Call of Duty: Black Ops II
Developer: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: Out Now
Players/Online features: 1-4 Split-Screen, 2-4 Co-op Zombies, 2-18 system link and online.
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It’d be easy to get jaded and sceptical and dismiss Black Ops II as just more of the same, but that's just not true. Treyarch have taken the Black Ops II (‘BlOps2’ from here on) plot and made a more human game, telling the back story of the main characters and desperately trying to form some connection between them and you, the player, while providing you with genuinely consequential choices to make in a diverging storyline. BlOps2 was promised to be a sort of ‘second coming’ for the series, and if this is what we can expect then we’re in for quite a ride in the years to come.

You play as various returning characters from the first Black Ops game in the Cold War era section of the game, while in the near-future segments (set in 2025) you play as Alex Mason's son David, codename ‘Section.’ The story is told in flashback by Frank Woods, now an old man, wheelchair-bound and seemingly just waiting to die in a veteran’s home. Treyarch have definitely upped the gore level in the campaign, the multiplayer and the cut-scenes too. It doesn’t pull any punches where violence and horror are concerned either, with two people being burned to death within the first few minutes of the game, so parents thinking this is a game that’s okay for under 18s despite the 18-rating because “it’s good old Call of Duty and all his friends have got it” should probably think again.

Without dropping any spoiler bombs, to be honest I found the story to be a muddled load of twaddle on the first play-through, but second time around I ‘got it’ and it made much more sense-though I must say, I found myself having more than a little empathy for the game’s uber-baddie Raul Menendez and his cause (if not for his methods.) But make no mistake, this truly hateful bad guy and some extremely 18-rated events give the story drive and fill you with righteous vengeance, without ever dissolving into the jingoistic sabre-rattling of previous games.

I was dubious as to how Treyarch would implement ‘choices’ into the storyline and whether they'd genuinely make any difference. Sometimes the choices are as simple is choosing which way to go within a level or what task to take on, and as apparently insignificant is whether you complete a secondary objective within a mission. But make no mistake, sometimes your actions will make the difference between life and death for various characters, and you can't help but feel responsible, and this will more often than not lead to you wanting to replay a level to see if a different outcome is possible. The ‘Rewind Story’ facility means you don’t have to replay the game from the start.

The big difference between the two eras is the weapons, the Cold War weapon sets with the AKs and the RPGs we’re all used to, whereas the future weapons range from the ‘seen that before in other games’ to ‘really cool’ through to the ‘absurdly impractical’ and the ‘downright creepy.’

Of course, a large percentage of people who play BlOps2 will just want to play through the story and shoot stuff, and that's something BlOps2 does as well as any game out there, and better than most. Visually the game is almost constantly spectacular and runs at a steady 60 frames a second, no matter how much action is going on, but it’s undeniable that many games now look much better and a LOT more realistic. The brutal truth is that the game engine could do with a significant visual upgrade for the next Modern Warfare outing. Even though it mostly sticks to what it’s good at, the game also writes a few cheques that the graphics engine can’t cash, with many characters looking more like they’ve escaped from the Zombies mode rather than looking aged, grubby or haggard. Putting photographs of real people alongside the game’s unimpressive character models wasn’t a good idea, nor was depicting real, still-living people like Manuel Noriega and Oliver North. Some of the animations aren’t very good; most of the females in the game look like inflatable dolls and walk like men, and in combat some of the AI’s death animations look like Arsenal footballers diving, while others act like dying swans, unintentionally amusingly as they take ages to finally pop their clogs. The lipsync isn’t very good either; it varies in cut-scenes from ‘not too bad’ to ‘terrible’ and is virtually non-existent in-game-it’s like LA Noire never existed and moved the tech on. You’ll also see the same faces over and over again as the game engine seemingly can’t draw more than a few different ones per level. Crossing a sparsely-populated airport terminal in the stunning Cayman Islands resort you’ll see the same 2 female characters used 8 times or more!

