If you invited Black Ops protagonist Frank Woods over for dinner, he’d likely make an atrocious first impression. After peppering expletives into his demands for liquor and placing his dusty sidearm on a spotless end table, a host would have to look past the sergeant’s course demeanor before appreciating his merits. Similarly, the commencement of Call of Duty: Black Ops II’s single player campaign is apt to rub players the wrong way.
Nearly every qualm thrown at the Call of Duty series is evident in the game’s first level. As players are thrown in the midst of Angola’s civil war, the specter of developmental lethargy looms. Echoing Black Ops’ notorious Battle of Khe Sanh stage, endlessly respawning enemy clones surge across a constricted space- the action only advancing once players trip the game’s trigger points. Soon, players are tasked with boarding a barge, where they shuffle between immovable gun emplacements to fire at foes that robotically scamper into unmistakable fields of fire. The stage concludes with a stealth segment where players are forced to holster their weapon so they can carry a comrade to safety. Naturally, each step of the mission is telegraphed with bright, floating yellow words which articulate both a way-point and command, leaving no room for improvisation.
Yet, just as you’re exhausted your patience for your cantankerous guest, redemption emerges. Black Ops II’s subsequent stages sporadically flirt with brilliance, giving gamers access to an arsenal of exotic, bedazzling tools cribbed from both film and as the minds of futurists. Levels propose multiple methods of attacks, allowing either the capture of formidable firepower placed in the middle of an environment courtyard or a gradual sweep around the edges to eliminate any trace of opposition. If there’s a flaw in Black Op II’s design, it’s that toolsets from the ‘80s-era level aren’t nearly as fun as the contrivances which out-Clancy Ghost Recon. While downing enemy helis on horseback is certainly a hoot, it’s no match for the millimeter scanner- which allows players to peer through walls and drop cloaked opponents.
Following franchise tradition, nearly every conversation is barked out with bombastic urgency, as if Al Pacino was the game’s unbilled dialog coach. That criticism aside, the David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) penned script stands as one of the series’ best plotlines. Invigorated by an absorbing villain who’s rendered in a sympathetic light during the game’s waning hours, Black Ops II proves it’s willing to shirk the good/bad dualities so prevalent in the genre. The title also scores points for delivering a branching storyline which compels multiple playthroughs to uncover its full breadth. More than mere binary divergences in the plot, Black Ops II typically conceals its course. Intermittently, failing an objective won’t send players back to the previous checkpoint, but offers a new mission to tackle.
Unambiguously, the game will tell you that Strike Missions have a critical effect on the narrative trajectory. These open-ended undertakings require players to defend or capture points on a map while utilizing a mixture of RTS and FPS elements. Although these operations succeed for providing gratifying weaponry like the CLAW, a hulking quadraped armed with a Gatling gun, grenade launchers, and a flame thrower, in execution the component feels a bit undercooked. Sullied by oft-ambivalent allies, success either stipulates prodding a taut team around the battlefield, or running and gunning through adversity yourself. While developer Treyarch should be commended for attempting to add a new element which merges strategy and action, it’s regretful that the Strike Missions executes neither ambition very well. The end result is a tepid diversion that will have players eager to get back to the main storyline.
While the majority of changes to Black Ops II’s campaign are commendable, nearly every single alteration made to the title’s multiplayer component is impeccable. Undeniably, the biggest change is the introduction of the Pick 10 system, which bestows an unprecedented amount of autonomy to competitors. Beyond preconfigured classes, players are permitted to create their class, with each weapon, reward, modifier and perk contributing to your ten-count threshold. The use of a Wildcard even authorizes gamers to fracture the limit, allowing a third weapon attachment or additional perk.
Changing Killstreaks into Scorestreaks are bound to have repercussions in Black Op II’s objective-based multiplier modes, such as the new Hardpoint (a King of the Hill variant) or League Play modes. Now kills aren’t the only way to earn support items with players being rewarded for planting bombs, guarding friendly flags, downing drones, and seizing control points. Pleasingly, noobies no longer have to venture into hypercompetitive arenas to learn the fundamentals of the game’s multiplayer matches. Now, players can reach level ten by battling bots, and even progress further, albeit with a slight tax on experience points.
Naturally, Treyarch’s core contribution to the COD franchise makes a pleasing showing with Zombies mode. Here, Survival offers Black Op II’s take on hoard mode, while Grief mode pits two human teams against each other, allowing each squad to direct undead attention toward the other. Likely, Tranzit will garner the most attention, as it offers an enigmatic experience where players gradually unlock weapons, sundries, and part of the environment with points culled by killing zombies.
First impressions aside, Call of Duty: Black Ops II validates the franchise’s position as the reigning champion of military shooters. Bolstered by a trifecta of engaging, competent components, Treyarch’s work delivers the series’ proven tenets with an attentive amount of innovation. While not every one of the developers’ adjustments work smoothly, the ones which do help push the title into must-play status for FPS enthusiasts.