Call of Duty: Black Ops II – Xbox 360
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch
Release Date: Nov 13, 2012
Genre: FPS
Reviewed by Mark Smith

Review Score: 4.0 of 5

This has been an unpredictable year for FPS games, especially when it comes to the yearly rivalry between EA and Activision. With no Battlefield game releasing this Fall it was up to the Medal of Honor franchise to compete with the Call of Duty behemoth – an impossible task you say…but keep in mind that this year’s Call of Duty is Black Ops II, created by Treyarch, which has had a troubled past with the franchise, at least when compared to the staggered release of Modern Warfare games by Infinity Ward. So basically, 2012 is the battle of the B-franchises.

Medal of Honor Warfighter knocked our collective socks off at E3 this year and even managed to snake the “Best FPS” award from Call of Duty and other nominees, but it wouldn’t be until four months later that the Frostbite hype and glamorous trailers were stripped away to reveal the game to be perhaps the ultimate disappointment of 2012. That left Activision and Treyarch to redeem the military FPS genre and judging from the limited amount of content being trickled out prior to release, we were skeptical at best.

Now, after several weeks of having played Call of Duty: Black Ops II, both the single-player campaign, the new and improved Zombies, and the enhanced online gameplay, I can safely say that this is the best Call of Duty game Treyarch has ever released, especially on a Nintendo platform. In fact, let’s get the Wii U specifics out of the way first then you can read the rest of the review, which is pretty much what I had to say about the Xbox 360 version.

On the surface, Black Ops 2 on the Wii is virtually identical to the Xbox 360 version in content and features. Technically speaking, the audio isn’t quite as nice as the 360 but the graphics are much nicer with sharper detail and possibly even better textures. There is absolutely no screen tearing on the Wii U – something I can’t say about the 360 version. Sadly, the framerate cannot match the 60fps you’ll get on the Xbox but it never really seemed to dip below 30fps, which is more than acceptable. You’ll also notice a hit on the framerate when playing splitscreen, but interesting enough, no performance hit when merely mirroring the display to the GamePad in campaign play.

Your biggest obstacle will ultimately be the controller, and even then, that will only be a problem if you are coming off another console/gamepad. You’ll likely want to use the new Wii U Pro controller which of course, Nintendo has seen fit to awkwardly design with the right stick above the buttons, and of course use their own labeling scheme and reposition all the commands that any Call of Duty veteran has already committed to muscle memory. Thankfully, you can go into the options and change to classic controls, which will put all the commands in their familiar place as long as you can “tune out” the letter/icon prompts. And also, due to the reversed button/stick position you really have to reach for the X (err…I mean Y button) to reload. I kept hitting top X button which swapped weapons when I really only wanted to reload.

While the GamePad offers functional controls and some cool touchscreen features in multiplayer like activating Score Streaks or changing up your class without pausing the game, I just found the device too bulky and heavy for any prolonged sessions. You can use the secondary screen for you mini-map as well for two player-games without having to split the screen, although somebody will have to settle for the smaller screen, or you can just split the large screen as normal. You can also move the game from your TV to the GamePad for some private gaming if you want, but given the 3-hour battery life, this probably isn’t an option. And for those rooted in their old Wii controls, you are free to use the Wii remote and nunchuk, or even your old classic controller.

With so many ways to play your only real challenge will be finding somebody to play with. While the multiplayer if just as functional, fun, and robust as the other consoles and even the PC, you won’t find a whole lot of people playing, or at least non as many. In most of my online sessions active players were usually less than 5,000 whereas you can find upwards of half a million playing on Xbox Live any time of night or day. Hopefully, the Wii U online community will grow, as more systems and copies of the game saturate the market on and after the holidays. While the Wii U isn’t my first or even second choice for playing Black Ops 2, those firmly entrenched in Nintendo’s camp will certainly find the best Call of Duty experience ever created for a Nintendo console.

Now on to the game review itself…

Up first is the campaign, a relatively short adventure through a handful of missions than not only span the globe but two timelines, taking us on historical missions set in the 1980’s that lay the groundwork for the events that unfold in the present – or in this case, the future of 2025. To potentially expand the length of the narrative, Treyarch has added a branching storyline, so at several key decision points your choices will affect the ultimate outcome of the game. It’s certainly nothing major like entirely new missions, but it does provide a minor incentive to replay the game or at least check out the alternate endings on a Wiki or YouTube.

The main story is set around David Mason, a son in search of the truth about his father’s death. This quasi-revenge tale is juxtaposed against a similar quest for vengeance by our newest and perhaps most satisfying villain in the franchise to date; Raul Menendez. We experience his motivational loss in one of those 80’s flashback missions that triggers a lifetime plan of worldwide revenge, as he plants a computer virus in our automated defense network and takes over our very own robotic drone forces to wage war on the USA and China. Co-written by David S. Goyer (Dark Knight, Man of Steel), when it comes to story and plot, this is one of the best, even if it can be difficult to keep track of with all the time travel and globetrotting.

Mixed in with the story chapters are the new Strike Force missions that try to put a fresh RTS spin on what should have remained an FPS game. While I appreciated the ambitious nature of these missions and the way they were presented, both in their limited availability and their possible repercussions in the story, the simple fact that these missions are clearly BROKE destroyed all potential enjoyment. Strike Force missions present you with a set of forces divided into three selectable units that can be controlled individually or grouped together. The premise is simple. Playing from a top-down tactical map of the level you pick your units and click on the map or enemy units to have your men and/or drones move and attack. At any time you can click on a single unit and take control of that person or drone and play the game in traditional FPS view.

