Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii U
Release Date: November 13, 2012
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game. A retail copy was provided by Activision for review.
Few franchises seem to inspire as much antagonistic hate as the Call of Duty series. Surprisingly, the last Call of Duty I truly enjoyed was Treyarch's Black Ops. Regarded as the inferior CoD developer in Activision's suite of talent, Treyarch stepped into the limelight with a great narrative, strong multiplayer, and addictive Zombies mode with Black Ops. The game was chock full of surprises for series veterans and newcomers alike. Two years later, Treyarch has now released the sequel to one of gaming's highest-selling titles. Does Call of Duty: Black Ops II live up to it's great lineage, or is it just another modern military FPS?
If you're only playing Black Ops II for the multiplayer, you're doing yourself a great disservice because the singleplayer campaign is easily the strongest in the entire franchise.Taking place nearly six decades after Black Ops, the sequel casts players as David Mason, son of Black Ops protagonist Alex Mason. David reunites with Alex's comrade-in-arms from the first game, Frank Woods, to take down the enigmatic and violence-prone Raul Menendez. Alex and Frank both have a long history with Raul, detailed through several Cold War-era flashbacks. Though these sequences aren't as entertaining as the 2025 missions with David, they still have polished combat and the high narrative quality you'd expect from Treyarch.
The campaign, which clocks in at around 7-8 hours, mixes the old with the new. While Woods' missions in the past feel familiar, the new 2025 sequences are fresh, exciting, and teeming with cool future technology. The near-future levels feature intense battles with quadrotor drones, cloaked mercenaries, quadrupedal mechs brimming with firepower, and tough moral decisions that will impact how the game ends. While I still haven't figured out what choices influence the ending I got, I still feel like I made my mark on the story. For a Call of Duty title to do that is nothing short of amazing and speaks volumes about the work Treyarch has done to create a brand new experience.
Even though Black Ops II sports great changes to the campaign, I wasn't as pleased with the new Strike Force missions. These mini-levels allow players to command several AI allies to complete objectives, like VIP escort or target assassination. If gamers prefer action, they can take direct control of any unit on the battlefield. It all sounds great from a conceptual stand-point. Sadly, the ally AI is simply awful. Infantry were easily mowed down by hostile forces for no good reason. It's as if they were completely oblivious to the mercenaries shooting at them from 10 feet away. It was often easier for me to deal with the bad guys myself via direct control, but I struggled with overwhelming numbers of enemies, particularly on the very first mission. While Strike Force missions are completely optional, they are required to see one of the "good" endings. Skipping out on them isn't always the best option.
The campaign was easily the highlight of my Black Ops II experience. The numerous changes made to the Call of Duty singleplayer blueprint are, for the most part, welcome and invigorating for a stagnating series. But Treyarch didn't just change up the campaign; it completely overhauled the Zombies mode, adding a standalone open-world campaign. Dubbed Tranzit, this mode tasks players with riding a bus through a cycle of several locations. At each location are blueprints and items to build new devices for fending off the zombie hordes and accomplishing objectives. As the survivors move on, the waves get tougher. If someone is left behind, they must try and catch up with the group by moving through the horrific fog. Getting through alive is nigh impossible and encourages everyone to keep moving, no matter the cost.
Tranzit is fun with other players but lacks the addictive element of the vanilla survival mode. It's a fun distraction but doesn't add a whole lot to the core experience. That said, the cool easter eggs and focus on exploration add a lot of content for die-hard fans. There's not a whole lot to complain about, aside from the occasional difficulty spikes. When you factor in all of the existing content, Treyarch didn't need to add anything. Tranzit is icing on the cake and really pushes the limit for what Call of Duty titles offer at the $60 pricetag.
Surprisingly, the area where Treyarch showed the least innovation is the bread and butter of Activision's franchise: the multiplayer. The core gameplay conceits, perks, weapon modifications, and classic game modes are all present and accounted for. A few new objective-based types have been added to the mix, but by and large Black Ops II is the same online experience you've come to expect. In a brilliant move, Treyarch did change the Loadout and Killstreak options. Rather than forcing players to use predefined classes, players can now use up to ten points on various unlocked perks, weapon parts, and gadgets. You get to decide what your soldier carries or doesn't carry. It offers incredible flexibility and lets gamers dictate their own playstyles.
In place of the Killstreak system is the new Scorestreak system. If you typically play a support role, you can still get streak rewards just as a player on a rampage. It rewards players who have a tactical playstyle while still granting new toys for others who just want to shoot things. It's a worthwhile change to a formula that was beginning to grow stale.
From a technical standpoint, Black Ops II is largely rock-solid. Despite connection problems on the multiplayer front, the game is well-built all around. The visuals, while not on par with the Frostbite engine, do a great job of rendering epic scenes of battle and chaos. The audio is also superb, featuring Hollywood-caliber voice overs and great sound effects. Trent Reznor's musical score is solid, though it likely won't win any awards. I hope Activision does consider a new engine for fancier visuals and effects. While I understand the commitment to 60 FPS, I'd appreciate smoother textures and more detailed effects and environments.
If you're still reading this, I assume you have some interest in Black Ops II. If you hate Call of Duty, I can't do anything for you. For those jumping in for the first time, Black Ops II is a great place to start. If you're a returning veteran, there's plenty of new content to dig into. With a strong campaign, Zombies offering, and full multiplayer suite, it's hard not to recommend Black Ops II to anyone with a pulse.
+ Great singleplayer campaign
+ Oodles of content
+ High production values
+ Great multiplayer and Zombies offerings
- Visuals can be dated
- Campaign narrative isn't always coherent
Overall Score: 8.5 (out of 10)
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is as full-featured an FPS as it gets. Treyarch made a number of changes to the formula, resulting in a resounding success. It's ambitious and worth your time and money.