A note from the editor:

Since both the installers and the demographics for each of the three Call of Duty components are so split, we’ve decided to review each of them separately. At PCGMedia, we understand that there are very many people who buy Call of Duty games for the single player, and many more who buy it specifically for the multiplayer. Due to this, we believe it’s only fair to analyze each component properly as it stands on its own. It might be triple the work, but we believe you deserve an honest approach to video-game critique. 

I already feel like I’m treading on thin ice reviewing this title. Views are so split either side that it’s just so difficult to land on any cogency. On the one hand, Call of Duty titles feature the first person shooter mechanics of a budget title from 2003, but on the other hand the spectacle and production values are always enthralling and fascinating to watch. Some say it’s become a parody of its former self, and others say it’s become a sort of genre-niche of its own. I’m not here to compare Call of Duty Black Ops II to any other first person shooter on the market, I’m here to talk about how it stands on its own. In a nut-shell, Call of Duty Black Ops II is a visual action feast, marred by there being any game-play at all, since the players part in all of this is subject to some seriously dated mechanics, and gimmicky pseudo-innovations that looked great in marketing, but amounted to nothing.

Therein lies the problem that is unique to Call of Duty titles, with regards to the campaign. What do you want in a game? Decent shooting, with authentic sound, that requires skill and a keen eye, with satisfying kills and a sense of achievement? Well, that’s what I look for, but you won’t find it here. What there is, though, is a cool and sleek explosive festival of beautifully crafted set pieces and awesome locations.

Black Ops II feels like a CGI movie built in a dated engine, and it’s starting to feel like the actual gameplay is the last thing on Activision’s mind.

They’ve learned in some instances to mask the age of the engine

Black Ops II’s story imposes itself on the player as though Treyarch expect full recollection of events prior to this installment. What’s explained through exposition and mumbled, gruff voices during cut-scenes doesn’t settle very well in the first few stages. One of the problems is that basically every character is a 6’1″ man in uniform with a beard, whilst other problems lay in the hands of the writers who assume for some reason that everyone remembers who the referenced characters are from two years ago. Because of this, getting into the story is difficult, and although some of you will argue “well who cares about the story?” that isn’t really valuable here.

From what I gathered from the opening sequence, you’re sent to go kill Joseph Kony or something, opening with an explosive action sequence in Ghana. For whatever reason, you’re riding in an armored truck towards 10,000 angry African men who’re driving towards you shooting. Needless to say, you’re invulnerable at this point despite being in the middle of a war zone. After this sequence – in which I think I exploded about 7-9 T62 tanks – you’re sent to rescue the original protagonist Alex Mason, at which point you stumble across the games antagonist and, as Treyarch would have you believe, revolutionary. From this point, the game as you’d expect is about tracking down the bad guys, fighting off a few trojan horse spin’s, and making your way to that inevitable slow-motion sequence where someone throws something sharp and someone else’s face and the credits roll.

Of course, there’s all the game in between.

In the future, wall hacks are provided for free.

Although the game was heavily advertised as being set in the future – at least, that’s how I understood it – about 60% of the game is set in the original era of Black Ops, in my opinion this to and fro between Alex Mason and his son, David Mason, is a very good thing – since the future of Black Ops II comes with a bunch of convoluted easy-mode weapons that come as a detriment to the overall experience. As if Call of Duty wasn’t easy enough, these weapons consist of: sights that see through walls, sights that show enemy locations; guns that shoot through anything, shotguns that fire in bursts of three; an SMG that fires sticky grenades all over the place – and there’s also an invisibility suit. All of these things are cool, but they’ve done nothing to balance the game for it.

For example, some enemies at the start and towards the end of the campaign have invisibility suits of their own. You’d probably think that makes things harder. It doesn’t. These suits have a granulated watery effect that turns them into a sort of mobile water-fountain with a gun, and despite the fact that muzzle flash doesn’t come with it’s own cloak of invisibility, it’s easy to see an enemy whose clothing is moving more than they are.

And this is the thing about Call of Duty Black Ops II, it lives up to the trend that the others have set. You stand in front of about 10-30 enemies, and you shoot at them until they’re all dead. Either more come, or you move into the next room, and you do it again.

