Game Review of Call of Duty: Black Ops II

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Developed by Treyarch and Published by Activision

A review by Jim Zabek, 12 December, 2012

Call of Duty is a well-established franchise that has become almost a perennial expectation to first-person shooter fans. But has it taken a step toward becoming a full-fledged wargame? Read what GrogHeads’ Jim Zabek has to say on the subject.

The Siren’s Call

The Call of Duty franchise has been so successful that it has been played by nearly a full generation of gamers. Its trademark is an intense single-player campaign powered by a game engine that gives a robust multiplayer game longevity that few FPS games can hope to match.

The breakup of Infinity Ward a few years back briefly left the franchise’s future in question, but development studio Treyarch stepped into the breach and has deftly managed to fill the role of a top-shelf FPS development house. With the release of Black Ops II they have demonstrated that they can consistently deliver games at the highest caliber and gamers will buy them unhesitatingly. Within two weeks of its release, Black Ops II grossed over a billion dollars and eclipsed revenues generated by Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster movies. By any measure it is a grand slam. Let’s look at why.


Game Mechanics

Call of Duty: Black Ops II has tried to ring every bell possible. Offering a sizable and gripping single-player campaign, an addictive multiplayer game, and a third zombie-themed survival game, gamers are left with no excuses not to buy it. However it has taken one more step that may have been overlooked which suggests a potentially groundbreaking shift in focus: the hint of a tactical wargame.

Structurally, Black Ops II remains faithful to the successful mold that defined its predecessors. The single-player campaign is well-written and intense, though linear. At times it reminds me of the highly scripted but emotionally charged D-Day levels of Call of Duty II. Despite its linear nature it is fun, but departing from the script is typically met with punishing fire and deadly grenades. Undeniably, it is a game on rails. Although the weapons are modeled with loving detail, the graphics achieving nearly cinematic quality, and the sound effects are highly authentic, in the single-player game the player can endure multiple hits from enemy fire, and realism takes a back seat to fun. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Call of Duty has always been an FPS game, not a tactical combat simulator.

Fortunately outgoing damage appears to have been improved. In many past Call of Duty titles players would have to pump a target with four or five rounds before it was considered fully knocked down. In Black Ops II that number is closer to three, but can vary depending on the weapon being used. The tradeoff between the amount of damage that can be absorbed and the ease of inflicting it on the enemy makes the character more durable. Realism is not a high priority despite the authenticity of the environment, though difficulty levels can be adjusted to tweak this experience. Personally I played on an intermediate level of difficulty. I don’t mind a challenge, but I don’t thrive on incessant adversity in my games.

The structure of the multiplayer game will remain recognizable to Call of Duty veterans. Players begin the game with five primary types of weapons available. Experience gained with a weapon progressively unlocks upgrades like better scopes or other add-ons such as a foregrip or shorter stock. Experience also unlocks new weapons under each type: assault rifles, submachine-guns, light machine guns, shotguns, and sniper rifles. Depending on their style a player will typically unlock several weapons until they find one that suits their approach to the game, then will settle in to unlock the various add-ons until they have found an optimal configuration.

In addition perks again flavor Black Ops II, so players gradually are able to unlock special abilities such as carrying two primary weapons instead of one primary and one secondary. Perks are gradually unlocked throughout the course of the game as various levels are achieved – over 50 in all. Along with experience the player also accumulates tokens which need to be spent to unlock many of the upgrades and add-ons to weapons. As a result I found that I typically saved tokens and didn’t unlock every upgrade in order to determine if a better upgrade could be found in the future. In practice after a few unlocks have been made I found it easy to accumulate these tokens for use later on. Unlocking one add-on, such as a reflex site, on one weapon will make it available on others in that class. However, not all add-ons are available on all weapons, which reduces instances of silliness which sometimes took place in previous games. For instance, in Modern Warfare 2 I loved to put an ACOG site on top of the tiny Skorpion SMG, creating a Frankenweapon where the scope was actually larger than the gun itself. During multiplayer games fellow players would often laugh at the site (I personally never got to see it – I guess I was the only guy using that configuration, but it worked for me).

Multiplayer game types are also recognizable. The Core game is the traditional game most players will be found playing. Players can sustain several shots before being killed, the radar HUD displays friends and enemies on the map, and the general over-the-top action of the single-player game is seamlessly transferred to the multiplayer game.

The Hardcore game, my personal favorite, has increased damage levels. Generally speaking it’s one-shot-one-kill, with the HUD being removed and only being unlocked with Scorestreaks, which are accumulated levels of scores such as successful kills or objectives achiveved.

Speaking of objectives – or the lack thereof, the typical types of games remain in multiplayer: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Search & Destroy. If you’ve played Call of Duty multiplayer games before, you’ll feel right at home in Black Ops II.

Speaking of familiarity, most of Black Ops II’s weapons are set in the near future, which allowed Treyarch to break out of the constrictive universe of limited choices set by today and instead create a number of theoretically possible configurations that give satisfyingly challenging tradeoffs between rate of fire, damage, accuracy, etc. without regard to current “realism.” There are some recognizable real-world weapons included in the game, but the addition of some hypothetical ones increases the variety and fun in a new direction.

