Subtle is never a word I thought I’d use to describe any element of a Call of Duty game, but the pre-title cutscene that paints a picture of how Black Ops II’s villain was formed is beautifully put together, in no short thanks to an excellent song choice with Elbow’s ‘The Night Will Always Win.’ The emotional reactions from most COD moments are usually sudden violence, be it first-person execution, slowly dying in a nuclear blast, the death of a child and so on, it’s never had anything like this. After this strangely heartfelt and sympathetic opening, subtlety kind of goes out of the window as it’s all slit throats and shotguns to the knees for the other scenes. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted. After all, we’re here to blow shit up.
The story moves back and forth through time following Mason from the first game in the 70s and 80s then zipping forward to his son in 2025. The apparently-not-dead Woods ties the two narratives together as we try to track down new bad guy, Menendez. For the first few hours, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but later on it all starts to tie together very nicely indeed.
The older missions are set in South American jungles, military compounds and Afghanistan (so much for dodging that sandy hellhole for this one). The 2025 levels do a bit of globetrotting too, with an exclusive millionaires-only resort and a LA warzone amongst others. The 2025 levels feature futuristic tech like aerial drones to compete with in addition to never ending soldiers; some of whom are suited up with invisible camo clothing, everyone has a never-ending supply of bastard grenades too, proving some things never change.
I was excited to get on with the campaign in Black Ops II, in no short measure to try out the new choices I’d been hearing about. To be honest though, these choices boil down to choosing who lives or dies at certain points, with some replays showing they die anyway. These deaths don’t really affect the levels you play. Instead, a few faces may go missing from cutscenes or appear where they didn’t last time. You’re not always directly told about a choice and it’s often hard to spot them, as events often appear heavily scripted and set in stone. It’s only when looking through the Trophy lists that you realise things could have gone differently on a mission where you try to halt a kidnapping for example. When these choices are so vague and appear to have little consequences it ruins the hopes I had that I’d be rushing to replay the game to see how I could change things.
Direct in-game gameplay choices are few and far between, such as the choice to rappel down with your team or provide sniper support from above. But seeing as it’s a sniper rifle that can see and shoot through concrete and multiple vehicles it was an easy choice.
While some stages are the usual corridors of death, there’s a drastic improvement to many areas where shootouts are held. They’re much bigger, allowing you to do more than just attack from the front. You can flank to the sides and usually take an upstairs route too. Of course, there are still too many areas with infinitely spawning enemies, rooting you to the spot for ages while the game waits for you to do one.
There’s even an option of gaining access to locked areas where you may find body armour, powerful weapons or hackable drones to help you out. I’m a big fan of being able to choose my own loadout at the start of each mission too, this even includes perks! More weapons, items and perks are unlocked as you progress, mainly by completing the new challenges.
These challenges are a blessing and a curse. Mainly a curse. For some unknown and ridiculous reason, you can’t access the challenges checklist during a stage. Before and after, that’s fine - but not during. Am I supposed to write them down? These are the sort of objectives that would help to extend the single-player experience too. They involve running down 10 people on your horse, weapon-based kill counts, clearing a certain number of vehicles during a halo assault and so on. I thought the list might unlock on the pause screen after completing the game, with an excuse being Treyarch didn’t want us to get distracted with Challenges for the first playthrough as it might disrupt the flow of the story and the fast-paced action that propels you furiously forward at an admittedly brilliant rate. But no.
While not massive innovations for the FPS genre, it’s the first time we’ve seen COD try to branch out a little and while far from breaking the mould, they’re welcome changes that display a series trying to refresh itself despite consistently huge sales that mean they could just release the same game every year, like FIFA with guns.
There’s even more new material to tell you about yet, like Strike Force missions. These stages allow you to control any troop or drone on the battlefield and you can also step back into Overwatch mode to direct teams around the battlefield, assigning them specific targets. Nothing too complicated, they’re either going to shoot it or protect it. While possible to complete these missions purely as an Armchair General, you won’t be able to resist selecting any soldier on your map and hopping into his boots to do it yourself. These missions are integrated into the campaign rather than a standalone mode, which doesn’t really work as far as gameplay-style flow goes, although it does have some marginal impact on a few story elements.