You might be thinking “well, isn’t that what all first person shooters are?” and to that I’d say, well, no: for 80% of the game, you feel completely invincible – almost as though you’re not supposed to die unless the game wants you to die, which removes an sense of tension from any scenario. You never feel in danger. Because of this, you’re incredibly brave, and you therefore waltz through the map shooting at the countless enemies in front of you. Because they’re always in the open and so easy to kill, kills never feel earned, and there’s absolutely nothing satisfying about it. When there’s nothing satisfying about killing an enemy, and there are so god damn many of them, you’ve a serious problem with the game-play.

With that out of the way, there are things Call of Duty Black Ops II excels at.

Motion capped they said – I wouldn’t have known if they hadn’t told me.

This title promises the same spectacle as all Call of Duty titles before it, and it delivers. Although the engine and graphics are clearly dated, despite Treyarch promising updates, the attention to detail on the maps, with rendered artifacts, statues and scenes of true digital artistry are quite stunning – comparatively – which is basically the only thing that keeps you going. Although riding on horseback towards what turned out to be about 20 Hind’s and some Russian tanks seems awesome, the non-stop action and sense of invulnerability pumps into your ears to a point where severe tedium sets in pretty early. I blew up about 6 Hind’s with a Stinger launcher on the back of a horse. Nothing makes any sense, but the spectacle is enough to keep you wanting to see the next stage.

And that’s what it boils down to for me and Black Ops II. Killing went from dissatisfying to actually tedious about 30% into the game, and I literally started counting enemies, standing open in the map, and thinking to myself “can I really be bothered to point my mouse at all these people, and click, just to have to do it again in the next room?” But whilst every gun sounds the same, and every mindless, auto-pilot kill is just a precursor to another equally mindless kill, I really wanted to see what the next stage was; where’s it set? What does it look like? How will they introduce it?

Strike Force is a badly implemented gimmicky time sink.

If you want a break in between campaign missions, you can play the scenario’s called Strike Force. Strike Force is a pseudo-RTS style horde mode, where you control various units to try and defend key points on the map, among other objectives. The enemies keep pouring in as your numbers dwindle, and you can control any unit on the map from a first person perspective. The missions take about 10 minutes each, which makes for a nice break from all the action, but what they intend to offer in strategy they negate but shoddy implementation. For example, you get reinforcements arbitrarily, which means that you’ll probably not care about your units. See red, send people to attack. People in rage of a turret? Man it and spam them with bullets for a while. It’s basically impossible to lose, which you’ll work out pretty quickly, and if you’re like me you’ll go and make a cup of tea as the AI takes care of things. I doubt anyone will be a fan of this filler.

The dynamic of Black Ops II follows that of any series of any TV show. Much of the budget is spent in the first few episodes, with some serious filler in the middle. Towards the end, the studio up their game, and the season finale has more explosions than a terrorists wet dream. The filler is seriously problematic, though, because a lot of the game is just standing in a corridor pointing your gun at generic enemies – and it takes so long to clear a room that the whole process just becomes painful.

Vehicle sequences should not have passed QA.

If you’re not controlling a turret, or firing blankly into the abyss of an enemy spawn point until you’re told you can move on, you’ll either be driving a car of flying a jet. The driving scene really shows the age of the engine, with pop-in assets flying in front of your face as you progress through the mission. The sequence feels horrible and looks incredibly dated, and whilst it’s nice of them to break up the shooting, this wasn’t the right way to do it. Second to that, there’s a sequence where you actually get to pilot a jet – and whilst I could lie to you and use colourful language to evoke a sense of wonderment at how amazing that could be, the controls are so terrible that I can’t help but wonder if it was bugged. You strafe with the A and D keys, and hold shift to actually turn steeply. Using the mouse, you swing left and right, but after every mouse movement, the jet forced itself back horizontally, which made me feel like I was fighting it for control. I was supposed to be following a group of enemy drones, but found myself starring at the controls wondering what the hell I was doing wrong.

A rare moment of beauty, and genuine enjoyment.

