There was a time when the news of a Treyarch-developed Call of Duty was met with disdain by fans of the series, who placed Infinity Ward on the altar of elite FPS-heroism, but, it seems, that time has passed. Kicking sand in the face of the Modern Warfare series with the surprisingly good Black Ops, Treyarch has now buried its stable mate in said sand, and made a sandcastle on top of it with this, the second non-WWII outing.
Daring to do something a little different with a franchise as hugely successful as Call of Duty is a ballsy move. The mantra of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ must have rung through the ears of Treyarch as Activision’s marketing bods wafted the series’ ever-steady sales in its face. Playing around with the formula could potentially damage this yearly cash cow, but these are concerns that Treyarch has put to bed, and for the better, as Black Ops 2 takes the series in a much needed, new direction.
Whilst every FPS and its brother seems to be aping modern day conflicts and attempting to embrace true, military realism, Black Ops 2 has taken a different route, and has pushed the action into the near future.
Now, this isn’t a future with plasma rifles and lasers, but there are robot walkers, holographic wrist computers and Predator-style cloaking field armour suits. Despite some outlandish tech, though, it all feels realistic enough, and still has the familiar CoD feel.
Of course, the game isn’t all future events, and the main campaign, which sees much of the new additions and changes this time, flits between the 1980s and 2025, seeing players step back into the shoes of Black Ops’ protagonist, Alex Mason in the 1980, and his son in the future segments.
The tale itself, which sees players hunting down a dangerous terrorist leader over the course of decades, is actually quite good, and actually makes you empathise with the evil mastermind for once, rather than him being a two dimensional, cookie cutter villain, but the constant switching between times and ham-fisted cut scene editing can make matters a little confusing at times.
Still, it’s far more interesting than the usual patriotic drivel we’ve seen in the last couple of outings, and it’s a refreshing change, even if the characters, which are, on the whole, voiced excellently, are a little uninteresting. One thing Infinity Ward managed, with MW and MW2 at least, was creating characters you actually cared for. Here, though, this isn’t really the case, and the characters don’t really elicit the same connection from the player.
It’s apparent that Treyarch isn’t so dismissive of the classic, and very important, single player experience as other devs, and Black Ops 2’s biggest changes lie in the campaign. Whilst this story mode still suffers from the usual anorexic CoD length, there’s much more to it than simple run from A to B, and there’s some genuine replay value to be had.
The key here is inclusion of branching outcomes and a helping of larger, more open mission zones. Your actions in the campaign can actually change future events, not only of the eventual game ending, but of events within the game itself, and you’re made very aware of how your actions could have gone differently. It’s a welcome addition to a genre that’s usually too lazy to care about flexibility, instead giving you a gun and telling you to kill this guy and rescue that guy, and although not of Mass Effect-level complexity, it bolsters the game and adds something different to the usually yearly re-skinning.
Wide open areas, such as an early desert jaunt on horseback also helps enhance the experience, and you’ll often be able to locate hidden weapon stashes or armour if you explore, and objectives can be achieved in different ways. Again, this isn’t state of the art user-flexibility, but it’s enough to push CoD in the right direction, and I for one, welcome the changes, and not feeling like I’m being herded down a corridor for the entire game makes for a nice change.
Furthering this user choice is the multiplayer-style load outs you can edit before each mission. Instead of pre-defined outfitting, you can choose whatever guns and equipment you like before each mission. It’s a little thing, but it helps.
Command and Conquer
One of the biggest changes to the game, however, is one that’s also the most polarising, and risky. On paper, the new Strike Force missions, which are optional, but can also change events in the story, not doubt looked like a genuine winner, and so they should.
Basically, the Strike Force missions take elements from CoD-style FPS, Command and Conquer RTS and a little tower defense, and mashes them up into a tactical mode with hands-on FPS content.In these objective-based modes, you can view the action from the heavens, and can order troops and equipment around, C&C-style. You can order your forces to attack enemies, move in groups and so on, and, at any time, can zoom into the action and control any unit manually, including soldiers, gun turrets and robot walkers.
All the time, the enemy is dropping in, and going about its duties, and deploying reinforcements. To succeed, you need to marshal your forces, defend objectives and generally be the good armchair general.
The problem is, the mode just isn’t really ready for prime time. Firstly, the friendly AI is laughable, often unable to follow the simplest path finding, and when it comes to actually combating the enemy, it’s just poor. To get the most out of your units, you have to zoom in and take control yourself, which negates the whole point of the overhead, strategic element.
