Tons of well-developed content; great campaign with a memorable villain; interesting story; varied level design and meaningful choices; robust, well balanced and addictive multiplayer; Zombies!
Not enough people online; techno-heavy soundtrack
The Call of Duty franchise has become a cultural phenomenon; year after year it breaks its own records, selling tens of millions of copies and earning Activision billions of dollars. But it doesn’t stop at launch, as throughout the year it ranks as the most played online multiplayer game with its predecessors also continuing to stay high on the list. Love it or hate it, you have to admit that Call of Duty is definitely on to something.
However, if you’re a Nintendo loyalist, then you really haven’t had a chance to experience what the series is all about. Wii has played host to several iterations of the franchise but the hardware’s limitations have made these outings nothing more than mild approximations of the complete product. Plenty of people had fun with these games, but Wii simply couldn’t handle a game built on a foundation of over the top spectacle and silky smooth, fast paced gameplay. If you were one of those folks who could look past the limitations, then you are going to be blown away by the real McCoy.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is a three headed Hydra of content: campaign, zombies, and multiplayer. Each of these modes could be a separate release in their own right and add up to create one of the most content rich packages $60 can get you today. I’ll break down the many great aspects of Black Ops 2, but this is probably the game’s biggest strength; even if one part of the game doesn’t hold your interest, chances are at least one other part of the game will float your boat.
Let’s begin with the campaign, which is arguably the best in the franchise’s history. While the Modern Warfare games devolved into a big, loud, and stupid display of Michael Bay-inspired action that might have pleased the part of your brain that likes blowing stuff up while insulting the rest with its predictable, uninspired, and ultimately meaningless plot, Black Ops 2 is much more like its predecessor in that it it tries to give some measure of meaning and purpose to the war waging around you. This time around the story isn’t quite so psychological; the brainwashing and psychosis that drove the last game has a lingering presence in this game as several characters make return appearances, but the overall approach is a little more straightforward– sort of a mix between a character study and a revenge story. This might sound much simpler, but it is told so well and proves so compelling that you have to give the writing a lot of credit.
The game jumps back and forth between 2025 and the closing years of the Cold War, putting players into the shoes of Alex Mason, the hero from Black Ops, and his son David. The near future missions chronicle David’s battle with Raul Menendez, a revolutionary figure and terrorist leader waging war in the name of the downtrodden against the 1% and Western opulence. The Cold War missions tell the story of Menendez’s rise, the source of his anger, hatred, and how his fate is woven in with that of the Mason family. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that delving into the villain’s history greatly adds to the experience. Instead of being just another generic bad guy he is made into a genuine character, thus casting a completely new, and sometimes even sympathetic light on what might otherwise have appeared to be sheer brutality and villainy.
The other aspect that makes the campaign stand out from past entries is the incorporation of player choices that can lead to multiple, different endings. Plenty of games have thrown in choice with various amounts of effort and success, but Treyarch nailed it this time. Most choices are fairly simple– press one button for option A and press another for option B– but a few are integrated quite organically without the game specifically telling you there are multiple options. The final results can be anything from the ideal Hollywood ending to shocking, dramatic and tragic twists that will leave you wondering what went wrong. Most of the time the choices presented to you aren’t a matter of good or bad; rather, they are tough questions without clear answers where the most altruistic option could in fact be the most damning for the fate of the characters and the world in general. The fact that the endings can be drastically different and that some side missions are only available after particular outcomes definitely gives Black Ops 2 the most replayable campaign in franchise history.
Putting the story aside, much of the campaign should feel very familiar from a gameplay perspective. While most missions open up from time to time quite a bit more than previous entries in the series, the bulk of the experience is linear, taking you from one firefight to the next with occasional sniping sessions, vehicle segment, or steal mission thrown in for variety. Regardless of what you’re doing it all feels very fast and smooth; running, shooting, and even driving are all second nature at this point, brilliantly implemented by developers who have had a great deal of experience in crafting this kind of gameplay. The near future setting does add a few new elements, such as scopes that reveal enemy positions and the frequent inclusion of unmanned drones as support units, but these just add to the core experience without significantly changing it; though it is really cool when you get your hands on the sniper rifle that can shoot through most walls.
