Call of Duty: Black Ops II review

Some excitement and a few minor innovations can't prevent most of Call of Duty: Black Ops II from feeling like a retread in need of a reboot.
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I can’t recall a first-person shooter that made me feel more like I was in the middle of an action movie than Call of Duty: Black Ops II. This, however, is not necessarily always a positive thing. The cinematic approach plays well enough (if never spectacularly) in the multiplayer and zombie modes that give this latest chapter in the venerable military-themed series its longest-lasting heft. But when similar techniques are applied to the single-player campaign, the results are more middling, especially in light of the sterling success of the original Black Ops  two years ago. Treyarch’s follow-up to that super-smash hit has already obliterated sales records this time around as well, so it doesn’t need much help finding an audience. But whether this burgeoning franchise-within-a-franchise can thrive with continued treatment of this sort is another question.

Medium-Rare Multiplayer
Let’s start with what will be the meat of the Black Ops II experience for many: multiplayer mode. Treyarch has not toyed significantly with the formula, still giving players numerous options for facing off against others across the country and around the globe. “Core” missions include Team Deathmatch, Free-for-All, Search & Destroy, and Capture the Flag (all of which are also available in “Hardcore” mode, which removes the HUD and limits health), and eight others; you can also engage in in two types of “Combat Training” runs to hone your skills, or play four “Party Games” that put interesting for-entertainment-only spins on the weapons you can use and the rules you play by.

These are all enjoyable for what they are, although to what degree is determined by the people you play with. If you want to be guaranteed of having talented, trustworthy squad mates, you’re better off creating a custom game and inviting the people you want to join you rather than trusting fate to provide you with worthy allies from the standard lounge system. In any event, it’s easy to lose yourself in game after game, and we found that even playing on a below-average team didn’t depress the fun factor too much.

You won’t notice a lot of big changes in the everyday operation of Black Ops II’s multiplayer mode, with one key exception: the new “Pick 10″ character configuration system. With it, you can forgo established classes and instead create a new from scratch, customizing all the aspects of your play by using a points system that affects everything from weapons to perks. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it strikes us as a clever addition that lets you personalize your multiplayer experience as much or as little as you want.

The Walking Dead
Not in the mood for a traditional multiplayer free-for-all? Zombies mode puts a fantastical spin on the shooting concept, dropping you into a closed location where you must defend against ever-increasing hordes of the raging undead.

“Survival” mode, in which you frantically try to acquire the weapons you need to decapitate the decaying masses and board up the entrances to your stronghold, is still on hand, but it has been joined by two others. “Grief” is a cool idea, in which two teams attack each other indirectly by luring the zombies against the opposing side. A campaign-style offering called “Tranzit” lets you move organically between maps in a way that imparts some much-welcome cohesion to what’s been since its inception a quirky aftertaste to Call of Duty’s more realistic flavor. Tranzit might even be too open-ended, as it can be difficult to discern exactly what you’re supposed to do with all the options at your disposal.

These are, alas, hardly major innovations for the most part, but they’re the only ones of real note in Zombies. Otherwise, this is standard, “shame the shambler” stuff that lacks the pungent immediacy of Call of Duty at its best. We imagine it’s tough to think of that many ways to spice up a zombie shooter, which is perhaps stylistically over-specific as it is, but if this mode is going to continue to appear in future titles, it needs a facelift or it’s going to get really boring, really quickly. (Unless you adore titles like Left 4 Dead, it might very well have already arrived there.)For lots of people, the campaign is the least important part of a Call of Duty release, but it’s the aspect of Black Ops II that Treyarch has spent the most (and the most obvious) time on. Despite all the attention, however, the results are a seriously mixed bag.

What works, at least in theory, is the new branching story concept. Taking to heart the long-leveled complaint that Call of Duty games tend toward the oppressively linear, the developers have integrated a choice system reminiscent of the one used in Mass Effect 3 , which introduces tweaks as you go. Sometimes your decisions are small, sometimes they’re large, and sometimes they’re out of your control (finish a mission too late, for example, and you might miss out on a noteworthy event that has big repercussions later). But they have a tangible impact on the finale and the chapters leading up to it, where you’ll pay the price or reap the dividends for what you’ve done or not done along the way. Don’t like something you did? You can “rewind” your game to an earlier point and play from then on to see whether behaving differently will make things better or worse down the line. This is an intriguing, well-thought-out system that, frankly, we consider more satisfyingly rendered here than in Mass Effect 3.

