This is not the shooter you expected.
What if Call of Duty was different?
This appears to be the defining question informing the direction of developer Treyarch's latest, Call of Duty: Black Ops II. While large portions of the design conform to the tenants established by prior iterations of the franchise, the unparalleled wealth of gameplay options and brilliant twists on the formula have shaped Black Ops II into the most ambitious and exciting Call of Duty ever made. It occasionally feels like the team might have strayed into territory they're not quite masters of, but significant tweaks to the multiplayer loadout system, as well as the realization of player agency in the campaign, make this far more than "just another Call of Duty." This is an evolution.
Ops, while the 2025 missions follow Alex's son, David. All of these soldiers' fates are intertwined with the villain, Raul Menendez, and his organization Cordis Die. Menendez is the sort of villain you just can't seem to kill and, consequently, who knows how to hold a grudge. Thing is, he's not your typical, "I'm evil cause I do bad things," bad guy. Menendez is a tragic character, a product of imperialist nations' meddling during the Cold War and a survivor of some truly traumatic experiences.
A great narrative already makes Black Ops II stand out in the pantheon of Call of Duty campaigns, but where it really sets itself apart is the addition of player choice and consequence. Moments and devices that would otherwise seem irrelevant -- like whether you find all of the intel in a level or choose to shoot someone -- can come back to haunt you, hurt you or help you. Failing objectives might result in new or more challenging missions rather than a restart screen. It's a brilliant riff on the traditional Call of Duty campaign design, and, combined with the additional cutscenes that flesh out the story, creates a narrative worth replaying just to see the wildly different moments and endings. Most importantly, choice makes you apart of what you play; it's not just a story, it's your story. I may not have found the ending of my first playthrough satisfying because terrible things happened, but I appreciated that it was a direct byproduct of my actions.
The story successfully casts Menendez in a light where I'm still not sure how I feel about him. At times I wanted him dead, while at others I felt like he had a right to want revenge. Hell, I even vacillate between agreeing with his end goals. Like the film Inglourious Basterds, Black Ops II becomes less about you and the "good" guys, and more about the motivations and perspective of the villain. The very fact that I'm still thinking about how the story played out -- something unprecedented in a Call of Duty campaign -- is a testament to the strength of the writing.
The effects of your choices are often evidenced in the new Strike Force missions, shorter objectives which give you control over a group of soldiers and various drones. Sometimes these objectives are a result of your decisions and performance, and they tend to have tangible effects on the outcome of your story. These tasks are worth playing because of their crucial role in the creation of your story, but the limited command controls make them less exciting. You can order your troops around the map from a strategic overhead view or via the usual first-person control, though neither is as tactical as intended. You can't rally soldiers on your position, and your AI allies will rush to die. Each objective essentially comes down to ordering my troops to move from point to point as a huge group while I single-handedly save the mission by taking direct control and fight a horde of foes. The importance of Strike Force's outcome adds tension and stress to the action, but the ineffective input and inept allies create an unnecessary challenge that compromises its potential success.
Shooting is as fun and precise as ever, and alongside the abundance of gigantic explosions, vehicle missions and intense firefights, it feels like the closest thing most of us will ever get to starring in an action film. In that sense, Black Ops II is the classic Call of Duty formula at its best, with an important, defining difference: The emphasis on drone warfare, the exotic-but-grounded weaponry and the attention to detail in the believably high-tech signage and architecture makes Blacks Op II feel strikingly plausible even when it strays into non-historical settings.
The team at Treyarch brings a bit of the multiplayer loadout flavor to the campaign as well. Before each mission you can now customize your character's weapons (restrictions apply to make sure you're not using a future weapon in the past, for instance), accessories and even give them perks. Every level also has challenges associated with it, and you can scope out the leaderboards to see how you stand up to your buddies. These are small details, but they're important because they layer on another reason to replay the stages. If for some bizarre reason the narrative doesn't grab you, then you still have lots of additional goals to try and achieve that are decidedly more "gamey."
Take Your Class and Love it
While not as big of a departure in structure as Treyarch's single-player, Black Ops II's multiplayer dares to defy the modus operandi, and provides a number of new options and modes that make it more engrossing than what's come before.
Call of Duty has shaped the way other shooters present class and loadout designs for years, and Treyarch successfully redefines the standard with the Pick 10 system. The hook of Pick 10 comes from the ability to defy the loadout rules. Each attachment, weapon, grenade or perk counts as one of your ten points, and you can swap them out at will to create a huge number of combinations. Treyarch has also added in Wild Cards, which allow you to spend additional points to break even more rules, like equipping two primary weapons or up to six perks. Pick 10 allows the creation of the most specifically tuned classes in any shooter ever. You want to have a soldier with a pistol, four perks and two throwing axes? Do it. Maybe you want to snap three attachments to a LMG, ditching your grenades to give yourself additional perks or a badass secondary weapon for close quarters combat -- you can do that too. Pick 10 accomplishes something I didn't even realize I wanted: For Create a Class to be as exciting and enticing as it was when I first popped in the original Modern Warfare. I don't just experiment because I want to create a loadout perfectly tailored to a specific mode, but because it's a genuinely fun and intuitive system to use.
A number of other smaller design tweaks highlight the clever design of class creation in Black Ops II. For instance perks now only affect your character, leaving it to the attachments system to affect your weapon. Thus if you want to do something like fast reload, which will make longtime players look for the Sleight of Hand perk, you'll need to hook up your weapon with a fast clip attachment. The Kill Streak system has also been wisely replaced by Score Streaks, making every match less about how many kills and in what consecutive order you get them in, and more about doing whatever nets you the highest score. This accomplishes a majorly important feat: it makes every game less about your Kill / Death ratio. Sure, it still won't keep people from obsessing over it, but if you want to get it higher you're going to need to help with objectives.
While I appreciate the rush that leveling up and unlocking items provides, it always felt strange to reward you with a stat reset after hitting the cap and Prestiging. Apparently some wise people at Treyarch agreed. Unlike previous games, after each of the 10 levels of Prestige you won't have your stats reset, but instead continue your weapon experience and challenge progress and earn even more rewards. For starters you now get a token that allows you to unlock any item regardless of its level requirement, forever. In addition you also get a Prestige Token that nets you either an additional Create a Class slot, a refund on all unlock tokens you've spent during your progress to date, or the more traditional character wipe that resets all your stats. This completely changes my attitude towards Prestiging, and makes it something I actually want to do.
The team at Treyarch could have played it safe and Black Ops II would have sold well, but instead they challenged assumptions and pushed the series forward in awesome new directions. It'll be hard to return to a campaign where I don't have the ability to shape it, and I simply can't imagine going back to the old loadout system now that Pick 10 exists. Combined with the host of subtle and overt improvements to the array of other systems, the additions to make it more appealing to Esports, and the more fleshed out Zombies mode, this is not just a fantastic Call of Duty game, but one of the best shooters of the last decade.
Black Ops 2 is a good example of how to evolve an annualized franchise. Best Call of Duty multiplayer and campaign yet.
+Player agency in campaign is awesome
+Pick 10 system makes multiplayer even better
+Great social and Esports additions to multiplayer
+Zombies mode is bigger than ever
- Imperfect Strike Force commands
Score: 9.3 - Amazing
My thoughts? Grain of salt it's 9GN.
What do you think?
Sound off below.