Over the past few years, Call of Duty has developed a reputation for playing it safe. Each new sequel, the critics say, is the same basic product with a minimum of changes. Treyarch has answered these criticisms with Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, perhaps the most daring game in the series. It has its share of missteps but you have to appreciate the effort.
Black Ops 2 once again stars Alex Mason, the Cold War operative from the United States. He's attempting to track down Raul Menendez, a Nicaraguan terrorist and drug-runner. The bulk of the campaign, though, takes place forty years later. David Mason, Alex's son, is a special forces soldier during a new Cold War with China. He too is hunting Menendez, who has only grown in power over the years and is now trying to manipulate China and the United States into a full-blown war.
This is the first game in the series to feature branching storylines. Each mission has a key moments where, if you screw up, you won't be sent back to the previous checkpoint. Instead, the game will record your failure and allow you to move on. The storyline will then be altered in some way. The game will end in at least five different ways depending on your decisions.
The story branches filled me with a sort of paranoia as I played through the campaign. In order to achieve the best possible ending, I fretted over every little objective. It's a bit stressful and unfair to have your ultimate performance measured by, say, a short moment about twenty minutes into a mission. Still, it kept me more engaged in the campaign.
I'd never replay a mission in order to get a better ending, though. The campaign itself really isn't that fun. There was some enjoyment in the futuristic technology from the 2025 missions, such as cloaking devices and drones, but in the end the single-player experience is forgettable. The storyline might have branches but the levels themselves sure don't. You're restricted to tight corridors (figurative or literal) filled with unremarkable enemy soldiers. The fact that every twentieth enemy is a drone isn't enough to make the experience feel fresh. If you don't care about the story, you'll quickly fall into the familiar "run to the next objective, kill all the dudes" sleep-walk.
The campaign does feature an interesting experiment by Treyarch, though. In new Strike Force missions, players take on the role of U.S. forces fighting across the globe against the Chinese. Players direct friendly forces in battle from a drone flying above the battlefield. They can also take direct control of any unit. The outcome of these objective-based missions, naturally, can affect the ending of the campaign as well.
I call Strike Force an "experiment" because it doesn't feel fully developed yet. Presumably the aim is to test players' strategy and shooter skills. However, you can beat most missions easily by clumping all of your forces on one objective at a time. Furthermore, you'll find yourself doing most of the leg-work in a given mission because your A.I. companions are dimwits. The missions are ultimately just another test of your shooter abilities. I'm curious to see what Treyarch will do with this idea in the future, though.
Competitive multiplayer has always been the strong point of the series, and that hasn't changed with Black Ops 2. It's still the fast-paced, close quarters combat you're used to, except with a few futuristic gadgets thrown in. The changes are minor. The XP-driven progression system returns, but the new "Pick 10" setup allows you to vary the amount of perks, weapons, and attachments you have. The new eSports features like ladder matches and live streaming are welcome changes but will only be utilized by a minority of players. The new game mode, Hardpoint, is just "King of the Hill."
The fact that Treyarch hasn't reinvented the wheel isn't a reason to crap on the multiplayer, though. It's a great assortment of game modes. The inventive "Wager Match" modes from the first Black Ops return as "Party Games." Modern Warfare 3's frantic "Kill Confirmed" was also included. Newbies can learn the ropes and earn some XP in "Combat Training" playlists that pit them against bots. It's weird that the most popular and well-made part of the game didn't receive most of the development team's attention, but nonetheless BO2 has the most extensive multiplayer offering of any game in the series.
The zombie co-op mode was essentially an Easter egg when it first debuted in COD: World at War, but it's treated as a third pillar of Black Ops 2. The game ships with three maps for this co-op, with a fourth available to anyone who bought a special edition or the Season Pass. A new competitive mode called Grief lets two teams of four face off while being attacked by zombies.
Grief, like Strike Force, is an idea that sounds more exciting on paper. In practice, though, it's just like a normal zombie co-op match. You kill waves of zombies, repair barricades, and use the money you earned from those deeds to buy new weapons. The difference is that there's another team of four players doing the same thing. You can't actually do anything to each other, though. The only ways you can "grief" the other team are by standing in doorways or trying to nudge them off balconies by hitting them repeatedly. It's not the epic struggle for survival you're expecting. The only time competition comes into play is when one team dies. If the other team manages to survive the round, they'll win the match. Otherwise, the round repeats itself.
Zombie mode may have more content than ever but it's not enough to keep the mode from feeling dated. Matches still start way too slowly, with the first few waves being outright boring. The zombies themselves haven't changed; they still spawn at predetermined locations and blindly charge players. The only curveball is the occasional exploding zombie that more often than not will knock you down. The maps feel small and claustrophobic, especially now that there's unexplained lava all over the ground. Even when I was playing the expansive campaign map, Tranzit, I couldn't shake the feeling of boredom. If Treyarch is going to act like zombie co-op is as important as the campaign or competitive multiplayer, then they need to develop it more. It simply doesn't stack up well against other survival mode experiences on the market.
Treyarch really did try to make Black Ops 2 stand out from its predecessors. It was a valiant effort but, in the end, the big new features they introduced simply didn't pan out. Features like Strike Force and Grief aren't bad ideas but they're raw. Hopefully Treyarch hangs onto these half-finished parts and continues to refine them. Black Ops 2 is a bit of a mess but it's an excellent blueprint for future games.
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC, Wii U