Porecomesis Reviews: Call of Duty: Black Ops II


Team Fortress 2 is a multiplayer FPS that I like to play every now and again on my PC to pass the time when I'm bored. I have a lot of fun with its entertaining and vibrant characters, variety which allows me to play the same maps and get a completely different game most of the time and it is very funny. I say this now to explain why the multiplayer mode of Call of Duty games means as much to me as a the 32nd brick used to construct the fifteenth Egyptian pyramid. I didn't pay $100 AU for something I can get just as easily for free from Blacklight: Retribution, Tribes: Ascend, Super Monday Night Combat and now Planetside 2 and I'm especially not paying $100 AU every year so that I can still have people to play with; I paid $100 AU (well, actually, I paid $52.80 on eBay) for Call of Duty: Black Ops II's single player because it was set in 2025 and I was honestly intrigued with what Treyarch would do with a futuristic setting. Let's go through this again: I don't know if the multiplayer is good or not, I really don't care and you shouldn't care about whether I care or not.

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Just so you know, you'd never figure out the setting by the box art. The front cover just depicts a moody guy in a very dark room with a knife and a gun and the back just has "Campaign", "Multiplayer" and "Zombies" with accompanying pictures that explain and indicate precisely bugger all. It should come as no surprise to all of you that Activision are entirely aware that lambs around the world would pay enough money for this game for Activision and Treyarch to make their own Scrooge McDuck-style money bins. In fact, it's gotten to the point where Activision can distribute cases of future instalments that contain Decepticon discs that strangle the consumers when the box is opened and they'll still never run out of sheep to exploit.

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Starting the campaign, I decided to go on Hardened difficulty as I've played some military shooters before and I had no reason to believe this would be any more difficult. However, over the past year, my little brother has been very fond of dragging me to the PS3 to play Modern Warfare 3 levels of his choosing on Recruit difficulty and the tactic of shrugging off gunfire to get close to my enemies and shotgun their stomachs out that got imprinted into my muscles didn't serve me well here since enemies tend to surround me a lot and I had a tendency to die from three shots fired by some guy I couldn't see. In the very first level, there was one guy with an RPG on a ledge and, no matter how hard I looked, I couldn't see him. All it seemed to take to die was just stepping out of cover for one instant. I got so sick of this that I started the campaign over on Regular difficulty because I can't do so mid-campaign for whatever reason and, suddenly, all of the enemies regressed back to Modern Warfare 3 Recruit levels of threatening. As you can see, there is a honking huge gap between difficulties here.

According to various articles that I've forgotten about, Treyarch seem to think that this is a revolution as far as shooters go, which makes me wonder further why the box art is so lame. Admittedly, Treyarch do seem to be at least trying, which I will say is sort of admirable for a developer that knows beyond reasonable doubt that the game will get them enough money to sustain an entire third world country for a year. A welcome addition is the ability to choose your equipment, weapon attachments and perks at the start of every mission, meaning I no longer have to worry about finding a shotgun every mission to replace those very appropriately named pistols that seem to be loaded with diluted cat urine that I have at the start of every stupid mission. It's also possible to unlock new weapons by doing a number of special challenges each level, although this is not very welcome at all. The challenges are incredibly unintuitive and you can only check what they are before the mission. You can't check your challenges during the mission in case you forget. There are ten challenges for every level. Did I mention that the human mind can hold maybe seven items in short term memory at once?

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The biggest addition, however, is the inclusion of the Strike Force missions. These are a collection of four or five single-player RTS missions that are optional but you have to complete them to get the best ending. The Strike Force missions sound good on paper but, then again, it's more than likely that anything looks good on paper that promises you $500 million in a single day. Your AI units seem to have the combat prowess of a slingshot, meaning taking control of one of your soldiers and zooming into their perspective is essentially a requirement to succeed but it's too easy to die just by having one foot in front of the other. This got particularly annoying during one offensive mission where I had to capture three individual points in an eight minute time limit. I was lucky enough to capture one on Hardened difficulty and, on Regular with a ten minute time limit, I completed the mission with only a minute to spare. I could get through the defensive SF missions by the skin of my teeth but the offensive ones are aggravatingly difficult enough for me to rip my teeth out.

