Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Review: Innovation vs. Expectation

First, Treyarch extends the story of Black Ops, and is actually getting fairly good at telling CoD stories that aren’t just window dressing. The basic story is that of hunting and trying to stop terrorist leader Raul Menendez, who is waging a revenge campaign against Alex Mason, the brainwashed protagonist of the first game, and his friends and family. It goes to some pretty dark places and jumps around between flashbacks of the past and the near-future setting of 2020, and it really does help that the story is less about the world-ending crisis than it is about a group of characters who have wronged each other.

But while the campaign skips back and forth between the past and the future, it lacks anything that really makes it exciting from moment to moment, set pieces notwithstanding. The near-future setting occasionally offers a robot to fight alongside or to kill, but these don’t really provide as much variety to the whole experience as you might think. Mostly what you get are guns that mark targets or let you see through walls, and a lot of taking out bad dudes as they pop out of cover. Enemies certainly haven’t gotten smarter a decade into the future.

To continue to shake things up, however, Black Ops 2 makes the story significantly more adaptive than it has ever been before. There are moments in which players will have to make split-second decisions or are asked to perform specific tasks, and success or failure will have a clear affect on the story of the game. These seem to have ripple effects later — for example, if you fail to rescue a VIP during the campaign, you’ll have to send Navy SEALS after her during another mission.

It’s not clear right away just how expansive some of these differences can be, and I think it’s worth stopping and noting that Treyarch has done something remarkable for this series with the story of Black Ops 2. With all other CoD games from Modern Warfare forward, the game outcome has been pre-determined — the game is more or less on rails, with players being told what to do in order to get to the end of the ride. Here, for the first time, it isn’t just possible to ignore or disobey the instructions the game gives you. At times, it’s essential. Here’s a CoD game in which you don’t (always) have to do what you’re told, and that results in a very dynamic game.

The lion’s share of this effect is achieved through subtle story moments that you don’t necessarily know are important, or how they’ll be important, until they happen. In addition, there are also special “Strike Force” missions that can affect the outcome of the story. Strike Force is the biggest new innovation to the Call of Duty formula: Players send teams of SEALs and drones to execute special missions around the world, like defending a convoy, protecting a base, or rescuing a VIP.

These missions are very different from the usual CoD formula — they have an RTS structure that has players controlling multiple elements from the air, rather than taking on the role of a single character. That means you can direct elements around the battlefield, and in an even cooler change, you can zap down and take control of any single human, robot or drone in play. It allos you to pop around the battlefield, putting out fires as your units get into trouble by taking direct control.

In practice, Strike Force is a great idea with a poor, sometimes buggy execution. Occasionally, elements such as squads of SEALs won’t move from their spawn points, forcing you to take control of each man manually, and more often resulting in an underpowered force reaching a critical area and getting mauled by waiting enemies, since half the team is still standing in a parking lot on the other side of the map. Zipping in and out of combat roles is a cool idea, but it just doesn’t really work all that well, as you usually find yourself joining a fight at the wrong moment or suddenly alone as your team falls in a hail of bullets.

The pressure is also off on these missions, at least in the Regular and Hardened difficulties, as you can replay them enough times to complete them all. There are five Strike Force missions you can access in total, depending on how the story shakes out for you, and so even if you screw up royally, you’re not stuck dealing with the consequences of your failure. This is both nice, because Strike Force doesn’t always work as well as it should because of the AI, and irritating, because it removes the requirement of being a successful tactician.

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17 Comments on Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Review: Innovation vs. Expectation

Ebalosus

On November 13, 2012 at 12:48 am

“Activision has provided Gaeme Front with a PC copy, which we’ll be evaluating once it unlocks at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 13″

You may want to fix that
:P

Phil Hornshaw

On November 13, 2012 at 12:52 am

@Ebalosus

Indeed! Thanks!

srsly

On November 13, 2012 at 10:05 am

> We tend to compare CoD games to other shooters like them and often find those other games lacking…

Because CoD has things like the option to pilot a large variety of vehicles, play in a squad-oriented or lone-wolf style, have up to 64 players in one game, destroy campers’ cover, etc.

