Monday, November 26, 2012

Call of Duty Black Ops 2 Game Review

(Originally written November 16, 2012)
Another year, another Call of Duty. This franchise has come to define the mega-blockbuster in the video game market over the past decade ever since 2007’s Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare and its 2009 sequel Modern Warfare 2. There have been two primary studios working on these games since 2002: Infinity Ward and Treyarch. Ironically, the quality in the Infinity Ward titles, the original creator of the franchise, has definitely dropped in quality and originality. On the other hand, Treyarch, who had previously been making crappy entries for the series, has surpassed IW and proved they can make quality Call of Duty games with World at War and Black Ops. These two studios working back to back, has made it possible for Call of Duty to be an annual series. Yes, there has been a major Call of Duty game every single year since 2005. I think this is part of the reason that a lot of people have grown tired of the series. CoD has gotten a lot of bad rap over the past couple years in the gaming world because, well, it’s still here! And the reason it is still here is because of the multiplayer. CoD 4’s multiplayer and MW 2’s multiplayer is what has made Call of Duty the mega-blockbuster franchise it is today. Not the stories or anything like that. As a result, the market has become flooded with FPS games that rip off CoD because other game studios want their own mega-blockbuster franchise that makes billions of dollars. Much like Hollywood, instead of coming up with something original, they just copy whatever the most successful thing is.

This is one reason I have come to dislike the Call of Duty series. Now everyone has their own reasons why they like it or not. Mine is what I just talked about and the lack luster stories for the campaign. The Modern Warfare stories were mostly cut and paste, tried too hard to shock you plot points, and almost no character development. Plus everyone kept dying. I know its war and people die but it becomes less and less shocking every time your character dies during a scripted event. Much more care was been given to the multiplayer aspects over the single player until Blacks Ops in 2010.  The story was the best thing about that game and actually had some good plot twists and character development. Not the greatest, but it was something nice to see in a Call of Duty game. Last year Modern Warfare 3 came out and it sucked. A lot. Knowing what I know about Treyarch and having played Black Ops, I had more faith in this title than with MW3 but wasn’t expecting much. What we got though was a lot better than I expected. Black Ops 2 is the way to do a Call of Duty sequel. It does so many things this franchise should have been doing 3 years ago and finally makes it happen and I’ve been ranting long enough, it’s time to get to the review.

STORY: The story takes place half in the year 2025 and half in flash backs during the 1980’s. You primarily play as Alex Mason (during the 80’s) with the CIA and as his son David Mason (in 2025) as a Navy SEAL under JSOC. The story mostly deals with the rise of the game’s villain Raul Menedez, a Nicaraguan terrorist and the leader of a mysterious group with worldwide influence called ‘Cordis Die.’ The missions set in the 80’s are told in flashback by Frank Woods (from the previous game) and primarily deals with how Menedez became the mad man he is in the future and his connection to the main characters. There are even parts of the game where you actually play as Menedez for a little bit to try and feel more of a connection to him. The missions set in the future, you are trying to figure out what, how, and when Menedez is going to do to unleash a massive global attack on the world using drones which characterizes the military of the future. The plot kind of reminds me of the plot to Metal Gear Solid 4 but less complicated.  The future setting for Call of Duty was inevitable and thankfully they don’t go too far into the future. Most of the weapons and technology used in the game is actually based on current prototypes and ideas and it’s really cool to get to use some of this stuff. Now it sounds pretty straight forward like any Call of Duty game but there is one big thing that changes all of that: branching storylines and outcomes. Yes, this CoD has multiple endings and choices that actually matter. There are 5 different endings based on choices you make throughout the campaign. For a game series like this, this is a huge deal and adds a lot of replay value to the campaign. Your decisions affect the character’s fates and development as well and there is quite a bit of character development in the main characters and the villain. There are also some really good twists thrown in throughout the campaign. The story is a lot better than I thought it would be and puts Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare series to shame. Thankfully, the Russians are not the main enemy you encounter like in every post-WWII CoD game. You do fight them in a couple missions but given the context of those individual missions, it makes sense.  Instead, most of the time you are fighting against PMC and Central American forces but that changes based on the set piece and this game takes place all over the world. From flooded streets of Pakistan, a night club on some super ship in the Cayman Islands, Afghanistan, Panama, and it’s most shown set piece, Los Angeles, the game makes good use of the set pieces to make some memorable levels and of course they are all over the top like a Michael Bay movie with things exploding all over the place and are very fast paced.

