Call of Duty Black Ops 2 is great, but not an improvement

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It’s November. Which can only mean one thing, a new Call of Duty. This year we get the Treyarch variation and along with it we get a new time period, the year 2025. Don’t let the future setting fool you. This is still Call of Duty, complete with all the over-the-top action, gun battles and adrenaline fueled destruction. Every year I find myself asking this same question though, “Is this a better Call of Duty than I’ve been playing for the past year?” It’s early on, but sadly enough this year it seems like the answer is no.

I’d like to preface the rest of this review with the statement that I love Call of Duty. I know the series has a ton of haters out there. Artsy gamers don’t like first-person shooters. Halo fans like their FPSs with a little more sci-fi elements mixed in and Battlefield enthusiasts prefer their particular brand of realistic FPS. I like all games and have spent a considerable amount of time with other FPSs. Halo at one point was a contentious issue with my future-wife. But since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare I’ve been spending most of my time with my friends playing Domination.

The campaign’s narrative is a mess and I can’t imagine coming into the series without having played the first Black Ops game. Not because the narrative from the first game is continued into the plot of the second one, but because I already know the characters, so there is less for me to absorb. Black Ops 2 stars David Mason, the son of Alex Mason, the protagonist from the first Black Ops. The story jumps around from the Cold War in the 1980s to 2025 with David Mason. In the 80s, sometimes you’re Alex Mason again and sometimes you play as Frank Woods, one of the CIA Special Forces guys from the first game.

In the first Black Ops, Frank Woods dies, but now we learn that this was a hallucination by Mason due to his being brainwashed by the Soviets. OK. I’m not even going to try and explain most of the plot for Black Ops 2. It’s too strange and it doesn’t help that the perspective keeps shifting from Alex Mason to Frank Woods. Alex Mason is also still hallucinating and seeing Viktor Reznov, a WWII Russian hero he met while in Soviet captivity that originally appeared in Call of Duty: World at War. I also found it incredibly odd that there is absolutely no mention of David Mason’s mother. As frequently as people die in Call of Duty I can imagine her just having been killed in a gunfight with Canadian separatists while at the grocery store getting milk. After a little bit I developed a theory that David is actually just a clone of Alex, which is probably a more plausible situation than normal childbirth considering all the other really crazy shit that happens throughout the series.

In the future, David Mason is trying to stop a terrorist named Raul Menendez, who has some connection to Woods and his father. The U.S. is also at war with China, Russia and a few other Asian countries I think, but it’s a little confusing. Lots of people betray lots of people. Bad things happen to people who have names. Worse things happen to people who don’t have names. You fight terrorists all over the world including through an aircraft carrier and in the middle of a battle for Los Angeles. I was actually really sad, because the Los Angeles battle was awesome, but it felt like it should have been longer. The aircraft carrier battle has to be the highlight of the game for me as I’ve always wanted to have a massive battle on an aircraft carrier. Now that I can scratch aircraft carrier off my list I’ve officially run out of awesome places to fight a Call of Duty battle.

While the actual story is a mess it does have some high points. If you enjoy learning about military history like me then you will notice a few nice touches involving the invasion of Panama and fighting drug lords in Nicaragua. Manuel Noriega is an excellent villain and I’m glad he makes an appearance. Oliver North makes a few appearances, which makes sense since he was largely consulted for the game and while I may have my issues with North he seems like the right kind of guy to talk to about shady military operations conducted during the Cold War. I found the inclusion of David Petraeus incredibly interesting and if not for the ongoing scandal surrounding him, his inclusion would probably spark a few interesting stories on more mainstream news outlets.

