Over the last few years we’ve come to expect certain things from the Call of Duty franchise; crappy single player campaigns, huge sales, torrents of abuse from mouthy teenagers, minimal changes to an almost disgustingly tried and tested formula, identikit online play and maps that range from the uninspired to the occasionally clever. Surprisingly this year things have actually changed, and we’re absolutely delighted about it.
We’ll start with the franchise’s traditional weak suit – the single player campaign. Normally this is little more than a way to pass the time between online battles, but Treyarch has gone all out to shake things up, almost beyond recognition. Gone is the typical four to six hours of dreary, pointless feeling action, and in comes a monumentally epic experience, dripping with epicness from start to finish.
The story is a dual pronged affair, taking place both in the past after the events of the original Black Ops, with Alex Mason, and in the near future of 2025 with his son David. Rather than being a chore, the missions where you control daddy Mason are more a hark back to previous games in terms of weaponry and setting. They’ll be immediately familiar to series stalwarts thanks to their settings, comprising of a mix of greenery and arid landscapes. Unlike previous games, however, there’s an unfamiliar sense of creativity evident in terms of structure and design. For the most part it’s still the same experience – you’re shepherded from one checkpoint to the next, tasked with killing anything that moves along the way – but there are subtle changes to the way the storyline plays out, to the narrative itself and to the way the game feels.
For the future-based levels, the CoD playbook has gone out the window. It’s the first time that we’ve seen futuristic technology such as enemies using cloaking devices, drones (which play a large part in the overall story progression), advanced weaponry and high tech locales. In many ways it feels similar, but at the same time it’s a breath of fresh air for the series.
Tying both sides of the campaign together is Raul Menendez, a brand new antagonist who has been building a cartel of heavies under the guise of being a saviour of the people. Through Alex we plot Menendez’s early days, while with David it’s all about finding him and destroying him before he’s had the opportunity to goad the world superpowers into destroying each other. While it’s not exactly a master class in narrative, it works exceptionally well, particularly in the Alex based missions where we see his friendship with Frank Woods growing as they take on Menendez’s men together.
For a Call of Duty game, it’s seriously impressive, but even for a first person shooter in general it’s certainly up there with some of the finer moments of the past few years. Things are shaken up even further by the fact that you encounter choice for the first time in the series. While it rarely amounts to much other than deciding on which way you’ll progress, either geographically or in terms of what your character does in a certain event (for example will you let Alex pull the trigger during the violent questioning of a prisoner or will you fight against his urges?), it makes a huge difference to the way the game feels and plays. Finally there’s the sense that you have a bigger part to play than simply keeping your character alive throughout.
There’s also the addition of the game’s Strike Force missions. There has been a lot said about these in the run up to the game’s release, but it’s not until you actually get a chance to get to grips with them that you’ll really get your head around what they are to the game. We have no doubt that some will hate them, but they’re optional so there’s no player obligation to give them a go. Essentially, they take the CoD experience and add a new quasi-RTS style twist to them. You’re able to command your units either individually or together as a complete force in order to fight off the enemy, or take them on in order to break a stronghold.
Truth be told, they don’t quite succeed. They often feel as if there’s simply too much happening at any given time and the controls, explained and all as they are through a reasonable tutorial, are less than intuitive. Often it’s easier simply to take control of one of the squad and try to complete your objectives single-handedly, but that would be to miss the point. While they don’t necessarily work as well as they could have, Strike Force missions are definitely key to Black Ops II’s transition from a vanilla shooter to something a little different. They have a big say in the game’s outcome in terms of storyline, but they also prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Treyarch is trying to change the way the title is perceived. Despite racking up countless millions in sales, the fact that CoD developers actually seem interested in artistic integrity once again is a very, very good thing.
There are no concerns over the length of the campaign either; you can expect to get around eight hours out of each play through, and there’s actually plenty of reason to come back when you’re done and give it another go thanks to the many forks in the story that affect how things pan out. On top of all that, there’s the fact that everything about the campaign screams epic. From the first shot until the last, there’s always something there to impress in terms of scope or intelligence. The set-pieces, typically huge disappointments in the series, have been given a fresh breath of life, and they’ll genuinely blow you away at times.
In short, Black Ops II does what few people could have expected; it takes the single player CoD experience and reimagines in such a major way that it feels completely different. Of course, in terms of gameplay mechanics it’s still Call of Duty – the peerless satisfaction offered by the impeccable gunplay and glorious audio work is still the same – but it just feels… fresh. And that’s not something we imagined ourselves saying a couple of weeks ago.
