Black Ops II Review

November 21, 2012

/ by Tin Salamunic

Developer(s): Treyarch
Publisher(s): Activision
Platform(s): PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii U
Review Platform: Xbox 360
Release Date: November 12, 2012

I am well aware that it's considered unprofessional to use the first-person in a video game review. However, in this particular instance I couldn’t care less. There are a few things I need to get off of my chest. You see, I’m frightened. I’m terrified. This is the first time I have ever set out to review a popular release and had trepidation around putting pen to paper. There are a number of reasons for this, but all one has to do is scour the Interwebs for discussion forums about Call of Duty: Black Ops II to know that no matter what score I give this game half of the people who read this review are going to hate my guts. There is so much animosity built up around the franchise, so much unbridled hatred and equally as unbridled love, that it is the perfect entrapment for a game reviewer.
  • Strike Force missions
  • Pick Ten system in multiplayer
  • Scorestreaks
  • Convoluted story campaign
  • League play
  • Poorly designed missions in the story campaign 
Let us level with one another, dear reader. You either hate or love Call of Duty, Mr. or Ms. Whoever You Are. It would be easy for me to say to the hater, “Yep! Same bullshit as before! Cookie-cutter! Template game design! More of the same!” and blah, blah, blah. It would be easy for me to say to the lover, “Nope! It’s freaking awesome! It’s so fun! Man, I really like the changes! I’m glad they didn’t make it unrecognizably CoD!” and blah, blah, blah. In this particular instance it is important that you realize, Mr. or Ms. Whoever You Are, that I am not here to serve those who love the franchise or those who hate the franchise. That is not my job. I’m here to serve the game. I’m here to look at it as subjectively as possible, to tell you what I think. And for me, that means judging the game dispassionately. I am just here to answer one simple question: Is it good or is it bad? Okay, two simple questions: Is it worth your hard-earned money?

So, let’s all just chill out for a while and talk games. Shall we?

It would be a stretch to say that much was promised as far as innovation is concerned in BLOPs II. It wouldn’t be a stretch to surmise that Treyarch desperately wanted to address the accusation that there is little in the way of game design and approach that separates Call of Duty games from one another. There are a host of new inclusions and important changes that have come to the franchise with BLOPs II. Some of them are good and some of them fall flat on their faces, embarrassingly so. Let’s start with the story campaign.

There is a vocal section of the Call of Duty community that cries out in frustration when a reviewer discusses the story campaign of a Call of Duty game. They argue that the single player doesn’t really matter, since an overwhelming majority of people play Call of Duty for the multiplayer. Well, that is certainly true. But, the story campaign is in the game, and as far as I am concerned that is reason enough to pay it attention. There are a number of new things introduced in the story campaign for BLOPs II. The ability to choose a loadout before any mission begins is excellent. No longer are you forced to scour through the litter of bodies on the ground to the find the weapon you want to use. The loadout screen lets you customize more than just your primary and secondary weapons; you can also mess around with attachments and, if you so desire, change the lethal and non-lethal weapons (grenades and such) you bring with you into the mission. It by no means marks a significant evolution in Treyarch’s approach to the franchise, but it is a nice bit of fan service in the sense that it gives the player more choice, which is rarely a bad thing.

I’m not really sure why, but video games outside the RPG genre often struggle to tell compelling and comprehensive narratives. There is no series that best illustrates this fact better than Call of Duty. BLOPs II carries on the Call of Duty tradition of having a story that, on many levels, makes no sense at all. The narrative is convoluted and even more difficult to keep track of than the perspective shifting narrative of the first Black Ops. Don’t get me wrong, the story campaign contains some great writing, but it doesn’t get its day in the sun because the narrative struggles to be understood. Who cares if character A said something really compelling if I don’t even really know who they are? Frankly, it is a mess and highlights the difficulties inherent in trying to tell a story through an interactive medium such as video games. Treyarch tries to introduce something new to spice things up though. There is a choice-based narrative that ties the story campaign together; certain things you do or do not do that will influence the outcome of your experience. You and your friends certainly won’t experience completely different stories; there simply isn’t enough variety in the choices and outcomes to make for a unique experience for each individual that plays the story campaign. But, they certainly catch your attention.

