Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops II (PS3)
Title: Call of Duty: Black Ops II
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (12.8 GB)
Release Date: November 13, 2012
ESRB Rating: M
Call of Duty: Blacks Ops 2 is also available on Xbox 360, Wii U, and PC.
The PlayStation 3 version was used for this review.
As I’ve stated a few times now, to me the Call of Duty series has flipped completely for me, with the Modern Warfare series kinda taking a dive as Infinity Ward isn’t what it used to be. When I saw that Treyarch, after the debacle that was Call of Duty 3, was making the original Black Ops, my expectations for it were pretty low, even after seeing the awesome helicopter scene multiple times at E3 two years ago. Imagine my surprise though, when I thoroughly enjoyed Black Ops, and especially the multiplayer was a fresh take on the series, and made the online in Modern Warfare 2 look like a beta.
I have to admit though, that the Call of Duty series is getting pretty stale to me. After finishing the mess of a story in Modern Warfare 3, and the completely unbalanced and quite boring online multiplayer not holding my interest, I’ve joined the vocal majority in wanting a complete revamp for the series. Going in to E3, I was pretty tame on Black Ops II simply because it still uses the same Quake 3 engine as a base for the tech, and though it was a groundbreaking engine, it’s 2012, and using an engine that became available in 1996 just seems lazy to me in 2012.
Understand though, that the Quake 3 engine has been HEAVILY modified over the years for these games. It seems as if the most important element for Activision is the smooth-as-butter framerate, which is evident since the console versions STILL don’t run at full HD resolutions (sub-720p). I do get it, and after playing the terrible Black Ops: Declassified on the Vita, you quickly realize how important that smooth framerate is to the franchise, and is even an element that actually defines the series. After seeing a long section of Black Ops 2 at E3, I was a bit more positive about the possibilities. You could still see the deficiencies with the engine, but the better textures and lighting did a great job of distracting you from those issues. But there’s still the story, and the biggest draw of the game, the multiplayer. Let’s dig in!
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 296 of the podcast.
As in the first Black Ops, the campaign jumps around between the year 2025 and the late 80′s (and even flashbacks to the original Black Ops.) You’ll also encounter characters from the original game, but the new crew is really the focus of the story. The timeline intertwines yet again, and unless you really focus, you’ll easily lose yourself with the twists and turns that lay ahead.
The gameplay is pure Call of Duty, but since some of the game takes place in the future, the gameplay crosses the line to a bit of fantasy, but never enough that someone has a laser gun, but it gets close. I do understand the story, but I’m not mentioning anything about it here for fear of spoiling anything in the web of deceit and misdirection that you’ll encounter.
Controls are exactly what you’ll expect, except for one key piece. Because folks have complained for years about the “magnetic knife”, it’s finally been changed in Black Ops II. No longer will you hit the melee button from 15 feet away to make your character magnetically attach to the enemy for an insta-kill. Unfortunately though, the melee has been nerfed so much (in single and multiplayer) that it’s become almost useless (except for in one flashback section of the campaign.) I don’t know if I care or not that it happened, since I was definitely one of the people that thought it should change, but to me the change is too drastic.
The shooting, as expected, is quite solid and fun. But, as we saw in Modern Warfare 3, I think that they’re trying to do too much in terms of mixing things up. I appreciate that they’re making an attempt to alleviate some of the monotony, but to me, it takes away from the core game a bit too much for what my expectations are. Specifically, there’s a driving sequence that’s just maddening. The controls are muddy, and for some reason, if you hit an outside wall, the vehicle actually glues itself to that wall, making you either stop and attempt to back-up to unstick yourself, or just get killed. There are so many effects happening (smoke and explosions) that you don’t even know where you’re supposed to be going, which caused me to have to retry numerous times during the sequence.
The biggest addition this time are the Strike Missions, which is essentially an interactive real-time strategy section that take place on enclosed playfields. You start with a warm-up period that allows you to place troops and items in specific areas, then the waves of enemies begin their assault. Simply hit the ‘Select’ button on your controller to pull out to the flyover view, which allows you to select individuals or full squads and issue orders. At any time, you can move the cursor over a soldier or drone and take control, all in realtime. It’s a really well-done mechanic, but for me, I just didn’t care to play it during the campaign. Fortunately for me, after the initial mission, the rest are optional. To me it just didn’t fit, since I’m playing a Call of Duty game for a specific purpose and this was just a bit too different for my tastes. It works, and if you’re into it, you’ll love it, but this departure just wasn’t what I wanted.
Also added is the ability to customize your loadout between missions in the campaign, which to me seemed more beneficial after the initial playthrough. Not having played the mission yet, how would I know what weapons or items to bring? I personally went with the default loadout for each mission, but like I said, if you’re playing through again, you may simply have a more favored weapon or perk to bring along. Again, it’s a welcome addition, but it doesn’t seem like it would be beneficial during the initial run through the story.
Overall, I enjoyed the story probably as much as Black Ops. The levels and locales were well done, and some of the historical tie-in’s are really appreciated. There are spots though that felt like absurd and unfinished tangents though, so some elements of the story were completely forgotten about later in the game. Another inclusion that I’m impressed with is that throughout the game, you’ll be forced to make some choices. These choices actually do affect the outcome of the game by offering, I believe six different endings. The differences are different enough to make multiple run-through’s worth it, and there are already a couple of online guides out there to help you along. There’s even an additional “secret” ending (which I got) that’s pretty funny but at the same time, just downright weird.
