Almost two years to the day since Activision and Treyarch first released the original title ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops’, the two companies deliver the sequel to an awaiting audience. With a continuation of the original story-line set in Black Ops, the Call of Duty franchise takes players into the future for the very first time.
This marks the ninth installment in one of the most popular, and most successful series in gaming history. The franchise is supported by some of the most loyal fans in the industry, only to be set against some of the most outspoken opponents of the frequently released titles. The most popular criticisms of Call of Duty titles are the speed at which the titles are released and their familiarity with each other. A new title is released almost every single year (often by alternating developers) and more than that if you count spin-off titles. The familiar gameplay is often criticized for focusing too much attention on the multiplayer aspect of the game, leaving the single-player campaign much to be desired.
[quote_right]I wanted to be sure that Black Ops 2 stayed true to the dedicated fan-base that has supported it for so long, but I also wanted it to bring new gameplay elements and new challenges for players[/quote_right]Activision and Treyarch, along with Infinity Ward for other Call of Duty titles, have some of the largest development and marketing budgets in the industry. Their games continues to break sales records, not just in gaming but in entertainment as a whole. With that kind of support, I hoped that ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops 2’ would reflect its success and would push fans that may have grown accustomed to the game’s formula. I also wanted to keep an open-mind for both sides, I wanted to be sure that Black Ops 2 stayed true to the dedicated fan-base that has supported it for so long, but I also wanted it to bring new gameplay elements and new challenges for players, and not rely on the same formula that preceded it. Treyarch achieved many of these goals, not just in the single-player campaign but in the time-tested multiplayer as well.
Black Ops 2 has the luxury of being a sequel, bringing back old characters that already have a solid backstory that fans may have connected with. This also gives the game the burden of reintroducing the same characters and explaining the gaps in the timeline. Most of Black Ops 2 takes place in the immediate future, though with the introduction of multiple story-lines, you do spend some time bouncing back and forth inside flashbacks. Treyarch put a lot of focus on the story as they hyped the game during the development process, the single-player as a I mentioned before, often takes a back seat in traditional Call of Duty games. There are classic ‘Call of Duty’ scenes in Black Ops 2, sweeping moments when the gameplay turns cinematic and the player is caught in a monumental struggle to survive, capture or endure.
Much of the original title’s appeal was the mystery of the characters, their connections and their motives. Black Ops 2 loses that mystery and doesn’t do much to reestablish it. You meet the characters from the past and are reintroduced to the antagonist Menendez, who over time has become completely unstable. It’s a hard line to tread between feeling for the villain and still being afraid of him. Black Ops 2 removes all of the mystery from Menendez almost from the start, revealing his fall from sanity early on the game. This took a lot out of the story and instead I was working backwards in the title, many times knowing more than the characters I was playing.
One of the largest problems I had with the story is how it simply ignored some of the events that took place in the original game. In Black Ops there was a serious question on whether or not Mason was brainwashed into being part of the JFK assassination, or at least it was implied. That never came up again. It was the final scene and one of the few moments in a Call of Duty game where a mystery was left open for players to interpret the ending. I would have been fine with the mystery still remaining, but you can’t just ignore entirely.
It seemed obvious that Treyarch set out to break new ground in this Call of Duty title, and when new elements were implemented into the game Treyarch did do a great job. The addition to the choice mechanic worked extremely well in this story. As promised, Treyarch enabled a choice system that would have a significant impact on the player’s story-line. This opened up a chance to replay the game, not just to get the harder achievement or trophy, but to see how your choices affected the story. The choice mechanic balanced out many of the story’s lower moments. Having the option to change up the gameplay in the ‘Strike Force’ mission was a terrific way to liven up the gameplay experience. When I grew tired of the global hot-spotting and shootouts with my characters, I could take on a new role as a robot or new soldier. Strike Force was a lot of fun, and the added bonus of working towards my campaign’s progress while playing something new, was a terrific break when I needed it.
Black Ops 2 story suffers from the game’s core gameplay experience. At certain points a person’s death would be highlighted and a cut-scene breaks open, this is after I’ve basically been a killing machine for the past few hours. There is so much death in the time it took me to kill off the enemy troops, that the final blow in a mission offered more of a feeling of relief than it did accomplishment or drama. This could be a setback for any game but Black Ops 2 spends so much time creating hardened soldiers with icy demeanors that when a character reveals an emotion after killing someone, it comes off less then genuine.
