With “Black Ops II,” Treyarch has not only come out from under the shadow of the alternate year Infinity Ward “Call of Duty” games, but have found wise, ambitious additions to the shooter series in the process. From the dramatically different type of story and the how it’s told, to a new set of fun to use weapons and points of interest, to an overhaul to how you loadout in multiplayer, “Black Ops II” may not hit all their marks with every innovation, but what works makes both the campaign and the multiplayer worth revisiting.
The story kicks off in 2025, with the son of “Black Ops” hero David Mason on the trail of freedom fighter/terrorist/all-around bad dude Raul Menendez, a Cold War holdover with a grudge against Alex Mason and his partner Frank Woods. The plot, written by “The Dark Knight Rises” writer David Goyer bounces between the the near future and the mid/late-80’s, with Woods, now disabled and living in an assisted care facility, fills in the gaps on Menendez’s murderous resume while the younger Mason pursues the villain and tries to unravel his global plot to avenge himself on Woods and the United States. The perspective shifts aren’t as far-ranging as in previous games, putting you into the shoes of a fairly closely-connected group of characters and elaborating on their connections. Menedez, in particular, may come off as a stock Bond villain, but he’s got some human motivation at his core and an actual point about Western dominance in global affairs.
The storytelling conceit allows Treyarch to bring an old-school arsenal and combat inside of a collection of clever setpieces, taking Mason and Woods from Angola, Afghanistan, to Panama, drawing on leftover plot points from the first game. The 2025 segments, meanwhile, show off plausible, near-future equipment and weapons as Mason (codename: Section) and his partner Harper chase down Menedez and try to prevent the outbreak of hostilities with China and Russia. The broad strokes of the larger conflict are there, but more than any “Call of Duty” game before this one, “Black Ops II” is really focused on a handful of characters and their interconnected relationships. It’s weird to say that this one has the most personal stakes in the series.
Those larger, global stakes are played out in a handful of “Strike Force” missions, where “Black Ops II” lightly flirts with injecting a strategy game into its shooter. These missions, whose outcome defines some of the subsequent story beats and the ending, show Section leading JSOC teams on missions to defuse the brewing conflict being set up by Menendez. Each starts with a tactical map where you can direct your strike team, armored units, and helicopter drones to capture and defend set targets on a series of multiplayer maps. You can pull back in real time and assign units objectives or take control of them on the ground.
In theory, Treyarch has added some fascinating, even exciting ideas with this feature, particularly the limited number of replays across all of these missions, really placing a premium on planning out your attack during those opening minutes. In practice, it’s kind of a mess. The AI is simply dumb, and will just walk into enemy AI gunfire, and when trying to micromanage your troops, it’s easy to lose an entire Strike Team in seconds to seemingly weak opposition. Perhaps some kind of patch will fix this down the line, and I’d love to see it separated out as a functional mode on its own, but as it stands, Strike Force is effectively broken.
How it all turns out is solely dependent on you, though: again, Treyarch flexes what is a “Call of Duty” game by weaving choices throughout the campaign that determine other missions that might show up later as well as the ultimate ending. Some of these are transparent, like a simple “press X to kill this guy” prompt in one scene, while others might not even seem like a choice. During one scenario at about the midway point, I was tasked with chasing down a character, but because I was deliberate in how I made my way through the level, they escaped. It wasn’t until hearing about other players’ experiences with the game that I learned that this wasn’t the only way that level could have ended, and that he could have been captured.
You can also find other little detours throughout the story with hidden intel and additional weapons and equipment scattered throughout levels. Wanna pick up a sword? You can in one level, using it to replace your combat knife, allowing you to hack and slash your way through enemy infantry. It’s not a huge addition to the game, but it’s just enough that it invites exploration and removes some of the impetus to constantly keep pushing forward. In fact, the level design has moved away from the tight corridors of other “Call of Duty” titles with more wide open fields of operations. Sure, there are still plenty of hallways to shoot down, but Treyarch’s designers have opened up side paths and flanking routes as well as just flat, open kill spaces with asymmetrical elevations and different routes to shoot or get shot.
Treyarch has iterated a little bit on this year’s multiplayer gameplay as well, adding to the Zombies mode with the new “Tranzit” and “Grief” game types, the former putting you on a team traveling point to point by bus to take out hordes of zombies, while the latter places a CDC team and CIA team side-by-side to fight off waves of zombies with only one team allowed to survive at the end.
The standard multiplayer is back, and the biggest change is how loadouts are handled, now allowing you to fill 10 slots in with your preferred combination of weapons, equipment, attachments, and perks. So if you want to go out with a fully spec’d-out sniper rifle with a ton of perks and no grenades, you can do that. New perks, attachments, and weapons are unlocked via your rank and using Tokens earned with your rank, which leaves your progression wide open. If you’re like me, and need a little guidance, this can be kind of daunting, but the net result is expanded player choice, which isn’t a bad thing–just different this time out.
The multiplayer hoppers also include a section for League Play, where you can jump into competitive matches to increase your global standing in the game. This is where the No scope types will undoubtedly congregate in the coming months, and although the matches I played weren’t too daunting, I expect this is where some of the most brutal online play will live.
It’s in writing this review that I realized precisely how impressive some of the changes to “Black Ops II” actually are. I haven’t even gotten to the cool weapons sounds and tactile feedback from the new guns, or even the soundtrack which, with the exception of one ubiquitous dubstep track and a terrible post-credits sequence song, is across the board very good. If you were on the fence about picking this one up based on your experience with previous “Call of Duty” titles, you might want to give “Black Ops II” a try just to see how Treyarch has worked hard to change the formula for the series.
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