Release Date: Nov. 18, 2012 (NA), Nov. 30, 2012 (EU and AU)
Also available on: PC, Xbox 360, PS3 (Nov. 13, 2012)
Call of Duty: Black Ops II – Review
by Mike D.
And the aimbot shall save thee.
For years, the one third-party game that Wii owners could count on was Call of Duty. With the exception of Modern Warfare 2, every recent iteration of the biggest series in gaming made its way over to Nintendo’s last-gen machine. There were compromises, of course – the downgraded visuals, friend codes, lack of voice chat (until the original Black Ops) – but the games arrived remarkably intact on the relatively underpowered Wii. The games were missing one thing, however.
Oh, there was a bit of “assistance,” of course (we’re gamers, not marksmen), but nothing like the bullet curving, sticky aiming, ADS snapping (“hey, close enough!”) of Black Ops 2. In fact, if you go pop in Treyarch’s original Black Ops for the Wii, which did support dual analog control via the Classic Controller, you won’t find much computer-generated help for your twin sticks. As the main input method was the Wii remote, programming chicanery to make the simple task of aiming work wasn’t much needed; a comprehensive set of customization options sufficed. But that all changes in the game’s sequel on the Wii U. This game hasn’t been taken apart, repurposed and rebalanced like prior CODs of recent vintage for a Nintendo console. This is a straight port of the 360/PS3 version, for better and worse.
The most impressive update for Wii-only owners will undoubtedly be the eye-candy factor. The COD series has been operating in a sub-HD native resolution in the “HD era,” but it’s still very impressive. Sure, there are some framerate jitters during cut scenes (Treyarch apparently valued ultra-detailed facial wrinkles and age spots over visual stability, fluid facial animations and non-zombie looking eyes), but the actual game portion of this entry in the series is something to behold. The environments are varied and large, and have some great little touches. If you’re like me, you’ll catch yourself staring at the dust falling through the afternoon light of an open window (you will also die due to not paying attention to the man behind you with an automatic assault rifle). There are explosions and particle effects galore, delivered with plenty of onscreen enemies on some maps with interestingly curvy level architecture…well, by COD standards. It’s all displayed at a (relatively) steady 60 fps, to boot.
Yes, Call of Duty is still quite a looker, even after all of these years. The onscreen visual brutality is matched by an audio presentation that laughs at subtlety. Your auditory nerve may well take more damage than your onscreen character. Of particular note is the new shock charge, a piece of tactical equipment that electrocutes enemies while making a combination generator/frying-bacon sort of sound. As always, bullets loudly fire, ricochet and land with a satisfying “thunk.” The guns may even have a bit more personality than the voice acting talent. The DudeBro is strong with this one, comrades. Your protagonists swear like 12 year olds who have discovered 4Chan.
Audiovisual presentation aside, the best addition to the actual gameplay of Black Ops 2 is undoubtedly the “pick 10″ system. You are allowed 10 “points” to customize your weapon layouts, and are afforded certain “wild cards” which can let you double (sometimes triple) dip on perks or gun attachments. Don’t want a secondary weapon? Fine, don’t use one. Think you can do without a piece of tactical equipment? Go ahead and replaced that slot with something else. I’ve taken to using three gun attachments at the expense of a sidearm. Part of the fun of COD has always been leveling up and unlocking new things, but BO2 goes a step further by allowing you to bring the craziest layouts of your imagination to life.
There is also the addition of Strike Force missions, in which you are afforded the chance to stretch out and control various parts of a squad – regular soldiers on foot, unmanned drones and turrets. The change of pace is welcome. The execution, on the other hand…
Oh, Treyarch. You had to go and call the Strike Force missions “sandbox levels.” In truth, they’re nothing more than a spin on an old style of COD mission – hold off waves of enemies for a set period of time. Remember the end of COD4′s “One Shot, One Kill” mission, which acted as a coda to “All Ghillied Up”? Imagine that, just larger, more chaotic and with AI squadmates that are in a great big hurry to die and leave the task up to you alone. If Strike Force was a stand-alone cooperative mode for online teamwork, it could very well be both the highlight of Black Ops 2, as well as its saving grace. As it is, it’s a half-baked bout of frustration.
It absolutely pales in comparison, though, to the rest of the mind-numbingly ridiculous single-player campaign, as well as the flawed competitive multiplayer.
First up, the campaign’s story. That some parts of the gaming media think this is a genuinely interesting yarn is a testament to how far videogames and its chattering class have to go on the journey to artistic equality with other media. Black Ops 2 splits its time between 1980s flashbacks and its “present day” setting, 2025. The villain, Raul Menendez, is promising enough (although some of his actions and strategies are a bit of a shallow homage to the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker). He is unfortunately wasted in a plot that is chock full of plot twists-for-the-sake-of-twists. To summarize:
“Boom, plot twist, knocked down/blurred vision, plot twist, bang-bang-bang, flying-squirrel suits, plot twist, facile global politics, JOSEFINA!” Roll credits.