In BlOps2 you unlock weapon upgrades and various perks as you progress through the solo campaign. Some of these seem utterly pointless and you’ll wonder why an elite soldier didn’t have these fitted to his weapons from the outset. A choice of loadouts is a good thing, but being encouraged to fiddle around with them, twiddling, tweaking and even painting them to suit your particular play style and preferred camo pattern before going and shooting stuff just seems like filler to me. It’s just one more area in which Treyarch seem to have taken things a step too far.

There are new Strike Force missions that unlock parallel to the solo campaign. These play like an all-action RTS (Real Time Strategy) as it’s possible (and actually vital) to swap between units, individual soldiers and remote controlled weapons and drones during battle in order to succeed. This sounded like a great idea to me until I played it, but even on the medium difficulty setting it all gets a bit too hectic for the sluggish selection controls and unresponsive AI (both soldiers and drones often just stand or sit there looking dumb when you order them to a particular spot or to “attack” a target), and with a steep learning curve I see a lot of players ignoring this mode entirely as it’s so alien a game type to the average CoD player. Success in Strike Force missions will change the course of the plot in the campaign so they are worth at least having a go at, even if you do end up winning the battles all on your own, due to the frequently daft and seemingly indifferent AI.

I’m not even going to try and review BlOps 2’s multiplayer mode in any depth as there’s too much to write about; but the multiplayer looks, feels smells and plays exactly like previous Call of Duty games. It’s easy to get into, plays great and rewards you heavily and regularly with tons of awards and unlocks. The new "Killstreak" feature, that rewards players in-game for killing other players, has been revised and is now known as a "Scorestreak." Players still receive in-game perks, but now these are unlocked by performing certain defined actions, like killing a number of other players or successfully capturing territory etc. As always no matter how inane the gameplay may initially appear compared to some of the competition it’s still very easy for hours to vanish as you get addicted to the constant levelling up, unlocking new weapons and perks to customise your load outs... New options mean that the customisation is more extensive than ever, making for host of new possible class mods.

Multiplayer modes including Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Search & Destroy and the popular Kill Confirmed were joined by new modes Hardpoint (basically a mobile capture King of the Hill-type game) and Multi-Team Battle (could be four teams of three or three teams of four, or any other combination you can think of.)

Combat Training is a new mode that will be helpful to shy or reluctant newbies and experienced players alike as it allows you to explore maps and play against bots off-line, while learning XP as you do it! BlOps2’s multiplayer mode truly is a benchmark as it should appeal to CoD/Modern Warfare/Black Ops online multiplayer aficionados and first-timers alike.

The popular Zombies co-op survival mode has not only been improved in terms of gameplay, zombie animation and graphics, it also has a new game mode called Transit. You still play with up to three others against waves of increasingly tough zombies as in the Survival mode, but you have a sizeable world to roam around in travelling between areas on a defensible bus. It's essentially a zombie adventure mode and I have spent an unhealthy amount of time playing this as I enjoy co-op modes so much. If you want to add the same sort of competitive edge as the multiplayer mode you can play up to 4 versus 4 in the new Grief mode. This is basically a squad game with zombies and a twist, the twist being that you can’t actually kill the other players directly, but you can stun them for a second or two with a knife stab (best for interrupting revives). You can also throw meat at the opposing team members to attract zombies!

Some of the things that happened in the campaign are, of course, completely impossible, utterly ridiculous and flout both the laws of physics and probability-in typical CoD/Black Ops style... whilst escaping from a pursuing horde of enemies, you still find time to set bear traps, or shoot down helicopters with a rocket launcher while on horseback—anything is possible in BlOps2, including one section in which you play as a seemingly bullet-proof Raul Menendez going on a rage-filled frenzied slaughterfest armed with an AK-47 and a machete, shooting and hacking enemies to death while running and screaming like a demented, tortured soul with a screen turned almost completely red, presumably by the massive amount of damage you’re taking from the numerous enemies and being splattered the blood of the same when they become your victims... Did I mention that I don’t think this is suitable for kids?

