Another year is drawing to a close and that means it’s time for another Call of Duty. What started as a somewhat authentic World War II series has become the Madden of first person shooters with fans eagerly awaiting each annual entry. Quality levels have fluctuated and gamers have often argued over who makes the better COD games: Treyarch or Infinity Ward? The first Black Ops was sort of a break out title for Treyarch, letting them try to put their own spin on the Call of Duty license. It was a huge seller and, while polarizing many fans of the series, definitely tried some new and interesting things. Activision and Treyarch have now released Call of Duty: Black Ops II, a game that pushes things even further with different mission types, futuristic tech, and choices that actually affect other missions. While it will no doubt break sales records, is Black Ops II worth your dollars U.S.?
The single player campaign in Black Ops II sees you playing as both Alex Mason and his son David. The former operates in combat theaters in the 70s and 80s, while the latter goes on a more tech-heavy adventure in 2025. Raul Menendez serves the role of super-evil antagonist and definitely looks the part, right down to the fancy suit and sinister facial scar. This tale is perhaps not as inscrutable as that of Black Ops I, but it does jump around a lot: both from place to place and time to time. That said, Call of Duty games didn’t become popular because of their narrative structures. Even when I wasn’t sure why I was fighting, each battle felt and looked important. Black Ops II excels at presenting you with moments that feel so dire and intense that you will rarely worry about their context. Atmosphere is king. Missions play out in both the past and future. With the exception of Alex Mason’s first venture into Angola, these are all pretty fun and feature several memorable moments (especially in the 2025 levels). Futuristic weapons, their unique scopes, and various craft give this game a flavor that helps differentiate it from Call of Duty games past. While we’ve certainly seen UAVs and specialized weaponry in other COD games, the proliferation of future tech in Black Ops II certainly takes things to a new level (at least for this series). In-game decisions are an even more interesting inclusion, During many missions you’ll be presented with binary choices or moments where your actions can directly affect the story’s progression. Some of these instances will lead into strike force missions where you will take the role of a commander ordering troops and vehicular assets around a battlefield. At any given moment you’ll be able to take direct control of any unit on the battlefield and, ideally, turn the tide of battle in your favor. These missions all had time limits and were among my favorite parts of the game. You are only given a limited number of tries to complete strike force missions before they permanently alter your single-player progression. Additional modes include co-op, the return of zombies, and the ever-popular adversarial multiplayer. Zombies mode has some more story elements than before, but everything else remains largely the same. That will likely delight die hard COD fans, but, for me, this franchise is definitely beginning to show its age. Black Ops II pleased me overall with a more involved single player campaign, a fun undead diversion, and a multiplayer mode that, while not all that original, is more than solid.
Though it may sound unbelievable, audio quality is what initially put the Call of Duty series on my radar. I remember reading articles back in 2002 about Infinity Ward recording authentic World War II weapon sounds and putting them into an upcoming game that would revolutionize shooters. While Black Ops II might not feature a revolutionary audio package, it certainly features an exceptional one. Gunshots pop and resonate with percussive blasts that legitimize the lethality and desperation of COD’s every passing moment. Music is appropriately epic and, though sometimes a little overly dramatic, fits the mood of this dark story of redemption and revenge. Voice acting leans toward the overtly macho and often cheesy, but is endearing nonetheless thanks to actors like Michael Rooker and Tony Todd (of The Walking Dead and Candyman, respectively). Music, voices, and various sound effects are all mixed deftly. This would be great for any game, but in one as epic and anarchic as Black Ops II, this level of auditory cohesion is truly remarkable.
Quantifying just how good Black Ops II looks is very tricky. Visual fidelity vacillates wildly between the impressive and mundane while fighting through the single-player campaign. Certain moments push a great sense of scale while others look merely sloppy and hectic. Missions set in the future certainly fare better, with technological flourishes and well-rendered gadgets displayed prominently. COD’s trademark 60 frames-per-second presentation returns, but textures and polygon counts have not advanced significantly here. Facial animations, however, do look excellent and rival some of the best in the industry. Multiplayer levels do not look nearly as good, however. While the buttery-smooth frame-rate remains, the levels featured in in Black Ops II’s online component feature a pronounced lack of polish. While certainly functional and even detailed in certain aspects, these play-spaces just look old and sort of boring. How a map looks won’t really affect how fun it is, and a game that runs at 60 frames per second on six-plus year old consoles shouldn’t be expected to look mind-blowingly detailed, but COD’s engine is really showing its age. This isn’t a bad looking game, but I couldn’t help wondering what the next-gen Call of Duty would look like every time I powered up Black Ops II.
Running and shooting while narrowly evading death amongst a litany of deadly instances has defined Call of Duty games since the series’ inception. This series’ trademark feeling of desperation mixed with power is absolutely present here. COD’s perfect blend of brutal effectiveness and dire urgency remains largely unmatched in the video game industry and is what keeps this series a strong seller year after year. Responsive and sensible controls guarantee that you will always hit your mark if your skill is equal to the task. Fans of the franchise need not worry, this plays just like the Call of Duty you love, it simply gives you a few new toys to mess around with. Moment to moment combat is frenzied and action-packed. There are larger-than-life instances that will give you a moment of spectacular reprieve before the game immediately forces you back into fast-paced combat. Strike Force missions allow for more strategy, which is welcome, but ultimately feel like they’re testing your ability to micromanage multiple shooting galleries. Multiplayer is certainly more nuanced, but, aside from a few new robotic perks, is largely unchanged. That’s not in and of itself a negative thing, but it would have been nice to see this series advance just a little further. I did encounter some instances where connection and/or lag issues made it look like I shot someone in the head, while their kill-cam made it look like I never fired my gun. These didn’t wreck the game, but were frustrating nonetheless. In short, Black Ops II plays well and certainly holds its own against the many first person contenders currently on the market; it simply doesn’t alter its series’ formula enough to be truly remarkable.
Beating Call of Duty: Black Ops II’s campaign on normal difficulty took me around seven and a half hours. Past experience tells me veteran difficulty will add a substantial chunk of time to that total, and multiplayer modes will be where most players spend the bulk of their time anyway. Leveling up offers new killstreaks, weapons, and augmentations that will reward tenacious players. That trickle of goodies in exchange for kills and time played remains finely tuned and ensures there is always some new, deadly treat just around the corner. This may be the latest entry in a series with annual entries, but it does not skimp on incentives for dedicated players. If you only play Call of Duty games for the single player, this is a highly recommended rental. If multiplayer is your bag, just buy it. You probably already have.
Design – 9.0
Audio – 9.5
Graphics – 9.0
Gameplay – 8.5
Replay Value – 9.5
Overall – 9.1