Since the game’s story jumps around so much at times it’s pretty hard to follow. I know that all Call of Duty games jump around, but this one is crazy. One specific instance was when I started a mission as Menendez and escaped from Noriega. I then begin to try and fight my way back to rescue my sister. Along the way my drug cartel army shows up and fights alongside me, but I didn’t know they were allies, so I inadvertently killed most of them. It also doesn’t help that they look a lot like Noriega’s men except they are wearing different hats. Right when I get used to shooting a certain kind of character wearing a certain kind of hat, the game switches to the perspective of Woods, where he’s frantically trying to capture Menendez, only now I’m Woods and I’m shooting at the guys in the wide-brimmed hats who were just my allies when I was Menendez and being helped by the people I was just slaughtering by the dozens with a machete. I also swear to God one of the cartel soldiers was named, Burrito. I only saw him for a few seconds before he was blown up, but my game clearly showed his name as Burrito.

One of the more interesting additions to the campaign are the Strike Force missions, in which you command various units while they try and complete objectives. You can choose to direct them all from a tactical point of view or take control of individual units and direct them from the field. I initially thought this was incredibly fun since I could command drones and use their various abilities to wreak havok. Unfortunately I quickly learned that your SEALS are incapable of defending themselves and I was constantly having to fight the entire battle from the perspective of one lone Rambo. It also didn’t help that I kept encountering bugs that prevented me from moving any of my SEAL units at all and the highlight of the experience became when I completed a mission because my units suddenly decided to rescue me at the last second in my one-man assault.

The one major improvement on the campaign that I can absolutely say impressed me was the ability for the actions I took throughout the campaign to have consequences later in the story. They are mostly minor details and we are not talking about anything near the level of an RPG, but this was a welcome change from the more linear aspect of the past installments. At one point I replayed a level three times before I was able to change the ending to the one I wanted to continue with. Even the Strike Missions affect the progression of the story. I’m glad to see some new innovations in the Call of Duty campaigns and this seems like something that is worth continuing.

Multiplayer

Treyarch has taken the multiplayer formula from the first Black Ops and expanded on it. I’m still not sold though on whether it’s an improvement. I can definitely say though that this is not an improvement to Modern Warfare 3. The multiplayer is fun. It is Call of Duty at its core and it’s been a blast. I also know this Call of Duty is made by Treyarch and MW3 was made by Infinity Ward, but it doesn’t matter. After all the personnel issues IW experienced, Treyarch took an active role in developing MW3 and I should expect some of the improvements that MW3 incorporated. On top of that, its technically the same series and it’s not 2011 anymore. This game has to compete in 2012. I’m not even talking about massive changes. I’m talking about a few improvements that MW3 incorporated. For example, the changes to the scorestreak system. MW3 had three different categories; assault, support and specialist. Each offered unique ways to influence the battle that you could tailor to your playstyle and the most amazing aspect was that you could set them up individually for each class. I could have a few classes that use support, which continued my score even if I died, so I could consistently get points to help my team. This encouraged me to take risks that didn’t necessarily guarantee long killing sprees. And by having the ability to set up scorestreaks for each loadout I could have classes that worked with my expectations for that loadout. I could have a class that I knew were a guaranteed 3-4 kills and I could have classes that were set up for longer streaks. Having one list of scorestreaks for all my classes is a step backwards and it’s an unnecessary one. This seems like something Treyarch could have changed in a week, but ignored. After some discussion at TBGSE we came to the conclusion that by allowing different scorestreaks you could earn a powerful scorestreak, die, then change classes to another set and chain them. That’s possible, but it would be an easy fix by not allowing points to carry on after you die or if you change to a class with a different scorestreak.

Originally I thought the addition of the new pick-ten point system for my loadouts was going to be a mess, but after working with it I realized it’s only slightly less restrictive than the past. Now each loadout has ten points available, a gun is a point, a perk is a point, an attachment is a point, a grenade is a point, etc. Certain perks called wildcards muddy the waters a little. If I want to run with two perks from the same slot I need three points including the wildcard perk allowing me to do so. Now I can run three attachments on a gun or carry two blocks of C4. I’m not sure if this is an advancement for the series or not. It’s a little different, which is OK. I feel like I can do some more unique things with my loadout than in the past, but the game prevents me from getting really crazy and carrying around an absurd amount of concussion grenades, which was my first crazy idea. This may not necessarily be an improvement, but it’s definitely different and I can tell Treyarch was toying with something new without going overboard.

