By – David Queener

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A common phrase regarding annual franchises (ignoring that Call of Duty runs two separate story arcs so it is only every other year for the campaigns) is that they are simply reskins for the purpose of additional revenue, milking the goodwill of the long-ago established player base. Black Ops 2 is the inverse case, the old skins are distinctly present as you spend a good deal of time with major players from the first Black Ops: Mason, Woods, and Hudson. In short, Black Ops 2 is a major change in direction for the franchise with its branching storyline involving multiple endings but also altered mid-points in the story arc. It is a linear game, but you hold the fate of the characters in your hand, and failure is not immediately obvious in either mechanics or story.

A cross-generational game, you follow the experiences of Alex Mason in the 1980s and son David Mason in 2025 as they follow the lifespan and development of drug running class warrior turned charismatic global terrorist, Raul Menendez. Alternating between flashbacks played out from the perspective of Alex Mason or Woods, you experience their encounters with a young Menendez firsthand and how this shaped all of them. The information gained from this turns into active pursuits for David “Section” Mason in 2025.This serves multiple useful roles from the player’s angle as you learn more of what happened in the previous game, who the character of Alex Mason is but it also lends itself to gameplay variety. Where the flashbacks involve brutal combat with traditional weapons for both war and the franchise, the 2025 missions emphasize technology, augmentation, and drones.

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In one aspect the campaign almost flows like the RTS game Dark Reign, where all but the last level was a training protocol for a major and difficult battle. Black Ops 2′s campaign is largely back story, introduction, and framing for the main conflict which is only for a few levels at the end. The key aspect here is that how you handle these framing missions is more so foundational, as they answer questions through your actions as to what became of a character or how did they know of a mole in their group (if they did at all). Ultimately you are building the end game that you receive. That is the interesting essence of Black Ops 2 as a military first person shooter. You have your missions, your objectives, and as a soldier you follow them, and when something comes up that wasn’t part of the plan you have to make a call based upon any theoretical training, but also a personal compass. This is where the natural yet orchestrated drama comes from as you are making decisions that impact characters with backgrounds and relationships. My decisions were not always optimal and it led to an eventual investment in the game, as I felt bound to the consequences of my actions.

A few hours into the game, I went from being someone playing a first person shooter to someone who wanted to stop Raul Menendez. I had finally begun to see just how vicious he was, not merely on an ideological level but what he was capable of. Some may speak of sadism in Black Ops 2 but it really is rage. The rage of a child, versus the rage of a victim. At the conclusion of the back story, suddenly the title menu’s theme song by Trent Reznor, which was very similar in tone to the song And All That Could Have Been, felt appropriate. I was sad. I was angry. I went to bed that night eager to start again in the morning, to unravel Raul Menendez’s scheme, and most of all, to bring him comprehension of the evils he had committed. This was a new experience for me coming from a video game. I certainly didn’t expect it from Call of Duty.

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A common exchange I have had with people regarding the storyline is that it sounds akin to a Mass Effect title, but one thing it does bring which I expect from Call of Duty is shooting. This is still a very tight first person shooter. The combat is a rewarding engagement: punchy and responsive. The lines between single player and multiplayer mechanics have been blurred with both using hitmarkers, a mechanic previously seen in just the multiplayer. In Black Ops 2 you are indirectly prepared for multiplayer through the campaign and not just with hitmarkers. As the campaign progresses you are given optional Strike Force missions which usually take place in one of the multiplayer maps with capture or defend objectives wherein you command and possess distinct soldiers or other units who can die (no respawning or reloading a save) but may become resupplied at a later point. These optional missions represent the war at large using a scale similar to Chess or Risk. Your performance here can act as a contributor for the end result, as you manage tasks such as defending India’s drone facility from the near autonomous Chinese military.

In the normal campaign missions you are also given the ability to customize your loadout, which usually has a default of something akin to an M16 with a grenade launcher and a pistol in the 1980s missions and an MTAR with a Hybrid Sight as well as the typical accessories for either. But why be satisfied with that? I will take that MTAR, but I want a Millimeter Scanner for the sight, a Fast Magazine attachment, and a vertical foregrip, and why not take a Remington shotgun with a long barrel and laser sight as a secondary? Then you get to choose your perks for the single player. These perks are not mirrors of what the multiplayer offers, but it acts as an introduction to the concept.

