It's November, and that means three things. The days are getting shorter, holiday advertising is ramping up, and there's a new Call of Duty game.
Last year's entry, Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare 3, shattered all kinds of sales records in its first day and first weeks on store shelves, launching into the stratospheric billion-dollar sales sphere usually reserved for the biggest of Hollywood's big blockbusters.
This year is Treyarch's Black Ops II, successor to 2010's Black Ops. Two years ago, reviewers were blown away by Black Ops and felt it was the pinnacle of the series to date. Do they feel as warmly about its successor in a jaded, cynical 2012?
Well, yes, in fact, they do. Critical consensus is tight, with every scored interview falling into a narrow, unanimous, positive range. Read on to see the good, the bad, and the ugly—but really, mostly just the good—of reviews of Black Ops II.
These excellent new additions are layered atop an already-refined multiplayer blueprint, which is as good as it's ever been. Black Ops 2 multiplayer feels like a Swiss watch I could never afford.
Treyarch took a big risk with the Pick 10 create-a-class system, and it paid off, reimagining how players customize their experience. They could have stopped there, but the developer's drive to go deeper, changing certain core elements of Call of Duty multiplayer to encourage more teamwork, makes Black Ops 2 online play even more remarkable. No other online shooter is offering a better experience right now.
All of this story is set against a new Cold War with China, but the world's problems take a backseat to the more personal story of Menendez, his sister, and his over-the-top quest for revenge against the guys that wronged him. By the end, he's controlling huge drone fleets and bringing the world to the brink of war. It's outlandish and ridiculous to think that one determined man could bring all this about. It's the sort of thing you'd expect to see in a proper action movie, which, with all the jumping back and forth between quiet nights deep inside Noriega's Panama and the deck of an aircraft carrier as it comes under attack, sums up the pacing and feel of Black Ops II's campaign. Compared to the past games in the series, the story feels far more personal. It still jumps between characters in traditional Call of Duty fashion, but each character is meaningful and each conflict is more directly tied to the overall plot. It unfolds in a fascinating way, and you'll actually have some very real agency in how that plot unfolds.
For shooter fans that don't require as deep of a dive, Black Ops II's multiplayer may feel like more of the same. No significant new match types are present, and the Pick 10 system doesn't drastically change the gameplay experience. Most of the changes to the Call of Duty formula come in campaign mode, and they are executed with mixed results. Despite some frustrations, Black Ops II is yet another massive, polished, finely tuned entry in a series that shows no signs of slowing down. Even if Treyarch misses the mark on occasion, I respect the developer for taking chances with a series that would sell just fine if it stuck with the status quo.
The story makes you think about how far you would go to stop a man like Menendez. Like any good cinematic video game, it makes you think.
It has a couple of disturbing parts in which you play the enemy, and those are sure to raise alarms among concerned parents (and media and politicians looking to score some cheap points). You have no choice but to go on a murderous rampage, shooting the good guys or even civilians. As the player pursuing the villain, you make some critical ethical decisions about whether to shoot a captive or show him mercy. Often you don't have a "right" decision. The story has multiple endings, adding some variety and replayability to the campaign.
Whether it's assassinating targets or protecting computer terminals holding valuable information, the Strike Force objectives are supposed to help determine how you play. Unfortunately, once you dig into these side missions, you'll realize how incompetent the ally AI is; it often ignores your commands, and soon the RTS view becomes null and void. In the end, it's better to try to supersoldier it and control one character at a time in order to win the day. Strike Force is a great idea that finally brings some new gameplay elements into the mix, but it's poorly executed, making some of the missions a bit of a chore depending on the parameters.
Aside from this one glaring flaw, however, the campaign is the best since the first Modern Warfare. The story enthralls from the start, and the gameplay is still definitively Call of Duty-especially with some sweet future tech like the Millimeter Scanner that allows you to see foes through walls.
The sound design is tight and punchy, with special commendation for the near-future weapons, and the voice actors deliver strong performances all around.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is the most evolved sequel we've played in recent memory as it challenges the status quo at almost every turn. The elastic story provides plenty of incentive to replay the campaign, the strikeforce levels aren't executed perfectly, but they're a glimpse at the future, and the multiplayer features are tweaked to make every play style relevant and to level the playing field. It does so many new things so very well, making it the most groundbreaking Call of Duty since the first Modern Warfare. Shooters simply don't get much more deep, varied, surprising, or rewarding than this.
Black Ops II is a great shooter, but that alone doesn't make it worth playing to me. Black Ops II's triumph is found in how it assembles modern-day issues, ultimately making it impossible not to feel like I was staring into the mirror of my society. If the the constant question with games of Call of Duty's ilk is whether or not they hold some responsibility in what they depict, then Black Ops II feels like an answer. An answer that shows that the things that make us reconsider things, as "responsible" media does, do not always have that intention-and they don't have to. I think that lacking that explicit purpose actually accentuated the crisis I felt as I realized that as much as I enjoyed what I was playing, I didn't like what the game revealed.