The second largest issue with the multiplayer is the order in which you unlock perks. I’m specifically talking about the Ghost perk. Ghost makes you invisible to UAVs and prevents you from showing up on the mini-map as long as you are moving, which is a small change. The UAV is the first scorestreak available to you. It is the most prevalent and easiest to acquire and yet the one perk that counters the UAV is the very last thing you unlock in the prestige. That means you spend your entire time leveling up without having the most effective way to counter the most prevalent scorestreak in the game! You do have a few less effective options, shoot the UAV down, run counter-UAV, or run the pre-set Operative class that has Ghost as a perk. The pre-set class is actually a decent class, but maybe I want to have my own class with Ghost. We also realized that if you decide to prestige, you had better not pick a sixth create-a-class slot as your reward, because then you lose the Ghost class as your sixth class deletes the pre-set Operative class. Why does Treyarch do this? Infinity Ward has figured out the magical way to let us keep the pre-set classes. If you were unlucky enough to make the wrong decision and get rid of the Operative class without getting Ghost, then I feel a great amount of pity in my heart for you and I hope you have sympathetic friends who will be amenable to carrying you through your entire second prestige.

Another masterstroke of a problem is the way you unlock everything in the multiplayer. Treyarch really really wants you to prestige. And the way they are going to force you to is by not allowing you to unlock everything until your final prestige. Each prestige you only get 55 unlock tokens, which give you access to equipment and perks, but there are about 90 things to unlock. If you want to be able to unlock every piece of equipment and perk then you have to get through all ten levels of prestige at which point everything becomes available to unlock. I understand that you want us to prestige by allowing us to get more create-a-class slots, but not allowing me to get access to everything until the very end feels less like an incentive and more like a punishment.

I have a much longer list of other aspects of multiplayer that are either not improved upon or are clearly regressions from the previous installments. I could continue to list them, but I feel that these issues I’ve already covered make up the bulk of my displeasure. With only a week of playing the game I shouldn’t have this many major issues with the new Call of Duty and that may be something that troubles me greatly. This far into every other installment I had yet to find much fault with the multiplayer. I was still awed by the improvements and still excited to try out something new, but this feels less new and less improved. At the end of the day this is great multiplayer. I enjoy it and I’ll enjoy many more hours of it, but I have a feeling that after the shine begins to wear off I’ll be back on the MW3 servers looking forward to next November.

Zombies

I wanted to make sure to dedicate at least a small portion of this review to Zombies. I’ve never been a huge Zombie fanatic in the series, but I will admit that Treyarch is getting to be great at the Zombie part of Call of Duty. This time around the Zombie levels are more creative, deep and interactive than ever. The variation in the different types of Zombie games adds a wonderful variety. I especially love the transit game which involves trying to fortify a bus while you hold off the undead hordes. I’ve been involved in a few epic standoffs as the bus hurdles through the darkness with my team clinging to the roof as we become overwhelmed by the undead. I found this to be a much more exciting final stand than hiding in a corner and hoping the zombies stop before two people accidentally reload at the same time. If any aspect of the new Call of Duty title was improved on I would definitely say the Zombies are better than ever.

 

Dan Hoyt has been an avid gamer his entire life. When he’s not playing games, he’s working out by walking his dog, hiking and doing martial arts. He likes to try new kinds of alcohol and discuss politics. He’s a graduate of The University of Kansas and has spent years as a journalist.

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One Comment

  1. I’d give the campaign a little more praise than you did, and I wholeheartedly agree with you on the prestige system being broken. Why should I be punished if I don’t want to prestige? Definitely a step back from MW3. Overall, multiplayer is the best its ever been, my main reason being objective captures and kills while capturing give you 200 points towards your pointstreak. I’ve never been more encouraged to fight for the objective, and as a result I care much less about my kill/death ratio.

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