I’m going to give you two options when reading this review: enjoy the world’s shortest, or stay tuned for an explanation. First, the short version: “buy this now.” With Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Treyarch and Activision have unleashed not only the best game in the COD series, but the best shooter of 2012. The stakes were high this fall, with several juggernaut sequels releasing at about the same time, but Black Ops 2 is both transformational for the franchise and undeniably excellent at a time when many shooters are feeling tired.
Although Treyarch had a long track record, the original Call of Duty: Black Ops was largely the studio’s coming-out party. Gritty, bold and driven by narrative, Black Ops showed that a developer not named “Infinity Ward” could do the series right. Black Ops 2 takes those same qualities and amplifies them tenfold, a game that’s unafraid to take bold risks for the sake of keeping the franchise fresh. To Activision’s credit, the publisher gave Treyarch some additional leash, and rather than hang themselves with the slack, the developer delivers in an even bigger way.
The laser-like focus on a distinct narrative is perhaps the biggest change, a long-overdue upgrade for a franchise known for its shoot/wash/rinse/repeat gameplay patterns. The Black Ops 2 story traverses two generations of a military family: the tale of a near-future warrior trying to stop a global terrorist, and that of the warrior’s father, who fought through certain elements of the Cold War and has relevant ties to the near-future predicament. Treyarch weaves these surprisingly concurrent stories masterfully, with between-mission expositions that fill-in the blanks and set the stage through some of the most powerfully voice-acted passages since the original Cal of Juarez. Some of the language seems overly spicy, even for my Pulp Fiction-like sensibilities, but the tone and content is undeniably awesome.
But the excellence isn’t just narrative in nature, as Black Ops 2 has some of the best gameplay the Call of Duty series has seen. The multiplayer elements are as addictive as you’d expect from the series, with minor tweaks such as a Score Streak rather than Kill Streak implemented to keep franchise stalwarts on their toes and away from relying on the crutch of certain loadouts. There’s also a new Multi Team mode that allows three teams rather than two to play competitive modes, a welcome addition and one that should be endorsed in every game moving forward. And somehow Treyarch also managed to keep the Zombie mode enjoyable even though AMC seemingly wants us all to tire of the undead very soon.
It’s the single-player gameplay that provides the most intrigued, though, if for no other reason than the COD series has seemingly become a multiplayer-focused affair for the past few outings. Hopefully, the changes in Black Ops 2 will change that. Aside from the aforementioned generational/era hops between certain missions, which certainly keeps you on your toes due to weapon availability, optional Strike Force missions appear throughout the campaign that completely change how you play the game. These stand-alone “mini-missions” have seemingly tangential relationships to the main campaign, although your success, failure or complete ignoring of them has a direct impact on the primary narrative. On the surface they seem to be tactical real-time strategy modules, giving players a “world map” view from which to create strategic chokepoints and direct troops and weapons from incoming waves of enemies. However, perhaps due to some spotty AI, you can also zoom-in to any specific unit to execute the plan yourself.
This change in gameplay provides a nice respite from the traditional gameplay in the primary missions. However, each Strike Force mission can only be played for a certain period of time before it’s no longer available, so you must decide within two or three missions whether you want to try it out and spice up the gameplay or just plow through the Campaign. As mentioned earlier, these missions have some questionable AI, which is unfortunate considering how much the completion or failure of these missions can affect the story. But, I suppose having bad AI leaves room to improve in Black Ops 3.
The graphics and audio in Black Ops 2 are as outstanding as you’d expect from a triple-A game, and the voice acting and cutscene animations deserve particular praise. Some of the foliage in certain jungle missions actually gets in the way of targets, which leads to some mystery deaths, but that’s probably the point. Explosions are sufficiently grand, and although the audio differentiation from weapon to weapon isn’t entirely distinct, the overall sounds are sufficiently bombastic.
Put it all together, and Black Ops 2 is the best shooter I played in 2012, particularly in the crop of Q3 and Q4 entrants. If the original Black Ops was Treyarch’s coming-out party, then Black Ops 2 is the studio’s affirmation that their COD expertise was no flash in the pan. If you’re one of the 16 people who hasn’t played this gem yet, go buy it now. Conversely, if you’re among those who bought the game but hasn’t ventured into the single-player campaign (yes, it happens), there’s a great narrative and divergent gameplay awaiting your experimentation, so check it out.
– Jonas Allen
Platform Reviewed: Xbox 360