Review: It’s Treyarch’s turn at the wheel again, and CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS 2 introduces some changes to a venerable formula that’s being accused of stagnation. Will it silence the detractors or does it play by the numbers?
The Call of Duty singleplayer campaigns are generally obsessed with making sure you don’t miss anything. If there’s a building collapsing down the road, it’s a fair bet you’ll have control wrested from you so you see the whole thing coming down, from the initial explosion to the final dust cloud. No content is optional because it all seems so expensive, and damn it if you’re going to be looking the other way or blindly running past it.
While Black Ops 2 is still an egregious offender at times, Treyarch have gone to some lengths to do things a little differently. For starters, the traditional shoot-all-the-things gameplay is augmented with a set of Strike Force missions. These separate and optional scenarios give you rudimentary control over the battlefield, assigning troops to defend or attack objectives from an RTS-like bird’s-eye view.
You can take control of any combat participant at any time, which proves necessary given the downright unresponsive AI. You’re better left brute forcing the missions yourself by ironically playing them as the shooter they’re trying to differentiate themselves from.
But the point is that these missions are entirely optional (one even becomes available only if you miss an objective in the main campaign). Failing them or forgoing them altogether even affects the game’s ending, which is another way in which Treyarch’s design tries its hand at something fresh (with the standard Call of Duty campaign as a touchstone anyway).
There’s other choices peppered throughout the game which determine the ultimate outcome, with some of them clearly telegraphed while others don’t appear like choices until their consequences are felt later on. It all adds up to a degree of latitude that makes multiple playthroughs a more enticing prospect, even though the meat and bones of it all is still getting to a place and doing a thing while shooting lots of dudes on the way there.
Everything is tightly scripted as usual, which becomes very noticeable when it fails or you do something the game didn’t anticipate. When I was on horseback in Afghanistan, my steed would regularly clip halfway into the ground and refuse to budge, forcing me to start the level over. Quicktime events are all but gone, but that just means Black Ops 2 has done away with the semblance of interactivity that such sequences provide. Now you sit back and watch while your character does a lot of things until your gun comes back up.
Hi, I’m Bob Evil
The storyline is firmly centred around villain Raul Menendez; his actions drive the plot forward. One of Black Ops 2′s selling points has been the involvement of writer David S. Goyer, who’s probably best known for his work on The Dark Knight trilogy. Just like Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, Menendez wears the label of a self-proclaimed “champion of the 99%” to shroud his ulterior motives.
Past Call of Duty villains have often suffered from sparse characterisation. You see them drowning a puppy and you instantly know they’re evil, which is all they’re good for. Conversely, Menendez is almost too developed as a character. Over half the missions are meant to highlight the succession of tragedies that befell him and fostered his hatred of American interventionism and economic inequality, as well as his personal grudge against some of the protagonists.
In a comedy, Menendez’ status as a butt monkey would be played up for laughs, but in the overwrought gravitas of Black Ops 2′s plot, it comes off as needlessly provocative and in-your-face (I think they were shooting for sympathetic).
The same goes for the game’s focus on violence. Before the first mission is over, you’ll have already watched a man burn to death and partaken in a bout of ethnic cleansing. It must be said that this gratuitous violence finds an interesting contrast by virtue of the two time periods that the story visits.
Combat back in the eighties is visceral and personal, while the near-future world of 2025 is marked by the use of drones, which comes off as a distant and clinical means of warfare. It’s no longer about pulling a trigger when facing the enemy, but pushing a button from halfway around the world. While its musings on the nature of warfare are not without a message, it all comes across as something out of a Metal Gear Solid game. “War has changed”, indeed.