Black Ops was the first Treyarch-developed Call of Duty title that really made a statement of its own. Up until that point, Treyarch had been the neglected stepchild to Infinity Ward‘s beloved A+ all-star – who was enjoying the spoils of a modern war. However, now that gamers have been given a taste of what Treyarch can cook up when given the reigns to Activision’s prized franchise, and carte blanche to tell their own story, that puts significant more weight on their subsequent iteration: Black Ops 2.
The game itself is touted as a follow-up to the Alex Mason and Frank Woods adventures of the first game, but it is also much more than that — this is the first Call of Duty to be set (partially) in the future. It also may be the last Call of Duty game that has some semblance of continuity — one that features recognizable characters and continues an ongoing plot. Needless to say, Black Ops 2 needed to step out from big brother’s shadow — try to differentiate itself from the pack-within-the-pack, and more importantly deliver another worthy entry in the flagship franchise.
To do so competently would first require a single player campaign that is as fresh as it is engaging, which Black Ops 2 for the most part delivers. The story itself picks up in the year 2025 with Alex Mason’s son David leading his own elite task force, JSOC. David is hot on the trail of a terrorist named Raul Menendez, who has some particularly close ties to his father and his uncle Frank Woods.
What transpires from there is a story that jumps between missions featuring the elder Mason and Woods in the ’70s and ’80s, as they hunt down Menendez, and David Mason hunting him in the future. However, unlike past Call of Duty titles, player choice weighs heavily on the proceedings, and helps influence ultimately how the entire game plays out. The idea of branching storylines has been done to death, but the way Black Ops 2 delivers them is actually quite smart and encourages replayability. For the most part players will be oblivious to the game’s various pathways, only being notified by a post-mission recap. At times it does boil down to shoot the guy or don’t shoot him, but a lot of the decisions are much more subtle than that.
Failing a mission objective even factors into the story with the introduction of the Strike Force Missions. Players will control a squad of soldiers and unmanned drones and attempt to complete a specific objective, be it securing a waypoint, defending a convoy, or executing a high value target. At any point, players can directly control any member of their squad, including the drones, or can bark out specific orders in ‘Overwatch’ mode. Unfortunately, relying on the team-based AI is a losing battle, and players are better served completing each objective themselves. What at first appeared to be a fun, RTS-inspired diversion is actually a weak addition with little to no bearing on the overarching story.
Black Ops 2‘s is the most focused campaign the Call of Duty series has seen in quite some time, and it unfolds in such a way that each pay-off and major moment, of which there are plenty, packs a solid punch. Some might find it lacks the typical overabundance of bombast, but Treyarch’s iterations have always favored story over action. The campaign is by no means boring, in fact the near future settings and weapons are actually inventive and fun, it’s just a little tamer than gamers might be expecting.
However, even if the campaign had been a total waste, there was still the all-important multiplayer for Black Ops 2 to rely on — a section of the Call of Duty experience that keeps the disc in the tray for months on end. Many of the first Black Ops‘ signature touches have returned, like the party games and diving to prone, but for the most part, the multiplayer is as familiar as it’s ever been. Many of the game’s 14 maps (15 if you count Nuketown 2025) are smartly designed with their own near future flair. The requisite, fan-favorite modes — Deathmatch, Domination, and CTF — have also returned, along with a new one called Hardpoint, which functions similar to the Headquarters.
The real changes come in the multiplayer’s new point-based loadout system. Rather than give players a specific amount of slots and asking them to decide between various types of grenades, perks, and guns, Black Ops 2 provides players with 10 points, and lets them dictate how best to use them. Want to carry a gun with three attachments? That’s possible, but it will cost you 4 points (1 for the gun, and 3 for the attachments).
Conversely, players who want to double stack each level of perk can do so, but that means they are unlikely to accommodate two weapons and two types of grenades. There are still some basic rules to the system, but, for the most part, the customization is left up to the players. It’s not a revolutionary addition, but the mix-and-match nature of it puts a fresh spin on preparing for battle.
Scorestreaks, a replacement for Killstreaks, are the other big change for Black Ops 2. Rather than reward players based on kills, Scorestreaks use the points earned from those kills as a way to earn rewards. However, since the streaks are based on points and not kills, that means any action with an inherent value, in addition to kills, also counts towards a streak.
Scorestreaks don’t fundamentally change the formula of the multiplayer, but they do allow objective or team-focused players to unlock rewards as well. Those rewards, however, typically come at a much higher price, with even the base-level UAV being valued at 350 points (more than 3 kills). As a result, players will find matches that are more focused on gunplay and less about avoiding a Scorestreak reward every five seconds.
While the changes are still pretty small in the grand scheme of things, Black Ops 2‘s multiplayer is exactly what gamers expect and love: more of the same with some slight variations. To expect anything revolutionary suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of Call of Duty‘s mass appeal. The experience is still as solid as it’s ever been; it’s just not a major leap forward.
Zombies, Treyarch’s one big addition to the Call of Duty universe, has also returned with some much-needed, but mostly unsuccessful, additions. The Survival mode is still there, whereby a group of up to four fights to survive in a predetermined play space, but it’s the game’s Tranzit and Grief modes that hope to steal the show. Grief is the first stages of a competitive multiplayer for Zombies, but its lack of direct “competition” keeps it from being all that memorable.
Tranzit, on the other hand, connects all four of the Survival mode’s maps via a transport system to give the illusion of an open-world experience without clearly outlining appreciable progress or providing a clear set of goals. Zombies has been crying out for a more engrossing mode, but unfortunately Tranzit is not it. Gamers who live for this third mode will even find that the Survival maps aren’t nearly as detailed, nor do they allow for as much expansion as in past years. It’s a serviceable evolution of the formula, but it still needs some work.
Black Ops 2, like nearly every Call of Duty since Modern Warfare, gets the job done, and does so without missing a beat in single or multiplayer. It’s branching storylines and engrossing narrative are unique additions to the franchise, but the campaign does lack the requisite high-octane experience many gamers expect. This is also the best sounding entry in the franchise thus far, but visually it’s only an incremental improvement. Multiplayer is as refined as it’s ever been, and the 10-point and Scorestreak systems give it a distinct quality, even if it’s essentially the same experience. Zombies, on the other hand, regressed to a lesser state as a result of some bold additions by Treyarch — attempts to mimic Left 4 Dead and Dead Island.
Treyarch needed to make their mark with Black Ops 2 and by many accounts they did. Falling in line with expectations is easy for an annual franchise like Call of Duty, but the fact that Treyarch introduced some bold choices into the mix suggests they aren’t willing to play second fiddle any longer.
Have you had a chance to check out Call of Duty: Black Ops 2? What do you think of the game so far? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is now available for the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. Game Rant was provided the Xbox 360 version of the game for review.