This whole process is also hampered by a needlessly clunky control system that makes selecting the soldier to control a pain, and every action sluggish. It’s a far cry from the silky smooth controls of the main game, and it stands out.
The enemy AI, on the other hand, can be brutal, flooding objective chokepoints with flying drones and placing enough soldiers to start a small nation at the objective. With good AI help, you may be able to assault these numbers, but as you often feel alone in your abilities, this isn’t the case. Try to play these modes on Veteran, and you’re in for a world of hurt.
I can see what Treyarch was trying to do with the Strike Force missions, and to be fair, they are enjoyable at times, but more work is needed on the AI and general control to make this addition to the game work. Punters are going to either love or loathe these sections, but as they’re optional, and can be skipped, it’s not a big problem. However, the sheer fact that they can be skipped at all does suggest that Treyarch knows that the mode isn’t 100%, otherwise, why not make them mandatory as part of the story? Ploughing money and time into a mode that players can bypass makes little sense.
The rest of the campaign is spot on, though, and it doesn’t get too bogged down in cheesy set pieces, and instead crafts and enjoyable and interesting story. The actual gameplay is much more refined, as it doesn’t simply rely on shock value, and instead features missions and locations that are interesting enough without collapsing buildings and exploding nukes needed to get a response from the player.
No matter how good the campaign is, it’s the online multiplayer that draws most to the CoD stable, and although there aren’t a great deal of changes to be found here, Black Ops 2 does bring some new tricks to the gun fight.
The most notable of these is arguably the new ‘Pick 10’ load out system. Instead of focusing on classes and specific roles, Black Ops 2 has a number of slots you can customise, and in each you can select up to ten items in your load out, of any combination. Weapons, attachments, grenades and perks each count as one item, but you can mix and match to your liking, granting more flexibility.
Another change is the abolition of killstreaks. Instead, these are now replaced with much more accessible scorestreaks, which build up as you earn points, and when you earn enough, you get a streak reward, such as a UAV, air strike or deployable turret. This is a very welcome change, and evens out the battlefield a little, as even the most inexperienced players can now build up enough points to unlock third-tier streak rewards.
For the most part, however, multiplayer remains much the same, only with the Treyarch touch, including the return of solo-friendly bot matches, which are now more flexible, and allow more match types above and beyond DM and Team DM. This is great for those wanting practise before going online, or for those who either don’t want to, or can’t get online to play against others.
There are some teething issues at the moment, which are always to be expected with a new release. The Pick 10 system and ease of scorestreaks can make some better players nigh-on unbeatable, and balancing needs to be addressed, but, some server issues aside, this is one of the more robust online CoD experiences out of the box. The selection of maps is much more interesting too, and the ever popular selection of game modes, coupled with some new toys to play with (remote control flying drone, anyone?) makes this a much better offering than MW3, and its own predecessor, the first Black Ops.
Brains and bullets
Treyarch first brought zombies into the CoD fold back in World at War, and ever since, fans have demanded more. Black Ops 2 doesn’t just bring back the undead-splattering mode, but expands upon it, with the traditional wave-based survival mode, as well as a new campaign-lite mode called Tranzit.
In this new option, players have to grab essential items to fabricate objects needed for survival, and to do this need to travel to other maps in the course of a single game. This is done my boarding a Total Recall, Johnny Cab-like bus, which drives from one map to the next. All the time, the bus is under attack, and has to be defended.
It’s certainly interesting, and the mash-up of CoD and Left 4 Dead works, but it’s clear that this is the mode that’s seen less spit and polish. It really does feel like a user created mod for Black Ops 2, rather than an included feature, and despite the addition of revive drinks, which enables solo player to revive themselves, it’s pretty much a multiplayer only affair, such is the volume of attacking undead.
Still, whilst it may lack the quality of the rest of the package, it’s still entertaining, either online or splitscreen, and the expanded Tranzit mode is a great addition. No doubt this is a precursor to a full, standalone CoD zombie title.
With a branching campaign that focuses more on decent gameplay than explosive set pieces, rock solid multiplayer and a bolstered zombie mode, there really is little here to dissuade any gamer from buying Black Ops 2. It’s without doubt the best CoD release of the past couple of years, and although it’s not a total evolution of the series, the changes made here do push the game in the right direction, and the result is a fresh CoD experience.
It’s still CoD at heart, and familiar tropes of the license still remain here and there, but if you’ve tired of the series recently, and aren’t sure if this is worth a punt, give it a go, you may be surprised.