When the game comes back closer to reality and a real combat simulator, things have improved with regards to destructible scenery, and the ability to shoot enemies through scenery and objects that shouldn’t be bullet proof-this becomes second nature when you’re using one of the future weapons that allow you to see enemies’ heat signatures through walls. But then again, on the down side the grenade indicator is still highly unreliable, unlike many FPS you can still toss back an enemy’s grenade but trying to do this often results in death as you can’t find the grenade in time. A brand new flaw that seems to have crept in to these events as you’ll also now sometimes get blown up despite that fact that the indicator implied that you’d moved out of range of the grenade! Another CoD/Black Ops flaw also returns as it’s still possible to be randomly blown up by an exploding vehicle, and you get no warning of that. On the higher difficulty settings the AI still tends to resort to a CoD “cheat” of old, basically raining grenades at you. It’s cheap and nasty and they really need to address the issue. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, playing CoD or Black Ops on veteran your most useful weapon loadout would be an umbrella and a tennis racquet!

Some of the AI help is also dumb as a box of rocks, or completely unreliable when you think they might “have your back.” You’ll see them fail to shoot enemies that they must have had to squeeze past to get where they are, and frequently have other silly shootouts where they hose impossible amounts of ammo towards an enemy with no result because you’re obviously supposed to shoot ‘that’ bad guy to advance a plot event or dialogue sequence, but it never gets worse than sections where the game tells you to “follow” a squad mate who seems to have brain damage or shellshock, pausing for no apparent reason in the silliest of places, before jerking back to life and heading off for the next objective.

The couple of driving sections are about as basic as driving can be; they amount to keeping your foot firmly on the gas and just steering left or right. They literally may as well have been cut-scenes. However, they actually come off quite well when compared to the flying level when you get to “pilot” a FA38 fighter. This is the most absurdly over-the-top arcadey sequence in the entire game, as you zoom around like a half dead wasp bumping into buildings and eventually shooting down a couple of squadrons of enemy planes, even though your character has only just jumped into one of these remarkable aircraft for the first time!

I’d also like to mention the voice casting. Sam Worthington (probably best known for Terminator Salvation and Avatar) returns as Alex Mason and this makes sense, but fans of the hugely popular The Walking Dead will recognise Michael Rooker, who plays sadist racist redneck psychopath Merle Dixon in The Walking Dead and Navy SEAL Mike Harper in BlOps2. Now Michael, bless him, has spent most of his acting career playing brutish murderers and psychotic nutters and while I’m not one to typecast an actor (a lie), with his phizog, sore-throaty voice and general demeanour it’s difficult to imagine him as anything else. Sticking him in Blops2 as one of the heroes was a terrible idea, I just can’t relate to him, no matter how much they prettify his face.

I also feel I have to mention a typo, I wasn’t going to bring it up (another lie) having merely made a note of it as I found it so surprising (and another): “The mission ‘SECOND CHANCE’ will not be available after completing the next campagin level” -I thought including it in a review would be petty until I found just how bleeding difficult is actually is to misspell it, I couldn’t even type in “campagin” without it being repeatedly underlined or auto-corrected! – No spellcheck at Treyarch? Shoddy, really shoddy. Perhaps if someone at Microsoft reads this they’ll send them a copy of Word... I’d also like to offer my services as a proof reader, for a price of course.

All in all it’s difficult to be too hard on Black Ops II. Despite plenty of gripes and the ridiculously over-the-top nature of the campaign action, I couldn’t help being entertained, even if I found that I had to limit my play sessions to an hour or two lest my brain implode. Some genuine imagination has been used in all three facets of the package, with varying degrees of success. The future war/weapons thing really didn’t add anything to the mix, and has been done better elsewhere, and the Strike Force missions are frankly, a disaster, but the truth is that the game is an extensive entertainment package, pure and simple. But (and you can call me an old fart) I can’t help but yearn for the CoD franchise to have a gritty, realistic return to WWII. The simple fact is that I, and many others I’ve spoken to have had modern warfare and future wars up to the eyeballs-at least for another 12 months...

Best Bits

- Overall it’s an impressive package.
- Choices really do make a difference.
- Improved Zombies mode.
- More gore than ever before!
Worst Bits

- campagin” typo – there’s no spellcheck at Treyarch?
- The vehicle sections are a joke.
- The genre-bending Strike Force missions don’t work.
- The incessant over-the-top action is getting tired.
- Multiplayer wasn’t really broken, and they sure as heck didn’t fix it.

by: Masonic Dragicoot

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