Another year, another Call of Duty.
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t disliked a Call of Duty game ever since 4 reinvented the formula and took off like wildfire, but there’s something interesting about experiencing something very familiar, yet very engaging, every single year.
It’s like people are waiting for Call of Duty to fail both commercially and critically (even though they never do) just to say “I told you so.”
Well, you won’t get to say it, again, with Black Ops II.
Black Ops II comes packing with a campaign that has a little more bite than its predecessors. Just like past games, campaign missions are mostly a tunnel-based affair, skirting you to predetermined areas with giant explosions and standard dialogue. Although, there are a number of detour levels that make Black Ops II‘s campaign a bit more interesting than the rest: Strike Force missions.
The Strike Force mechanic is easily the best part of the campaign, because it adds a sense of urgency and perma-death to the equation. In these RTS flavored missions, you take charge of a number of squadmates (not just one character), and you must live with the consequences — whether you choose to do them, not do them, or fail them. It’s not nearly as complicated as say, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but it’s at least a decent attempt by Treyarch to mix up the campaign a bit.
There are also sections that actually change the story this time around: like drastic consequences (such as permanently scarring the face of a squadmate). Due of this addition, there’s finally a Call of Duty Campaign that isn’t a “one and done” affair. You can replay it multiple times just to see all of the different outcomes, and it would be enjoyable each and every instance.
The 2025 setting is pretty neat, but it doesn’t feel nearly as drastic as Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. It’s a bit more grounded, and the wackiest is gets is a few automated drones and cloaking devices every so often. It doesn’t flaunt the future setting, which is both a boon or a curse, depending on how you look at it. It fits into a comfortable center between Black Ops and Modern Warfare‘s worlds, but never really succeeds in transcending either.
If a campaign isn’t your thing, you have the option of playing a full fledged horde mode in addition to multiplayer: Zombies. Zombies now utilizes the full multiplayer engine (instead of just an offshoot of the single player engine), supports eight players, and has a quasi-story mode called “TranZit.” This new mode adds a transportation system to the mix, allowing you to explore new areas with the help of an automated bus.
Simply put, TranZit is pretty complicated right off the bat, as you have to actually locate and build things to progress through it even at an early stage. Previously, only the Easter Egg portions of zombie maps were particularly complicated — but now, the base experience is more of a giant easter egg hunt.
If hardcore zombie questing isn’t your thing, you can opt for custom games, which put you into smaller areas and allow you to change pretty much every option to your heart’s content, effectively making this two zombie games in one: the new story-centric quest, and the traditional experience. You can also play the Team Vs. variant “Grief,” which allows you to screw up other teams and get them killed (even though you can’t kill them yourself).
Although the levels themselves aren’t as interesting aesthetically; mechanically, they’re very sound, and have plenty of hidden things to discover. If you enjoy Zombies as a whole, you probably won’t be disappointed.
Multiplayer is back, and pretty much the same as you remember it. It’s redesigned around more customization options, but they ultimately don’t pan out to be as fun as Treyarch hoped. In Black Ops II, you’re no longer relegated to a “Perk 1, Perk 2, Perk 3, sidearms” and so on setup. You can choose to remove certain Perk slots or even grenades to sub in more options, such as a second Perk 1, or an extra non-lethal grenade.
The basic idea here is great, as it allows you to customize your class the way you want it. But the main problem is that everything is still gated behind a level requirement. In fact, a great deal of weapons and perks require a level that will take hours to reach, so the customization aspect is mostly an illusion of choice unless you invest a great deal of time into the game.
Of course, for the purposes of this review, I played a great deal of multiplayer, and eventually unlocked everything I needed to. Thankfully, the Prestige system has been upgraded so that weapon levels don’t degrade after choosing to Prestige (weapons have their own Prestige system!), and, like Modern Warfare 3, you can opt to open up another create-a-class slot, or permanently unlock one item after prestiging.
The base gametypes are basically the same as they’ve always been. Although there were rumblings of putting in drastically different modes, most of them were scrapped by the time Black Ops II launched. So unfortunately, if you’re tired of the Call of Duty formula by now, you won’t really find anything here to keep things fresh and exciting, unless you’re not bored of Kill Confirmed by now.
Although Treyarch is usually keen on designing some of the best maps I’ve seen in recent FPS games, the levels included on the disc don’t feel very fleshed out. I don’t know if it’s more wear and tear from playing the “new” style of Call of Duty games for nearly a decade, but a lot of the maps seem to blend together, or feel like rehashes with a different theme.
Maps also feel very squished together, especially on larger gametypes like Ground War. It’s a shame, because no other Call of Duty game felt this small — there were even times where I spawned into bullet fire three spawns in a row.
All in all, Black Ops II is a solid game, but it feels kind of tired at this point in many respects. The new additions to the single player, zombie, and multiplayer components are a good effort, but they’re not enough to transcend the series to a new level (like Halo 4 did for the Halo series). But if you enjoyed Black Ops, odds are you’ll also enjoy Black Ops II — albeit a little less so.
This review is based on a physical copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops II for the Xbox 360.