Dammit, I was ready to give this game a kicking. I was all set to use this column for a vitriolic rant about how the Call of Duty franchise is just a bland annual shot of casual gaming fodder for people with no true taste in videogames, whose sole other purchases are FIFA and maybe the odd Lord of the Rings game.
Problem is, this game is good. Pretty damn good – and quite different to all of its predecessors.
The good omens started when I heard this would be written by Treyarch. For years, Activision have employed two studios to alternately write games, with two year development cycles and alternate annual releases. So we had Modern Warfare by Infinity Ward (RIP), then World at War the following year. Then Mordern Warfare 2 by Infinity Ward and Black Ops by Treyarch…
So 2012 is Treyarch’s turn again. These folks are pretty talented – they are responsible for my two favourite CoD games. Call of Duty: Black Ops was a wonderful, Cold War era shooter – an era that we have all too readily forgotten. Call of Duty: World at War was also a hugely underrated game – the last of the WWII CoD games. This was a nice, nice game to play with some wonderful maps – the Japanese Castle level, for example… beautiful!
Anyway – Treyarch know their craft. They clearly realise that the series could stagnate if near-identical games are rolled out every year, so they have tinkered with this winning, multi-million dollar formula. The big news is that the majority of the game is set in the near future – the year 2025, to be exact. So things are different but not too different – some of the military hardware is a little more futuristic, some plausible, some not (cloaking devices etc).
A lot of the first half of the game is set in the 1980’s – in theatres such as Angola, Afghanistan etc. The contrast here is pretty great, riding through deserts on horseback with nothing but an AK-47 against Soviet troops and tanks, then flipping back to 2025, scaling down sheer cliff faces with “nanogloves” holding you in place…
The reason for that is that the single-player campaign tells a father and son story, split between the two eras. It’s gung-ho, theatrical, with lots of explosions, but – for the first time – you can steer the narrative.
Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t Mass Effect or anything, but there are six potential endings and the choices you make in the game will get you to one of those ends. Also, failing some missions no longer lead to just replaying them – it just leads to a worse final outcome.
There is also a sort of strategy gaming mode that rears its head a couple of times – the Strike Force missions. For this, you can control complete squads of troops, vehicles and weapons from a satellite’s eye view, jumping into individual units at will to manually control them. It’s fresh and new, but only semi-successful in terms of enjoyment. But – failing these missions is no problem, there’s no penalty but you can correct things that you fail in the main campaign if you do well here…
Other tweaks – you can choose your own loadouts at the start of each mission, like multiplayer. That’s an interesting little detail. So the playing field can be levelled in your own favour if you prefer a typical type of weapon.
All in all, the campaign is the best so far of all the CoD games and the only one since Modern Warfare 1 (the All Ghillied Up level) that I would consider replaying, multiple times.
Multiplayer has a few tweaks too – most noticeable the new Pick 10 system. When setting up your loadouts in this game, the game simply allows you to take 10 perks, from whichever category you like (weapon attachments, character perks, grenades etc) and deploy them as you like. So you could have two or three attachments to each weapon if you don’t mind forgoing grenades or some perks. It’s an interesting way to shake things up.
The new maps are great, ranging from Express – a futuristic railway terminal, to Carrier – er, aboard an aircraft carrier and more. Even our old friend Nuketown is back – Nuketown 2025. This however is a pre-order only bonus. In reality, some of the retail boxed versions on sale now still have it. Check to see if it’s written on the back of the box as download codes for this level are selling for £20 or so on eBay!
But the multiplayer gameplay is as challenging and compelling as it always was. The levelling system works well – if I work hard I can get near the top of the leaderboards, if I’m slack the other players dominate. It seems to intuitively pick opponents at the right level of skill.
As always, the graphics move at a solid 60 frames per second – visibly smoother than the 30 FPS offered by Halo 4. This is a mighty game engine at work here under the hood, a trademark of all of these games. The graphics are as detailed and realistic as always – well as realistic as futuristic aircraft, drones and cloaking devices can be.
Finally, Zombies is the other part of the game – it has been brought more into the spotlight here as a fully developed campaign of its own, with stages to progress to and from. Some love it, I only occasionally like to play it, but it surely is the most fleshed out (eh, readers?) Zombies campaign yet. I did prefer the Pentagon level in Black Ops 1 though – when you could play as JFK, Nixon, Kissinger or Fidel Castro. Running around killing the undead with a wilfully silly JFK or Nixon impersonator blurting out quotes from them was hilarious… BOOM “Errr forgive your enemies. But errr remember their names!” (JFK voice).
So, I wanted to bitch about this game – but I’d be a damned liar if I said this was anything short of great. It’s a dependable, innovative update to a much-loved franchise. Even if you prefer games such as Halo 4, as I do, you still need to own a copy of this to go alongside it. It just delivers on all the usual fronts and has a raft of twists and changes that you wouldn’t otherwise expect.
And if you’re one of the casual gamers who just picks this up along with your yearly copy of FIFA then, no worries – it’s gold, mate. Solid gold.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is out now for Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. Xbox 360 version tested.