Despite these, however, Black Ops II is not as revolutionary as Treyarch clearly thinks it is. It definitely is "pushing the boundaries of what fans have come to expect from the record-setting entertainment franchise" as Steam says but, really, that's not hard given the standards of the series. For all it's big talk, Black Ops II would only be revolutionary if it came out a decade ago. We're still circling the exact same drains constructed years before. I remember the fuss made about how women would be better represented in Black Ops II or something like that. For example, there is a female air pilot, not to be confused with the one from Deus Ex: Human Revolution or 4: Modern Warfare or any other game that has a girl piloting a helicopter or whatever. Also, there is a female president which only evokes a "meh" from me as we have a female prime minister in Australia right now in 2012. Here's an idea, Treyarch: how about you make the protagonist a girl? If you want to go one step further, make it so that she doesn't have daddy issues like David Mason does. If you really want to push the boundaries, make it so that she's- GASP!- not white or from the first world! Or, if that's too overwhelming for you, just have some of David's military friends be women. Seriously, would it be so hard to make this not a sausage fest?

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By the demons of the sea, I haven't even talked about the story yet, have I? Alright, as is usual for the series, we alternate between two characters from level to level, one of which is Alex Mason of the past, protagonist of the first Black Ops, and the other is his son David who is hung up about his father being killed much like fifty percent of all protagonists with daddy issues. The bad guy this time around is a Nicaraguan gun runner called Raul Merendez who is trying to hack all of America's unmanned drones and effectively take over the world. At least, as far as I can tell. Now, just so we're clear, Merendez is not a psychotic terrorist who mass murders people for no reason like Makarov was. No, Merendez is a psychotic terrorist who mass murders people because his sister was killed. You remember how I brought up in my Asura's Wrath review that giving Asura a wife and child to make him come across as a family man rather than an insane angry moron was an insanely weak effort and I could see the seams from two continents away? Yeah, apply that to Merendez; his excuse for his actions is tacked on and could be removed without anyone batting an eye.

In his defence, though, everyone seems to be a bit too hungry for blood. One cutscene involves the interrogation of some guy from the first game and one of your allies- a good guy, mind you- jams a curved knife into his hand and twists it. My hand hurt from just watching that. Is there a side to this conflict that prefers not to turn their conflicts into blood baths by shotgunning people's knees or knife-twisting hands? Because I want to join it; these people suck. Treyarch, let's get something straight: if you want to be taken seriously, you have to keep your gore under control and you especially cannot just chuck it at us willy nilly. In the very first first-person cutscene, you give us a man on fire in a box screaming for help as Alex Mason desperately tries to get the door open. I don't know what the purpose of this cutscene was but I couldn't help but keep asking questions: who was in there? Why was he on fire? Why was he in there in the first place? How does Mason know him? Who the hell is he? You can't just chuck this at us and expect us to care, Treyarch. You have to have purpose behind it, otherwise it's just juvenile rubbish.

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Something also of note is how there are multiple endings you can get depending on the Strike Force missions and the actions you have undertaken throughout the story. I kind of feel that Treyarch missed the point of what this is supposed to do because I'm still being railroaded throughout the entire game. You see, the ultimate point is not to have control over where the story goes (although that is nice) but to have the player feel like a part of the story. This is something Spec Ops: The Line did beautifully as well as everything else. Not once did it take arbitrary control of Martin Walker... Well, okay, it did make him walk slowly at times but this is okay because we're supposed to take part in the story alongside Walker rather than as him. Also, you couldn't jump in the game at all, which helped a bit. When you make a character who we are supposed to project onto like Alex or David Mason, don't take control of them during first-person segments and make them make idiotic decisions that anyone with half a brain would avoid and don't make them walk veeeeeeery slooooowly when I just want to move at normal speed and bunny hop around the place.

Even in regards to the choices, the game is very strict about what you can and can't change. Not once before the final level am I given the choice to kill Merendez even though it'd make the most sense to do so. Actually, I was once. Spoilers ahead, albeit not plot critical: At one point, I am playing as a double agent for the CIA under Merendez and I find myself lead to a scripted cutscene in which I am handed a pistol and told to kill a friend of mine. Here, it tells me I can press a button to kill my friend or another button to kill Merendez. I decided to try and defy genre for once and kill Merendez but my character thought it'd be smart to do this while within arms reach of Merendez who then grabs my gun and then kills me. I'm surprised my character, who is a CIA agent with combat experience, decided not to step back and then double-tap the one-eyed monster right where his heart should be. You know, something that I, a person who isn't affiliated with any agency whatsoever and has no combat ability to speak of, would have done. This is not an interactive story; this is a Choose Your Own Adventure movie.

