It must be an increasingly difficult task for the developer Treyarch, continuously asked to maintain one of the biggest franchises in modern gaming; bringing new features worthy of another yearly edition without removing the essence of what makes it so popular.
A change in time period is the most convenient premise for an overhaul and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (BLOPS2) throws us forward into the near future of 2025. We're introduced to David Mason; son of Black Ops protagonist Alex Mason who is hunting down Raul Menendez; a cunning new "one step ahead" type of bad guy for these future times..
You jump between father and son, piecing together the background of the conflict, delving into the reasons Menendez won't be sending the CIA any gift baskets and why "rare earth minerals" apparently become the future's equivalent of today's oil reserves. You play as Alex again in missions that take place in the form of flashbacks throughout the 70s and 80s and David who follows in his father's footsteps in the much more interesting future setting.
As something fans of the franchise have been asking for for a while, Treyarch do a good job bringing the game into 2025. Mason has a snazzy wrist mounted display he takes every opportunity to use when interfacing with all the new tech on display. The futuristic elements blend perfectly into the Call of Duty wheelhouse, graphically it's not dropping jaws but the art direction for the LED laden world with floating panels and ubiquitous touch screens hits all the right notes. The soundtrack even evolves slightly with some electronic flair added to the crunching guitars. The flashback missions are a more sedate affair returning to expected locations and weaponry, aside from some story benefits and interesting sequences I found myself enjoying the 2025 gameplay much more.
This entry feels like the most aware edition to date, it's almost as if they are afraid they might lose the player's attention at any moment. Round every checkpoint is something new to play with: bored of the sniper with chargeable bullets which can shoot through walls and explode cars? Well check out this wrist mounted grenade launcher, after that have a go with this rocket equipped drone, on and on it continues right through to the spectacular last missions. This certainly pushes you all the way through the campaign making you wonder what new gadget they have up their sleeve next.
In some ways the most improved aspect of the campaign is the pacing, it's still combining a roller coaster with as many Michael Bay action sequences it can get its hands on, but the sensory overload is now at least dialled back in some places allowing for an actual story to shine through. There are what could comparatively be described as stealth moments and even some interesting sequences which help you to understand the motives on the other side of the conflict.
Squandering this momentum the game comes to a screeching halt a few hours in to drop you into a tutorial for the new Strike Force mode; the game now drops you out to a mission briefing menu in between chapters and here you can customise your load out much like you would in multiplayer. You can also choose to park the story for a moment and take on a Strike Force missions which impact the story in some way.
Strike Force combines standard gameplay with an almost RTS-lite type of over watch mode which allows you to control varying assets on the battlefield, sending troops, air support and other tech such as the lumbering mechanical animal tanks known as CLAWs to where the action is. You can assume control of any unit at any time and give the same orders whilst on the ground.
The transition could have been handled better; after 5 years being pushed down a corridor with blinkers on it was the equivalent of stopping the ride to give me another safety briefing. The gameplay feels overly complicated at first and some of the missions are more suited to the over watch mode than others. For the most success I resorted to just selecting all units, taking control of one solider and simply ordering all units to where ever I was on the battlefield as back up whilst i ran around mopping up every objective personally. If you spend some time with it over watch is probably a more effective method of play style and it does offer something completely different from the rest of the campaign. It's completely voluntary and I predict most will under use the over watch feature only doing the bare minimum it takes to get through, if they don't just skip the missons entirely.
The concept itself is interesting though as it introduces the aspect of branching story lines to the series. In the campaign a certain individual was abducted by Menendez, one of my Strike Force missions then became recovering this "High Value Individual", once I had completed it this individual soon popped up in my campaign again which was a satisfying deviation from the normal "set in stone" story beats. Furthermore Strike Force missions are only available within a certain period and you only have a limited number of attempts before permanent failure. On top of this the campaign now adds choices into the some of the key signature first person moments; where you would normally indiscriminantly dole out free neck incisions you now have choices to make. Some of the choices aren't that obvious; stopping someone from escaping might provide you with more intel for instance you just have to be paying attention.
It remains to be seen how much deviation these paths truly offer when it comes down to the final moments, I suspect not much, still it's a welcome addition to the formula and helps to create one of the best Call of Duty campaigns in recent memory. The story is actually understandable, the dial on the awesome knob isn't jammed on the "shock and awe" setting and they engage the player a little with some choices and extra missions which can offer some much needed variety.
That said it felt like the amount of time spent watching scripted moments in first person was higher than it has been before and the in game scripting and trigger points seem to have some issues. The path finding is even more linear than before in places; multiple times I would be running ahead down the obvious route to find that unless I held my AI partner's coat tails I would miss specific paths and checkpoints I was meant to hit, leading to death or repetitive prompting. Again it killed the pace in some sections and boils it down to that "find the trigger" gameplay the series resorts to at its worst. On Hardened difficulty it took around 6-7 hours with only a couple of the Strike Force missions tackled.