“My cinder block is the best computer in the world, because… uhhh… It has more features than any computer. I don’t really like things like displays, keyboards, motherboards, CPU’s… I just want to get straight into computing, so my cinder block is perfect. Also, no running. This is a tactical crouch server.”

srsly

On November 13, 2012 at 10:05 am

I don’t even know where to begin.

> We tend to compare CoD games to other shooters like them and often find those other games lacking…

Because CoD has things like the option to pilot a large variety of vehicles, play in a squad-oriented or lone-wolf style, have up to 64 players in one game, destroy campers’ cover, etc.

“My cinder block is the best computer in the world, because… uhhh… It has more features than any computer. I don’t really like things like displays, keyboards, motherboards, CPU’s… I just want to get straight into computing, so my cinder block is perfect. Also, no running. This is a tactical crouch server.”

Phil Hornshaw

On November 13, 2012 at 10:18 am

@srsly

Whoa, way to read into a generalized statement. The simple fact is that, when it comes to polish and ease of use — simple playability — there’s a reason CoD is so popular. It ranks highly with being easy to learn and quickly fun. This isn’t to say that CoD is the best shooter going, but it IS a statement about things like resources and polish; you can’t deny that Call of Duty is a standard against which other shooters are measured, either positively or negatively.

I was really hoping with this review that we could have a discussion about the game that wasn’t just random hate for the series and talk of other shooters that are sooooo much better than CoD and should be more popular.

Eddie

On November 13, 2012 at 11:56 am

I’m glad to read that treyarch is trying some new things with this, I’ve tended to like their games better than the infinity ward ones, but when you get down to it its still the same game my roommate has 4 other versions of, so I doubt I will be buying it anytime soon I’ll keep getting my shooter fix with halo, which in my personal opinion has always been the deeper, more tactical better shooter

Dan Miller

On November 13, 2012 at 12:24 pm

A number of things intrigue me about this, and really, the universe of Black Ops reviews that I’m reading today:

1. From the business side, CoD has really moved to a hybrid subscription system. I know there is CoD elite, which is the literal subscription system, but a number of marque franchises release a new game in the same window every 1-2 years (with CoD being at the forefront of this movement, releasing an entry within the same 14 day span every year for multiple years running). Obviously I don’t know the numbers, maybe they are buried in an SEC filing, but I’m sure CoD is seeing 80-90% return players year after year, each essentially paying $5/month to re-up for the next year, upfront. I’ve yet to read a review that really did this fact justice. And that is surprising, because millions of people have now paid the equivalent of $5/month for 4-5 years to play (outside of 6-7 hours of campaign), the exact same experience they’ve been playing since day one.

2. From the critique-as-consumer-product side, what on earth are people expecting from a CoD review at this point, given the above? It’s like reviewing a major update to an MMO. Did things change? Slightly. Is it largely the same gameplay? Of course! That’s the business model! This is becoming a larger trend in game reviews – reviewers really don’t have much OPINION to insert into these reviews after covering off the necessities (new modes, did the campaign get better, is still exploding a lot, changes to multiplayer leveling). More ink has been spilled on the core experience of call of duty, which has been essentially identical since Modern Warfare, than on any other unwavering game experience since Mario. This is a quandary for the gaming critics as a whole, though, because CoD’s success is morphing many other series into the same hybrid subscription structure (Assassin’s Creed, Halo, every sports game [the pioneers of the art, perhaps]). And as noted, it is difficult to review a mere update.

3. How dead does last year’s “Indie-gaming-revival meme” feel right now? Journey was great, and probably the G of the Y in 2012, but that seems to be all the promise that last year’s deluge of downloadable gems has wrought. I’ve got Witcher 2, Journey, and all but the last 10 minutes of Mass Effect 3 as my top 3…

joseph

On November 13, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Phil’s review: 10/10. Thx. I come to this site to get high quality reviews like this.

games4me

On November 13, 2012 at 5:59 pm

In my opinion, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is one of the better CODs. I just got mine today and was able to actually play it. It’s a change for COD.. and it actually seemed to work. I don’t know about you guys, but I liked it. It was worth my money and time, and Nuketown is THE best black ops map imo. AND the ending is pretty cool.

