Sunday, 6 January 2013

PC Game Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Platform: PC (Steam)
Released: 2012
Genre: First Person Shooter
Developer: Treyarch
Publisher. Activision
Buy on Steam

When playing MW3, I thought the series couldn't get better. While MW3 had its flaws, it felt like a really addictive and polished title that I played a lot for about most of the first quarter of 2012. However, when I first saw the trailers for Black Ops II, already from the early trailers of the game, I could tell it was going to be something I had always wanted to see from the Call of Duty series: A future warfare game. It was almost on gut instinct alone that I preordered Black Ops II and the game more than surpassed my expectations. What I expected was MW3 set in the future. What I got was even better than I could imagine.

Starting with the story campaign, an aspect about Call of Duty games that often tends to be called the weakest part of them, this is the first time I can put my hand on my chest and honestly say the campaign is worth playing more than once. So far people have bought the CoD games mostly for the multiplayer and I can't blame you. After playing the MW3 campaign I felt little to no incentive at all to replay it other than to try it again when I bought MW3 for my Nintendo Wii. However, with Black Ops II I can honestly say that the campaign is one of the best aspects about the game, easily outshining the story from MW3 and even the original Black Ops. We are treated to great cinematic cutscenes that feature believable and relatable characters that thanks to great voice acting feel alive and human. The main problem with MW3 was that you never really built any close relationship to the characters. Most of them were just there to drive what little story there was forward and more than often, the story was not based on the characters, but more on political situations. Black Ops II attempts successfully to break this trend by limiting the amount of characters you play and centering the story on a handful of main characters that you grow to care about. The story feels a lot more personal and engaging in Black Ops II mostly because the villain for the first time is someone you can relate to. While he's an American-hating bastard in his own right, his reasons are more than understandable as his family has been ruined by American forces on several occasions and they've driven him to near insanity and he has nothing left but pain and anger, taking it out the only way he can, by forcing his pain on the US. While this is of course unforgivable, it makes him a really memorable villain in his own right and very fun and interesting to watch and I actually felt really invested in taking him out. 

Black Ops II features high tech weapons and gadgets in a futuristic warfare that spans several decades and countries.

The story goes back and forth between the near future and the 80's and the campaign does a pretty good job tying these different time periods together in such a way that makes sense as the game's past serves as a backstory to the game's present and explains a lot of motivations for the different characters. One of the main reasons the campaign has replay value is because you're given several key points during the campaign where you can choose different actions and paths you wanna take, giving each playthrough something different. This is something I feel added a lot of needed replay value to a campaign that can easily feel repetitive on repeated playthroughs due to its linear nature of going from set piece to set piece. However, the set pieces are at times quite spectacular. One standout moment I remember fondly is riding a horse while taking out helicopters with a missile launcher.

Gameplay-wise the single player is what you'd expect from a Call of Duty game, however you can choose the loadout for each mission, giving you freedom to have different weapons each time you play them, and story missions are often interspersed with special Strike Force missions where you take control of an entire squad of soldiers and bots in a sort of RTS-mode where you can see everything from a bird perspective and also control each individual unit in FPS mode. It's a fun little mode that adds variety to the gameplay when you feel bored of story missions, and while these RTS squad missions are not required to be completed, they offer some rewards.

Strike Force missions offer a nice change of pace during single player and feel like a mix between FPS and RTS.
The multiplayer mode is a lot better than it was MW3 and I really enjoyed the multiplayer in MW3 so I didn't really think they could improve much on it. Thankfully they did and Black Ops II in many ways feels more rewarding and fun to play than MW3 ever did. The first thing you'll notice is that Black Ops II offers a new game mode called League Play where you will be pitted against people of your own skill level so you can compete in worldwide leaderboards. This not only makes it easier to find people of your own skill level to play with so you avoid playing against uber players, it also gives newcomers a place where they can shine. Otherwise, Black Ops II has a custom emblem creator that gives a lot of freedom to create your very own logo or emblem that shows in multiplayer matches. You can also apply a clan tag in-game rather than applying it to your profile name like in MW3. Getting into the game itself, one thing you will notice is that you no longer have killstreaks. Instead, you have scorestreaks that in a bigger way gives players with a support role more of a chance to shine as streaks are given based on score rather than number of kills. In MW3 this was often a problem as the players with the most kills would get the best killstreaks and those who only played a supportive role was left in the dust and was a big reason I chose to just go as a Specialist and use perks and not give a fuck about killstreaks. However, in Black Ops II, scorestreaks makes the game much more fair to people with a different playstyle and therefore feels a lot more balanced.

The class creation system has been entirely revamped too. You no longer have the option of playing with support streaks or offensive streaks or playing specialist. Instead, you just have 3 scorestreaks to choose that fit your role, and you have basically 10 points to spend on what you put into your character slots, giving you a lot more freedom in class creation to create a class that is tailored to YOUR specific playstyle. While MW3 DID offer this with the different streak rewards, BO2 completely destroys the need for these rewards by simply giving you the freedom to have if you want it, just one gun but lots of perks, or few perks but lots of guns and attachments. It's essentially a dream to play and fun to play around with. While I haven't prestiged yet, you can already prestige your guns when they reach their max level, making it more fun and rewarding to stick to your favourite guns.

