The times they are a changin'. You can almost feel it in the air. You can definitely watch it happen in Activision's Call of Duty: Black Ops II. In fact it's their willingness to embrace the changes that have kept them atop the military-sim-game genre lo these many years. Here's a look at how they are trying to impact an ever-changing hobby.
It's important to remember that the campaign mode of the game should constitute the real meat of the game and online play or minigames should remain peripheral, something developers of late have given so little thought to that they practically force gamers online to find something interesting. Black Ops II doesn't take that tactic, instead giving both campaign and online play nearly equal focus.
The campaign story covers a couple generations and spans the years from the end of the first Black Ops, culminating in the year 2025. And oh how time changes things indeed. While they do bring back the original characters such as Frank Woods and Alex Mason to start and then introduce you to their progeny later, the story really follows the life of a Bond-like villain named Menendez and his rise to power from the Cold War era through to the future. For once the game seems to center around the bad guy.
The gameplay is nothing short of fascinating. Rendering of nearly every facet is as good as I've seen. Every rock, tree, bush, building and puff of smoke looks stunning. Exploring the vast environs is almost pleasing enough to be distracting. Almost. There's always the constant air of danger that brings you back. Which is what makes combat in this game so fun. While the Call of Duty series has always been billed as the most real war experience in a video game, Black Ops II has raised it to another level. You are always looking over your shoulder immersed in the warfare.
Strike Force Missions are new sub-story missions that a player will have a choice of completing. The cool thing is they can take control of any element of their arsenal at any time, allowing you to control everything from squad members to drones. There's even an "Overwatch" where by you act as central command and control everything from positioning troops to setting waypoints. Though I never really found that particular aspect useful or even that fun, I can see how it would appeal to others. The best thing about the Strike Force Missions, and the game in general, is how the outcome is determined by choices made during the game. True to reality, if you fail a mission, you don't get to respawn and give it another shot, instead you get to grin and bare the consequences of your failure. Try not to squeeze the controller until it cracks.
The only bone I can pick with the combat is a problem shared with the game's competitor, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, artificially unintelligent teammates. Too often your squad members fail to kill a soul in a firefight and you are forced to do the heavy lifting, or heavy killing to be exact. It feels as though they are only keeping the bad guys busy until you can arrive and finally save the day. I don't know how any player could get through a level without achieving quadruple the kills of every other member of the squad. No wonder the enemy always puts a heavy focus on you during combat. Without you these guys aren't much of a threat.
The online play is where we find the franchise following the direction many games are trending toward. For instance live-streaming and CODcasting. Black Ops II gives you the option of streaming your live game directly to the Internet or even to mobile devices. So you can not only play it online you can watch your friends eat lead for a few minutes while you eat your lunch. With CODcasting you can broadcast previously recorded games for the purpose of training, strategizing or just plain sharing. Long gone are the days when you were just happy to walk into the local arcade and see your name at the top of the list of best scores. Now you can show the whole world how you did it.
These days more players are jumping online to pit their skills against the best of the best. So many of them lose faith when they realize they are barely able to stay alive for more than a few minutes before some beefed up thug forces them to respawn again. This repeats ad infinitum. Black Ops II has an answer for that too, League Play. In this mode players are tested and ranked and only play against players of the same rank. So you can be guaranteed that none of your foes is loaded out any better than you. Everyone starts on equal footing. As a player acquires more gear and experience points he is transferred to a 'bigger' league to play against tougher opponents, ensuring the footing remains equal throughout the game.
I would be remiss not to mention that this game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 and not the Playstation 3 console. While I never experienced any issues with the game there are a lot of disappointed PS3 owners who have had to deal with a lot of freezes, crashes, hard reboots and patches. Testimonials online as well as in my own inner circle are testy at their nicest and down right vulgar in their worst. I can only assume the game was specifically designed for the Xbox and then adapted to the PS3 and it's that oversight that deserves a mention here.
Given that fact, I can also only report that my experience with the game was a blast. Any COD title has pretty big shoes to fill and Black Ops II is a perfect fit. It's immersive, full of play, and a tad trendy. It's more social and probably the best gameplay yet from the franchise. And I haven't even mentioned that the Zombies make their return as well. As usual the Call of Duty franchise has dropped another golden egg for Activision, expect record sales and Game of the Year accolades to follow.
Contact Tom Fisher at firstname.lastname@example.org.