The biggest addition to the campaign this time around are the Strikeforce missions, optional levels that integrate light RTS elements by allowing you to jump from standard first person action to an aerial view where you can direct units to go where you want and attack what you want. The missions are generally timed and have you attacking or defending an objective with preset teams of soldiers and/or drones. One thing to keep in mind is that though these missions are optional they do impact the story and are only available for limited periods of time before becoming unavailable. In terms of execution, these missions end up falling short of their potential. Controlling the various soldiers and drones directly is as good as ever, but controlling everything at the tactical level is a little slow and cumbersome for such a fast paced game. Thankfully jumping into one of your soldier’s boots and pulling out some hardcore heroics is usually more than enough to complete the objectives and claim victory. Even if they have plenty of room for improvement, the Strikeforce missions are a decent change of pace and it is nice to see Treyarch taking these kinds of creative risks in such a well established franchise.
The second mode is Zombies, Treyarch’s humorous take on the now ubiquitous mode where players must work together to fight off waves of incoming enemies. Black Ops 2 evolves the formula, creating a unique experience that sets it apart from both past entries as well the competition. While the traditional survival mode is back, the focus is really on Tranzit, a new twist on the formula that adds a greater sense of progression to the proceedings. As per usual, killing zombies nets you points that can be spent on unlocking doors to new places, new guns, and various upgrades. The big differences come in the form of a bus driven by a disturbingly funny robot that carries you between multiple locations; this adds some nice variety to the mode and makes the whole thing much larger than any of the past entries. Also new is the ability to collect items scattered about the environment and then combine them to create a variety of interesting devices; some are needed to reach certain areas, others can modify the bus and a few more directly impact the gameplay. Finally, there’s Grief Mode, which pits two teams into a competition for survival, with the only caveat being that they cannot directly harm one another, so it boils down to who is better at avoiding and/or slaying the undead hordes.
Plenty of people love Call of Duty for Zombies and the campaign, but the bread and butter has always been the competitive multiplayer. Billions of man hours have been poured into CoD’s many online modes over the years and Black Ops 2 is only going to add many more to that sum because the game is very good. Let me start by saying that Modern Warfare 3 annoyed me greatly; it featured primarily small and rather poorly designed maps that limited options for more tactical gameplay and generally made the whole experience too hectic and frustrating for its own good. Black Ops 2 generally keeps its maps smaller than most prior entries, but they are still bigger than MW3′s and the vast majority are much more intelligently designed. A few maps still come across as quite deeply flawed, especially for objective based modes, but the overall selection is a drastic improvement. And speaking of modes, Black Ops 2 brings back the traditional TDM, Domination, CTF, and Kill Confirmed modes, as well as adding in a few new options. Hardpoint is quite similar in concept to King of the Hill; teams compete over a chunk of territory, but the difference is the territory randomly moves around every minute. Treyarch also went ahead and did something really interesting by including multi-team versions of many of the modes, replacing the usual 6 vs. 6 idea with a much more hectic 3 vs. 3 vs. 3 vs. 3 concept.
Putting aside all the maps and modes leaves us with what really makes Call of Duty so compelling– the character progression. Just as in previous games, leveling up unlocks new guns, perks, and killstreaks, while getting kills with guns unlocks more attachments for it. The big change this time around is the Pick 10 system, where instead of having slots for a primary and secondary weapon with attachments, three perks, and a lethal and nonlethal grenade, your character simply has ten slots. This new system allows you to sacrifice one item for another, giving up grenades for more attachments, or adding in wild cards, options that take away one of your points, but allow you to double up on one item, such as having two primary weapons or being able to equip two perks from the same tier. Altogether this makes for the greatest potential for diversity in the franchise’s history, allowing for heavily specialized classes for particular play styles; heck, you can even choose to strip your soldier of just about everything and just run around with a knife if you so desire.