Otherwise from that, multiplayer is pretty much near identical to previous games although Black Ops II offers up a few new game modes. In the Core matches you now have multi-team matches where 3 teams can duke it out instead of just 2. The Combat Training mode offers you the chance to play against bots and is a nice option for those who are new to Call of Duty multiplayer. You also have party modes which are essentially Free-For-All modes with some new twists to the gameplay and unlike Free-For-All aren't limited to non-parties. Gun Game is a mode where you start out with just a pistol and for every person you kill using your gun you get a new one, getting increasingly powerful weapons. One In The Chamber is another twist where you get only one bullet, a knife, three lives and instant kills and receive a bullet for each kill. Sharpshooter is a mode where the guns cycle every 45 seconds, and killing several people in a row offers perks, similar to the Specialist killstreaks in MW3. Sticks and Stones, the final mode, offers you nothing but a Crossbow, a Ballistic Knife and a Combat Axe, where Combat Axe kills reset enemy scores. Another option added to multiplayer is CoD TV where people can post videos from matches and share them with others and vote for the best videos, a community feature that while I personally haven't taken advantage of, adds a nice way to watch how others play.

And of course, it wouldn't be Black Ops II without a Zombie mode and while this is the mode I have played the least simply because I am not a huge fan of it myself, it does offer a nice co-op mode if you have some friends to play with. Basically it's all about survival, killing zombies and getting more and more powerful weapons and perks so you can kill them more efficiently. You will have to work as a team to survive and reviving fallen team mates is often a chore you will have to do whether you like it or not as when everyone are dead, the match restarts. There are often Survival modes that take away perks and such that are way more sadistic and are definitely meant for more hardcore players. That being said, while I am not a huge fan of the Zombies mode, it is fun to blast some zombies with a shotgun now and again and it offers yet more content in addition to the excellent campaign and multiplayer.

A common scenario: Surrounded by zombies and slowly running out of ammo. You WILL be frustrated.
Graphically Black Ops II looks miles better than Modern Warfare 3. Cutscenes feature a lot of great facial animation thanks to mocapped actors that definitely add to the cinematic nature of the single player. It also has a very fresh palette compared to MW3 which often looked like someone threw dust and shit all over your screen while playing it, where in Black Ops II it is much easier to spot enemies since they no longer blend in so much with the environment thanks to a bad palette. The futuristic warfare style that pervades the game throughout is absolutely sexy and this is definitely my favourite game style-wise. There are thankfully tons of graphic options on PC you can use to make the game rival a lot of modern games, even Battlefield 3 and with a powerful PC, the PC version of Black Ops II looks almost a generation ahead of anything that's on consoles. I get a bit of lag with the shadows turned high though so running the game with shadows set to low doesn't really impact any of the graphics but makes the game run a lot smoother.

Soundwise the game doesn't disappoint either. The music is done by Jack Wall who many will recognize as the main composer of the Mass Effect soundtrack and here his blend of electronic sounds and orchestral score really fits the futuristic sci-fi feel of the game and it is by far the best score in the franchise so far in my opinion. The main theme was done by Trent Reznor who many know as the man behind the industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails and who famously made the music and sounds for the classic FPS Quake from 1996. To see him returning to the gaming industry is great and his theme does a great job capturing the game's futuristic suspense. Even Skrillex has a little track in there during a club scene and the ending credits, featuring a previously unreleased track "I'mma Try It Out" featuring OWSLA label mate Alvin Risk, and the band Avenged Sevenfold has a little surprise in the game for those who are patient enough to sit through the end credits... ;)

The voice acting is outstanding in this game and did a great job making me feel engaged in the plot and characters. Sam Worthington does a great job portraying Alex Mason, Hollywood star Michael Keaton takes over for Ed Harris as portraying Jason Hudson, and doesn't disappoint, James C. Burns reprises his role as Frank Woods and is definitely the most enjoyable protagonist in the game. I fell in love quickly with his attitude and his way of telling the story of past events. However, compared to these, Kamar de los Reyes completely steals the show as Raul Menendez and his portrayal is filled with so much emotion that it's hard not to feel his pain and anger and he's one of the best villains I've seen in any Call of Duty game just because Kamar does such an excellent job voicing him.

Story: 8/10
Giving replay value by adding path choices and shifting the focus more towards characters than international political warfare, Black Ops II does a good job with the story campaign, better than any CoD so far. It's still not perfect however and I felt a lot more could have been done with it, especially since quick time events often end up feeling a bit too cinematic and not really that interactive and these could use some improvement. The set pieces felt great though and it's a great ride from beginning to end.
Gameplay: 8/10
Taking what has defined the Call of Duty franchise so far and fixing what didn't work, Treyarch show they have been listening to fan feedback in order to make the most playable Call of Duty game so far. However, I simply feel that this is not going to win you over if you're not a fan of the games. It still is miles ahead of Modern Warfare 3 and keeps the polished gameplay steady.
Graphics: 8/10
Easily the best graphics of any Call of Duty game so far and with a great style that fits the sci-fi theme of the game. However the shadows does make the game lag a lot on my computer and on consoles, the engine is starting to show its age. This is still the best looking Call of Duty.
Sound: 7/10
While the score is excellent and the tracks by Trent Reznor and Skrillex and even Avenged Sevenfold help mix up the variety of styles, the soundtrack just isn't that memorable and I can't really remember any standout tracks. I would've prefered more memorable themes in there or even variations on the title theme. The atmosphere created by the music is great though.

Final score: 8/10

If you don't like Call of Duty, Black Ops II won't win you over, but if you're into these games, Black Ops II is a must-buy for any self-respecting soldier who wants to go into the Call of Duty of the future.

- Alyxx

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