Spoiler Alert:
The special scene after the credits is a nice little touch to the game. The song is freaking cool. It’s cool cause they released it on YouTube, so people should check it out. Definitely worth it. Here’s the link if you want: http://bit.ly/A7XCODBOII

pedro

On November 13, 2012 at 6:31 pm

although i in some way tend to agree with the view that a call of duty game can’t exactly be evaluated like other games, i can’t help but feel that critics and reviewers are being to soft on it, at least concerning the single player campaign.

that video of a guy doing the first level of black ops without firing a single shot on you tube shows how much the ip lost it’s way.
the first level of black ops II is no better…guys coming at me with a machete in an open field..really? this is what a dev. with more money then god can come up with ?
and the script scenes..did the industry collectively stoped knowing how to do a scripted scene?
and i’m not even complaining about the angolans that speak portuguese with a brazilian accent.

and the graphics..they look so poor, so rushed…this game makes so much money, yet they refuse to update the engine, when they add a lil something diferent, they get praise for improving, it’s broken yet it’s treated like some kind of miracle. how can this be?

at this point it’s just not a debate about how one loves it or hates or the effects cod has in the industry and the genre.
i’ts about how people are getting a bad deal paying so much for a bad product.

i believe that a lot of people that plays cod, doesn’t touch any other fps. i think in a way cod as become a very casual game. the shooter that casual gamers play. i think activision knows this and has been lowering the standards quite a lot and the industry will suffer for this.

Dan

On November 14, 2012 at 9:53 am

Call of Duty Black Warfare Modernization 12 is a no go for me. I’m still crying over the $60 I threw down the gutter with Call of Duty: Money Wasted 3.

R-man

On November 14, 2012 at 5:41 pm

See, I really do like the CoD games, and you really can’t review them like any other game. CoD has become more of a sport in which people compete against each other, either for fun or for prizes. I love Black Ops (both of them) and I also like other games like Mass Effect (excluding the last 15 minutes) and Assassin’s Creed… The more “hardcore” games, for lack of a better way of putting it. But I separate those games into two different categories.
Treyarch really is the better developer making CoD games. Their games just seem a lot more polished and the respawns don’t piss me off like the ones in MW3 from Infinity Ward. Needless to say, I’ll probably only be buying a CoD game every other year unless Infinity Ward can do a better job. lol

R-man

On November 14, 2012 at 5:51 pm

And oh yeah, great review. Glad it wasn’t either a CoD sucks but I have to do this review, or an all CoD’s are awesome, so I’m just gonna give this a 100/100…
So great review, like always Phil. Like you said, I don’t necessarily agree with EVERYTHING you said, but that’s actually why I like it. It’s truthful to your opinion, and that’s not something you always find in journalism these days. So thanks!

Evernessince

On November 15, 2012 at 12:34 am

That’s a fair score for this game phil. I would agree that this game cannot just be approached like any regular shooter from a reviewer’s point of view. I would say that games like this, that are released each year, should be reviewed more like sport franchise games. Comment on only what was changed, and not the hole. Why waste time filling the web with unneeded fluff?

On another note, I hate that other FPS games are trying to emulate COD. Crysis, battlefield, and medal of honer are all guilty. It’s almost like: you’ve played one, you’ve played them all. I guess it’s good that I only have to buy one game every 2 or so years to get the full experience. Really though, the FPS genre as a hole is getting REALLY stale.

Jesus Ruelas

On December 2, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Well while this is a pretty fair rating, and I am not a fan of call of duty, or at least not to the extent that I will just assume you automatically wrong for critiquing them, the Strike Force missions, at least on PS3, have not been buggy at all. For me, and many of my friends, it has worked perfectly, no apparent lag.

MoreHacks

On February 6, 2014 at 12:39 pm

i Love the Game. Activision create the best Games Ever . I can stop playing