Oh, and I almost forgot about the killstreaks, which are now technically gone. Instead, we have scorestreaks, which work the same only instead of being based on kills they are actually based on the score you earn in the game, a change that dramatically affects objective based games. Killing an enemy in domination will only get you 50 points, while capturing an objective is worth 200. Furthermore, kills earned with score streaks are worth only a fraction of a regular kill. The end result is that the higher end scorestreaks, which require in excess of 1500 points, are much less common, because the only way to effectively get lots of points quickly is to throw one’s self at the objective, something that also happens to result in more player deaths. Thus, when you see attack dogs running around, you know somebody is both aggressive and highly talented– either that or they’re just really lucky.
Before we go any further, let’s go ahead and get the ubiquitous breakdown of the presentation out of the way. The Call of Duty franchise has always been sort of strange from a visual perspective– Activision has used the same engine for over half a decade now– and when you take the time to examine each individual part of the environment it shows in inconsistent textures and general lack of real time lighting. The tradeoff is the game’s ability to render exceptionally intense action involving dozens of characters and numerous explosions with no noticeable hit to performance, and I think that is more than worth it. The aesthetics are also helped by an artistic approach that is much more colorful than prior entries; a couple levels are as drab and brown as you would expect an Afghanistan desert to be, but the rest of the game has a broader pallet, including more industrial and military settings that break away from the usual grays to embrace red, blues, and brighter lighting. Black Ops 2 doesn’t stand out as an artistic masterpiece, but it definitely looks better than your average war zone.
The audio is more of a mixed bag. Guns and explosions sound much better than previous entries, and that is referring to more than just the previous Wii iterations. Every sound of battle just feels much more pronounced and significant than ever before; it is definitely a change for the better. Voice acting is also quite good, with the aforementioned villain, voiced by Kamar de los Reyes, being the standout among the cast. Though I must admit that Tony Todd’s Admiral Briggs might just be a little too excitable. The one big problem I have with the audio design is actually the soundtrack. Much of it is business as usual for modern military shooters, but the background music for most of the future levels is too techno heavy for my liking. Techno fans might like it, but you wont see me jumping with joy. Also, the theme song, written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame, is surprisingly understated and, dare I say it, boring.
Now we must ask the really big question: how does Black Ops 2 benefit from Wii U? While none of Wii U’s features are used to specifically set it apart from the competition, the different gameplay options presented by having the GamePad work surprisingly well and make for a compelling argument for the Wii U version over the others. First and foremost, everything is playable on the GamePad’s screen, including multiplayer, and there is absolutely no noticeable lag in the video, audio, or input response. The fact that I can play such a fast paced online game with every aspect of the game being streamed wirelessly is nothing short of astonishing and stands as a testament to just how impressive the tech behind Wii U actually is. What’s even better is that split-screen play, whether online or off, is now a thing of the past, because the game supports one player on the TV and the other playing on the GamePad; this is a great way for friends and family members to share the experience without having to sacrifice screen real estate.
Looking at Black Ops 2 as a whole, I can finally say that Nintendo fans have a complete package available. The only exclusion from the Wii U version is the ability to live stream League Play games, which is not that big of a loss considering that only the most hardcore of the hardcore are likely to get much use out of it. And all things considered, the ability to play on the GamePad proves to be a much more exciting prospect for the vast majority of gamers. But it’s not just about the mere presence of the content; everything involved also happens to be of impressively high quality. The graphics are great, the sound design is immersive, the action is incredibly fast and smooth, and the online works flawlessly both in terms of gameplay design and network stability. To be honest, the only real problem I encountered with Black Ops 2 on Wii U is the number of people playing online; there are enough to consistently find Team Death Matches, but many of the modes are woefully underpopulated or even completely empty.
Seriously people! Black Ops 2 is, at this moment in time, the best, most content rich multiplayer game ever released on a Nintendo system. If you enjoyed the previous CoD games on Wii, then this will be even better (did I mention it still supports Wii Remote?) and for those of you who were unimpressed by those games then this is the game you were waiting for. Once this game gets off the ground with a large enough population of frequent players it will truly be complete. However, even without those online gamers, Black Ops 2 still proves to be an amazing game that is one of the best currently avaialable on Wii U.