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

Editor’s note: This review has some limited story spoilers.

My arms feel like they’re permanently vibrating from all of the machine-gunning I’ve been doing lately. I’ve played just about every aspect of Call of Duty: Black Ops II, and I have the sore wrists to prove it. As the holidays approach, Activision Blizzard is launching its ninth installment in the Call of Duty military combat series, and this one is as violent, action-packed, and as full of adrenaline as ever before.

So much for peace on Earth.

Each year, Activision generates more than a billion dollars in sales from Call of Duty games. In order to hold the title of the fastest-selling game in history, the developers at Activision’s Treyarch studio have to keep trigger-happy gamers feeling like the game has something new to offer. On this front, Treyarch has delivered. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is loaded with so much content that its $60 price seems like a bargain, and everyone else in the industry is going to have to meet a high bar if they want to hang on to the attention of gamers as well as this title does.

This game has so many elements that it is four games in one. It includes the single-player story campaign with 11 missions. On top of that, it has five single-player Strike Force missions, the Zombies cooperative play game, and multiplayer gaming with 16 maps and several new modes at the outset. The single-player campaign may keep you busy for eight hours or so (I played it on the Hardened difficulty (which is one notch above Normal), and it kept me busy for about 12 hours), but the whole package is meant to keep you occupied with Call of Duty so that it becomes a round-the-clock, year-round part of your life.

Let’s give a rundown of each of the major elements.

Single-player campaign

The narrative spans more than a generation, from the 1960s to the year 2025. The story from Oscar-winning screenwriter David S. Goyer depicts a decades-long struggle to stop a mad man from causing a world war. At the outset, you meet Raul Menendez, the eventual villain, as a child. He goes through a horrendous experience that shows how he came to hate America and turn into a murderous psychotic. The characters from the original Call of Duty: Black Ops — Frank Woods and Alex Mason — try to stop Menendez, but each time he escapes and leaves a trail of bodies.

By 2025, Menendez reaches his psychotic potential. He builds himself a worldwide terrorist empire. He seizes control of the supply of “rare earth elements,” or metals found in most electronic products. That is a key chokepoint in the world’s electronics supply chain, and it also gives him a path to launch a cyberattack. Then Menendez executes an improbable but ingenious plot to hijack the American military’s fleet of drones. He destroys Los Angeles and then sends the drone fleet to attack China’s biggest cities, threatening to draw the superpowers into a war. And he does this all because he wants to get back at those who emotionally and physically scarred him for life in his childhood. A small group of “black operations” soldiers, including David Mason, the son of the first game’s hero, Alex Mason, stands in the way of Menendez.

The story can be hard to follow, particularly when Menendez drops out of the picture. Treyarch constructed this tale on top of compelling characters (such as Woods and Alex Mason) and gripping and gruesome scenes. And the story’s scope is so sweeping that it exposes the player to what the world’s battlefields of 2025 might be like. The story makes you think about how far you would go to stop a man like Menendez. Like any good cinematic video game, it makes you think.

It has a couple of disturbing parts in which you play the enemy, and those are sure to raise alarms among concerned parents (and media and politicians looking to score some cheap points). You have no choice but to go on a murderous rampage, shooting the good guys or even civilians. As the player pursuing the villain, you make some critical ethical decisions about whether to shoot a captive or show him mercy. Often you don’t have a “right” decision. The story has multiple endings, adding some variety and replayability to the campaign.

Strike Force

Strike Force is a difficult new subgame where you can control teams of drones, armored robots, and infantry squads to take objectives on a map. The Strike Force missions throw you into an open-world sandbox. You can play it like a real-time strategy game, viewing the action from a commander’s view. But you can also tap your controller button and assume command of an individual if you wish. You can play as a drone, a Claw (a mech that looks like a bear), or a soldier.

You can play these matches as a micromanager, fighting as a single soldier. But if you don’t pop out and view your assets, you may frequently find that you’re lone warrior is the last one left. The trick is being able to focus on the key action even as multiple firefights erupt on the ground. Strike Force missions has five missions, not counting a tutorial, and they’re all pretty hard, even though you’re playing against computer-controlled enemies.

In contrast to the Zombies cooperative mode, the Strike Force outcomes are integrated into the story in some way. But I didn’t really grasp how it fit.