This would be all fine and good (and even fun) if it worked, but your men will frequently ignore your orders there was no responsive means for choosing my three groups. Ultimately, I would just lump my entire force into one collective assault and rush each objective in linear fashion. I tried playing a few levels entirely from the tactical map and was met with repeat failure. I tried playing the game as a one-man wrecking crew and was met with a similar fate, which meant I often had to game the system.

The good news is these Strike Force missions are completely optional and from what I could tell, made no substantial impact on the core campaign; at least not enough to endure the frustrating gameplay and non-responsive controls. Perhaps a future patch will address these issues, but for the sake of your own sanity, skip these sideline excursions for now.

Zombies are back and better than ever and in some ways might even surpass the solo campaign for sheer fun, especially given the fact that you can co-op this mode with up to four players in this Left4Dead-style survival horror game that blends the weapons of Call of Duty with plenty of undead targets. Tranzit is the big new mode that adds a minimal attempt at storytelling mixed with hilarious one-liners, hidden mission objectives, and countless Easter eggs. As always, you kill zombies to earn points that can be spent to unlock doors and purchase new weapons. You can also collect parts and assemble them into useful gadgets on workbenches. The levels are much larger this time around; so large in fact that there is an AI-driven bus you can ride to get to new areas of the map – just watch out for any zombies who tried to board the bus with you and make sure your entire team is onboard before you close the door.

In addition to Tranzit is the classic Survival mode that lets you pick individual maps from Tranzit and see how many waves of undead you and your friends can survive. Grief is the other mode, often referred to as “dick mode” where you have two teams of four players doing battle in a zombie-infested map only you can’t directly attack the other team – merely stun them with knife attacks or try to trap them with barricades so the zombies can do the dirty work for you. I enjoyed the backhanded tactics required to play this mode, and we all know there are plenty of “dicks” online, so this may be the new cult favorite variation for zombies.

My only quibbles with Zombies is that the game is nearly impossible if played alone, even if you just want to learn the levels, and there are definitely some serious detection hotspot issues that make it frustrating to pick up a part, repair a barricade, or even purchase a gun or open a door. I often found myself getting needlessly mauled by a zombie while simply trying to find the proper pixel-perfect spot to stand to activate the command prompt.

Of course the true staying power of any Call of Duty game is in its multiplayer and Black Ops II has taken some serious steps in changing the way we engage in online warfare. The new Create-a-Class divorces itself from the past method of merely picking weapons and perks and now uses the new “Pick 10” system, perhaps the most ingenious system since perks themselves. You get ten points to use for equipping your soldier. Every weapon, every attachment, and every perk costs a point, giving you unparalleled freedom in creating the perfect warrior. If you don’t like your current selection of perks then spend your points on extra attachments for your gun. Due to my short survival rate I rarely have need of a secondary weapon, so I spent those points on something else. If you are really daring you can spend all your points on personal perks and take just a pistol into the game and hope to get a kill so you can take that player’s weapon.

The Pick 10 system gives the multiplayer game a unique RPG-like flavor, as well as allowing an open-ended player/class creation system that can be finely tuned to match your personal play style. I was amazed at how balanced the gameplay has become, especially in light of all this new creative freedom. Potential imbalances work themselves out by using a Wildcard system that doubles the cost of perks chosen from within the same tier, and the unlock system provides nonstop incentive for continued experimentation and subtle tweaks to your Pick 10 classes.

Other multiplayer changes include the shift from Kill Streaks to Score Streaks, which not only encourages teamwork, but also rewards it. This means that any contribution – not just kills – you make toward your overall team objective is rewarded with some sort of score, making support classes just as important as infantrymen. It is no longer just all about the K/D ratio, but your overall contribution to the team.

In an attempt to improve online matchmaking as well as infiltrating the growing world of eSports, Black Ops II now has League Play. You start by playing in five preliminary rounds that will determine your skill and initial rank. Your league standing will then slowly adjust itself based on all your future matches, so basically the more you and everyone else plays, the more refined the matchmaking process becomes. Of course this only works if you are playing using the League Play option, and with more than a half-million players actively playing during any of my online sessions, it seemed that most are still just diving into the more traditional ranked match games. Hopefully League Play will take off.

As far as presentation, Call of Duty continues to show its age when compared to more modern games using newer engines, but that’s not to say the game doesn’t look great, and the fact that this non-stop Michael Bay popcorn flick manages to look just a tad better on the Wii U than it does on the Xbox 360, even if at half the FPS, amazes me. There are moments of visual splendor, shock, awe, and amazement but there are also times when I cringed at shadow locked into the background.

The sound effects are quite literally “explosive” and the soundtrack rivals a Hollywood production with contributions from Academy Award winning composer Trent Reznor (theme), BAFTA nominee Jack Wall (score), and tracks from musical acts Avenged Sevenfold and an original collaboration by Skrillex and Alvin Risk. The voice acting is fantastic once you get past the salty language of Admiral Briggs and features talent such as Michael Rooker, Sam Worthington, Tony Todd, Nolan North, and James Burns just to name a few.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a great game; easily the best military shooter of 2012 with greatly improved modes like zombies and the new Pick 10 multiplayer. We’ll chalk the Strike Force missions up to a failed, yet ambitious experiment. The campaign mode has some great characters and a surprisingly deep narrative that circles back to events from four decades prior, and while there was some attempt at story branching, I did find the actual gameplay a bit linear. Interactive moments where I was expecting to participate were played out for me like a movie and other events that should have been a movie inexplicably required me to press a single button to proceed.

If you already have a Wii U or are still waiting to get your hands on a system then make sure to add Black Ops II to your wishlist of launch library titles. The campaign is an 8-hour blockbuster movie that might actually play out better on the big screen than a video game, but it’s the new and improved Zombies and the extremely addictive multiplayer – not to mention a new year of DLC maps – that will keep you playing Black Ops II until next November.