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Call of Duty: Black Ops II

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Call of Duty has become one of the most polarizing franchises in gaming. The competitive multiplayer system that took the world by storm in Modern Warfare has remained largely the same over the last half decade despite each annual iteration costing gamers the same amount of cash. The single player campaigns have suffered through the same problem as well, often providing gamers little over five hours of action and relying on numerous set pieces to cover up a lack of innovation. This time around, Treyarch attempts to resuscitate the campaign with some interesting ideas. But is it worth laying down the money yet again?

Black Ops II follows several heroes from the original Black Ops, taking on a new antagonist along with a few old faces. The year is 2025, and a new Special Forces unit, led by David Mason, interrogates an aged Frank Woods about his encounters with a political activist gone terrorist, Raul Menendez, in the 1980s. The game then flips between the past and the future to reveal Menendez’s rise to power and our heroes’ attempts to stop him. For the first time in the series, player choice significantly impacts the happenings of the story, and this, along with the dual plot-lines, allows for one of the more engaging narratives Call of Duty has provided yet, plus plenty of replay value.

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Also new to the franchise is the future warfare. There is more high-tech weaponry, nano-gloves that allow you to stick to any surface, cloaking mechanisms, winged suits that let the characters glide across long stretches of the sky, and more. This doesn’t change the base gameplay very much, but it allows for some of the most exciting set pieces in Call of Duty history. In addition, some of the future levels revolve around commanding soldiers and robots in quasi-RTS style combat. These levels provide some frantic action, though the RTS controls are strikingly underdeveloped and can cause heavy frustration on the higher difficulties. Regardless, Treyarch definitely puts forth some thought-provoking ideas about the future of warfare.

But it’s hard to take these ideas seriously when considering the events of the 1986 plotline. Most salient among these is the Afghanistan level in which you ride horseback and challenge the swarming Russian military, blasting away helicopters and armored vehicles as if they were bugs. The horse steers with all the natural ease of a Mack Truck, and is able to sprint and trample enemies easily despite the weight of your character and a Stinger missile launcher. With this type of effectiveness on horseback, it’s a wonder that the 2025 levels don’t feature armies of men on horses toting Stingers. A later level in the past sees a character under your control become immune to bullets and slice up dozens of enemies with a cleaver. Who needs nano-gloves and cloaking mechanisms when a guy with a cleaver can take on an entire army?

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Despite some of the rather absurd levels in the past plotline, Black Ops II might just have the most entertaining campaign in the series since World at War. It doesn’t take much more than six hours to beat, and only the RTS levels are a true challenge (even on Veteran), but some excellent level design and creative use of secondary weapons, such as bear traps and mortars, make for some of the best thrills of recent years. Exhilarating driving levels that put you behind the wheel, a good stealth level that sees you hiding from the spotlights of huge drone machines, and extra challenges to complete during each campaign mission really add to the excitement. The base combat remains virtually unchanged, but Treyarch still manages to create the freshest Call of Duty campaign in years.

The multiplayer also remains almost entirely unchanged, though in this case there’s especially little to separate it from its predecessors. Similar challenges, ranking systems, game modes, and kill streaks return for yet another outing. The maps seem a bit better designed than those in the first Black Ops, and the spawn system is clearly improved from the mess of its predecessor. But very little else, outside of some superficial adjustments to the interface, is different. There’s a new mode called League Play, which attempts to pit you against players of an equal skill level with separate leaderboards. But despite allowing all upgrades to be available from the start, this addition has little effect on the actual gameplay.

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A spectator service called codcasting allows you to watch and film action from previous matches, potentially allowing for custom highlight reels, but the system is far too simplified for its own good. As of now, it’s very difficult to get the right angle while watching the action that would make for the most epic highlights. The last multiplayer option is, as with the previous Treyarch games, zombies. There’s a mode that allows you to cover all of the maps by riding a bus to each section, the ultimate goal being to put together parts to make useable items and survive as long as possible. However, the zombie mode, including the “Tranzit” exploration mode, features few substantial improvements from the zombie modes in the previous games. Grief mode is the one exception; it allows players to hinder each other and see who survives the longest. Intriguing as it is, working together to survive is ultimately more satisfying.

For the first time in a while, there have been some noticeable improvements to the visuals. While the visual style is generally the same, the environments look a bit sharper, aided by the wide range of distinct locations, from the jungle of Angola to the desert of Afghanistan. The character models have seen the biggest improvements, as the facial features here are easily the most detailed in the series. Even with the compact maps, the added visual detail is fairly impressive when considering that it still runs at a smooth 60 frames per second that the series has been known for. Some minor glitches hardly hurt the experience.

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On the other hand, the sound design hasn’t been touched to nearly the same degree. Some of the same actors from Black Ops return for the voice-work in Black Ops II, and they again do an exemplary job with a well-written script, though there are some problems (since when do Cubans speak Portuguese?). The music is great as well, with a superb contrast between the soundtrack for the 1980s and the futuristic music of 2025. But the sound effects of battle remain unimproved, the crack and echo of guns that is so convincing in the Battlefield games is still utterly absent here. Even the sniper rifles still lack the powerful discharge heard in many other shooters.

Even with a competitive multiplayer that is little more than a copy-and-paste of previous games in the franchise, Black Ops II managed to surprise me overall. The campaign contains some true changes over its predecessors, and while some of these additions (like the RTS levels) are in need of some ironing out, Black Ops II manages to have arguably the most exciting campaign in several years. And as ridiculous as it appears to have a man on horseback blowing up heavily armored tanks, the set pieces happen to be very fun. With the improved visuals and higher replay value to boot, it is a bit easier to recommend shooter fans to lay down the big bucks for Black Ops II.

The Good

Branching storyline is impressive and adds replay value | Campaign delivers many exciting set pieces

The Bad

Multiplayer has few substantial improvements | Additions to Zombie mode are hardly noteworthy | Sound design is still in need of improvement

3.5/5

First introduced to gaming with Wolfenstein 3D, Daniel has never looked back. He still returns to the old classics while enjoying the current generation, and beats every game he can get his hands on. In addition, he loves to read and write and is an avid follower of sports and martial arts.
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