Black Ops II develops a villain who despises capitalism. The greed, the money, the fame. It’s all too much for Menendez, who seeks to take control of America. While the future aspect often feels played down in multiplayer, Menendez seems to carry his disgust indirectly into versus competition. Players battle in a luxurious shopping center, high priced cars lining the paths into stores, flashy signs sell designer dresses, and stores are lavish in their approach. All the while, a celebration exudes the excess with fireworks in the background, thousands likely oblivious to the war being fought a mile away from them.
Treyarch loves upsetting the balance of Call of Duty. That’s – arguably of course – why their entries tend to capture the imagination. Gone here is the static customization system, replaced with a 10-point system that allows increased stock and firepower. Players can lean towards their play style easier without single weapon restrictions. You can ditch elements of your soldier to bulk up on the guns. It’s freeing, and surprisingly, without any apparent gaps in the balance. While still under technical scrutiny (nothing is infinite), it does create a personable approach to the multiplayer.
Not revolutionary is the engine, which chugs along under often flagrant instances of pop-up, hidden in the campaign by fog or mind-blowing destruction. The pace of multiplayer doesn’t allow for such leniency. Guns still carry their light feel and snappy targeting, and bullets make contact with little effort. Black Ops II can cut an ammunition hole through anybody with the best of them. Argue as you must about age and static design – and you can make a case with titles like the forward-thinking Halo 4 – but Call of Duty remains the champion of an entire service for a reason.
Business wise, there’s no necessity to innovate. We’re still a year, maybe more, out from a hardware refresh. The dedication of resources to create something that ample in cost doesn’t make sense, doubly so when it still works. Charging through the narrative is blissful once it reaches a climatic peak. It takes times, Black Ops II often too windy in story structure to clamp onto. As it swaps one time for the other, something is lost in the translation until it finally settles down into a futuristic (and in most cases, definitely modern) groove. Menendez becomes a focal point, sadistic and unrelenting, even ridiculous. The number of men who rally to his cause is preposterous, and his methods one-upping Batman in his escape capability.
But, again, it’s Treyarch. Much like the forgotten third-person view shoved into a small corner of multiplayer in Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops II adds an RTS element. It doesn’t work at all actually, with crumbling AI, relentless charges from enemies, and little to react. Players can work over the ground, turning super soldier out of necessity without ever utilizing the overhead map. Strike Force, as it’s been named, can be skipped, although to detriment of the narrative. Black Ops freshens itself up with branching story points and decisions, including the Strike Force shenanigans.
Still, there’s something to be said for trying something new, particularly in a franchise that has begun to sag near its belly. The bubble will burst without trying to find something new, and Treyarch’s efforts elicit some true ingenuity within this frame work. Working with open area horse riding, thrilling (and tightly contained) air combat, exhilarating air drops, and flying wing suits are one-offs that spice up the stock shooting. On foot, Black Ops II will spruce itself up late with rampant devastation that hides all of the strings pulling this into working order. It’s genuinely fluid with minimal stop gaps to open a door that the game necessitates to the AI.
Many will skip the campaign, eager for the social offerings, and that’s a shame. They’re leaving behind a genuinely well thought out piece of single player design that deserves better. Short of being utterly tired of Call of Duty run-and-gun – really a modern day, flashy Contra when you consider the pace – there’s little here that can disappoint. It’s worth the time to experience an America in 2025 under assault, complete with a female president and glamorous new warship coined Obama.
As a finality, there’s zombie mode, a slaughter free-for-all that continues to expand in its ludicrous nature with Tranzit. A bus will carry players from one location to next, scouring for supplies and guns while a robotic bus driver straight out of the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick Total Recall leads.
The series arguably lost any tangible respect for the military when it collapsed World at War into zombies initially, as if the sheer Michael Bay scale wasn’t already ditching the essence of the “call” in its title. Black Ops II loses not only to zombies, but an almost disrespectful closing credits sequence that shills a band while using a disabled veteran as a laughing point. It’s stupid, it’s goofy, and it’s meant to be in fun, but if you’re selling a story revolving around the torturous experiences of an aging vet, don’t place him as the drummer in a popular group. That’s just distasteful.
Black Ops II doesn’t leave on a high note, although few players will be leaving it in the first place.