Here, let's get it all out of the way right now: Call of Duty is the same every single year. It's just a total dude-bro game that's all about multiplayer and treats the single-player game as an afterthought. The stories all suck and blah blah yadda yadda playing video games with friends is the Great Satan.
Also, "I guess you really gotta watch your step in a game called Call of Doody," etc.
The truth of the matter is, most of this is insanely biased, and pretty untrue in some instances--believe it or not, Activision does want people to care about the story, no matter how asinine it can get. The real shocker is that the story of Black Ops II (hereafter referred to as Blops II) is probably the strongest point of an overall decent game. Unfortunately, the "biggest game of the year" drops the ball in a number of unexpected and kind of hilarious ways, especially for a game that's probably going to top sales lists for the year despite being released in November.
Following the surprisingly cool Cold War spy story of 2010's Call of Duty: Black Ops, the sequel jumps between the late 1980s (where you play as original Blops heroes Alex Mason and Frank Woods) and the near-future battlefield of 2025, playing as Mason's son David. Both men are haunted by a messianic terrorist named Raul Menendez, who stands tall as one of the truly memorable characters in the franchise. Menendez is charismatic, ruthless, and above all understandable. He's not just a cackling, mustache-twirling villain, and by the end, you're not sure whether you should kill him or not.
Along with its newfound focus on telling a strong story with great characters, Blops II changes things up from previous CoDs by giving multiple, varied endings based on your in-game actions at pivotal moments. Between certain missions, you'll also be able to play "Strikeforce" levels, where you command a squad in a pseudo-RTS (where you can also directly control any single unit), where a small team of men get to work with stationary turrets and a CLAW (basically a four-legged mini-tank) for varying objectives including rescue, VIP protection, and assassinating an enemy leader.
Different Strikeforce missions will present themselves as your actions change the story--in one mission, you get a chance to download sensitive information from Menendez. If you're able to download all the information, you get a Strikeforce mission that allows you to save a lot of lives in the next story mission if you're successful. The combination of sudden decision-making in levels (blow your cover, or stick to the mission?), player skill (did you rescue the hostage, or did the bad guys get away?), and completing Strikeforce objectives does something that I thought was impossible: it actually made me want to replay a Call of Duty campaign.
Even with a surprisingly effective campaign, Call of Duty is mainly about multiplayer. Blops II changes up the Farmville-esque bar-filling and leveling-up of Modern Warfare and the original Blops with a new system titled "Pick Ten." You're given a total of fourteen slots for weapons, equipment, attachments and perks, pick ten for your loadout, and earn Allocation Points as you level up. Allocation Points can be spent to flexibly customize your loadout, letting you carry more grenades or max out your perks so each player has unique loadouts for their own individual playstyles. Pick Ten is a simple, smart solution, especially after stupid level-up crap like "kill 50 opponents by shooting them through walls with this ammo upgrade."
The futuristic 2025 arsenal doesn't do too much to change the game of CoD multiplayer, but now it's more than the usual headshot jousting. New equipment and attachments let you do quick sonar checks of your immediate area, knock out enemy equipment with an EMP burst, and identify threats the moment they enter your reticle. Players can just get in there and fight it out, but cooler-headed players willing to creep around the map will be rewarded for their patience.
Finally, Blops II brings back the popular "Zombies" cooperative multiplayer mode, adding the fast-paced "Tranzit" mode to the mix. In Tranzit, you ride a bus around the multiple playable Zombies maps, with the bus making frequent stops at your mom's house (sorry, can't help it, Call of Duty review) so you can reload and upgrade your weapons. Linger too long and the bus will depart without you, leaving you stranded until it comes back around. It's still a nice, arcade-y diversion from campaign and multiplayer, whether you stand your ground in standard Zombies or go on the run in Tranzit.
Of course, the other shoe had to drop sometime: I always find Call of Duty to be incredibly unpolished. In a lot of ways, Blops II feels even less polished than a lot of games made today. For a game that sells at this volume (last year's Modern Warfare 3 sold 6.5 million units in its first day), I expect incredibly high-detail character models for main characters, but it's jarring to see three super-detailed main characters and two hilariously low-res nobodies standing right next to them. In one level, you have to ride a horse while firing RPGs at tanks--it sounds pretty freakin' awesome until you see that the horse from 2005's Shadow of the Colossus is more smoothly-animated. In the rush to get a new Call of Duty out each year, it feels like a lot of the little details--y'know, the ones you use to make a world feel real, the ones that show how much the developers care--get lost in the shuffle. Spec Ops: The Line used color, angles and smart in-game effects like player damage to help tell the story--Blops II feels phoned in.
This extends to some questionable design decisions that still haven't been addressed, even after all these years. It makes sense to have a red arrow pointing in the direction you're being attacked from in a first-person game, but if the entire border of your screen is red with blood, then you can't freakin' see the direction you're being attacked from and you suffer through another bullshit death. The game also autosaves at very inopportune moments--instead of breaks in the action, you'll sometimes restart right in the middle of that charge toward a machine gun nest. Or while you're prying open a locker and there's a guy emptying an assault rifle into your back. Or when you're right next to a car that explodes and kills you instantly, forcing you to respawn next to the car that's going to explode and kill you instantly as soon as you respawn.
While the story does have a few high points, it's still not at the level it seems to think it is. More often than not, it's less The Hurt Locker and more Driven to Kill starring Steven Seagal and coming direct to DVD. For every great moment, there's choppy dialogue delivery, terrible acting, and Tony Todd's amazing enunciation of a word I can't print here. Here's a hint: it rhymes with "lockmucker." And that isn't even a word.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II really pulls it all together for its final act, delivering slam-bang action and giving you plenty of reasons to play through the campaign again. Its multiplayer and Zombies are both solid additions that, like the campaign, don't stand on their own. But as a complete product, Blops II isn't half bad. The problem is, that means it's almost half crap. Sloppy design and a lack of artistry built around a "pretty okay" game make me wonder how the hell this sells so well every year. Seriously, unless you're going to sink a lot of time into multiplayer or Zombies, put sixty dollars toward Dishonored or something. In all the time I've reviewed games for CRN, this is the first one that's actually, honestly felt like work.
+ Solid story with one of the most memorable villains the franchise has yet seen
+ Fast-paced action with just a dash of sci-fi separates it from other "modern military" shooters
+ Pick Ten is a smart evolution of Call of Duty's "Create a Class" features
- Story takes itself a little too seriously for its own good--you'd expect a game with a budget like this to have better acting
- Inconsistent visuals and occasional choppy animation really stand out when other aspects look amazing
- Ridiculous and poorly thought-out design decisions still plague the gameplay
- The worst part is that those problems probably won't be fixed in the next installment either