The problem is what it’s in service of. There are lots of connections to the original Black Ops in terms of characters and narrative elements, but that game’s absorbing atmosphere of helplessness has been replaced by something overly plotty and far too manipulative. Switching between the Cold War–ravaged 1980s and 2025, the story attempts to reconcile the quest of David Mason to discover the truth about his father, Alex (the preceding game’s protagonist), and save the civilized world from an apparent dictator on the rise named Raul Menendez, whose Cordis Die organization is rioting the world over.

Unfortunately, the game spends so much time trying to humanize Menendez that his eventual brutal acts make the story look positively schizophrenic. Not that it needs much help. The constant flipping between the decades makes consistency challenging and staying engaged with it even more difficult; the wide swath of characters you play (including, at one point, Menendez himself) dilutes any potential emotional impact from the history-spanning events the game documents (which include, among other things, an African civil war and an interlude with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega); and stabs at topicality feel more strained than organic (Colonel Oliver North voices a cameo role as himself, the future president sounds just like Sarah Palin, and, in a sad bit of bad timing David Petraeus is a secretary in her administration).

Game play is similarly uneven. There are a couple of legitimately heart-pounding sequences, such as a thrilling high-speed chase through the burning streets of Pakistan, or when Los Angeles becomes a major flashpoint for violence late in the game. But some attempts are incongruous or eye-rolling. For example, David assumes control of a fighter jet—for the first time ever, no less—to escort an ambulance and shoot down attacking drones. Additionally, many of the straight-up fire-fight scenes are unremarkable in their construction, and frustrating in their execution and placement of autosave checkpoints. Various sci-fi elements that creep in, such as high-tech jetpacks and personal cloaking devices, may theoretically be appropriate to the 2025 scenes, but feel clumsily implemented. And the addition of more strategy-heavy Strike Force missions, in which you control various platoons on a series of missions by way of a third-person console (with first-person extensions), are hampered by restricted control schemes and a sense of repetitiveness that borders on desperation. (These are technically optional, but there’s no way to get the “best” ending without playing through them all.)

The first Black Ops’ campaign was more or less a conventional shooter that distinguished itself through its creepy (and unpredictable) psychological-thriller story, set against a believable backdrop of real-world events. There’s no reason this one had to depart in so many unfocused directions; the flights of fancy it takes are never captivating.Whether Black Ops II is a must-play title for you depends on a number of factors. If you’re a fan of the series in general, and Black Ops specifically, you won’t be offended by much of what’s here, and there’s enough to keep you involved throughout the relatively short campaign (averaging around 6 hours or so) and as much multiplayer and zombie-blasting frivolity as you can stomach. Treyarch definitely knows its audience, and hasn’t disappointed it in any huge, deal-breaking way. But it hasn’t broken any exciting new ground, either, and that might be an even bigger miscalculation for a series that drops yearly installments.

After all, 2012 has seen a number of considerably more compelling action releases. Borderlands 2 is a more creative riff on the FPS genre. Mass Effect 3 is longer and more complex in its treatment of a branching narrative, even if its endings are less satisfying. Dishonored is more densely atmospheric. And Max Payne 3 , Halo 4, and Assassin’s Creed III are all more inventive sequels that push their respective franchises ahead more than Black Ops II does.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II has the obvious benefit of not having to compete against most of those titles directly. No, it’s mainly fighting against the ghosts of its own ancestry—adversaries that may be even more frightening. Previous Call of Duty games, including the original Black Ops, have taken bigger chances and scored more definitively than this one does. Black Ops II is, at its best, a link in a chain, but rarely a strong enough one to stand out on its own. As a result, the affection you’ll develop for it depends almost entirely on the affection you have for the series already. For all but the most die-hard die-hards, that makes the game a tough sell—and, too often, Black Ops II doesn’t work as hard as it should to sell itself anew. Even stale action movie franchises occasionally need fresh ideas.

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Specifications
Genre Action Games
Platform PC
ESRB Rating M for Mature

Verdict
Some excitement and a few minor innovations can't prevent most of Call of Duty: Black Ops II from feeling like a retread in need of a reboot.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc