And the cycle remains the same. For millions, this brings excitement when the biggest franchise of this generation’s history introduces another installment; for detractors, vitriolic resentment for it being a microcosm of an industry typically scared to unshackle itself from past innovations. Since this series would fundamentally alter the setting and multiplayer format for a plethora of later shooters, there still seems to be a quelled toleration when Call of Duty rests on its laurels. Despite the increasing age, the series often continually built upon itself in under-appreciated ways. For BOII (Black Ops II) however, the failure to introduce new components with proper refinement make this series now look more as if it’s beginning to rust, rather than naturally age.
The storyline takes place during two separate timeframes: 2025 is the present day and the waning years of the first Cold War (1986-1989) are revisited through flashbacks. You reprise the role of Alex Mason for most 80’s missions and his son, David Mason, codenamed “Section,” for all present-day missions. Both of these eras share a common enemy: Raul Menendez. With seething anger against the capitalist system and the USA for destroying everything he cherished, Menendez and his populist group known as “Cordis Die” prepare to cripple the US, who’s now combating China in a new Cold War.
Despite gallant promises of providing players with a deep narrative, Black Ops II is never able to climb above rudimentary themes and questionable antics. The most grating shortcoming would be the shallow social commentary on economic inequality. It’s rather annoying to see stories that set up an Occupy Wall Street-esque movement yet only give the ‘surface area’ of this ideal simply because it’s relatable. Beyond Menendez’s sententious moments that only provide remedial effect to this problem, players aren't able to reach the tough questions the game intended you to ask. And any opportunities for the player to do so are hectically brushed away for the next high-octane event. Another quibble is the few anomalous plot points. One example is the supposed cameo of a thought-to-be-dead character that isn’t mentioned again after he allegedly saves key individuals. There’s not really a great demand for a military shooter to provide profound insights, but starving a central motif—that’s honestly been a low-hanging fruit for years now—and lacking a sense of completeness throughout do knock some wind out of the story’s sails.
Where it fails in depth and thoroughness, BOII delivers in variability. The most accomplished alteration in this title is the choices given to the player throughout most missions in the campaign. These range from button-prompts to in-gameplay decisions that can often decide the fates of integral characters. The amount of differences between endings and major plot twists is quite impressive. The only nitpick against one critical choice pertains to a sniping section that shows unfocused design and feels like an obvious plot twist. BOII’s flexibility also extends to storytelling. The worst problem with Black Ops’ storytelling was this confounding demand to follow this unremitting stream of information via loading screen. Now, simple cut scenes are employed and profit the player a healthier understanding of the whole story. The only hiccup found here is the languid start at giving context to the player by only telling, rather than showing, that Menendez is the “worst terrorist since Osama Bin Laden.” A slight mistake but there’s no worse time to lull a player’s impetus than at the beginning of a game.
Keeping in comparison to Treyarch’s predecessor, BOII falters on novelty meant to distinguish the narrative. Despite the first’s tough-to-swallow angle (which I now find to be its biggest boon), all of the twists and turns were air-tight and it felt engaging from beginning to end. The second’s plot leaves little in the way of ‘third-wall breaking’ context, despite the material demanding it, and devises a few ultra-violent “shocking” moments that are really just there to be exploitative. Although Menendez’s wiles and swagger are continually impressive, the impact of just another charismatic, one-step-ahead villain is starting to wane, especially for a series that has a sea of those already.
The criticisms that harm what I anticipated of the story shouldn't outright smear all of its qualities. In the end, this is another adequately-paced thrill ride with some genuine surprises. Problems occur time and again, but it’s immensely surprising to see the far-reaching consequences of certain choices. That reason alone is what made this the first Treyarch Call of Duty campaign I immediately replayed.
Leaving behind the Vietnam-era’s gritty pastiche for more glitz, BOII’s art design of the future maintains an unexpected sense of liveliness. The reason for that is the wildly exorbitant amount of futuristic ideas and prototypes that fuel either the scenery or gameplay variety. The endless stream of toys used or shown throughout the game is outlandish to the point of…feeling believable—which is the beauty of it. Rather than holding reservations to the dozens of bizarre hi-tech concepts, there’s a strange sense that practically every one of them made it into the final product. Even a third-world country’s capital is depicted having millennial architecture. Since there are two Cold Wars depicted in BOII the flashback missions do hold to the expected visual array for the series, expanding the amount of different vistas. The only genuine criticism to give against the artistic visuals lays in the co-op variant, Zombies, which contains some of the drabbest, most aesthetically-nauseating maps for the mode thus far.
The complaint that stands tallest for the Call of Duty series is its willingness to remain with the same graphics engine for several years. Although it’s understandable when considering the higher frame rate count, only slightly dropping in the most hectic conditions, the constant refinement by other titles in numerous technical areas shows just how outdated the series’ appearance has become. The only noticeable improvement since Modern Warfare 3 is the upgraded facial animations. There are more than likely subtle improvements in other facets, but nothing else worth noting. As in years past, BOII seems content with addressing fluidity before graphical fidelity; but given what’s been shown elsewhere, it’s really maintaining an old excuse.
Strength after strength, sound design is the most consistent facet here. First, the soundtrack, composed by maestro Jack Wall (Mass Effect series and many more), contains a lot of swift techno beats that pleasantly juxtapose the usual cadences for Cold War-era missions. The back-and-forth between settings offers a great variety of tuneful compositions, with one in particular being a euphonious combination of a synth beat and tribal chants. Second, the voice acting is—once again—exceptional for the campaign. Although I was annoyed with the lead voice actor of Black Ops (Sam Worthington), the script hardly demands any emotion from him this time around and he has fewer lines. Like the improved storytelling, the list of voice actors is able to elevate a somewhat-patchy script. Finally, combat/environmental noise does coalesce well with the cutting-edge weapons, but a sense of recycling in flashback missions and Zombies is getting easier to notice. Beyond that complaint, and infrequent sound byte issues, BOII delivers consistent proficiency in this area.
The different timeframes for the story also set up a perfect metaphor for the gameplay: it provides a glimpse of the future, yet is ultimately shaped by the past. The design is relatively the same: a simplistic ‘stop-n-pop’ formula with the expected trappings like driving, guided stealthy moments, and more that coalesce into another well-paced package. There are a few healthy extras beyond new weapons and attachments, however. Custom loadouts can now be used to tackle each campaign mission, which includes weapons, attachments, and even perks. A perk labeled ‘Access Kit’ grants access to devices, from animal traps to drones, within each level that often expedite certain objectives or firefights. Instead of campaign experience points, certain challenges for a level (ten in each) unlock different abilities and weapons. None of these should truly shape one into thinking this is a whole new direction, but the seamless pacing and polish of this tried and true formula mixed with refreshing ideas deserves appreciation.
What was designated as one of the more meaningful innovations, a real-time strategy component, dubbed “Strike Force Missions,” has to be one of the most unpolished elements for the series in years. Scattered throughout the campaign for a limited time, these missions serve as context for the SDC’s (Chinese military) attempts of control over certain countries. Success or failure can have ramifications over the story. Despite an interesting wrinkle for the story, the gameplay is uncoordinated. The first problem is the bare-boned tutorial. Beyond that, the sloppy overhead controls and egregious AI demand that you play either a soldier or an unmanned drone on the ground at all times. Since this mode employs permanent death on all vehicles/vessels, I was uselessly jumping from person to person in order to properly direct defenses and assaults, rendering the strategy portion as being false advertising. On Veteran difficulty, it’s nearly impossible to accomplish; on Normal (or below), it’s too irritating and boring to provide any sense of accomplishment. What could have been the next big nuance for the series is now one of its greatest duds in years.
For a series with such success, it has become inexorable to dodge criticisms of the gameplay, regardless of how many nuances are present. While it’s understandable for some to feel blasé about the similar campaign structure, a well-composed configuration that was once revolutionary can still provide ample fun. Strike Force missions and flawed design within certain story decisions do pry their way in often—unforgivably so considering the length is only six hours, but subtle experimentation and the fact it’s jumping into stranger waters merit some optimism.
What once was the most refreshing aspect of World at War, Zombies mode has now become the most taxing in BOII. Failing in flair and function, most of these (shipped) maps contain annoying level design. Taking place on an Earth that’s completely charred and void of any personality, players are again pitted against unending hordes of zombies in dozens of—unoriginal—locations. Since Earth has suffered terrible catastrophes, slivers of lava are senselessly littered throughout each and every map. Since these cracks are found in most places that players constantly traverse, repetitive first-person platforming is required to avoid getting burned. Combine these aggravations with the fact that this undead horde are relatively the same bullet sponges as before, Zombies displays incorrect changes in some areas and stagnation in others.
That isn’t to say there’s no ambition in Zombies altogether. The new ‘Tranzit’ mode has four characters traveling from place to place via tour bus. It conceptually maintains the same idea as past Zombie modes (open more doors, access more weapons, etc.), but it also acts as its own story-driven campaign. An admirable feat that’s unfortunately too light on exposition or character to be compared with the Left 4 Dead titles. The other new mode is called ‘Grief,’ which pits four CIA members against four CDC members against zombies. This is the most welcoming change. Although only zombies can harm anyone, it’s easy to spring subtly-crafted traps against the other team. The swinging desire between defending your team to trapping the opponent can be brilliantly dynamic and addicting.
Despite some strides forward, I can’t help but feel more steps went backwards: Tranzit and its “story” are underwhelming, this hostile post-apocalyptic world could not look more boring if it tried, faulty level design, and weapon/ammo availability problems in some of Tranzit’s isolated maps. I can appreciate steps they’re trying to take but wish there weren’t so many stumbling blocks.
“If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” That aphorism describes Treyarch’s actions with the competitive multiplayer mode that has consistently brought millions to flock to each new entry. Being unbroken doesn’t mean it has to remain the same either. The refined streak system, dubbed “Score Streaks,” enables players to inch closer towards their three-tiered rewards through objectives, assists, and killing opponents. This change—and the shift towards more objective-based variants—puts a legitimate emphasis on being a team player in order to reap more rewards; however, I can’t help but notice how hollow this system feels compared to Homefront. In Homefront's case, every recordable action goes towards the player’s score economy and adds a meta-challenge for him/her to question if they should spend that on cheaper toys or save up for a larger reward. Here, stratagems are still constrained to the same ebb-n-flow of previous entries. Although Homefront isn’t close to containing the same amount of content, it’s just one aspect in which a student has outclassed the master.
Fortunately, the amount of renovations doesn’t stop there. Naturally, the available arsenal now mirrors the setting: scopes that can mark enemies, score streak rewards that include access to drones, and so on. To allow more freedom in customizing loadouts, the “Pick 10” system gives players access to choose any ten elements for their custom classes from the start. At the cost of another element, one can put three attachments on a primary weapon from the beginning or place a heavier focus on grenades. Matchmaking receives a facelift with the inclusion of League Play and adjusting focus on each player’s skill rather than accumulated experience points.
Outside of combat-based revisions, superfluous modifications have been implemented, such as crafting emblems and all of ELITE’s content being free (map packs are now sold separately or with purchase of a season pass). Even the ability for live Youtube streaming from your console, called “CODcasting,” is here. Since I never tried it, I can’t judge if it’s fully optimal. There are practically a few more paragraphs worth of extra information of BOII’s slighter multiplayer nuances, but it all comes down to one statement: everything the fan could possibly want is here.
Despite the arduous attempts to provide meaningful innovation, BOII reaffirms the fact that Call of Duty is gradually sinking into the mire of shooter tedium. Even though this annual franchise is the most tested out there, Treyarch’s ambition and craftsmanship show these tools aren’t much worse for the wear. The problem comes in defining “meaningful.” How can any of the presented nuances be considered that if they don’t either maintain the rigorous polish expected or feel as wholly unique from the competition’s recipes it has borrowed from? Even with no answer to that question, the tweaks littered across such a comprehensive, enjoyable title shows there’s still some life left in this formula. But the only reason it’s now gasping for air is because of the weight of past successes -- a tell-tale sign of being a once-great franchise.
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