The game’s story and levels are paced a lot better than in previous games. Not everyone will agree but most of the Call of Duty games would climax too soon and the rest of the game would just be like hitting a wall for me and just become uninteresting. Like in MW2, the missions after the battle in Washington D.C. were just boring and rather pointless to me and it just feels like a drop off point. The drop off point for me in MW3 was after the Paris missions and that was in the middle of the game. Yeah, I really didn’t like Modern Warfare 3. Black Ops 2 increasingly builds to its climax at the right times and since there are technically two stories going on here, it does this more than once.  It keeps you interested till the end and the branching story paths help that out a lot. Like the first Black Ops, they also have the likenesses of real people in it such as Jonas Savimbi, an Angolan warlord, Panamanian former leader Manuel Noriega, and David Petraeus. I laughed when I saw he was in this. Black Ops 2 has bad timing. The game is still pretty short however, taking about 6 to 7 hours which is sadly average for these kinds of game. There are 4 optional missions called Strike Missions that function very differently from the story missions but do have an overall effect on the story so you probably shouldn’t skip them. I’ll explain them more in the game play.  

GAMEPLAY: If you’ve played these games before, there is nothing new to the basic game controls and they are as smooth as ever. Controlling vehicles which is rare but when you have to do it, it’s not so bad except for when you have to fly an F-22 late in the game. At first, its easy enough till you have to actually fly it at high speeds, and then you are fighting the plane to not crash into building or fly out of the combat zone and cause the mission to fail. This part was done like the Hind flying segment in Black Ops 1 but not done as well or as fun. You also get to control various drones throughout the game like the CLAW which is kind of like an Imperial walker that is about the size of a small car and has a mini gun and grenade launchers on it. You can also fly and command quad rotors which look like those little helicopter hobby toys but have machine guns on them. You get to control most of these during the Strike Force missions. Now these missions are very different from the story missions. They feel more like something from Ghost Recon than Call of Duty. You control infantry, drones, turrets, and a command satellite. You get a full view of the level from the satellite and command your forces to protect or destroy objective points. You can also switch between and play as any of the forces on the ground. This can be tricky as it forces you to multitask and is a definite break away from the traditional CoD game play. Like I said before, these missions are optional but do impact the story so you really should do them and they do get tricky. Sadly, these strike missions are a huge missed opportunity because they are single player only. These would have made for an awesome multiplayer co-op game mode. These types of missions would have lots of fun if they could have tweaked it for more than one person. The AI in these missions and the game in general is no improvement at all from previous games. While it doesn’t bother things much in the regular missions, you will definitely feel the aging AI system in the strike force missions, especially on higher difficulties.

Another new addition to the single player missions is that you get to fully customize your weapon load outs before a mission which is very welcomed. Not only that, the weapon selection screen now has stats for each gun and how the attachments will affect them. There are some awesome new attachments in this game like x-ray optics, an optic that marks enemies for you and laser sights in addition to the classic red dot and ACOG that we are all used to from these games. I like that the ACOGs have a red dot sight on top that you easily switch to be clicking the left joystick. This was an actual suggestion for an optic and control mechanic I submitted for Modern Warfare 2 three years ago. I’m glad someone took this idea. Way to drop the ball, Infinity Ward. Also select fire acts as a feature which hasn’t been seen since the very first Call of Duty on PC back in 2002. You also get some new melee weapons like machetes and stun knuckles that make people throw up. Gross.  The futuristic weapons and attachments are generally fun to use and easy to control. The high degree of customizability just pushes it over the top.  

