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Breaking down the four different games in Call of Duty: Black Ops II (review)

What you won’t like

The story isn’t easy to follow, and it’s improbable
The evil Raul Menendez gets under your skin. He is clearly insane, yet he’s also supposed to be this great leader who can inspire a billion oppressed people to rise against the superpowers. It’s hard to believe that he can rise to power, gather giant, technologically advanced armies to send against the U.S., and pull off surprise attacks over and over again.

We can certainly see how Menendez became such a monster. Black Ops II does a good job of depicting the tragedy that befell him when he was young. But unfortunately, the opening cinematic, which has a lot of fire in it, doesn’t look very good. (I was surprised to see such a misfire in what is an otherwise beautiful game). It adds to the whole sense that this character can’t be real.

But let’s say we give Menendez the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say he is able to get an army of terrorists on his side. How does he accomplish tasks like a surprise attack on a U.S. Navy fleet? How does he have his own drones? How does he make it seem like the Americans are the underdogs and his terrorist network is all-powerful?

The story has four or five decision points where you have to kill or save someone. But it’s also not completely clear what the consequences are for these decisions. At least not until you play the game again.

Some of the missions, like the diversion into Africa, seem more like excuses to fight a war in an interesting new location. The Strike Force missions also take you out of the narrative and into some task that doesn’t seem crucial to nailing Menendez. That’s when you’re reminded that, after all, this is a video game, and blowing things up takes precedence over any kind of narrative flow and tension.


Strike Force controls aren’t intuitive
In this mode, I wish that I had a computer mouse handy to click on my units and send them on their way. But it was awkward trying to first center a command circle over a unit and then issue another command via a button. Most of the time, things were happening so fast on the ground that I didn’t have time to go back and forth between the command screen (Overwatch mode) and the first-person view. This part of the game just moved too fast for me. I’d take the lead as an infantry soldier,and then feel terrible when the enemy easily surrounded my robots. Or I would roam around in a CLAW, only to find my infantry teams had been wiped out.

The controls aren’t necessarily well conceived. You have to hold down the arrow keys before you can switch from one asset to another. But applying that extra pressure to the D-pad costs you some precious seconds. Strike Force is also kind of short. By the time you’ve learned how to fight, you’re done with it.

It’s also not clear to me how the Strike Force missions fit into the main story. I wasn’t sure when or if I should do one of the Strike Force missions before I proceeded with the next main story mission. That left a little bit too much of the control in my hands. The missions are nonlinear, meaning you can play them at any time, for the most part. But I didn’t see a direct connection between a successful Strike Force mission and the payoff in the main story. That link should be explicit. One thing that really ruins the connection is the fact that Treyarch uses the same cinematic (of transport ships flying away) at the end of every Strike Force mission. Surely they could have created a character-based cinematic to advance the story and make the Strike Force mission feel like it was meaningful.

Multiplayer combat isn’t balanced yet
The battlefield has become very deadly. The “target finder” scope is a relatively cheap attachment, yet you can use it to paint a bright pink box around any target. To kill the target, you simply fire at the box. You can use some guns to fire right through concrete. The aerial Scorestreak rewards are also very deadly. Those aerial attacks were coming so often in one match that I decided to spend most of my time indoors. Even as Treyarch tried to make the game more approachable, it also made it very hard for rookies or casual Call of Duty players to stay alive.

That said, I’ve gone through about 11 multiplayer levels so far, and my kill-death ratio is 0.37. That means for every 37 kills I get, I die 100 times. That’s not so glorious, but it is much better than kill-death ratio I had after playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 for almost a year. The good thing is that Treyarch included a combat tutorial for multiplayer for players who are under level 10. But that isn’t necessarily going to make it easy to survive on such a deadly landscape. I’ve already seen some players with the level rank of 50, and the game wasn’t even out yet.

David Vonderhaar, the game design director at Treyarch, has some excellent recommendations for how beginners can survive better. But nowhere does Black Ops II deliver this message in an understandable way. It’s still tough to master. It might be a good idea to listen to training videos on YouTube before you play multiplayer. But that still puts a lot of the burden on the beginner, and the overall experience is still more intimidating than it should be.

Conclusion

Treyarch studio head Mark Lamia said in an interview with GamesBeat that “we wanted to push the boundaries. … Creatively, what we wanted to do making Black Ops II was turn some of those expectations around.” It accomplished that, even though they only had two years to work on this game.

The common thread of all of the subgames is that they are very hard to master. Most of them are easy to pick up and start playing, with the exception of Strike Force. But you’ll want to play them over and over again until you finally conquer a mission. Once you get that mastery, you’ll feel great. You’ll find, after all that time you invest, that you won’t have much time for other games this season. And that’s just that way that Activision wants it to be.

Score: 89/100

Call of Duty: Black Ops II releases Nov. 13, 2012 for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. The Wii U version launches on Nov. 18. The publisher provided GamesBeat with an Xbox 360 copy of the game for the purpose of this review.

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