Review by MATCLAN

"Call of Duty: Black Ops II"

Overview:

2012's entry in Activision's popular Call of Duty franchise is a direct sequel to 2010's Call of Duty: Black Ops. Developed by Treyarch, this latest Call of Duty game has a host of new features in both the singleplayer and multiplayer offerings whilst also staying true to its core gameplay and providing fans of the series with a new twist on a familiar gaming experience.

Singleplayer Campaign:

The singleplayer campaign of Call of Duty: Black Ops II puts players in the shoes of David Mason, son of Alex Mason; the protagonist of the first Black Ops game. The story is primarily set in the year 2025; however players will also play through several flashback missions as characters from the first Black Ops title, set in the 1980s. These missions serve to flesh out the history and motives of several characters in the future, including the primary antagonist, Raul Menendez.

In terms of the storyline this is the first time the franchise has jumped to a date set squarely in the future. In another first the plot isn't entirely linear – the player's actions and choices will affect the outcomes of various events throughout the game, including its ending (of which there are several).

The futuristic setting also affects gameplay, allowing for a bit more suspension of disbelief and a few somewhat futuristic weapons and gadgets than previous, more realistic Call of Duty games would typically offer. Personally I find this to be a breath of fresh air in the series, but it's easy to see why it could be disconcerting for fans who have become used to expecting an experience more grounded in reality from the franchise.

When examining the gameplay it's clear that there are a few major overhauls yet again - prior to each mission players can customise their character's loadout from items available in the current time frame. By replaying missions and completing challenges it's possible to expand these options and even to have a bit of fun with taking futuristic weapons back into the 1980s. Other than giving players some control over how they wish to approach each mission the game also offers several optional "Strike Force" missions. These are an interesting hybrid of RTS and FPS, allowing the player to direct units from an overhead point of view and also taking control over any particular unit from a first-person perspective whilst working toward a goal. Success or failure in these missions can have notable effects on the storyline. Generally I think that the Strike Force concept could have been executed a little bit better and would benefit from more competent AI in general, but it's a pretty good attempt at what it is.

I feel that this is a solid singleplayer experience that shakes its formula up in the right places whilst remaining true to the strengths of the series.

Multiplayer:

In Black Ops II the multiplayer section has seen some significant overhauls. Whilst basic gameplay is immediately recognisable as staple Call of Duty fare many of the supporting systems have been altered. This includes the new "pick ten" method of class creation, wherein players can create a class using any combination of 10 items that they can put together within the boundaries of the class creation page. As usual the unlock system has seen a bit of an update with "Unlock Tokens" now earned upon reaching each new level. Each token can unlock an item of the player's choice (further restricted by the player's level, however) for use in class creation.

Other multiplayer changes include a fairly robust custom games system which allows for gametype creators to form their own list of banned items, a "League Play" option which separates and matches players by skill, and the brand new "CoD TV" - a powerful way of putting content creation in the hands of the players by allowing each player to livestream their own gameplay direct to Youtube (and as of a recent patch also to Twitch.tv; the premiere site for live streaming of video games), offering a spectator and casting mode (dubbed "CoDcasting") for tournaments and other competitive matches, and easy access to popular streams, uploaded videos, and official Call of Duty news channels.

Outside of competitive multiplayer we can see that the ever popular Zombies mode has returned, again with a few new twists such as new enemy types and new game modes. There's nothing as big as the competitive multiplayer changes in this mode, but it should still be enough to keep Zombies fans pleased - particularly since even more new Zombies game modes have been announced to be coming in future DLC (at the time of submitting this review the Revolution DLC has just launched - Revolution includes a new Zombies game mode, allowing players to play as the zombies for the first time).

Learning Curve:

The initial learning curve for the game is fairly gentle, with tool tips prevalent on loading screens and helpful advice popping up on lower difficulty levels. The new Strike Force missions have a full tutorial level designed to get players used to controlling their units from both first person and overhead points of view.

As usual in a Call of Duty game the aiming is fairly smooth and responsive, and its default control scheme has been adopted as somewhat of an industry standard for games with an ADS (Aiming Down Sights) feature, so anyone who has played a fist person shooter with ADS gameplay in recent years should find this quite familiar.

In the multiplayer there is again a fairly gentle initial learning curve as players can only experiment with a few items initially due to the way the unlock system is structured. However the matchmaking system doesn't appear to be all that great at matching players by either skill or progression rank which can allow for some pretty one-sided matchups. On the other hand it's possible to play in a "Boot Camp" playlist up until level 11, and there is a "training" section which will mix players with AI and have them play on a variety of different game modes. This is a fairly good way to let players adjust to the wider set of multiplayer offerings without "throwing them in at the deep end". The training section also has a deterrent for more advanced players who might be looking for easy games by only offering half as many experience points as the regular playlists.

On the opposite end of the scale, Treyarch have also included a “League Play” mode in which players can enter either alone or as a team and be ranked amongst their peers, very confident players looking for a challenge will be likely to gravitate towards this section.
Overall the game has a reasonable learning curve despite the matchmaking system being perfectly happy to throw players of varying experience and skill levels together even though this could potentially be intimidating for newer players.

Longevity:

Between a highly replayable singleplayer campaign, a lengthy multiplayer progression system, and all of the content creation options provided by CoD TV it seems as though Call of Duty: Black Ops II is designed to last. Unfortunately it probably won't last longer than a year in the mainstream due to Activision's aggressive annual publishing plan for the ]Call of Duty franchise. Each year sees a new entry in the franchise which inevitably fragments the player base ever so slightly and shifts the spotlight from the previous game to the new game.

Whilst this appears to be great for sales it does have some drawbacks in that it prevents any one title in the franchise from being widely played and popular for more than a year, which also doesn't give the developers as much time to improve things such as the game engine significantly between releases. In some aspects Black Ops II feels somewhat dated despite it being a fairly new game.
The strong features and developer support are there for this title, but unfortunately I expect it to be left by the wayside once next year's inevitable Call of Duty game arrives.

Sound:

As usual in a Call of Duty game the sound effects are loud and quite clear. Gunfire, explosions, targeting warnings and footsteps are all notable. With a surround sound system or headset it's easy to see that the sound is a very natural extension of the gameplay which adds to the player's sense of orientation within the game world. The soundtrack to the campaign does its job quite well - it's a good backdrop to the mood of the events and flows well together within the overall scope of the game. It's very much complimentary rather than standing out on its own, which for this kind of game I find to be a good balance to strike.

Visuals:

Graphically the game is solid, however despite the overhaul in facial animation and detail there are still some peculiar animations, especially in the multiplayer, so the game does look a bit dated at times. Certain death animations and some particle effects are especially bad. In multiplayer games there can be a small period at the beginning of a match in which the game is still buffering textures despite players being able to play.

Ultimately a few things could look a bit better, but the game does run at a very smooth 60 frames per second and the graphics as they are are by no means poor - there are no significant errors or issues, just minor things which occasionally contribute to the dated feeling.

Verdict:

Overall this game is definitely worth a purchase for fans of the FPS genre – it's a great example of how a series can innovate and break new ground with its features whilst sticking to its metaphorical guns from a gameplay perspective and continuing to live up to the legacy the Call of Duty series has built for itself. The extensively improved feature set and improved replayability of the singleplayer section greatly help in making the game worth buying.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 02/07/13

Game Release: Call of Duty: Black Ops II (EU, 11/13/12)


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