely responsive for selecting your groups. Ultimately, I would just lump my entire force into one collective assault and rush each objective in linear fashion. I tried playing a few levels entirely from the tactical map and was met with repeat failure. I tried playing the game as a one-man wrecking crew and was met with a similar fate, which meant I often had to game the system. In one rescue mission I learned that my target would always be in the last structure searched, so I would leave the house closest to the extraction point for last. Even then, after rescuing the girl and her promise of “I’m right behind you”, I dash for the VTOL and she heads out the other door into the waiting arms of five heavily armed enemies – her full health bar depleted before I can even respond. Ultimately, I had to take control of her and run her to the extraction point myself since the AI and pathing is clearly broken.
The good news is these Strike Force missions are completely optional and from what I could tell, made no substantial impact on the core campaign; at least not enough to endure the frustrating gameplay and non-responsive controls. Perhaps a future patch will address these issues, but for the sake of your own sanity, skip these sideline excursions for now.
Zombies are back and better than ever and in some ways might even surpass the solo campaign for sheer fun, especially given the fact that you can co-op this mode with up to four players in this Left4Dead-style survival horror game that blends the weapons of Call of Duty with plenty of undead targets. Tranzit is the big new mode that adds a minimal attempt at storytelling mixed with hilarious one-liners, hidden mission objectives, and countless Easter eggs. As always, you kill zombies to earn points that can be spent to unlock doors and purchase new weapons. You can also collect parts and assemble them into useful gadgets on workbenches. The levels are much larger this time around; so large in fact that there is an AI-driven bus you can ride to get to new areas of the map – just watch out for any zombies who tried to board the bus with you and make sure your entire team is onboard before you close the door.
In addition to Tranzit is the classic Survival mode that lets you pick individual maps from Tranzit and see how many waves of undead you and your friends can survive. Grief is the other mode, often referred to as “dick mode” where you have two teams of four players doing battle in a zombie-infested map only you can’t directly attack the other team – merely stun them with knife attacks or try to trap them with barricades so the zombies can do the dirty work for you. I enjoyed the backhanded tactics required to play this mode, and we all know there are plenty of “dicks” online, so this may be the new cult favorite variation for zombies.
My only quibbles with Zombies is that the game is nearly impossible if played alone, even if you just want to learn the levels, and there are definitely some serious detection hotspot issues that make it frustrating to pick up a part, repair a barricade, or even purchase a gun or open a door. I often found myself getting needlessly mauled by a zombie while simply trying to find the proper pixel-perfect spot to stand to activate the command prompt.
Of course the true staying power of any Call of Duty game is in its multiplayer and Black Ops II has taken some serious steps in changing the way we engage in online warfare. The new Create-a-Class divorces itself from the past method of merely picking weapons and perks and now uses the new “Pick 10” system, perhaps the most ingenious system since perks themselves. You get ten points to use for equipping your soldier. Every weapon, every attachment, and every perk costs a point, giving you unparalleled freedom in creating the perfect warrior. If you don’t like your current selection of perks then spend your points on extra attachments for your gun. Due to my short survival rate I rarely have need of a secondary weapon, so I spent those points on something else. If you are really daring you can spend all your points on personal perks and take just a pistol into the game and hope to get a kill so you can take that player’s weapon.
The Pick 10 system gives the multiplayer game a unique RPG-like flavor, as well as allowing an open-ended player/class creation system that can be finely tuned to match your personal play style. I was amazed at how balanced the gameplay has become, especially in light of all this new creative freedom. Potential imbalances work themselves out by using a Wildcard system that doubles the cost of perks chosen from within the same tier, and the unlock system provides nonstop incentive for continued experimentation and subtle tweaks to your Pick 10 classes.
Other multiplayer changes include the shift from Kill Streaks to Score Streaks, which not only encourages teamwork, but also rewards it. This means that any contribution – not just kills – you make toward your overall team objective is rewarded with some sort of score, making support classes just as important as infantrymen. It is no longer just all about the K/D ratio, but your overall contribution to the team.
In an attempt to improve online matchmaking as well as infiltrating the growing world of eSports, Black Ops II now has League Play. You start by playing in five preliminary rounds that will determine your skill and initial rank. Your league standing will then slowly adjust itself based on all your future matches, so basically the more you and everyone else plays, the more refined the matchmaking process becomes. Of course this only works if you are playing using the League Play option, and with more than a half-million players actively playing during any of my online sessions, it seemed that most are still just diving into the more traditional ranked match games. Hopefully League Play will take off.
You also have menu options for Call of Duty Elite, support for CODcasting, allowing you to create your own eSports play-by-play commentaries, and the ability to live stream your League Play on YouTube without any additional hardware. And this all integrates back into Elite so you can track your favorite players using their custom player card to reference stats for Black Ops II and other Elite-supported Call of Duty games. This truly is the ultimate evolution of multiplayer for the Call of Duty franchise. What’s next…fantasy leagues?
As far as presentation, Call of Duty continues to show its age when compared to more modern games using newer engines, but that’s not to say the game doesn’t look great, and the fact that this non-stop Michael Bay popcorn flick manages to run at 60fps astounds me. There are moments of visual splendor, shock, awe, and amazement but there are also times when I cringed at a model or texture. The sound effects are quite literally “explosive” and the soundtrack rivals a Hollywood production with contributions from Academy Award winning composer Trent Reznor (theme), BAFTA nominee Jack Wall (score), and tracks from musical acts Avenged Sevenfold and an original collaboration by Skrillex and Alvin Risk. The voice acting is fantastic once you get past the salty language of Admiral Briggs and features talent such as Michael Rooker, Sam Worthington, Tony Todd, Nolan North, and James Burns just to name a few.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a great game; easily the best military shooter of 2012 with greatly improved modes like zombies and the new Pick 10 multiplayer. We’ll chalk the Strike Force missions up to a failed, yet ambitious experiment. The campaign mode has some great characters and a surprisingly deep narrative that circles back to events from four decades prior, and while there was some attempt at story branching, I did find the actual gameplay a bit linear. Interactive moments where I was expecting to participate were played out for me like a movie and other events that should have been a movie inexplicably required me to press a single button to proceed.
If you are a Call of Duty veteran then you are probably already playing Black Ops II by now, but if you are on the fence or perhaps waiting to spend some of that Christmas cash then by all means, check out Black Ops II. The campaign is an 8-hour blockbuster movie that might actually play out better on the big screen than a video game, but it’s the new and improved Zombies and the extremely addictive multiplayer – not to mention a new year of DLC maps – that will keep you playing Black Ops II until next November.