The last mission in particular is particularly difficult and I had to get my hands dirty as my AI subordinates didn’t seem to understand the concept of not standing in front of turret drones and being blasted to pieces. Dumbass AI aside though, this mode works well enough as an extra to the series, but I wasn’t in the mood to be interrupted with it in the middle of the campaign. You don’t have to attempt these missions straight away, but the window is usually brief, usually within the next few levels.
Rather than invent a slew of new modes for multiplayer, Treyarch have worked on loadout freedom. It’s a simple change, but one that allows an exhilarating amount of freedom. You have ten slots to fill as you please. So if you never use that pistol, why not ditch it for an extra attachment, perk, grenade or even an extra primary weapon? Some slots need to be filled with a wildcard modifier to allow the extra perk or firearm, but with a bit of planning you can sacrifice the useless stuff (pistol and flashbangs for me) and tart yourself up a bit more.
Weapons level up individually, with unlocks coming in the shape of attachments like grips, magazines and sights. The new scrolling menus make it easier to browse your gun collection too.
The league options are quite interesting, as you play a few matches to climb the ranks as a solo or team player. The best thing about them is that all the kits are unlocked for everyone, regardless of rank, meaning everyone can run around with the best toys. Unsurprisingly, this makes good players devastatingly powerful.
Which brings me onto the Scorestreaks which aren’t the revolution we were promised. While you do get more points for helping out your team rather than kills, it’s still a ball-ache losing your points when you die. You’ll need at least 3-4 kills for the most basic rewards making it difficult for casual players to make an impact. Homefront nailed rewards better as points carried on accumulating even after death.
New modes are thin on the ground with one acting like domination but with shifting zones to capture and the new three team battles will only be exciting for anyone that doesn’t remember playing four team matches on Timesplitters way back on PS2.
The framerate and action run smoothly enough, but there’s still that nagging feeling that you’re being screwed over a lot. Such as when you watch yourself get rinsed on the killcam only to see the game register shots that are clearly missing you or dying from two shots to the leg when you emptied a clip into the other guy’s face.
I encountered a few early issues when trying to connect to the multiplayer matches, but nothing too bad to be honest. Zombies mode is currently a royal mess though. Frequently crashing/freezing in the lobby or just after a match made it very difficult to give a decent go.
The new Tranzit mode features a bus for your team to travel around on after achieving some invisible goal. Restoring power or building items isn’t explained very well at all, which can have you floundering around a bit. You’ll know when the bus is about to leave as you’ll hear its horn honking in the distance, prompting a frantic scramble to make it in time. You can jump on even when it’s moving for some fantastically dramatic escapes. While on the bus, you’ll have to defend it from attackers and board up the windows as you go. Eventually you end up back where you started which is massively disappointing. Teaming up with another three players against the undead hordes can be fun though as long as you’re not surrounded by selfish pricks that would rather bag a big score than revive fallen teammates.
Other modes involve surviving against the waves as a team or as two teams aiming for the best score against each other while taking down zombies. I’ve not much else to say about these modes, because I’ve only managed to get about 30 seconds of play out of them thanks to the connection issues. Activision are fully aware of the problem and are working on a patch at the time of writing. For now, I’m happy enough will the regular multiplayer options.
- More loadout freedom than ever in SP and MP
- Campaign has more open approaches to stages instead of usual corridors
- Pedal to the metal fun in the campaign and excellent multiplayer matches
- Choices options in campaign not that involving
- Zombies mode currently broken
- Challenges poorly indicated in campaign
The Short Version: While much of the campaign isn’t set in the future, the action is still frantically paced fun and the story is probably the best seen in a Call of Duty game yet. Zombies mode is currently broken. But what I have been able to play wasn’t particularly impressive, with a lack of interesting stages failing to spark a real desire in me for Treyarch to fix it anytime soon. Multiplayer is reliably excellent fun though. The simple -yet brilliant- revolution of giving players total freedom to tailor their loadout makes Black Ops II a joy to play. Not many new modes to speak of, but existing party favourites, deathmatch options and shiny futuristic boomsticks will make this your new favourite online FPS.