Despite the fact that the game has been out for almost a year now, and that it probably has a good 2 million reviews already orbiting around it like some kind of metaphoric planetoid, I feel the need to review Black Ops II. Not for its multiplayer, or its lack of major innovations into the shooter genre, but for its story. Yes, the story. In a FPS shooter. Keep reading, it’ll make sense.
Like most shooters, the campaign of Black Ops II is, I feel, overshadowed by its multiplayer. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Multiplayer in shooters are tons of fun and add a crazy amount of mileage onto a game’s life (I know people who are still playing Modern Warfare II). But, in the second iteration of the Black Ops lineage, the story is just gold. Gold that’s been covered by dirt and debris and “no trespassing” signs by the strictly multiplayer landowners that don’t want the government to know that they’re sitting on a literal gold mine. Ok, maybe it’s not anything like that. Let’s just say the campaign is awesome.
The flow of the story, its progression from past to present to past, keeps it interesting, fresh, and gripping. What do I mean? Well, the game starts out with a meeting between David Mason (the son of the messed up, numbers-in-the-head Alex Mason from the first Black Ops) and Frank Woods (spoiler: Mason’s friend from the first game who was thought dead). Through dialogue between them, we find out the senior Mason is dead (we find out why later), and then go into the first mission. This first mission is actually played as Alex Mason, in the mid 70’s, in Africa. Because why not.
Actually, it makes sense within the story. And the entire game is like this. It flips back and forth between 70’s and 80’s campaigns following Woods and Papa Mason, and the present (well, the near future for us) with the Junior Mason and his fellow soldiers. Both story lines are connected, and both help to push the major plot along. While I was playing, I found myself drawn in by the story just like I would be with a blockbuster action movie, or a best-selling book. It wasn’t so convoluted that you lost interest halfway through, but it wasn’t dumbed down and clichéd to a point that you knew exactly what was going to happen, as a lot of shooters do. When the major draw of many shooters are their multiplayer, the fact that quite a bit of effort went into making a very appealing story, complete with Hollywood talent (ok, maybe not top of the line Hollywood talent, but still), earned major points in my book.
Now, I won’t delve into the entire story here, because as I said, it’s been a year, and if you’re reading this to decide if you want to play it or not, I won’t spoil it for you. But, I will say that the clarity of the entire story (meaning that its motives, events, and conclusions were clear) in addition to how it was delivered to us, the players, made finishing the campaign very rewarding. And, not only that, this is the first Call of Duty game that features multiple endings. Well, at least multiple branches of story that will lead to slightly different endings. And though these choices don’t effect the story in a totally free way, the fact that these choices are available, and have an impact on the game, when I wasn’t even expecting it, also earns big points. I love being surprised by video games, and I love it even more when those surprises work.
Now, the story alone isn’t the only thing that Black Ops II has going for it. It looks great, with slick gun models, lighting, particles, blooms, and so on. When you’re HALO jumping through clouds, little beads of condensation form over your visor (aka, your TV), and streak upwards due to the fact that you’re screaming towards the earth at terminal velocity. And, it looks like the real deal. Light refracts off of those little beads, and you can see scenery through them if you look close enough. Insignificant details that act like the best sprinkles ever created on top of an already delicious Black Ops cake.
In addition, the game that is offered is a bit more complex than other shooters. Instead of the simple “run, shoot, shoot, shoot, run, grenade, shoot” style that is typically found (and I’ll admit, you can play it like that), Black Ops II asks you to be a tiny bit more tactical. You don’t control a squad of people, the AI makes sure your team gets to cover and shoots the right direction, but you do have the option to unlock/saw through/hack into terminals and containers to acquire special weapons, switch deadly little robots over to your side, and alter the game play in simple ways. Are these options needed? No. But they do make the game dynamic, even on the fly, which helps bring a sense of chaos (which I imagine a shoot out would feel like) to your living room, however slight.
And, even before you jump into a mission, there are other little quirks that keep things feeling fresh. The first of these was the pre-mission loadouts that allow you to customize your weapons, the weapon attachments, the perks that you get to bring along, secondary equipment, and so on. It’s basically like setting up your multiplayer loadouts, but during the campaign. The game will notate the recommended weapons, but if you feel like bringing a sniper rifle to a shotgun fight, you can.
Also included in this section of side goodies are the strike force missions. Like the choices that you’ll make throughout the story, these strike force missions will also influence the overall progression of the story. Basically, these are missions in which you can tactically control different groups of soldiers (or you can assume control of them if you’d like) while you defend bases against invasions. If you succeed, you’ll ensure India or Russia or other countries stay out of military super power China’s elite force. If you fail, you get two more attempts, with less men each attempt, until you fail completely, and China gains more allies. You can choose to do one, none, all of them, it doesn’t matter. They’re totally optional, but fun, and add just a bit more depth to the overall world.