The same approach applies to the add-ons for weapons – many are theoretical concepts that we might expect to see in the future. This has created an interesting kind of opportunity/paradox in the gameplay. Some of the upgrades outline enemies, aiding in identifying them. This is particularly useful on my gaming laptop’s 17 inch monitor. Others allow players to have a kind of scan which sends a pulse down the site picture, briefly identifying anyone hiding behind a solid object, such as a wall. These upgrades are a kind of controlled hack, mimicking typical FPS hacker’s tools such as wall hacks, yet have been constructed in a way that doesn’t break the game. Cheaters are likely to ignore them in favor of more robust outright cheats, but these add-ons do remove excuses for people who are not serial cheaters and might otherwise be tempted to try to upgrade their performance. It’s an interesting twist on gameplay, and I found it welcome, since it is balanced against a myriad of other fine choices.

Speaking of upgraded performance, it will come as no surprise to veteran FPS gamers that the hardware they play on is a critical factor in their ability to compete in multiplayer games. I am reminded of this hard lesson by my aging gaming laptop. On the surface I have all the hardware required to play Black Ops II successfully, and images are rendered well. Yet initially I found I was consistently coming in dead last in multiplayer scoring. Replay footage of when I was killed demonstrated that my opponent was well ahead of me in spotting me as an enemy and opening fire – as compared to my experience as seeing him and shooting almost instantly.

As a result it was obvious that my machine was processing the code probably two tenths of a second slower than my opponent – literally the difference between online life and death in FPS games. Turning down a couple of graphic settings (AA and FXAA) my performance immediately spiked to middle-of-the-road and I then consistently placed in the middle of the pack in online games. That is a far cry from the days when my brand new and well refined custom built machine allowed me to dominate multiplayer games in Modern Warfare 2. Thus a lesson to guys who think they might be ‘1337’ gamers: it’s probably your hardware, though using your brain will help a gamer with the right rig.

The maps in the multiplayer game are fantastic. During the initial few days after release I heard more than once the comment made that Black Ops II’s maps are the best we’ve ever seen. I agree – the maps are awesome, both in setting, construction, and challenge. Some are likely to become classics: the luxury yacht, despite its simplicity, screams inclusion in future games.

The zombie game is one that I have spent the least time with. Compared to other FPS games that focus exclusively on zombies, the Black Ops II zombie game feels like an afterthought. At some point I will probably attempt to give it another try, but frankly, after a couple of play throughs I was left colder than a dead zombie. Fortunately, the single- and multiplayer games are so outstanding that I didn’t care about the zombie game, though opinions do differ on the topic and some folks really do enjoy the game.

Blossoming Wargame?

Black Ops II has clearly improved on every conceivable feature. The campaign, multiplayer, and zombie games all deliver a huge bang for the buck. But beneath the sizzle of hot new gameplay there is a gem that has started to take form that suggests the developers are working on an even greater breakthrough: a genuine wargame.

After playing several single-player games I ran across an eye-opening. As if it weren’t enough that the single-player game was action-packed and highly satisfying, the hint of a wargame emerged. The mission allowed me to step back from the first-person experience and tab into a tactical overview of the map where I could give rudimentary orders to two squads on the ground, plus a couple of robotic units. The mission had several objectives that required defense, and the overall experience was clearly an attempt to transcend the FPS genre and step into a truly tactical wargame.

The player could issue orders to each of the units on the map, and then zoom into one of the units to take control of it from a first-person perspective. Frankly, this has been a holy grail of sorts for gamers who enjoyed both FPS games and wargames. We have been waiting since the Rainbow Six days for an evolution in the FPS genre and with Black Ops II we are now a step closer to it. Other games have attempted to create this hybrid (the RTS game Supreme Commander comes to mind) but this is the first time that I’ve seen a AAA-level FPS game try to offer a tactical wargame in a long time. It suggests that Treyarch plotting not just to dominate the FPS genre, but is prepared to take the genre in a groundbreaking new direction. I cannot wait to see where their next game goes.


Technical Issues

Upon Black Ops II’s initial release there were scattered reports of fatal bugs like crashes. I never experienced anything that severe, though I did experience a weird bug. When I would use the Steam screen capture key (F12) for some reason it would then convert every keystroke into a screen capture. In a game driven by keystrokes (moving forward by holding the W key down) in one gaming session I ended up with over 500 screen captures – one for every second or so of gameplay. Fortunately (for me) that bug has been resolved, and patches continue to be issued which address reports of crashes in the game. I cannot verify whether all major bugs have been addressed, but I can report that reports of bugs are being taken seriously and attempts are being made to resolve them.
Deciding whether you want to buy Call of Duty: Black Ops II is rather simple. If you have enjoyed any of the previous games then you’ll love Black Ops II. The single-player game is satisfyingly intense, and the multiplayer game offers the finest selection of maps Call of Duty players have ever seen. As with past games, you come for the single-player and stay for the multiplayer game.

Few are the times when a top-shelf title surpasses the hype and expectation generated before a release, but Black Ops II has done so. It really is that good. Its groundbreaking decision to move toward a tactical wargame suggests that the FPS genre is on the cusp of blending true tactical wargames with FPS games. Black Ops II is the FPS game to play, and if you don’t have it you’re missing out on the best multiplayer fragfest yet available.


GrumpyGrog says: It’s the latest Call of Duty game. What’s left to say? Buy it and get to playing!

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Grogheads’ Jim Zabek has been gaming his entire life. An avid historical wargamer, he also enjoys FPS games, strategy games, miniature games, and mobile games. If he’s not gaming he’s typically studying history.

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