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.

Pros:

  • 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

Cons:

  • 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.

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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