Zombies

In Black Ops II’s Zombies, Treyarch has introduced a cooperative mode that is like a campaign unto itself. For the first time in the Call of Duty franchise, Zombies comes with its own version of a story. You journey through a wasteland in Tranzit, where you ride a bus from location to location, trying to survive and praying you don’t run out of ammo. Always darkly lit, Tranzit is like an open world for the undead.

You team up with other players and take turns popping the heads off zombies. These zombies aren’t dumb biters. They charge at you and set themselves ablaze in hopes of engulfing you. That makes them a lot more terrifying, and it’s more satisfying when you blow their heads off.

But if you can make it back to the bus and keep the zombies off you, then you can ride on to the next stop. You really do need four players to defend a piece of ground or keep the zombies off the bus. It really helps to communicate via headset so that the more experienced players can guide the newbies — or just to hear the screams and curses when the last survivor dies and the game ends.

Black Ops II’s Zombies mode also has extensive stat tracking and leaderboards. It has a skill-based matchmaking system and modes such as Grief (humans vs. humans vs. zombies) and Survival, where four players have to survive never-ending hordes in select locations from within Tranzit.

Multiplayer combat

The multiplayer game comes with its own Bootcamp combat tutorial, so you to play with bots and learn the maps and tactics before go against people who quit work so that they can play Call of Duty full-time. Multiplayer is fun, but it has the same pluses and minues that make hardcore gamers swear by it and neophytes fearful of it.

Treyarch succeeded in remaking multiplayer with different game modes, such as Multi-team, where as many as 18 players fight on six different teams. Another addition is Hardpoint. In this mode, you take and hold a section of the map while the enemy tries to take it away. Every few minutes, the Hardpoint moves to another location, and you have to assault it again. No other multiplayer map has a way to draw players into a massive firefight like this one. Nothing about it is realistic, but it sure is fun. It gets rid of the waiting time that always occurs just as you’re about to get into combat. This is like combat all the time.

With 16 maps and many different ways to play them, the combinations are endless. And once you get tired of what Treyarch has created for you, you can fashion your own custom games and invite your friends to play them. You can also try your hand at eSports via League Play, which offers skill-based matchmaking so your bracket will include people who are a good match.

The multiplayer has 55 levels. Once you hit 55, you earn yourself Prestige. And you can earn the Prestige rank 10 times over. You don’t have to agonize about starting over. You can now restart the progression with all of the weapon experience and earned attachments you already have. If you hit level 55 10 times over, then you become the Prestige Master and unlock everything special in the game.

What you’ll like

It’s not the same old Call of Duty
Treyarch threw me for a loop with the fresh take on the aging franchise, pushing the story from the 1960s to the near-future. The drone war over Los Angeles is somewhat plausible, and we haven’t seen this version of the apocalypse in movie after movie and game after game. The same goes for rare earth metals being used as a chokepoint to achieve certain aims.

Taking the franchise into the future gave the designers more freedom to create their own battlefields, weapons, and other cool technology. It also brew a new evil that threatens the world. The story also traverses the past, allowing for even more variety in the terrain and combat missions. I had a lot of fun blasting my way through a giant casino in the Cayman Islands. Traveling to these new places is part of the creative and innovative gaming experience.

I feared that futuristic weapons would change the nature of the gameplay, making each player far too powerful. While some of that is true, each weapon also has its drawbacks. If you want to shoot through walls, you have to charge up your gun before you can fire. It has a rock-paper-scissors balance. So it turns out that fighting with future weapons is a lot of fun, but it still feels like a gritty modern combat game. This ain’t no lousy Battlefield 2042.

Breathtaking action and visuals
Call of Duty games have always been cinematic. The designers choreograph the action to make you jump out of your seat. It has some stunning set pieces. The landscape of downtown Los Angeles amid a giant drone attack is chaotic. When you’re talking to the president of the United States and your convoy comes under attack, you have to act fast and clear a path.

You don’t simply rappel down a cliff to get to the enemy’s hideout. Now you jump off a cliff and fly there in a wing suit. It’s a thrilling, if not very believable, experience. And Black Ops II is full of these moments.

Add to that plenty of new 3D graphics effects that bring the experience to life. It has rain, flood waters, explosions galore, and interesting effects such as the warping that happens when you use a high-powered microwave turret to defend a spot. This game definitely looks better than the original Black Ops.