The problem is, however, that it doesn’t really work. It comes off feeling like a gimmick; a desperate attempt to figure out some way to keep the franchise fresh and interesting. A shame, because it is a perfectly viable idea. There is issue with how the choices are introduced to you: they aren’t. There are a couple of moments where it is fairly obvious that what you are or are not doing is going to matter down the road, but for the majority of the time you are never really sure whether or not the quick time event you are in is going to come to bear later on in the story. It is a scenario the Call of Duty franchise has created for itself. Players are not sure what events in the story campaign contain choice-bases elements because of the historical linearity of the series. I mean, come on, there was a time when even straight lines would look at a Call of Duty campaign and say, “What the hell? Man, stay away from that guy.” It is what we as players have been conditioned to expect from a Call of Duty game. So, of course players are going to be confused, especially when the mechanic that introduces some of the choice-based events are the same quick-time button presses that were a regular part of past story campaigns. In the end it does little to break up the monotony of a Call of Duty story campaign. As a player, you still feel herded toward an inevitable end, a for-sure quick time event, an almost-certainly hallway filled with baddies for you to mow down. The campaign, which arguably holds the greatest number of significant changes to the series, is also the part of the game that comes off feeling the most tired, the most worn, and the most familiar. It is pathetically restrictive despite its efforts to open up. Perhaps a topic for another time, but Activision may want to consider doing away with a single player component in future Call of Duty titles and focusing on multiplayer, a sort of Counter Strike move, if you will.

There is a saving grace, however. Okay, perhaps that is exaggerated. Strike Force missions are another of the new additions included with BLOPs II. It is a welcome addition to the franchise that helps break up the wearisome sameness of the story campaign. Entirely optional after the first Strike Force mission, they see you take command of several squads of marines and different kinds of futuristic mech-like robots. You can command your squads from above, in a top-down RTS-like way, or you can take control of any unit on the map at any time, bringing you out of a strategic view and putting you in the first-person. These missions are chaotic, in every sense of the word, as you try to defend or control certain points throughout a map for a particular duration of time. The strategy elements are decidedly sloppy and frustrating and your friendly AI does a great job at getting killed. You are definitely going to want to be in control of a unit a majority of the time. What this mode fails at—bad friendly AI, sloppy strategic elements—isn’t what it set out to be good at. As an element that is meant to add variety to the story campaign it succeeds and is perfectly serviceable.

Now we come to the multiplayer. If you don’t enjoy Call of Duty it is likely because, somewhere along the line, you outgrew its formula. And that is perfectly fine, but if that is the case you need to own up to it. The people who decry Call of Duty as “the same as every one that came before” have rather lofty expectations and dangerous notions of innovation. It is entirely unrealistic to expect Activision or Treyarch (or Infinity Ward of years past) to radically change a formula that works. An FPS is, at its core, about walking around shooting people, and that is something that is never going to change. Yes, Call of Duty multiplayer will probably always play the same, just like Battlefield’s multiplayer has played the same for some time. Yes, the influence and “ramifications” Call of Duty has had on the industry and within the FPS genre should be talked about. But, the issue of uniformity and sameness across Call of Duty games has grown tiresome. Most people are never going to see the kind of changes that would make them pick up a Call of Duty game again, and it is high time they stop whining and let those who do enjoy the game play as much as their little hearts desire.

While the formula itself may never change, Treyarch has taken steps to change a few of the variables. This time around, instead of killstreaks, players will earn scorestreaks, points awarded for a variety of things the player does throughout the course of a match. Everything from taking down UAVs to EMPing enemy equipment scores you points that go toward one of a handful of delightfully devastating scorestreaks. As a new system, it works. It makes sure that no one is finishing a match without any points whatsoever. Scorestreaks also open up opportunities for those players who enjoyed more objective-based multiplayer modes. Domination is a great way to score massive points and work your way toward some of the more expensive scorestreaks. Scorestreaks encourage players to go out and play for points instead of kills, and those who still do play for kills will find themselves frustrated with the more tactical approach to gameplay that some players are making the transition to.

Another welcome change is the new loadout system, which has shifted from the perk-based system of previous games to a new point-based system. Each class has an opening of ten “slots” and every piece of equipment and perks take a slot, or point, to equip. The possibilities are endless. Want to have nothing but a ballistic knife with a bunch of perks that make you fast, silent killing machine? You can. Want to become the ultimate sniper? You can. Focus on sniper rifle weapon add-ons and perks that help disguise you from radar. It’s been interesting to see what some of my friends and other players have come up with, both the ridiculous and surprisingly effective custom classes. There is one complaint to be leveled here, however. Weapon leveling is still the primary way in which you gain access to attachments for your weapons. It is a restrictive feature that does not make sense to include in a loadout system that is so open otherwise. Why not just give everyone access to all weapon attachments from the get-go? Yes, there’s an obvious answer: because then players have nothing to work towards. Well, if your game is fun to play that shouldn’t be much of a problem. Weapon leveling: get rid of it.

