Call of Duty: Black Ops II Review

Black Ops II answers the question burning in many a gamer’s mind since the release of the first Black Ops: Should Treyarch take over as the primary Call of Duty studio? Yes, they should, and after the disappointing Modern Warfare 3, the obvious only seems clearer. Treyarch continues to progress their timeline while the series’ creators limited themselves to the present, as Modern Warfares 2 and 3 eventually became derivative of Call of Duty 4’s success. Treyarch sets their sequel to Black Ops in the year 2025, offering gamers agency in the plot's development, technology never before seen, and a new Cold War led by a pitiable villain.

The core storytelling remains virtually unchanged, as the perspective swaps between the military’s go-to soldiers: Alex Mason in the 1980s, and his son David decades later, who must suppress a cyber revolution known as Cordis Die. Treyarch also makes it easy to sympathize with the cult’s leader, Raul Menendez. He slowly unveils his role in the downfall of the world’s superpowers, spurred on by his hate for the private contractors that robbed him of his sister at an early age. How the developers spin the rest of the plot ensures Black Ops II tells the best story in the franchise’s history. The Tyler Durden twist in Black Ops was cool, yet predictable, and you were still being guided in your decisions through one set of linear corridors to the next. Black Ops II gives players choice in deciding whether or not America burns, tweaking the narrative in subtle ways to reflect their actions. You must perform in the moment too, because Menendez remains five steps ahead at every turn. For example, not shooting a kidnapper during his escape or executing a prisoner during interrogation does not end with a “game over.” The campaign continues, but some factors will come back to harm you, while showing mercy and blasting out a man’s kneecaps could be beneficial.

Black Ops II rarely stumbles into overt situations designated by two blatant alternatives – usually sparing a man with one button press or eliminating him with another. Except Black Ops II factors each seemingly insignificant detail into four distinct endings. A mission log tracks who survived, who perished, who was injured, and so on, though the narrative retains its subtlety (not counting the blockbuster set pieces obviously). The game never reveals which decisions result in your specific conclusion, but the fact that gamers can have otherwise different discussions based on their actions in a first-person shooter sets a precedent for the next Call of Duty. You cannot replay the associated levels, however, and expect a separate outcome. To catch the other three cutscenes, you must start the campaign over and finish the story again.

 

Sergeant Frank Woods returns from his explosive exit in the first Black Ops to relate events of the Cold War-era '80s. 

 

Some decisions even open up new Strike Force missions other people may never see. These side missions place gamers in the position as an overhead commander, looking on as an eyewitness from a top-down perspective. You’ll order your soldiers and drones about the battlefields like an RTS, but the controls are too floaty on the Xbox 360’s analog sticks, and forces die at the hands of terrible pathfinding, getting stuck on geometry or standing out in the middle of the street when not ignoring mandates altogether. There’s no rally function, either. To compensate, I had to select all units, demand they converge on the objective en masse, then take direct control of a soldier to guarantee mission success. With no actual narrative tie-in outside the briefing room (save for one hostage rescue), these deployments feel like mere extensions of the FPS combat many have grown tired of. And at higher difficulties, the Strike Force missions have a real bearing on the story when failed.

At least enough variety exists in the more open corridor shootouts, as you may access different parts of the level if you brought along a tool kit for breaking into fuse boxes, locked armories, sealed crates, etc. These secret stores often reward you with a programmable drone or weapon stash to help you in the ongoing firefights. Although most of the future tech remains hands-off – in the case of leaping across an unstable cliffside with Spider-Man-like gloves – weapon tastes play a part in the combat, too. Before missions, players can alter their loadouts to a staggering degree. The game provides a well-rounded setup to begin with, but I began experimenting with every armament possible, sometimes outfitting a shotgun and sniper rifle for a balanced mix, or stacking three attachments on two assault rifles just because I could.

This system makes its transition to the multiplayer under the name “Pick 10.” This fresh stab at create-a-class delivers revitalizing freedom when customizing your every loadout. Before, both Infinity Ward and Treyarch limited competitors to one primary and one secondary firearm unless they opted for a certain perk. We were also restricted to one perk from each class, and I was often torn between, say, using Ghost or Flak Jacket in Black Ops. With the Pick 10 system, every perk, attachment, weapon, and grenade costs one point per loadout. You may equip six perks in total, yet you’ll be limited to one gun each time you respawn. You can stack up to three attachments on a weapon, though you’ll be spending half the allotted points (one for the weapon, one for each attachment, and one for the Wild Card that grants three enhancements). As someone who rarely earns a kill with lethal grenades, I emptied that slot completely. A friend of mine even built his class around the burst-fire pistol, scavenging ammo off corpses while undetectable by UAVs and air support. Treyarch proves they can teach an old dog new tricks, and the Pick 10 structure should provide a welcome system shock to those accustomed to the stagnating Call of Duty formula.

 

There's little in the way of new multiplayer modes besides Hardpoint, a renamed version of Halo 3's Crazy King.

 

Not everything sees such smooth implementation. Black Ops II features the most abysmal lag compensation in the series. Ever wonder why what you see on a killcam does not sync up perfectly with what happened on your screen? Has your character simply dropped dead without the telltale strawberry jam clouding his vision? Maybe the opposition killed you from around the corner when you were clearly protected. Lag compensation does not immediately discredit the multiplayer (console owners have been playing on peer-to-peer servers for years), but head glitching remains a dreadful problem. Think of the times when you could only see the enemy’s helmet behind that rock or windowsill when you died seconds later in their sights. 

