The Call of Duty franchise presents a contradictory clash of opinion among gamers: It is despised by a vocal minority for apparently having the bad combination of being stagnant and influential, while at the same time being extremely popular, smashing sales records across all mediums. Black Ops II seems to be no different on the surface. However, even though Black Ops II has the same old 5 hour, blockbuster-movie campaign, and the same old fast and fun multiplayer, there are some significant design choices that separate this particular game from its companions in the franchise, making it unique and more enjoyable.
The campaign includes what one would expect: cliche military characters, secret missions, big explosions, and lots of violence. Although one may expect a shallow story, Black Ops II switches it up a bit by introducing a few characters with enough depth to have an interesting backstory and personality. The story is not a continuation of Black Ops I‘s, but there is a satisfying sense of cohesiveness which stems from the return of the predecessor’s characters. Instead of playing Alex Mason of Black Ops I, the player plays as David Mason, his son, a majority of the time. Important characters, namely Frank Woods and Alex Mason himself, also take a major role. Although generally the characters are not out of the ordinary, Woods and the villain have an outstanding performance and a distinctive personality. Both of them are connected in an important way, connecting the previous game with the new, allowing players to be more invested in the story.
And invested they should be. The characters, complete with excellent voice acting, express a story that is a little more than a simple hodgepodge of warporn (even though it doesn’t change the fact it’s still a simple hodgepodge of warporn). Although the cause of the conflict is still that evil villain hell-bent on the destruction of the United States, it is not without an interesting premise. In this game, we are given an opportunity to actually emphasize with the villain as a human being, instead of immediately labeling him as a faceless criminal without a reason for his evil. In fact, in one mission of the campaign the player actually plays as the villain, experiencing firsthand what he had to suffer to compel him to do the things he did. Emotional subjects such as the relationship between father and son, and between close friends, are also approached in a way that is significant to the story. Furthermore, there are moral choices in the campaign that are compelling enough to make you pause and consider the right thing to do, as one choice won’t bring you practical benefits like a gameplay advantage, but rather only serve to advance the story to one of several endings. And yes, there are multiple, varied endings to the game which depend on the potentially hard decisions you make, which is not only satisfying due to your role in the story, but also can encourage replayability.
Although the campaign is missing elements of a truly great story, such as character development, a reasonable premise, or believability, it was still a pleasant surprise that it takes elements such as moral choice, meaningful relationships, and multiple endings into account. While that opinion may come from the low standards for storytelling the Call of Duty franchise had, it would also not be expected for your average modern military FPS to have those positive elements either. And to have the biggest military shooter franchise of them all to advance to a higher standard of storytelling when none is expected is much appreciated.
The campaign delivers the big explosions and over-the-top situations players expect. It contains some memorable missions, one of which may involve horse riding. Keeping up with its near-future theme, players will be able to use cool gadgets such as adhesive gloves and cloaking devices to break the monotony of constant shooting. One aspect that is not implemented well, however, are the so-called “Strike Force” missions. In these missions, instead of only playing in first person and shooting things, the player can control units on a tactical overlay to give them move and attack orders to defeat the enemy. The problem is that not only do your units not follow orders very properly, it is perhaps too radical for a Call of Duty game to be introducing this feature. A first person shooter is meant to deliver what people playing the game want: to shoot stuff. Suddenly introducing strategy elements in a bird’s eye view seems incredibly out-of-place. I found myself ignoring the tactical overlay completely, and going through those missions as one of the infantry units.
The most notable gameplay aspect that is new is the ability to customize your loadout before you start the mission, just like tweaking your loadout in a multiplayer game. Not only is it great to kill bad guys the way you want, it encourages replayability in a small degree by allowing the player to go through the mission in different ways. The campaign also helps players get a sense of the freedom in loadouts available in multiplayer.
Speaking of multiplayer, the 10-point loadout system introduced in the game mode goes a long way in making it better. It offers much more possibilities regarding loadouts than in previous games, allowing players the freedom to be creative. Each aspect of a loadout, such as guns, attachments, and perks, take up a point. Players have little restrictions in how they distribute these points; both a six-perk gunless knife monkey or a zero-perk machine gunner and sniper is feasible. Options themselves are increased even further. Not two, but three attachments can be applied to a primary weapon now. There are also more tacticals, more attachments, and more perks. There is also a new element called the Wildcard, which can allow the player to pick an extra perk or equip two primary weapons. Experimenting with many wild loadouts until you find one that feels right for you keeps multiplayer interesting. It is a welcome change from using and facing the same cookie cutter setup over and over again.
Players are rewarded for consecutive kills and objectives by means of Pointstreaks. Once a point threshold has been achieved, a player has the ability to use powerful rewards such as airstrikes and attack dogs. Compared to previous games, the Pointstreaks system is both more balanced and more varied, due to the fact that there are more killstreaks, including utility-based ones such as the Guardian and lethal ones such as the Dragonfire, as well as the fact that players are rewarded for actions that further the objective or the team in addition to kills, such as capturing a point or destroying a mine.
Multiplayer in Black Ops II has the most game modes yet, including your bread-and-butter Team Deathmatch and Domination, as well as the out-of-the-ordinary 3-team matches and Hardpoint. The Wager Matches of Black Ops I makes a return in Black Ops II as Party Games, which include more eccentric and intense games such as One in the Chamber. Although game modes are many, a greater variety of maps could be a small improvement.
Zombies is also a way to experience cooperative multiplayer in Call of Duty. It largely remains the same as in the previous games, requiring players to buy guns, board up windows, and not be killed. There’s not much to say on Zombies except the fact that it’s good there is another way to play with others besides the constant competitive war that is standard Call of Duty multiplayer.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is mostly the same as its brothers, but its strength is in the fact that it stands out in important ways. A storyline with some emotional and moral intrigue, increased customization, and just more of everything in multiplayer, results in a Call of Duty that makes a much welcomed step toward innovation, while still feeling like Call of Duty.
[+Depth in important characters] [+Well-done villain] [+Surprisingly tough moral choices] [+Radically different endings based on choices] [+Loadout customization in single player] [+Freedom and creativity in multiplayer] [+Balanced multiplayer] [-Strike Force Missions badly implemented]