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.