It seemed that Treyarch was testing the waters with the branching story mechanic and I wish they went farther with it. Giving the player more choice in how the story plays out could be a fantastic way to tell a more personal and engrossing story in these games, but as it stands right now it was more of a sampling than a monumental breakthrough. I have to give them credit though, Treyarch made a Call of Duty title that you can’t say is the ‘exact same’ as every other game in the franchises’ past. It told a very complicated story that spanned over multiple-decades with a wide-array of characters. Although imperfect, the addition of the new mechanical elements offered a new gameplay experience and that is something that both sides should agree is something to be welcomed.
Once again this is where Black Ops shines. The multiplayer functionality, interface and overall design is one of the best in the industry. New elements like the ‘Pick 10’ system offers with it a new level of customization and control that I felt is superior to even the best Call of Duty titles. You are no longer bound to equipment or weapons that you don’t want. You outfit your character with exactly what you feel would do best in battle, offering a more complex and more dangerous battlefield to play on. With opposing soldiers that could have a completely different method of attack and defense each time you play. With so much to unlock, you are consistently working towards something while playing multiplayer. Not just prestige points either, now that same feeling of progression that you would normally feel for the first 30 or 40 levels of a Call of Duty title, stays with you much longer.
[quote_left]I was really excited to see the new ‘Live-Streaming’ mechanic in action and this is something that I think will be an institution going forward in the series.[/quote_left]The futuristic element of the game brought with it some amazing weapons, abilities and equipment. Trying out and experiencing the wide-array of tools and weapons was fun and the curiosity that ensued when I unlocked items kept the game fresh and exciting. I was really excited to see the new ‘Live-Streaming’ mechanic in action and this is something that I think will be an institution going forward in the series. The setback to the mechanic was it had to be used in ‘League Play’ which forgoes the traditional unlock system. It wasn’t as comprehensive as I imagined, which isn’t the game’s fault, but I do want to see this feature expanded in the future. Speed, reactions and a balanced loadout are still the pillars of the multiplayer experience. A lot of new gameplay elements were introduced with the Black Ops 2 multiplayer mode and it’s easy to see why the experience is so popular.
With any shortcomings that the story-line had with its ingenuity, Zombie mode makes up for it in strides. The popular gameplay-mode has evolved over the past few years, now telling a mini story of its own and offering multiple gameplay scenarios to challenge players. Traditionalists will still get their ‘Survival Mode’ but veterans can test their skills against ‘Grief’ and ‘Tranzit’ as well.
Tranzit was easily my favorite mode to play with co-op friends. The maps are larger and more open than former ‘COD: Zombie maps’ had been in the past. You now have small strongholds like a gas station that you can try and defend, or if need be run across the open road to the next stronghold for safety. It was like trying to survive in a small town that I couldn’t escape from. Inside this miniature open-world are tons of tiny easter-eggs and secrets. You of course have to discover each one on your own, as you are simply unleashed into the game with no direction whatsoever. This adds to frantic nature of ‘Zombie Mode’ however, and the desire to explore is juxtaposed with the fear of being trapped.
‘Grief’ is another new mode that offered a lot of exciting challenges as well. Two-teams square off against the zombie hoards. You can not kill members of the opposite team with your weapons, instead you must lure, bait and manipulate the zombies to kill them instead of you. It adds a lot of new twists to the traditional Zombie mode but would more “fun” with a group of your friends and not strangers.
Playing ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops 2’ you can see progression, you can see changes that are being implemented into the series and that is something that I always want in a Call of Duty title. The story-mode still lacks the innovations of that of multiplayer-modes but it is improving and the new gameplay mechanics and choice structure offer a more personal experience than previous titles have. The Zombie mode added new gameplay challenges and a thrilling sense of competition with players. The single-player campaign offered stronger backstories with its characters and even the beloved multiplayer-modes are becoming more dynamic and offering more reasons to keep playing online. The game continues to challenge players and when compared to other games in its genre the title still leads in new innovations and complexity. Even though it’s imperfect, it would be difficult to find a game that offers more for players to experience than any of the game’s three gameplay main modes. A thorough campaign, a leading multiplayer experience and a zombie mode that offers competition and co-op possibilities is more than some game’s have combined. In the end you are left with one of the best titles in the series, and your ninth time out in a franchise, that is not something easily done.