There are plenty instances of head glitching to exploit in Black Ops II, and the atrocious spawns exacerbate the issue. In Ground War matches outfitted for eighteen players, teams frequently spawn together, making it nearly impossible to build any sort of helpful Scorestreak. These point-based streaks no longer dole out care packages and helicopters to players that fight only for themselves. Instead, capturing flags, confirming kills, and holding the headquarters fill the meter faster, instigating teamwork in a genre that normally appreciates lone wolf play. While kills do contribute to Scorestreaks, the poor hit detection robbed me of a kill frequently. I suffered through games where enemies would not react to headshots or would simply shrug off whole magazines of SMG ammunition. Treyarch issued a patch earlier this week seeking to solve many of these problems, so hopefully players notice a decline in these detriments.

League Play does not appear to experience any of the aforementioned faults, oddly enough. Connections ran smooth, and getting the drop on the enemy granted me a rightful kill. This form of ranked matchmaking places partakers in one of six leagues (Master, Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze, or Iron) after five games, and unlocks every armament and ability from the start, so players can focus on tactics instead of level progression. The game then assigns you a subdivision of that league to compete with others of similar skill levels. A win moves you up the ladder, and a loss moves you down. The system works as advertised, yet there’s little more than 6,000 people in League Play during peak hours – compared to the 600,000 competing in the standard gametypes at any one time. A shame too, because Treyarch caters to the eSports crowd with built-in shoutcasting and livestreaming. Also, League Play faces the dire problem of players unable to join a match in progress. Rage quitting leaves teams severely disadvantaged. Worse, regardless of how well you performed, a loss automatically deducts points from your record, even if the loss was beyond your control. 

 

In League Play, gamers receive more ladder points per win if they beat a team they were predicted to lose against. 

 

Players cannot join Zombie matches currently underway as well, but the attention given to cooperation over competition ensures this flaw does not override an enjoyable experience. Dismembering as many zombified hordes as possible remains intact, and TranZit stitches a vague narrative into your actions. A robotic bus driver transports survivors between a town, pit stop, farm, and testing facility as they collect miscellaneous parts for story intents. I’ll leave it the audience to discern these parts’ true purpose, as half the fun of previous Zombies maps has been the discovery of the supernatural and the Easter eggs that follow.

For a more traditional experience, Zombies' Survival returns, but Grief ups the player count and competition in refreshing ways. Two teams of four work to outlast each other, either as the CIA or a Hazmat containment team. Players cannot wound the rival team, so you need to ally with the zombies to take them down. Blocking the doorway to the mystery box room while I waited for the infected feast on their helpless prey became the most effective strategy – the mode’s called Grief for a reason. However, this mode can be made more enjoyable when both teams agree to aid each other. That means double-teaming windows and other zombie access points, and covering survivors reviving incapacitated teammates.

Black Ops II gains a hearty recommendation, though not for the multiplayer. No, the narrative stretches that Treyarch makes in overcoming Infinity Ward’s shadow pays dividends to the studio that was considered the ‘B’ team not two years ago. Forget Mass Effect 3. Black Ops II implements player decisions better and in a way that left me proud of my actions and jealous of others. For the first time the community can argue the benefits of behaving rashly or staying their hands. Beyond the Pick 10 system, the multiplayer only takes minor steps compared to the campaign’s strides. The same goes for Zombies, except my time spent griefing other players remains some of my fondest yet. The world’s not ready for a Black Ops III, but you should gear up for the one of the superior Call of Duty titles in the series. It’s really, really good.  

Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch
Release Date: November 13, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2-4 (Cooperative), 2-18 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC, Wii U

Josh Kowbel's picture

Let me just say I apologize for this review being so late due to college constraints. Originally I considered not posting the review at all considering it's approaching two weeks after release, and I had no idea if I could scrape together the free time to even write a rough draft. However, I still appreciate each reader and comment.

GuardianJosh's picture

I'm gonna be getting this for PS3, when it's cheaper. How Black Ops 1? Should I play that first? Does it matter?

Josh Kowbel's picture

@GuardianJosh:

I quite liked the Black Ops for its story and multiplayer, but you do not have to complete the first game's campaign before jumping into Black Ops II. You may not know who all the characters are, however, or why they're important unless you read a wiki, and there is one instance involving the numbers brainwashed into Alex Mason during the first Black Ops that may leave you confused.

Mr Hat's picture

Great review Josh, you covered all the major aspects of the game in a very detailed manner, especially considering your time constraints. Keep it up!

John Tarr's picture

To catch the other three cutscenes, you must start the campaign over and finish the story to completion.

Not 100% correct; you can rewind the story to any mission, but it does require you to replay everything after that. So if you made an 'incorrect' decision early in the game (the real decisions start on the 3rd level), you will have to replay a huge chunk of the game. 

Also, I'm playing on the PC and have had zero lag issues, even in 18 player Ground War. It would be nice if they displayed ping instead of cell phone signal strength bars.

Josh Kowbel's picture

@John Tarr:

That's what I meant, but I also wanted to avoid spoiling what the ending requirements entail for anyone that has not seen your video or already completed the campaign. Plus, there are more subtle, alternative choices that I believed worth replaying just to see if the characters reacted differently.

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