If Call of Duty Black Ops II was a film director, he’d be a fat, shaggy veteran, too comfortable with his own success, sitting on a beach lounger, smoking a cigar, whilst countless aides create his next artistic masterpiece from a manual he wrote when he decided upon his formula. His films 7 years ago will have been original, beautiful pieces of contemporary cinematography that offered something new and accessible, but critics would say that he’s lost soul, unable to adapt and innovate further than his prior success. He’d be too rich and too big to fail, they’d say, because he’d be continually buying success, relying on old tricks, having given up on any sense of freedom of creativity.

Treyarch are doing things by the book in 2012, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for genuine fans of the series. Black Ops II, although superfluously marketed as some kind of insane episode of Top Gear set in the Carmageddon universe, they’ve rolled back some of the ridiculous easy-mode gadgets, replacing them with perks and ‘score streaks’ which help to flesh out and balancing things up a bit. What some reviewers are claiming are innovations in the series are actually merely iterations and roll-backs, or re-shuffling of former ideas which now make a little more sense. Black Ops II isn’t innovative at all within the first person genre on the whole, and any ideas implemented in this iteration merely serve as a life-boat for an otherwise rusted, sinking ship in the eyes of proper criticism. Yes, it sells, but Activision and Treyarch, companies full of creatives and artists, are fully aware that what they’re selling is old-hat, designed almost scientifically to appeal. It’s a cinnabon; you just want one, but you can’t justify it.

Here it goes again.

Graphically, we can’t escape the fact that Black Ops II is a dated console port that has been far surpassed in terms of graphical fidelity by even $10 indie titles. I know, you want to shoot me in the face, and before you start harping on about how “graphics don’t make a game,” I’m going to look at this both within the Call of Duty microchasm that Activision have perpetuated, and rival games on the whole. It’s true that Black Ops II is clearly the prettiest and most polished Call of Duty to date, but all of the little additions to effects, such as a superfluously rudimentary depth of field, leads to some horrible frame spikes even on the heftiest of machines. Valve created a visually appealing, albeit not graphically stunning competitive FPS in the form of Counter Strike: Global Offensive because they knew that high framerates were important to people, and not wanting to release a butt ugly game, they got their calculators out and thought about how to produce some lovely visuals using the minimum of resources. They succeeded; this did not. Black Ops II is visually held back by a dated engine, and the frame-rate is held back by trying to mask the dated engine. This is nothing other than a bad thing, and to merely say “well it looks better that Modern Warfare 3” is about as useful as Anno 2070 at a LAN event.

I’d be lying if I said the visuals weren’t noticeably better, though, particularly the textures, shadowing, and some ambient effects – but they’re still not good, and they serve merely as duct tape for what is a horribly ageing engine. When you’ve released a $60 title with what is universally accepted as one of the worst Call of Duty campaigns and an over-arching zombie mode that, too, is pretty bad, you have to start to wonder where all the money went? Black Ops II, if you really don’t care about everything I’ve just said, will please you visually if you’re a hard-core fan of the series, but don’t expect to be won over if you’re not.

Map design… another text book process

The game features some interesting maps in some nice locations, but I can’t help but feel as though Treyarch sat around a desk, and some guy said “map design… ideas?” To which some intern in the back making coffee went “well, I mean, what if we just made a load of circles and filled them with boxes?” To me, that’s what most of the maps feel like. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 4 featured some of the best maps of any Call of Duty game ever. They had charm and character, and although you knew basically the three routes each team would make, they were visually pleasing and well laid out. Think of it in Counter Strike terms: everyone knows exactly where to head at the start of the round, with some variation for the sake of tactics. There’s nothing wrong with that. Treyarch realized though that settling for uniformity can cause players to become bored, so what they’ve done is sort of created a stirring pot where players are like mice, running around in circles, happening upon other players. This takes me neatly into what the gameplay is about.

There’s a lot of talk about how publishers research into the affects of brain chemistry with regards to the dynamic of gameplay. Without getting into some potentially libelous details, I can speculate that some clever lab-coat ideas have been tossed around once more in this iteration. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing new, Call of Duty has always been about maximum reward with minimal skill, but here’s the deal:

Coming from more skill based shooters from any FPS sub-genre gives you the upper hand in Call of Duty. All you have to do is point, and shoot – that’s it. Especially when playing hard-core mode. Chancing upon enemies is increased by the geometric positioning of objects on the map, which focuses more on a grid like dynamic more so than lanes and alley’s seen in other iterations, and other games in the genre. Because of this, chancing upon an enemy and killing him off guard is increased. Because of that, it’s much easier to get kills. Due to this, the game is substantially more rewarding. That, with the relatively short round times, superfluous rewards and ribbons, and the fact that you can reach about 3-8 promotions in every round, makes for a very orchestrated experience, that maximizes the illusion of skill and achievement, whilst utilizing chance, map ‘exploits’ and shooting mechanics that favor twitch reflexes over skill.

It’s so easy to be good at Call of Duty that you just won’t stop playing.

Note the way they’ve tried to emulate ground tessellation

Activision have ensured that many people reviewing the title will have fun playing it; you’ll see the clause “the game was played at a press event hosted by Activison” added to many reviews. The only reason I bring this up is because I wholly admit that Black Ops II is fun. I can see that in a LAN environment, where everyone is enthused and excited about being there, with friends and colleagues, Black Ops II can present itself as more than a guilty pleasure. But that’s not how people at home play Call of Duty games, and given that there’s virtually no social aspect to any of the game modes, it isn’t an accurate representation of what you’ll actually be doing at home, having spent the $60 on the box.