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End spoilers. The gameplay- that is, the kind outside of the Strike Force missions- isn't that much different and, really, it's not at all different from the previous games. Sure, you've got some new toys like EMP grenades and flying drones and attachments like the hilariously useful scope that identifies all living enemies with bright red diamonds but the gameplay's pretty much one third going from Cover A to Cover B and shooting everyone along the way with guns that sound like popcorn in the microwave until you think it's safe to come out, one third dying because of several enemies that you couldn't see because of the "realism" that ignores the fact that your stupid flat screen eliminates peripheral vision and you only realise you were being shot when you're finally dead and one third dying again when you step out of cover after thinking you took care of all the hidden threats that you didn't spot the first time around. I'd say that another portion of the gameplay is scripted sequences but gameplay is something you actually play and scripted sequences are disqualified from that. For goodness sake, Spec Ops: The Line was less boring and scripted than this and that game was about not having fun and the illusion of choice. How the hell does that happen?

Speaking of scripted sequences, the game is fully aware that it's in the future and has appropriately futuristic gadgets. You have, amongst other things, a wingsuit and a grappling hook gun so you can glide and hookshot around like Batman and you also have a jetpack thing with wings like Buzz Lightyear's except it can only go down. However, all of these gadget things are used precisely once for scripted sequences. The wingsuit is used for one gliding segment in which you interact only by tilting Mason when the game deems it necessary, the grappling gun is used to vertically scale one building and the jetpack thingamabobbojiggly is used for one of those segments in which you fall vertically to the ground and bank around incoming missiles and debris, a segment that I've seen a lot in a variety of other games. I also remember one time when my generic friend and I were trying to infiltrate a place and we took turns swinging each other from one part of a wall to another, gripping onto the rocks with "nanogloves" as we went. It was really boring, especially since you can't load up checkpoint saves when you boot up the game so you have to go through it every single time you started the level.

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Pacing and progression is also a problem here. Now, Spec Ops: The Line didn't have the best gameplay in the world but it was competently handled. It had a good atmosphere that it managed to preserve with adequate pacing and connectivity. Black Ops II, on the other hand, is horrible with this and the way the game keeps jumping to and from each location and time after every cutscene and level left me wondering where the hell I am now, why these people are shooting at me, why I am allied with a horrendously overpowered and overequipped force to fight these people who wear nothing more than pants and singlets and why this guy I'm looking at is on fire. The lack of questions raised in Spec Ops: The Line (I mean, the ones you're not meant to be asking) also managed to preserve the emotional aspect of the game and kept me caring which Black Ops II fails to do and, before you say otherwise, it is entirely possible to have something "awesome" and emotionally investing at the same time. In fact, that's the entire point; the key to making us have fun is to make us care. You don't even need that deep a story. All you need to provide is context.

If nothing else, I respect that Treyarch at least tried with Black Ops II. The Strike Force missions, the loadout changing option, the multiple endings that depend on certain actions throughout the story and its attempt at making a villain that isn't just a complete tosspot all indicate towards genuine effort that I'm at least the slightest bit appreciative of. Unfortunately, they just don't do enough. As I said, Black Ops II does not revolutionise the genre or even perfect it. Again, while giving the player choice is nice, what's important is that the player feels like a part of the game world. You can give us all the choices you want but we're still on rails, you still keep on taking control away from us and this is still only marginally better than any other war shooter released within the last five damn years. Yeah, we have choice but that only turns this no-deviations train ride into a no-deviations train ride where the passenger has a massive stick that they can use to flip the switches to switch tracks but unfortunately still not use it to pole vault onto the nearest building and elbow-drop onto the bad guy.


Here are the rest of my reviews.

Yeah, sorry about not reviewing the multiplayer (no I'm not) but I was busy with Team Fortress 2.

By the way, here's a question for you: how long did it take me to find that cover image?

 

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