The story of Black Ops II does gain clarity as it grows more simple – and that’s not a bad thing. Guy is hurt, tries to hurt everyone else – gotcha, I can follow that. And as the story progressed and I begun to understand and remember who the hell anyone was, Treyarch hit me with a rare moment of genuine surprise. A sequence in the Cayman Islands, on a luxury “ship” (more like an island) where the “1%” live provided me with a brief moment of awe. The attention to detail was stunning, and everything from it’s shopping arcades to its night clubs was so wonderfully laid out that I almost felt like Treyarch could build it if they wanted to.

There’s also a great moment of pumped-up-awesome in the form of a night-club shoot-out that features some of the bro-est team-work I’ve ever seen in a game. Whilst I found most of the set-pieces visually enthralling, this is by far my favorite, and as Treyarch thinned out the enemy numbers and instilled some style into the game at this point, my enjoyment peaked substantially, and I felt some soul in the otherwise entirely stale dynamic.

Get down, get down. 

From there on in, however, the countless hordes of boring and tedious enemies returned, and game-play devolved once again into the mind-numbing and dated FPS game-play that you’d see from one of the not-so-great Delta Force series of shooters. I’m not one to poke at a developer for not innovating, but pretending to innovate for the sake of sales is something I can’t live with.

In between missions, for example, you can pick your load-out. You pick your gun, your attachments, sights, etc, and then you start the mission with these weapons. This is completely negated in effect by the fact that as soon as you run out of ammo, or meet a scripted moment where you’ve to blow something up, you’ll swap that weapon for either a weapon dictated by the game, or an enemy weapon. After the fourth mission I stopped bothering.

Cowboy duck hunt. Hit 3 and win a giant middle finger. 

It might seem like I’ve written a decidedly damning report of what Black Ops II‘s campaign has to offer, but although this isn’t a refutation of other opinions, as I sit and read as people explain, on paper, the new implementations, and see how amazing they’ve made them sound, I have to wonder how honest they’ve been. Every single addition has seemed either superfluous, negated by something else, or just gimmicky to the point of risible. No one needs sights that show you where the enemy is, since they all stand in the open. Motion capped horses? Sure, but running around the desert with a rocket launcher blowing up tanks just seemed ridiculous. Flying a jet? Sure, but the controls were so limiting and poorly implemented that the whole thing felt like a buggy annoyance. Couple all this with the fact that the engine still limits the game incredibly, and the fact that all the guns sound the same, with the fact that shooting the same enemies over and over, in the same way, without needing cover or tactics, surely merits some objective objections to the implementation of all things first person shooter.

In fairness, I’m one for these goofy campaigns, and whilst the other major MMS’ have had well implemented combat mechanics that make shooting satisfactory and exciting, this one hasn’t bothered, again. The story is marred by the fact that the whole cyber-attack trojan-horse, betrayal and forced-hand subjects have all been over-done, and the only thing that carries this game is the trade-mark high production value scripted action sequences.

Call of Duty Black Ops II is a bad shooter, but it’s a fantastic spectacle. Whilst the shooting is frankly terrible, the spectacle is decidedly awesome. It’s entirely up to you whether or not these two juxtapositions balance out enough for you to enjoy it, but the conclusion I have from playing the single player installment is this:

I thoroughly enjoyed the explosive, choreographed scripted action sequences. I loved the introductions to mission, the gorgeous set-pieces and the fantastic locations. All of this was significantly marred by extremely bad implementation, and innovations that were ruined by poor controls, and a dated engine. I grew incredibly tired of shooting people, and in a first person shooter, that’s not a good thing. Is Call of Duty Black Ops II a bad shooter? Yes it is. Is it a bad game? I apprehensively think so. What I will say, though, is that Call of Duty Black Ops II is an interactive Hollywood movie – this time more than ever – with some game-play mechanics thrown in as an afterthought.

At around 6-7 hours to complete, Black Ops II will take you on an explosive journey – but it’s not a journey full of heart pounding tension, since it’s an easy, mind-numbing shooter where, in the future, things get even easier. Yes, a lot of cool stuff happens in Call of Duty Black Ops II, but none of it will be by your hand, and nearly all of it is during an intro, outro, or scripted action sequence. In the end, I can’t help but think that any splendor there is here, only exists because the publisher pumped so much money into it – money that went into all the wrong places.