Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Review: Innovation vs. Expectation
Still, Strike Force is significantly different from anything that Call of Duty has attempted before, and that’s worth some kudos; it’s fun and different when it works, definitely. The same is true of the revamped Zombies mode, into which Treyarch has dumped a large amount of effort. The way Zombies worked in the past had players earning points through killing wave after wave of zombies, with each wave becoming more hearty and resilient than the last. Those points were spent on new weapons and opening up different areas of each level map to access better equipment and perks, with the aim of staying alive for as long as possible. In the new “TranZit” mode, this idea is supercharged — players start in an area of the map and spend their time finding the components to build special machines that give them different capabilities in the game, and then board a bus that can take them to new areas.
At its heart, TranZit is just one massive Zombies map, but the idea is intriguing. You’ll need to venture to different areas to get different bits of equipment, then hold out until the bus comes back. There’s also the new Grief mode, in which players make up two opposing teams who can’t directly injure each other in most circumstances. You become allies of circumstance with the other team against the zombies, but only one team can win, so your goal is to engineer situations in which the other team is killed by slowing down revives, drawing zombies toward trapped players, and hoarding resources. Both TranZit and Grief are great ideas that change the dynamic of Treyarch’s signature mode, something that has already dramatically altered what Call of Duty is.
Finally, there’s the multiplayer mode — the part of a modern Call of Duty title that matters most. And here, Treyarch has tried to subtly adjust the experience while still playing within the confines of the things for which the series is known.
Most notably, Black Ops 2 offers a great deal more customization than previous titles, although almost all of it has to be unlocked through play. The “Create a Class” options have been increased, allowing players to opt to carry more stun grenades, lose their secondary weapon, add additional perks, and so on. The result is that you can get a character much more in line with the kind of play in which you specialize by sacrificing elements you don’t need to add more elements you do. Treyarch has also de-emphasized kills to a degree in dolling out things like in-match score rewards — instead of getting “Killstreaks,” you get “Scorestreaks,” which means players are rewarded for kills as well as for fulfilling objectives, or shooting down drones or clearing mines, and so forth.
As usual, Black Ops 2 multiplayer includes a ton of game modes, including the newly added capability of fighting three teams against one another on a single map, and so there are a huge number of options for your multiplayer matches. The basic gameplay is the same, but there are new elements, like EMP grenades that knock out your head’s-up display or microwave emitters that stun you if you stumble into their range. It amounts to a lot of little differences that augment, but don’t meaningfully alter, the core experience.
So having considered all the elements, we’re back to where we started — how do we judge a Call of Duty game? Placed against its predecessors, especially Black Ops, I’m confident in saying that Black Ops 2 is the best of the game’s last five iterations. However, isn’t that par for the course? Haven’t we been seeing incremental updates that make each game a little better than the one before? In fact, if Black Ops 2 wasn’t better, wouldn’t that fail to meet expectations?
What it comes down for me is that Treyarch is very obviously trying to make something that is its own, while still working within some very stark confines. The adaptive story, for one, is worth remarking upon because it’s much deeper and more expansive than it seems to be at first glance. The addition of Strike Force missions is a great change of pace, and it’s a shame they don’t work a little better.
Treyarch’s Zombies mode is bigger and better than ever before, and it could likely be a game unto itself. The campaign is more character-driven than any we’ve yet seen, and manages to do some very cool things with story while still nailing Call of Duty’s bombastic nature. And multiplayer is more of the same, but better in many respects.
There are, of course, the flaws we’re used to. The core game, even if the characters are more interesting, is the same damn thing we’ve played every November for the last five straight years, as is the multiplayer mode. Regardless of the pros, this is Call of Duty, through and through.
But Treyarch at least should get a high-five. Their hands may be tied, but they’ve still made something that stands out from the rest of the modern CoD series. Black Ops 2 is Call of Duty, while managing to be not Call of Duty — at least a little. And that’s enough to make it worth a look, even if you’ll spend most of your time shooting the same characters (and other players) you have for the last five iterations.
- What you’d expect: Big and explosive, with all the expected polish
- Story is actually pretty decent most of the time, and better than other entries into the series
- Adaptive story in the campaign can very interesting; Bucks the trend of CoD titles feeling like they’re on rails
- Strike Force is different from anything CoD has attempted; points for innovation
- Huge, robust Zombies mode offers lots of new stuff for fans
- Multiplayer remains expansive, with new tweaks that will change it up some
- Clear that Treyarch has gone out of its way to be innovative while maintaining the CoD core experience
- Same basic Call of Duty gameplay — enemies pop up, you shoot
- Same basic multiplayer
- Strike Force is buggy; AI characters don’t always respond to orders
- Core experience in all modes hasn’t really changed much, even with the new innovations and additions
- Story is kind of convoluted and confusingly told
- Age of the formula is showing both in campaign and multiplayer
Final Score: 80/100
Read more of Phil Hornshaw’s work here, and follow him and Game Front (or debate about Call of Duty) on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.