black ops

Call
of Duty is one of our medium’s
emissaries to the outside world, whether you like it or not. It’s
annually one of the highest-selling, most outward-facing video games the industry has to offer. The national news covers it; its commercials inundate
programming every November; and I’d be willing to bet that even your
parents know its name.

But with this power comes a
heavy choice for the developers. Do they rest on their laurels and play it safe? Or do they take risks and
deliver genuinely creative mechanics and systems to as wide an
audience as exists for video games? It’s with this fundamental creative choice in mind that
we explore Black
Ops II, the sequel to the best-selling North American-developed game of all time.

While the COD series has faced criticism — and not unjustly — for presenting single-player campaigns that consist
primarily of a series of corridors that link set pieces,
there’s no denying the formula works. This is part of the reason
why I was so surprised to see Treyarch shake things up for the first
time in nearly six years. The bulk of these changes come in way BLOPS II
empowers the player with the freedom of choice. The campaign’s flow
brings ample moments of volition that each become a component of a
narrative equation. By the end of the campaign, you’ll have experienced
a story that doesn’t feel like Treyarch’s, but rather one penned by
your own hand.

The developers have done an amazing job of creating a complex web of decisions and outcomes that present
themselves to the player in a variety of ways. Some choices are obvious and binary,
like whether or not to kill a specific character. Others are much less
apparent, such as venturing off the beaten path and discovering a piece
of intel that reveals information down the road. Still others come in the form of moments where you won’t even realize you had a choice until you talk to someone else who had an entirely different outcome altogether. By the end of
the campaign, you’ll have experienced a story that feels
uniquely your own.

black ops

The choices you make
throughout the game are enhanced by
one of the most interesting and nuanced villains in the series’
history. Raul Menendez is a tragic figure who commits atrocities
because atrocities were committed to him. There can be no positive
outcome for a man whose life contains so much anger. Inevitable
comparisons will be drawn to The Dark Knight‘s
Joker, which is fitting considering David Goyer’s work on the scripts
for both. But for as much as I loved to watch Menendez’s tragic arc, I
couldn’t help but question some of Treyarch’s decisions when it came to
toying with the game’s point of view. Without giving too much away,
BLOPS II treats your perspective as a mercurial feature of the game,
allowing it to drip freely from character to character without any real
justification, other than forcing the player to commit heinous acts.

While the actions of running
and shooting play out similarly to any other recent Call of Duty game,
there are moments of genuine calm that show an amazing amount of
restraint on Treyarch’s part. In the midst of the game’s second act,
you partake in a quiet rendezvous in Panama during the Christmas
season. What surprised me so much about this scene was how reserved and
down-to-earth it was. A married couple
argues about who should do the
chores. Nat King Cole can be heard coming from inside the house. The
soft glow of Christmas lights is juxtaposed to the greenery of the
Caribbean climate. Three friends share a beer and, more importantly, a
moment of calm introspection in the middle of so much death. I was
taken aback by how powerful this sequence was and genuinely pleased with
the decision to let players soak in a brief reprise before loading
their guns once again.

blops 2

While the story choices and
quiet moments highlight the campaign, it’s certainly not without its
share of flaws. The largest dips in quality comes in the form of the
much-touted Strike Force Missions. These sorties allow you to scan the
map from an aerial view and direct units using some very basic, very
broken RTS functions. Units rarely do as you say, going so far as
to completely ignore your orders and walk into a group of enemies
without the slightest sense of self-preservation. Upon engaging in the
first of a handful of these missions, I was quickly decimated due to
my approaching it as I would a real RTS. The only way I was able to navigate
later challenges was by eschewing any notion of strategy and simply
gunning through the levels via a first-person perspective. By and
large, these levels were interesting in theory but inelegant in
execution. I’m glad Treyarch included missions that
deviate from the norm, but I wish these portions fully embraced the notion of
strategy.

By the time the credits rolled,
I can honestly say that I was surprised and impressed by the risks Treyarch took in BLOPS II’s campaign. For the first time in the series, I felt
like my actions had consequences, and although some of the choices were
a bit too binary, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. While
it doesn’t delve into its ideas quite as deeply as Spec
Ops: The Line
did, you’ll still come across quite a bit of commentary that you wouldn’t expect from a COD game.
It’ll be quite the disappointment if next year’s inevitable Modern Warfare 4 doesn’t build upon this system of
branching paths and unique outcomes. Just a quick word of warning –
there’s a final scene at the end of the credits that left an absolutely
awful taste in my mouth. It felt pandering and completely at odds with
the narrative power that came from some of the earlier moments. It’s
obviously not canonical, but I couldn’t help but feel that its mere
presence did a disservice to the rest of the game.

continued,
(page 2 of 2)

black ops

While Treyarch made the
decision to shake things up in terms of single-player design, they
played it comparatively safe with this year’s multiplayer outing. The
competitive online space still feels very similar to every installment
since the original Modern
Warfare, albeit enhanced with a few
new features. The most interesting addition is the Pick 10 system,
which allows for players to craft a character loadout truly unique unto
themselves. Want to forego abilities in favor of a powerful primary
weapon and a souped-up side arm? You can do that. Want to carry only a
simple rifle, choosing instead to allocate your points towards perks
that raise your stats? It shall be done.