In actuality, whilst the game offers non-stop movement, maximum satisfaction (in the form of easy kills), and a huge, mindless time-sink, it can quickly become wholly lonely, and almost depressing. Having “Promoted!” flash up on your screen about 15 times after an hour of game-play, and reward ribbons thrown at your face, and people swearing and trash talking constantly, knowing that what you’re playing is essentially the most casual, unskilled first person shooter on the market, gets pretty depressing actually relatively quickly, and whilst you might think that’s just too harsh, let me explain why.

First person shooters justify themselves with skill based mechanics that reward map-memory, reflexes, hand-eye coordination and, somewhat, your ability to construct good builds if there are roles or classes – none of this other than some hand eye coordination is required in Call of Duty Black Ops II. As soon as you spawn, you’re guaranteed to either come across someone unsuspecting, shooting him to death from the hip, or seeing someone in the distance, and shooting him down the sight. There’s basically no recoil in any of the guns, even the machine guns, and killing someone is just a matter of pointing your cursor at them. All pomp and fluff aside, that’s all there is to it, and the realization that you’re basically being tricked into spending your time on something that unsubstantial, to me, is quite insulting, and very consumer unfriendly.

I liked this area, it felt as though someone had seen the potential for a cool shoot-out.

Black Ops II features an array of weapons that aren’t as futuristic as one might expect, and whilst they’re wholly unrealistic in that some of them fire about a zillion rounds a second with virtually no recoil, they’re not game-breaking, and they’re quite fun to use. The problem is they all feel about the same, and with no variation in recoil, and little variation in fire-rate, I found it pretty pointless to customize my own build. I could kill just about anyone with the base weapons, particularly in the ‘Mercenary’ class, and whilst I enjoyed using the fully automatic shot-gun which basically shouldn’t exist, I couldn’t help but feel as though the creativity in creating some new weapons has broken the balancing differences between sub machine-guns and assault rifles. The machine guns, too, felt like better assault rifles, and the explosives just felt unnecessary. I’m sure that those who are really into the dynamic of Call of Duty will invent some reason to prefer specific builds to match their game-play style, but from what I’ve seen so far, styles of play range from “there’s an enemy, I’d better jump in the air” to the famous “oh shit, I better go prone” all the way to “here’s a window, better pull up a chair.”

When it comes to gadgets, Black Ops II get a tip of my hat for fixing, ironically, the gadget frenzy of Modern Warfare 3. With turrets, air-strikes, drone control, helicopters, all different types of everything in between, there are enough kill-streak rewards to successfully unbalance the entire match and waste everyone’s time (that’s what kill streaks generally do), and there are enough perks to sufficiently keep you playing, hoping to unlock them. These range from going invisible for a short amount of time, to not receiving damage when falling. There are also old favorites such as flack jackets and extra ammunition.

It’s interesting that they focused less this time on the extremities of gadgetry wins given the future setting, but I think Treyarch grew aware that Call of Duty was rapidly becoming a parody of itself, and Activision have stepped in to rescue any sense of competition from within the game.

Wait, didn’t I see this gun in Crysis?

Black Ops II features the game modes from all prior titles, minus the same coop experience as Modern Warfare 2, and I can safely say that this iteration is more of the same. What some have called innovation – which I find perverse – is merely a reshuffling of ideas, designed to rescue the game. There are a few quirks here and there that had me smashing my keyboard against the table, such as shooting an enemy, registering hits in my head, then seeing them not get touched by my bullets (no, I’m not paranoid!) And sometimes as I ran behind cover, losing sight of my enemy (and therefore his line of sight) I’d still get hit, which I suppose is either down to the net code or the engine, because I have a ping of around 20 in most matches. These were few and far between, and for the most part Black Ops II is a genuinely stable game. I’m not one to cry over a lack of dedicated servers, and I found public match making to be relatively trouble free.

Given the state of the campaign and the appalling zombie spin off, I have to wonder where the hell all of Activisions money went. Black Ops II features nothing that other games like Monolith’s Gotham City Impostors doesn’t provide (and that’s free, now) but they’re charging $60. This practice quite frankly has to stop. Deep Silver decided to release Dead Island: Riptide at a reduced rate because they accepted the fact that we’re at the end of a generation cycle, and they’re using a previous engine, so why can’t Activision suck it up and do the same thing? Whilst Black Ops II is a fun shooter, it’s also a mind-numbingly simple one. Easy kills, easy unlocks, easy promotions, easy perks, and easy kill streaks. Although it’s designed to keep you glued to your monitor for hours on end, a rational gamer will probably tire of it after only a short period. Because of this, there’s only enough polish and content to justify a price tag of around $15, and whilst some of the guys at Treyarch are probably being paid a lot more than an indie developer, they’re producing the same – sometimes less than – quality work. There’s no way to escape the fact that Call of Duty provides an appalling amount of bang for your buck, and I’m not going to sit here and ignore it or justify it – it’s inescapable. At least there’s free map packs to look forward to. Oh wait.

If you want a good value, high polish first person shooter experience that requires any thought or skill, with the same fun factor, you can play Gotham City Impostors for free. If you’re a PC gamer, why not try Natural Selection 2 for $15? The new Blacklight is also a pretty good competitive game – try that one for free, too. Want a fast and fun twitch? There’s Tribes or Counter Strike: GO. Need I mention Planetside 2? That’s free too. There are tonnes of options out there – all of which have adapted to the current climate, and priced their goods at what they’re worth. Can I recommend spending $60 on another stale Call of Duty iteration that merely pseudo-innovates within its own bubble? I’d be a shitty journalist if I did.

Call of Duty Black Ops II is the gaming equivalent of junk food. It costs too much for what it is; it’s wholly unsubstantial, and you just can’t justify ingesting it with any rational, academic argument.

Check out our video review below