I wish I were joking, but I’m not. These games aren’t known for subtlety, of course, but the well-intentioned attempt at cleverness doesn’t translate into a plot any more memorable than any other Call of Duty (meanwhile, the “I’m trying to shock you” displays of brutality devolve into gratuitous torture porn). The only real “new” addition comes down to a handful of instances when you arrive at a moment of “choice.” These moments guide you along a semi-branching storyline that can arrive at a few different finales. I say “choice,” by the way, because the options you are given are completely illusory. Yes, you can see different endings of Black Ops 2, depending on your actions. No, that won’t ultimately matter, as Treyarch would have to pick the real ending for a possible (perhaps inevitable) Black Ops 3.
All of the above would be forgivable, so long as the tried-and-true COD multiplayer delivered. None of us really buy COD because we’re dying to play alone through another linear virtual shooting range. We purchase this series because no one else does multiplayer with quite the same aplomb. Pick 10 should have made the online component a classic, but it alone can’t overcome the myriad issues plaguing this game.
I started this review off talking about “aim assist” for a reason: the assist is more like an easy button. While this may have been par for the course on the PS3 and 360, it’s a bit shocking to go back to a game that nearly plays itself. I’m horrible with twin stick shooters (part of the reason I grew to love the “point and shoot” accuracy of the Wii remote), but even I can break even with dual analog here. That’s staggering, since I haven’t played an FPS with twin sticks since BioShock. The dual analog aim assist in Black Ops 2 is so generous that it puts the other main input method – the Wii remote, of course – at a distinct disadvantage. Whereas dual analog aimbot provides a raging death ray (with a tiny hipfire aiming reticle, an ADS that acquires targets with relative ease and an overall sticky aim that literally follows enemies for you), the infrared aiming of the Wiimote gets a much wider aiming reticle (thus a bigger cone for bullet spray and less accuracy) and an ADS that simply isn’t as effective. This isn’t helped much by Treyarch forgetting to include a cursor-sensitivity function in the customization menu. This can be somewhat mitigated by shrinking your dead zones down entirely and backing off the camera sensitivity, though. Playing in Hardcore modes also subtracts some of the aim assist that dual analog has been gifted.
Still, if you’re a dual-analog only type of FPS player, the above may not matter to you. And if the maps were as incredible here as they were in the original Black Ops, I’d say that this game could proudly stand alongside its forebearer as a solid shooter. Sadly, for some odd reason, the map-design ethos that informed last year’s Modern Warfare 3 has gone on steroids for this game. Do you like big, dense mazes where you’re constantly being flanked and filleted by corner campers? You’ll love this game. Perhaps in the name of balance, or to be friendly to series newcomers, these maps despise skilled run ‘n gunners. You’re forever rounding corners, only to find an enemy whose “close enough” aim slays any momentum you had built. Fun, right?
(By the way, co-op Zombie mode returns. There isn’t much to say about it, other than it’s another competent survival co-op mode. Its main addition is “Grief” – player vs. player vs. zombie. If that’s your thing.)
And yet, there’s still something to this Call of Duty. If you have any skill at first-person shooters, you will find moments of gaming bliss, stalking corners in Hardcore, hipfiring headshots and scoring double kills before you’ve even emptied half a clip. Despite all of the flaws, despite the inanity of the single-player campaign, it’s still COD. It’s also still an astonishing value. Although I may not personally like the maps, that’s a matter of subjective taste; you may adore them and never need to buy another Wii U FPS. That’s piled on top of a sufficiently entertaining cooperative mode and a single-player campaign that’s…ambitious, but quite flawed. So how the heck do we score such a curious beast?
Low Score: 5.0/10 - Black Ops 2 is at its absolute worst when, after you’ve decided to take a break from a particularly trite/DudeBro moment in the single-player campaign, you go online to find nothing but frustratingly cramped maps, with people literally “aiming” by going ADS and strafing with a single analog stick.
High Score: 9.0/10 – Aside from the campaign, when the online multiplayer gets its mojo working in Hardcore mode on a few choice maps, this is as fine a Call of Duty as has ever been released. Like last year’s Modern Warfare 3, the final score is contingent on patching. If Treyarch manages to balance out the controls (and if the cramped maps are your cup of tea), this could be the FPS to play on Wii U, and we may raise the overall ranking to be closer to this high score. Potentially impressive, especially for a launch title. But as it is…