Many people will no doubt skip the campaign entirely and get started on the latest refresh of the multiplayer. This year's big news is the "Pick 10" system. Your custom classes now consist of ten slots which can be filled with weapons, attachments, perks, projectiles and the new wild cards which allow extra bonuses. The system is quite flexible and allows for some enjoyable "Min/Max" style customisation; allowing you to fully tailor your class to your play style. For example breakout hit Nuketown is so popular it has its own play list, taking the game to its fast and frenetic pinnacle. I find it useful to forgo a secondary weapon in lieu of three attachments on my shotgun, zero grenades allowing for an additional wild card letting me add more perks which offer benefits like increased sprinting and quicker aiming. It's an interesting risk reward system which is the most significant change to the class system since its inception.
The rest of the unlocking mechanics behave as expected with every aspect hidden behind level progression for both the player and individual weapons. Levelling up your character earns you tokens which you can spend how you like, concentrating on the upgrade path of the weapons, perks and now "score streaks" which you desire.
Score streaks replace kill streaks as the in game rewards system, instead of rewards being based on kills it uses the score accrued within a single life. Score is obtained by completing the objective in the various game types, assists and of course those all important kills. It does what it can to spread the focus from only rewarding the best players and giving those who play the objectives a fighting chance at seeing some of the high level content on offer, but the path to victory is still largely paved with head shots.
The gameplay itself is the fast, frenetic, yet smooth and refined experience you have come to expect, maps have a nice mix of long and short sight lines and the locations make for some detailed and interesting paths such as around the wreckage of a downed plane in the mountains or on the deck of an aircraft carrier. It will take a while for the community to bed in and balance issues to rear their head but so far score streaks/air support aren't overwhelming while minor additions and tweaks abound such as disabling projectiles for the first few seconds of a match and the ability to customise the quality of game you are match made with.
While the core experience might be nothing new to develop RSI over, the new community elements might just be the most exciting thing Treyarch has done to the franchise to date. Jumping into COD TV from the multiplayer menu allows you to enter theatre mode and re-watch matches as you could before. This aspect has now been exploded to allow you to edit and upload your videos to YouTube, the game will even analyse your matches and create a ready made highlight reel which you can customise. The whole system allows for the familiar system of rating, sharing and recommending videos with your friends right there in the game.
It internalises the massive community around gameplay videos which has grown on YouTube over the last few years, making it much more accessible and part of the experience than ever before. The game also includes a spectator mode which is perfect for their new "COD-casting" feature, which lets people stream matches live on YouTube complete with commentary powered by a tailored dashboard offering up match information and several camera views.
As throw away as most theatre and video editing modes are, sitting down and watching a few highlight reels of your best matches that evening, browsing through friends' videos or some of the crazy content that will hopefully bubble to the top in the "Trending" and "Staff Pcks" categories is something I can see the community welcoming with open arms. It feels like an evolution that has been waiting to happen and it's very well implemented here.
Extending an olive branch to the newcomers is clearly still a priority, with Combat Training providing a mix of bots and human players for some slightly less shark infested waters for players to dip their toes into. League play promises to judge your ability from some test matches before specifically matching players with others of similar ability. The COD points system has been removed so the old "Wager Match" game types now exist in the "Party playlist" largely untouched with favourites like KIll Confirmed and One in the Chamber returning minus the gambling of points but with just as much fun.
The final pillar is the now familiar wave based co-op survival "Zombies" mode. It's been evolved this time round as there are now different modes to be had including "Tranzit" which has story elements and takes place over a larger map which the players must navigate by vehicle, the vanilla Survival mode and "Grief" mode where two teams of four simultaneously compete and fend off the horde of undead but ultimately only one team can win. It's the usual dose of co-operative zombie killing, weapon buying and area unlocking fun it has always been. A skill based match making system has been employed and the extensive stat tracking and leaderboards from multiplayer are now in place allowing for a similar depth of experience.
- Future setting implemented well
- Choices/Strike Force add some variety
- Best community integration in a game so far
- Pick 10 offers a welcome refresh to multplayer
- Super competitive player base
- Single player has pacing issues
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Xbox 360 Review
The question whether this year's changes make Call of Duty a fundamentally better game is debatable. Single player is the most dynamic and interesting campaign the series has seen for a while, even though it has its pacing issues the setting presents more than enough new toys to warrant a look. In multiplayer Treyarch are getting good at honing the formula, dropping and implementing features with a now experienced hand. Big strides are being made with the additional features, COD TV and COD casting are clever additions which will almost certainly enrich and extend the life of the community. Zombies continues to grow to more than just a distraction into a deep fleshed out experience.
Although most of what's on offer might not be particularly new it's a well executed version of the package which can still deliver better than the many which attempt to emulate it . At this point it's unreasonable to expect the genre shifting changes that the series may have offered in the past, and the majority of the community likely wouldn't want such upheaval in what has proven a very popular formula. Treyarch have become very adept at taking the pulse of the community and providing just what it needs for another year of survival at the top while at the same time offering hooks for new players and having the best chance yet of reconnecting with a few sceptical ones.
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