Now, despite everything that glows within this game, there are a couple dull areas. Minor, but they still exist. The first is the fact that it’s yet another entry into the over saturated first person shooter market, about soldiers and war and conflict and whatnot. I’m sure games like this will exist for years upon years. And, it’s hard to say now what innovations there can be when it feels like everything has already been done, twice. While this game does feel like a breath of fresh air, with its story, and the little gems within that I’ve detailed above, at its core, it’s still just another shooter. Additionally, the campaign that I love so much is too short. That’s partially a personal claim, as I was enjoying the story so much I didn’t really want it to end. I’m sure there are some people who couldn’t wait to be done with it, so they could just snag some trophies before moving on to the multiplayer. But, I wish it could’ve been twice as long. Oh well. Speaking of the multiplayer…
After the campaign, or maybe before if you just jump right in, is multiplayer. It’s what we all expect. You run around, you kill people, teenagers coked up on Mountain Dew kill you. The circle of life, really. There’s really nothing new here. It feels like Black Ops Uno. The new, pseudo futuristic guns are pretty sweet though, as are their attachments. The maps look nice, but I was disappointed that there still doesn’t seem to be any love for distance sniping, such as there was in Modern Warfare II. Where are the ghillie suits and cross map head shots? Alas, they appear to be no more, fallen like chaff along with the tactical nuke that everyone but me seemed to hate.
Despite this, and the lack of any mind blowing innovations, the multiplayer is still fun, and horrible at the same time. Horrible in the sense that you’ll easily forget it’s 3am and that you have work in 3 hours, and you’ve done nothing but finish each match middle of the pack. But, you won’t care. It redeems the multiplayer from the (in my opinion) lack luster pile of “meh” that Modern Warfare III seemed to be.
All in all, this is my favorite Call of Duty title to date. It feels like Call of Duty, it looks like it. It probably even tastes like it, if you were to try and eat it (which I don’t recommend.) But, it’s hiding some slightly subtle, somewhat new tricks up its weathered, camo sleeves that seemingly revitalize what could be said is a twice beaten horse of a franchise. Almost everything about this game was fun (I’m looking at you, ‘flying a jet through the city’ level), and fun is really what video games are all about. Additionally, everything looks great, sounds great (especially with a true surround sound set up), and the story is, in my mind, one of the best I’ve experienced in a shooter. The gameplay is fluid, smart, and feels more real than many other similar shooters. Aside from a couple minor gripes about the campaign length and it being yet another military shooter, this a great game that offers multiple play throughs before you even try the multiplayer. It earns a solid A.
- Effective mix of past and present (future) scenarios
- Fluid story telling elements; emotional and driving plot
- Ability to customize loadout prior to each mission
- Strike Force missions
- Alternate endings and multiple choices throughout the campaign that lead to multiple story paths
- Furthering and deepening of old and new characters
- Multiplayer that returned to “before Modern Warfare III” standards
- Looks beautiful, featuring great lighting, particles, and effects
- Sounds superbly splendid as well (even more so with a woofer and surrounding speakers)
- Yet another entry into an over saturated shooter market
- Relatively short main story
- “Flying” that plane was kinda bullshit
- Multiplayer didn’t offer anything innovative (No long range maps, no ghillie suits!)
Overall: 4.65/5 A
Play this while drinking a Sam Adams Boston Lager. That is all.
Oh, an explanation? Ok, ‘Merica!
No, really, a Boston Lager pairs very well with this game for a number of reasons. The first of which being; have you seen the commerical where a number of people are told that the mystery beer they’ve been drinking is a Boston Lager, and they all act like it’s the biggest surprise in the world? Well, playing this game isn’t the biggest surprise in the world (neither is the beer), but it definitely isn’t what some people will be expecting. Like the lager, the game brings a standard, tried and true formula to the table. Running, shooting, raging on multiplayer, realistic “shootiness”– just as the beer brings taste, feel, and aroma, all bundled up into a rich deliciousness that a lot of people wouldn’t expect from a “domestic” (I’m using the term domestic lightly here.)
There are a few surprises in both the game and the beer that turn what you might think are just reskinned entries of the “same ol’ same ol'” into experiences that can rejuvinate and revitalize your feelings on beer and shooters…if you even happened to be feeling that way. If you weren’t, then drinking a deeply flavorful beer named after one of America’s founding fathers, while playing a game involving America kinda getting the shit kicked out of it, is poetic enough to justify the pairing. That, and I think more people should drink Sam Adams. It’s very tasty. So do your patriotic duty, and try a Boston Lager or three. If nothing else, your online sessions will be much more entertaining.