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A distinct departure from what is available in the multiplayer is the perk Access Kit, a collection of bolt cutters, lock picks, and other such equipment. From time to time you may notice an indicator of ″Access″ hovering over the area in a level. With the Access Kit you can investigate what is within and the results can be anything from armor, to a wide array of improvised and unconventional weapons, access to a turret, or simply eavesdropping on guards. Highlights were bear traps as land mines, and a taser equivalent to brass knuckles that was satisfying to use, and at one point which I could not reproduce, caused my target to vomit profusely upon death.Each level also has challenges with score value which can unlock more customizations for future levels, which can impact your performance as a character such as the ability to reach an escaping enemy in time. Story arc swaying aside, these customizations give each mission replayability such as exploring how it would work using primarily close combat weapons, or utilizing a weapon from one time period in another.

At an early point I had a rather large block of text written up about how horrible the horses were in the mission Old Wounds. They had a habit of getting stuck in the ground, rotating vertically, and causing NPCs to drop out of the world and blocking progress. Fortunately, this has been patched by Treyarch and was an issue caused by machines with four or more cores.  I have since replayed the mission and encountered no such difficulties. The frustrations behind that bug were the primary stumbling block from enjoying Black Ops 2 on a technical level. The patch not only fixed that level but increased performance, and increased the field of view slider in the Options to 90 degrees from its previous max of 80.

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The fact that checkpoints aren’t automatic saves to your hard drive but rather respawn markers in the case of death means a lot of time in load states should you crash. The load states are masked by cutscenes that at first are fine flavor but odd on repeat viewings due to how a single level can alter your impressions of the story. When you add in the lack of a loading progress bar, and an intermittent indicator of what button to strike to skip the scene when the level has loaded you find yourself doing a bit of an input dance around the time you think the level might load. Sometimes the letterboxing of the cutscenes was white rather than black. In a similar flash of missing polish, if you go to the pause screen while in a non-combat scene (gun lowered almost out of view), you cannot navigate the pause menu with your mouse. This is presumably hampered by the same logic keeping you from shooting friendlies in the game.

Less on the front of bugs and into the realm of pacing, the game periodically changes tone or player demands in ways that might be jarring. The worst for me was the sudden inclusion of what would have been otherwise an enjoyable moment – a free roaming dogfight with drones across the Los Angeles skyline in a VTOL warship. What started out as a cool bit of toying with tech turned into frustration as I struggled to avoid skyscrapers without losing sight of my target, or the vehicle I was escorting. This demonstrated a broad scope, but the skills the game had trained me with were useless in this unavoidable scenario. Accompanying this are impromptu quick time events and slow-mo battles in the mix of normal gameplay which I found disruptive to the rhythm, despite the situation’s novelty.

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Horses aside, these issues were not significant values in the total game experience. The engine may be old, but age is at best a marginal factor with solid art design, which is one of Treyarch’s strong suits. The game world looks great for its use of color and architecture rather than blurring and blooming the scene, and packed with details from the immersive to the acknowledging (hacking a drone in the mission Celerium involves a brief nod to Doom with the HUD text of ″IDKFA″ for a moment).

Levels are introduced with sprawling vistas, and other than a few side points, the combat is spent among these grand compositions which are largely rooted in reality but with a flair. Reality with a flair is a sufficient description of the storyline with its use of social media, the 99% movement, the reality of rare earth elements’ growing importance, and the inclusion of factual people.  Unfortunately the storyline presupposes the continued career of David Petraeus, crediting him as the Secretary of Defense which makes for repeatedly awkward moments in the wake of recent events.  Couple this with the presence of a president which closely resembles Hillary Clinton but is not named as such, and the inclusion of Oliver North (voiced by himself) and you get a bizarre melding of our world and those found in Call of Duty.

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Is It Worth Your Money?

I think it is. It is flawed but not in any new way, and not in aspects that other franchises get a pass for such as linearity and the “Whack-a-Mole” gameplay which follows most implementations of cover with contemporary weapons. Replaying select missions while writing this review got me trying different methods.  I found the combat is quite enjoyable, and the more you experiment with the inventory, the more enjoyable and nuanced it is as a direct first person shooter. It is engaging, the gunplay is good, and frankly I can’t wait to complete the multiplayer review so I can return to the single player and right those wrongs. I did not want that outcome, I wanted to save those people, and the world of Black Ops 2 became one that mattered to me.

Black Ops 2 Technical Summary:

  • Time Played – 8 Hours
  • Widescreen Support – Yes
  • 5.1 Audio Support – Yes
  • Control Scheme – Keyboard/Mouse, Gamepad (Keyboard/Mouse used for review)
  • DRM – Steamworks
  • System – Windows 7, AMD Phenom II X6 3.2ghz, 16gb RAM, Radeon HD 6850
  • Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
  • Availability – Steam
  • Demo – No
  • Full Report via PC Gaming Wiki
  • Bugs/Crashes Encountered – Post-patch there are still periodic crashes; camera clips through environment and characters during some in-level cutscenes; UI can be difficult to navigate with a mouse due to porting issues.

 

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