Pick 10 encourages
experimentation, rewards creativity, and ultimately takes the RPG-like
systems that have been in place since the original Modern Warfare to the next level.
BLOPS II also builds upon the constant encouragements and dangling
carrots that made the multiplayer of MW into a goliath of gaming. Not a
match goes by where you aren’t ranking up, meeting optional goals, or coming
within sight of a new perk. Even in a season as busy as this one, the
multiplayer in BLOPS II demands your time, but makes you more than
happy to part with your precious hours.

While the Pick 10 system is
immediately accessible yet incredibly deep, the map selection
available at launch doesn’t quite complement the rest of the
multiplayer. While not bad by any stretch of the imagination, the
digital battlefields included here don’t pop with quite the same
intensity as many of the other social features do. Though the locations
may be memorable, ranging from Los Angeles mansions to the deck of an
aircraft carrier, their specific geography leaves a bit to be desired.
Many maps lack multiple routes and auxiliary alcoves, leading to just a
handful of crucial choke points in each level where a majority of the
action will take place. I wanted to find a level that just clicked with
me in the same way that the Complex, Dust, and Blood Gulch did in their
respective titles. Instead, we’re left with an adequate-but-uninspired
set of maps.

black ops 2

Despite the disappointment that
stems from BLOPS II’s digital battlegrounds, I found that playing countless hours of
multiplayer really highlighted just how refined the technical aspects
of the entire series have become. The sound design an the impeccable
ability to deliver information to the player on a subconscious level. With a
good sound system, you’ll be able to pinpoint exactly where in the
environment your enemies are based solely on the placement of their gunfire.
Likewise, the sound a round makes when it hits another player informs
you of your accuracy even more so than the visuals do. The entire audio
package works in cohesion with a great framerate to create as solid a
technical base as our medium has in 2012. Now if only the art direction
could catch up with what’s beneath the hood and deliver colors other
than brown and grey, we might be onto something.

As I write this review, I’m finding it difficult to talk about BLOPS II as a single package rather than a trio of distinctly different games. Alongside the campaign
and multiplayer suite you also have zombies mode, which makes its third appearance
in the series. This time around, the highlight of this mode is Tranzit,
which Treyarch has been touting as their version of an undead campaign.
While this may be a bit of a misnomer, the mode still has enough depth
and unique mechanics to hold its own in an already crowded package.

Tranzit consists of a series of
small maps connected by a bus system that ferries you from
outpost-to-outpost. The bus runs on a schedule, meaning that if you
fail to get on within a certain period of time, you’ll have to hold up
against waves of the undead until it loops back around. While it’s
possible to hoof it on foot from one area to another, you’ll quickly
find that all sorts of beasts reside in the fog between the stops. But
the main draw of this mode lies in the bond that forms between the four
human players. In zombies, teamwork is not only encouraged, but
essential. The moment there’s a lull in communication, the entire
foundation of your playthrough will inevitably crumble apart. Calling
out weapon placement, making collective decisions on when to use a
power up, and knowing when to revive a teammate and when to concentrate
on finishing the wave all make for a social experience on par with Left 4
Dead. Nothing in BLOPS II felt
more gratifying than recovering from a seemingly hopeless situation in
this undead apocalypse.

blops 2

I was shocked by how many
tense, surprising, and just straight-up entertaining moments we
experienced throughout Tranzit. The various areas are impeccably
designed as self-contained sieges, and packed with a mass of detailed
layers that slowly peel away as your team survives longer into the
game. Chances are that your first few rounds will go less-than desired.
But with each failure comes knowledge, and your team will eventually
come up with a specific game plan for each location in Tranzit. The
further you make it into the campaign, the crazier the ideas and
mini-narratives you’ll discover. I don’t want to spoil these, because
unearthing them on your own is wildly rewarding. What I will say is
that fans of one of 2012′s more creative horror films will certainly be
able to spot where some of Treyarch’s inspirations lie.

I can honestly say that I
walked away from Black Ops II completely surprised. Not because of the
variety of content — the Call of Duty titles have never skimped on
delivering an ample amount of game. Rather, I was surprised with the
risks that Treyarch took in the name of delivering a unique and
creative experience. Not all of them paid off, but knowing that the
team was willing to eschew the safe route helped ward off any
stagnation that may have begun to creep into the series as of late. The
most telling thing I can say about Black Ops II is that it made me feel
a little bit better about the fact that Call of Duty is, and will
continue to be, a major envoy of our medium.

By Marty Sliva