The last thing to discuss about BLOPs II’s multiplayer is League Play. League Play was designed to level the playing field. For years, players of Call of Duty games have put up with dying an inordinate amount throughout the course of a match. Most of us are not that guy at the top of the leaderboard with 34 kills and two deaths. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, and we die, A LOT. League Play seeks to remedy this. It is supposed to be a sort of ranked matchmaker where you play a handful of games. League Play determines your skill level and then you are placed in a tier with players of similar skill level. Unfortunately, League Play hasn’t exactly worked out how Treyarch hoped it would. An overwhelming majority of players prefer to play matches outside of League Play. Just yesterday when online, only 3,000-ish players were in the League Play lobbies and playlists, compared to the several hundred thousand that were playing outside League Play. This is a common occurrence. It’s a shame, because League Play is a great idea, but poorly executed. The decision to make it optional is what kills it as an alternative to the death-fest that is Team Deathmatch. If Treyarch’s ultimate concern was making the game fun for everyone, then why make League Play optional? Isn’t it better for everyone if you are playing people of a similar skill level? League Play shouldn’t just be an alternative for those of us who suck. League Play should cater to competitive players as well, which it does in the Championship playlists included in League Play. The problem is, those seem to be the only people playing League Play at the moment: the competitive players. I think there is an argument to be made for including skill level-based matchmaking in future installments in the franchise as the default matchmaking process. Fighting games have done it for years and have gotten fairly sophisticated in the algorithms they use to determine who to match you with. If you really want to make Call of Duty fun for everyone, don’t make League Play optional. Make it mandatory. At the end of the day, I would have a lot more fun with your game if I were playing matches that were decided by several kills instead of 20.  

So there you have it. Is Call of Duty: Black Ops II more of the same? Yes, it is. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Treyarch has done all it needed to do: Make a sincere effort at freshening some of the franchise’s tired and worn elements. New things have been added, and some things have been taken away. Some of them worked out, and some of them didn’t. Ultimately, the popularity of Call of Duty works for and against it. It’s a veritable paradise for the tech academic who wants to look at how games enter, and exist in the public sphere. The most popular of anything always has a target painted on its back. But, it is also hard to feel sorry for the most popular of anything. Often times, the greatest and the most popular suffer at their own hands. The same is true of Call of Duty; it is what it is, and you will either enjoy it or you won’t. The problem is that too many people don’t approach Call of Duty as what it is: a game. Too many people approach it as a cultural juggernaut that is single-handedly ruining the game industry. Sorry folks, but Call of Duty isn’t ruining the game industry. It is a game. It is something we interact with to have fun, and if you don’t have fun with it then don’t play the bloody game. Call of Duty: Black Ops II does enough right to be enjoyable as a game, and for that it doesn’t deserve to be derided. 

Final Score “It's Time for a Change” 7.5
It is hard to say that the game looks spectacular when many of the best-looking parts have been seen before in other games and done better. That being said, it is certainly easy on the eyes.
Ultimately, the gameplay in the story campaign drags this score down. It’s just not fun and you’ll spend too much time dying from enemies clairvoyant enough to spot you on the other side of the map as you are herded from point A to B.
If you decide to buy Call of Duty: Black Ops II, there is enough here to keep you occupied for quite some time. Zombies mode in and of itself is worth $15 to $20. So, don’t worry about feeling cheated in the money department.
As usual, the audio is good. Gun shots, ricocheting bullets, and nearby explosions sound fantastic. There is little that disappoints in the audio department.

Review by Jon Hamlin

Jon Hamlin is a freelance game journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He plays too much Mass Effect 3 multiplayer and enjoys a good glass of wine. Occasionally, he can be found commanding his legion of doom on Xbox Live as GeniusPantsPhD. Follow him on Twitter @WordsmithJon, or email him at All Articles by Jon.             

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  1. The first honest Black Ops II review that I read.

  2. Thank you for the balanced score. The extreme highs and extreme lows were annoying as hell. This is spot on!

  3. Nailed it. I even returned the game after a week of playing it. same old, same old.


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