So, for the first time in a long time, we find ourselves recommending a Call of Duty title on the strength of its single player campaign alone – but as we all know, there’s a little bit more to the game than that…
It’s the multiplayer side of the franchise that has seen it explode into the monster we know today. It’s hard to believe that just nine years ago the game debuted, with none of the hype or swagger expected of it today, and slowly but surely made a name for itself as it embraced the emerging trend of online console gameplay. In those nine years though, it has become such a success that it has started to face the inevitable backlash from gamers and critics alike. We’re not blameless in this either. For all the qualities the series has, we occasionally find ourselves searching for reasons to hate it, just because it’s THE big game event of the year, every single year. In the past there were certainly things to cling onto in that respect, but this year there are much fewer.
The changes to the game’s multiplayer side haven’t been as sweeping as those found in the campaign, but there have been enough for us to take notice. The one that’ll immediately affect everyone is the overhaul to the perk system; Pick 10. Despite sounding like a cheap scratch card, Pick 10 is a genuinely interesting approach to the way perks work, and it encourages you to continually chop and change your character’s loadout, hopefully leading to a much more varied play style for the majority of online combatants.
There’s satisfaction to be had by experimentation here, and it goes a long way to getting rid of the trend of finding a loadout you like and sticking with it, regardless of what else you have unlocked along the way. It’s something that we’ve been guilty of ourselves down through the years, and despite the fact that we never realised it at the time, it does sap a lot of enjoyment out of the experience.
Basically, you’ve got ten loadout points to play with, and everything you choose will deduct points from your total. Once you’ve got no points left, you’re ready to roll. As you unlock more attachments and perks, the choices get tougher but you’re always enticed to give something else a try. The only downside is that it’s perhaps a little too menu intensive, and there’s no randomize button which would’ve been particularly cool. Despite that though, it works exceptionally well because it tears up the rulebook allowing you to try things that had probably crossed your mind in previous games, but which you never gave too much thought to, like dumping your grenades in favour of an additional perk. You’ve got 10 points to play with, as well as Wild Cards, so you might as well use them as creatively as you can, right?
The next big change is the fact that Killstreaks are gone, replaced instead with Scorestreaks. While some players won’t be too happy about that, we see it as an inspired decision, taking as it does the focus off consecutive kills and the negative play that can arise from being one kill off your top Killstreak reward, and instead pushing players to try whatever will net them the most points in the shortest time. This balances out certain game modes, and actually ensures that players do what they’re supposed to, rather than just running around shooting each other in the face – although that’s obviously still an option if you want to take that approach.
In making this change, Treyarch has successfully changed the face of Call of Duty multiplayer. So long focused on kill/death ratios, it’s now about points. Again, some will hate it, but the fact that it finally does something to change the way the game is approached, arguably levelling the playing field for those who enjoyed objective based modes rather than straight up Deathmatches, is huge for the series.
Those of you who prefer to play in teams rather than going all out for yourself will be intrigued to find out how well the new multi-team modes have worked. We’ll save you the wait by telling you they kick serious ass. Out goes the old formula of two teams and in comes the added carnage of additional factions. We’ve found this works best with three teams of three players, as it ensures that there’s enough room to breathe within the maps, while still giving enough scope to work together as a cohesive, death-bringing unit.
The final big change that we think will interest you is the way the Prestige system has been handled this time around. Rather than wiping all your stats and making you start over with each new Prestige, Black Ops II lets you hold onto all your previous numbers and simply adds more for you to do with them. Call us old fashioned, but we’re amazed people actually went to all that bother of Prestigeing before given the fact that there was little reward for doing so – here though it’s actually worthwhile working your way through each of the ten Prestige levels; assuming you’ve actually got that much time to put into the game of course.
There are other, more subtle changes here, but for the most part things remain quite similar to the mechanics you’ll be familiar with. In terms of game modes, the usual suspects all make a return, while there are a few interesting new things to try out including Hardpoint, and the return of Kill Confirmed – still one of the most enjoyable online FPS modes we care to remember.
We admit that we were primed to have a go at Black Ops II, expecting it to be little more than a retread, but that’s simply not the case. It’s clear that a huge amount of time, work and effort has gone into the game from Treyarch, and it goes well above and beyond what we have come to expect from a yearly franchise sequel. We have no doubt that it’ll upset certain fans who were hoping for more of the same, but for everyone else Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a genuine must-have – which is a nice surprise to say the least.