Of course there are the other two game modes: zombies and the multiplayer. The zombie mode is designed to be like its own independent game this time instead of a mini-game. I really think Treyarch should just make a complete zombie game at this point, separate from Call of Duty. That said the single player mode for it has been scaled down a lot. I discovered I can only play one map by myself; I would have to have other people for the other two maps. Also there is a story for it but I have no idea what it is as it is not explained. I’m in a 50’s style bus station as a guy that says annoying things and there is a bus that you ride in that has a robot bus driver who also says annoying things. What? The zombie mode does have difficulty settings now for the more casual zombie killers as the zombie mode in the past CoD games were rather hard. Finally, we have the multiplayer and sadly, I find it to be the weakest part of the game though there are a couple new things that I like. You can play offline now with bots so no pesky humans to ruin your game. Just kidding. It’s just nice to have a more casual multiplayer experience without having to deal with all the bull on xbox live. However, multiplayer is the BIG selling point of this game and the reason this franchise has been so successful. Well, other than new weapons and equipment, there isn’t really anything new here at all. More of the same. The kill streaks are handled a little differently I noticed. You gain them based on points instead of kills this time around and you can stack them up and switch between which one’s you want to use. This does little to change to over all game play though. It’s just more of the same. I’m sure the really hardcore fans could point out small differences for better or worse but the average player probably won’t notice.  The single player, to me, is the strongest and best part of Black Ops 2.

GRAPHICS: This game looks great for the most part. The future levels look the best with all the fancy computer screens and other sites of the not too distance future. The 1980’s settings are a little less impressive to look at. There is more texture pop-in during these missions and everything just looks drab and dull but once again, the settings during these missions are meant to look drab and dull. Hm. The character models of the main characters look great. They use that really neat facial scan animation that I like that really add emotion to the characters. The characters without this however, look pretty bad. Very stiff and stale but you are most likely shooting them so what do you care? This is generally a good looking game and I didn’t really notice any graphic glitches or anything major but this game is nowhere near as good looking as Halo 4.

SOUND: This game is loud and full of guns and explosions just as you would expect. Thankfully, everything is much easier to hear than in MW3 which had some major audio issues. All the sounds of war sound great. The voice acting is a bit of a different story. It’s really hit and miss. It’s pretty over the top at some points with some, at times, unnecessary swearing. You can tell it’s a Treyarch CoD game with all the hard swearing peppered throughout the script. There are some fairly big Hollywood actors in this game too but their performances are kind of all over the place. They really need to tone it down but I think it’s the best they could do with the script they had to work with. The music is generally fitting. You have lots of electric, fast paced music in the future missions with some dub step here and there. The 80’s missions tend to have music fitting for whatever country it is set in. The soundtrack is much better than the one from MW3 but not anything I’d rush out to download. Speaking of music.. This kind of a spoiler but after you beat the game you are treated to a game rendered concert of Avenged Seven Fold. Why? Because they can, I guess.

Overall, there are a lot of improvements that this series has needed for a long time but is it too late? While I did really like this game, I’m not begging for another CoD game. However, I’m pretty sure there will be a Black Ops 3. For pure curiosity, I probably would play it but this franchise is nearly milked bone dry. I really worry about what Infinity Ward is going to do next. If there is a Modern Warfare 4, no way am I going to even bother with it. Black Ops 2 is a good game if you like to play these games for the single player and want to play through the story to see all the different outcomes and play with all the customizable weapons. If you play CoD just for the multiplayer, you’ll probably be disappointed to a degree. I know most fans already have it. If you don’t like CoD or shooters are all, this won’t change your mind. If you’re on the fence about it, I highly recommend renting it and you can judge for yourself. I really liked this game much to my surprise but if the things I talked about don’t interest you at all, then this game probably isn’t for you. Regardless, if you like Call of Duty or not, these changes are a great addition to the series and a step in the right direction. I’m just giving credit where credit is due and this turned out to be a long review. Thank you for reading!


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