Another year, another Call of Duty. The tandem of developers, Infinity Ward and Treyarch (the latter up at bat this year) continues to do the traditional annual Call of Duty dance – Modern Warfare here, and ever-changing IPs there. Treyarch’s previous effort, the original Black Ops, was refreshing in some surprising ways, mainly its additional content, easter eggs, and short but explosive annotated campaign. In true Call of Duty fashion, 2012 brought with it the release of Black Ops II – triple A developers love their sequels -the follow-up to the original game’s campaign, placed even further in the future than ever before. And while it’s just as polished and feature-rich as the rest of the games in the long-running series, it’s beginning to wear a bit thin. The ninth main entry into the Call of Duty series takes you on a worldwide tour to escape the sand-browns and mossy greens of the prior installments, but in the end it’s just another slickly-produced, jingoistic shooter.
Where even the latest Modern Warfare was firmly grounded in reality, Black Ops II flies off the track into full-on sci-fi, perhaps as a competitor for the most recent Halo or upcoming Bioshock: Infinite. At its best, it resembles the high points of Crysis, channeling its souped-up armor and gadgets rather than the sandy trenches of Spec Ops: The Line.
Alex Mason’s son David Mason takes center stage here, in 2025’s vision of future warfare. It’s like Hard Reset mated with the slick gunplay of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and shamelessly put all its glossy advanced technology on display all at once, at least once you’ve dislodged yourself from the first few missions of the game exploring brown sand exotica and scratching your head, trying to figure out what, exactly, is going on. Once you’ve pieced everything together, you’re not going to particularly excited, however. It’s not especially as gripping as the bizarre numbers stations showcased in Black Ops, so it seems to be using futuristic weaponry and aesthetics to stir the pot. And it actually does a great job of switching things up on that premise alone.
For that reason, it’s engaging to keep pushing forward through each shootout, every linear mission that sees you piloting a specific vehicle, escorting others, or picking off enemies like boogers from beneath a table to see what’s going to be thrown at you next. Electrified brass knuckles, cloaking camouflage, suits that enable you to glide through the air, and a host of other niceties are but some of the tools at your disposal once you’ve hit the future of Black Ops II, and to be honest it’s the most refreshing thing the series has done thus far, save from the very first inclusion of Zombies and the excellent streamlined ranking system of COD4.
Unfortunately, several missteps keep Black Ops II from achieving the greatness of its predecessor, including erratic difficulty, strangely placed checkpoints, and shoddy storytelling, as we already touched upon previously. You’re expected to divide your attention between three narratives running parallel to each other, allegiances you may never have realized existed, and a script that’s frankly embarrassing, especially in bits and piece where you’re expected to feel for the long-running protagonist Raul Menendez. When you consider the decisions you make throughout the game actually lead to different scenarios (a Call of Duty with branching paths!) this is quite baffling. While the mechanic is an interesting touch, its implementation is flawed.
As you complete the campaign mode, there are several different outcomes you may find trucking through. Once you choose one pathway, you need to ensure that’s the way you’d like to continue your story. If you complete a level, that’s the path you will continue on for the rest of the game. Restart the level and see different endings, but you are required to restart if you don’t end up liking the way things played out. While the decisions themselves are scattershot and refreshingly not always clearly outlined, it’s frustrating to have to press on if you haven’t quite figured out yet how you want to proceed. Because it’s not the best game to return to and replay over and over simply for a few different results. Considering the addition of the Strikeforce missions (optional RTS departures which serve as minigames that can affect your game’s ending), it’s a frustrating endeavor that I can’t see anyone actually taking the time to go back and complete.
When you realize that every single ending and unlock will likely be available to view on YouTube without killing yourself having to go back and forth, making a list of each decision and fulfilled objective, completing the campaign once begins to sound a lot more palatable.
What you and the rest of the world will come back to, however, is the as-always excellent multiplayer, where Black Ops II exercises years of experience and tweaks, offering a full-featured set of options such as “CODcasting” for livestreaming via YouTube, Scorestreaks that award positive actions rather than Killstreaks for simple slaughters, and a balanced “pick ten” system where you’re able to choose only ten items (weapons, grenades) and perks. What more can be said about it, however, at this point than this is the game you’ll see other players flocking to as the year wears on? With new options for league play, additional Zombie maps (as excellent as ever), customizable emblems, and plenty of opponents out there to match up against, this is what you’ll be booting up that 360 for each time you crave a stop-and-pop kill session with a few kiddies across the globe.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is one of the strangest Call of Duty entries yet, for many reasons, and isn’t quite as strong as its predecessor. The campaign suffers from a mixed bag of a narrative and some truly frustrating missions, and that’s largely what keeps it from being the “must-have” blockbuster if you can only buy one shooter this season (unless you’re grabbing it just for the excellent multiplayer). But it’s trying so desperately to break the mold you can’t help but to give it some credit. It’s no huge improvement over what we’ve seen many times before, but at least it’s not all brown. And I suppose that’s all we can ask for these days.