If you’ve played a modern ‘Call of Duty’ game, you should know what to expect visually. One thing that’s definitely improved greatly though are the cinematics. The characters look much more realistic, and the motion capture is quite well done. As I mentioned above, the framerate in gameplay is solid and buttery-smooth. The rest of the visuals, even with the heavier modifications, are definitely showing some age. Lighting looks good, but they cheat a lot. Levels are busy and dense, and when in the desert there are some cool effects with blowing sand, but mostly it looks like the past few games have.
Again, explosions and other effects look great, and when you get into scenes that take place in 2025, some of the more futuristic designs are pretty cool. One scene that takes place in a modern club is really impressive, but again, most of these scenes are similar to scenes in other games that do it better (the club in Max Payne 3 for example.) The thing is, it’s Call of Duty, and to me, the legacy is smooth gameplay over technical achievements, so the decision to keep walking down that path isn’t surprising.
The action is fast and frantic, so some of these deficiencies may go unnoticed by most, simply because you’re not paying that much attention as you’re attempting to shoot hundreds of drones down over a futuristic Los Angeles while flying in a futuristic jet, you may not notice the aliasing. I mean, it’s Call of Duty, so until sales begin to suffer, I don’t see them changing the formula.
First, the cast of voice actors is stellar! The cast from Black Ops returns, and in the modern era, you’re going to encounter some incredibly talented people (including our “friend” Michael Rooker!!) This heightened level of production values really brings a lot to the table, and definitely kept me more invested in the actual story. The rest of the audio is just as good too. They’ve excelled at surrounding the player with the environment, and everything sounds amazing, be it on your home theater or you gaming headphones. I played through the entire campaign using the Astrogaming A40′s, and it’s was an intense and wonderful experience.
Online play is arguably the reason why a majority of people buy the Call of Duty games, and Treyarch has done an admirable job of bringing Black Ops II even closer to being a true E-Sport. Modes are your pretty standard fare, with the best of the new additions being ‘Kill Confirmed’. In this evolution of Team Deathmatch, when you kill an enemy, you have to run over and grab the dog tags that drop, but you’ll also want to grab the dog tags of your fallen comrades. The scoring is pretty complex, and the need to to actually be a bit more strategic about your engagements, and once you figure the mechanics out, it will quickly become a favorite.
Weapon and item balance have been thoroughly revamped, and also, Killstreaks have been replaced with Scorestreaks. The Scorestreaks rely on your score rather than number of kills in between deaths. After playing quite a bit, I love this method. It’s well known that my favorite mode is Domination, and one of my biggest issues with players in this mode is that they still treat it like Deathmatch. Well, with Scorestreaks, you get additional points for captures, so you have am incentive to actually do what you’re supposed to do so that you can achieve these streaks quicker. it really has changed the online game dramatically and in my opinion, for the better. Unlocks are handled like they have in the past, but like in Black ops (but obviously tweaked considerably) balance is handled party by only allowing so many items, perks, and other things that would fill a slot. I’ve spent a lot of time tweaking my custom loadouts, and oddly enough has made the experience a bit more personal than the other games.
The biggest addition though, is that they’ve added the ability to stream your matches out to YouTube, and even further, you can have a player connected that can run the entire stream like he or she is directing a live broadcast on TV. The interface is easy to use, and allows the director to use multiple cameras, follow specific players, reveal team chatter, and even display a match scoreboard with picture-in-picture. The integration with YouTube is really simple to set up, and the interface is easy to use as well. It can’t be used in every mode, but when it is usable, it’s amazing. This system is a technical achievement that honestly blows me away, and makes me hope that we see similar systems in other games in the future. It allows those that don’t have the means to setup a capture device to Livestream everything out to the Internet.
One thing that I really do have to say though, is even though I’ve been enjoying the online, I can’t help but to feel a bit bored with it at the same time. Also, there are some lingering issues like the fact that you still can’t invite someone that’s not on your friends list. The Party system seems more stable than in the past games, but the lag compensation is really a problem this time around. You can actually know if you’re connected to a host with a bad connection, especially when in one round your numbers will be quite positive, but the very next match, they go way downhill. I’m not saying that I’m the best player in the world, far from that, but my numbers do stay pretty consistent normally. In Black Ops 2, those numbers can vary wildly, and it can become quite frustrating. The system that’s in place has been around for a long time in different iterations, but this time it really needs to be fixed.
To go out on a good note, one addition is HIGHLY welcome. That option is “Mute all except Party.” Thank you Treyarch!
Black Ops II, for me, is a mixed bag. It’s definitely better than Modern Warfare 3, and is pretty close to Black Ops, but at the end of the day, it just feels tired. The campaign is well done, and the story is actually compelling, and holds some extremely impressive production values. But, and I hate to invoke this tired saying, the sum definitely outweighs the parts. The driving sequence was frustrating and sloppy, and there were a few other instances that were equally as anger-inducing (including one instance that I took my headphones off and bitched after the tenth botched attempt at a simple, canned jump.)
The multiplayer is well done, and there’s actually some beneficial evolution throughout. The E-Sports push with the included broadcast tools is amazing, and definitely sets the bar for future online games. At the core though, it’s Call of Duty online, and even though the balance, system, and streak award changes are very welcome, the fact that the system for lag compensation being as bad as it is just frustrates me to no end. After all of these years, with every Call of Duty being based on the same engine, you would think that this would be less of a problem with every year, and this simply is not the case. Even when the game launched, numerous people reported connectivity and lockup problems, which just shouldn’t happen this late in the game.
This IS one of the best Call of Duty games on modern consoles, but I really do feel that a major upgrade is in order. But who cares about what I have to say, you’ve already bought the game, right?