Cool weapons of 2025
Black Ops II introduces some crazy weapons, but they could plausibly exist by 2025, given an infinite defense budget. The coolest are some that you can control, particularly in Strike Force. One is a small sentry drone, the Autonomous Ground Robot (AGR), which has a handy pair of chain guns. You can also get into a huge Cognitive Land Assault Weapon (CLAW), which has considerable armor and a Gatling gun.

You’ve also got some cool attachments that can help you take down an army of bad guys. New, useful feature include the Laser Sight, which helps you pinpoint enemies. The Target Finder identifies whether a target is a friend or a foe. If it’s a foe, a big orange box appears around the target. The Millimeter Wave Scanner shows stationary targets that are hiding behind surfaces, such as walls. The Dual Band Scope shows any object that generates heat, enabling more precision in long-range shooting. The shock charge is a nonlethal thrown device that electrocutes and stuns enemies. And the Assault Shield provides portable cover.

My favorite tech experience was when controlled a small mechanical spider, crawling through ventilation shafts as part of an infiltration mission. If you really like some of these weapons, you can customize your loadout to include them, even in the single-player campaign.

The frightening Zombie bus
Zombies has nothing to do with the core story, but this mode is a ton of fun. The cooperative version of Black Ops II takes you on a bus tour of a destroyed 1950s world. Four players can hop on the Tranzit bus and escape the zombies in one area, only to arrive at a new locale teeming with the undead.

You have to take your turns shooting zombies, reloading, and gathering ammo amid the ruins. You can upgrade your guns and find clues about why you’re there and what else you must do to survive. The bus stops regularly at each location, so if one of your crew is left behind, they can rejoin you later. (The zombies ride for free). As you shoot more zombies, you gain experience points that you can spend on weapons or use to unlock doors.

And you really do have to cooperate. One person can build a motor while the other fends off the zombies. If you don’t go into it with “go, team” attitude, you’ll just watch each other die. The bus itself leads to many cliffhanger moments. Will you make it to the bus in time before it leaves? Will your cohorts make it? Can you keep the zombies off the bus? In the dark, in a world lit only by fire (and weak generators), it’s scary.

Multiplayer is even better than before
This aspect of Call of Duty wasn’t broken, but Treyarch has outdone itself with the changes its made here. The new “pick-10″ is a fresh way to allocate resources so that you can customize your loadout exactly how you want it. You get 10 points and can spend them on any items, so long as you don’t exceed your limit. That means you can get to your favorite loadout a lot sooner. You don’t have to wait to level up. And if you never use your sidearm, you shouldn’t be forced to carry one. That’s just one example of the great flexibility that comes with Black Ops II’s multiplayer combat.

As you progress through the level tree, you can choose a path, such as focusing on gaining everything that grants you more speed. I certainly needed that help as a 40-something player trying to compete against younger kids with much faster reactions. The variety of weapons is so great that you’ll be tempted to switch just to see how far you can go with a certain kind of arsenal. I enjoyed the multiplayer immensely even with the different weapons. I just can’t wait until I level up and get the good stuff.

Multiplayer is the reason that I can stay engaged with Call of Duty on an almost year-round basis. As new maps come out, you can slowly master them and the tactics that work best. I’ve invested so much time in the game over the years that playing it has become second nature, even with the new weapons. As a veteran, I find it easy to play, and I love to jump in for 30 minutes at a time. From what I’ve seen in the first 11 levels, I expect that I’ll enjoy the Black Ops II multiplayer even more.

Added value
The extras are great this year. Activision has decided to make Call of Duty Elite, the gamer social network for Call of Duty fans, free to all players. Elite was previously subscription-based, but now the extra content that you pay for is limited to downloadable content (DLC), such as multiplayer map packs. Built into the game are features such as “COD TV,” which you makes your own videos inside the game. You can browse and rate community-created films, screenshots, emblems, and custom games.

You can now more easily create your own films, customize them, and share them directly on sites such as YouTube. You can “shoutcast” a game by adding your own narrative voice over, and you can also livestream a game to your friends. You can also watch a match as a spectator, with many different sorts of views.  All of the features are meant to increase the engagement that players have with Call of Duty, so they put more hours into it.

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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