Another year, another Call of Duty, another surprisingly good game

, | Game reviews

Although the campaign begins with Activision’s usual “hey, we’re going to get super edgy and we might offend you!” disclaimer, Black Ops II is an almost entirely harmless war story, except for a few grim burn victims. Okay, so a skyscraper collapses. But it’s free of any civilian massacres or conspicuously killed children. Pretty much everyone who gets killed deserves it.

After the jump, world conquest, undead mass transit, and bronze leagues

The plot is a mostly typical supervillain-gets-revenge-on-teh-world yarn. Like the original Black Ops, it alternates between the past and present. Well, in this case, the past and near future. By bopping between the 80s and 2025, the boyishly yee-haw action maintains a peppy half Rambo, half Clancy schizophrenia with a splash of Crysisesque chrome. The futuristic stuff snaps the towel just enough to keep it from feeling like a rehash. It even connects to the first Black Ops, just in case you actually remember any of that story.

Sam Worthington’s voice is back, again hilariously miscast as an American. Michael Rooker and Tony Todd lend their faces and voices to the game, and they’re both a welcome presence. Tony Todd has to be the goofiest admiral this side of Alan Hale. I kept waiting on him to chest bump me after a mission. I know he wanted to. And Michael Rooker is exactly the guy I want by my side if I have to shoot a few hundred bad guys. Late in the game, he lets loose with a hearty, “Fuck yeah!” It is the greatest B-list celebrity encouragement since David Cross’ “Seriously, sir, that was awesome” in Halo 2. In a surprising advance for equal opportunity, there are more than twice the usual number of women in this Call of Duty, which features a pilot who will need you to cover her shift, a nagging wife you hear inside a house, an 80s hacker chick who accidentally finds her way into the 2025 storyline, and a McGuffin. Also the President, who is Hillary Clinton in everything but name, is a chick.

Although the shooting and spectacle are familiar, many of the levels have a welcome amount of openness, or at least left or right wiggle room. The concept of using a slot to equip an “access kit” lets Treyarch play with optional doo-dads and gimmicks. Now that Call of Duty no longer relies on cheap tricks like infinite spawns and pushing you into enemy fire to hit a trigger point, the cinematic presentation is as relaxed as ever in the pursuit of easy thrills. Unfortunately, occasional optional strategy levels, called Strike Force missions, are mostly awful. These AI players are far too braindead to pretend at RTSing.

But the best thing about this Call of Duty campaign is how Treyarch designs around the traditional once-and-done structure. Previously, replay value relied on you being a masochist willing to eat facefuls of grenades on the harder difficulty levels. As a replayable game with scoring, challenges, and unlocks, Black Ops 2 is on the right track to keep the single player relevant after a first playthrough. If you want a better score, or if you intend to finish certain challenges, you’re going to have to play Black Ops II like a game instead of an interactive movie. I particularly like how the scoring is clearly explained after each level. This makes it all the more galling that you can’t check the challenges while you’re playing the game. And it’s also annoying that you can’t skip the long stretches of cinematic hoo-ha that have no bearing on the gameplay. I don’t want to have to hang out in the backyard and have a manly beer with the guys every time I want to beat my friend’s score in the Panamanian invasion mission.

Because you get to pick your loadout before a mission, much like when you play multiplayer, you can bring different toys into missions, particularly when you’re replaying them after having unlocked more goodies. Okay, so the gameplay is a bit too loosey-goosey to make many of the more nuanced toys matter. It’s kind of cute how Treyarch pretends that the same detail that drives the multiplayer might conceivably make a difference in their single-player Hollywoodized hoedown. It’s the thought that counts. But the real difference comes from the advanced scopes and explosives. A folding stock? A suppressor? Whatever. Now I have a grenade launcher ho ho ho.

And if you care one iota about the plot — there are actually a few things in here worth caring about — the branching storylines will leave you wondering “what if?”. These “what if’s?” are drawn with the same broad strokes that gave Alpha Protocol its replayability. I’m not sure what ending you’ll get, but I felt my ending was well worth the playthrough (at least until the post-ending ending, at which point I have to wonder if Treyarch is just laughing at us all the way to the bank).

Although I really miss Modern Warfare 3’s dedicated co-op multiplayer, which included the superlative horde mode and some spectacular reinterpretations of the single-player game (“Fall back to the Burger Town!”), Black Ops II’s more developed zombie mode is a fine consolation prize. The familiar zombie killing spreads out admirably in “tranzit” mode, with a bus running a route among four maps scattered with inventory puzzle pieces. Over successive DLC packs, the previous zombie modes got increasingly complex (i.e. inscrutable) and tranzit brings focus to the sprawl. The new grief mode, which supports up to eight players divided into two teams, is a welcome bit of new chaos and competition. Also, I couldn’t be happier that those infernal dogs are turned off by default. I’m happy to see zombie mode can be always and only about actual zombies. And the occasional laser gun.

You mostly know what to expect from the competitive multiplayer by now. A lot of running around, with an emphasis on getting quickly to the shooting bits. It’s traditional run-and-gun at its carefully calculated more-actions-per-minute adrenaline-fueled best. Some modes and game types excepted. As you’d expect, the integration with Elite is much smoother than it was this time last year. The new loadouts that limit players to ten doo-dads force hard choices and flexibility, which is a much better way to reward progression than the previous system of leveling up your favorite perks. You still have to grind your favorite guns to earn the accessories, but since accessories count against your ten slots, gun grinding doesn’t subvert the new system so much as play neatly into it.

And bravo to Activision for their willingness to divorce Call of Duty from the RPG unlockable system that arguably made it so successful. Previously, you could set up custom matches, which let you use everything in the game. Black Ops II goes further with this concept by introducing leagues. Because you have access to every single doo-dad in league matches — the ten-item limit on loadouts comes into play very prominently here — the idea is that the multiplayer is more about skill than unlockables, more about getting better than grinding, more about practicing than persisting. And since you’re playing against similarly ranked players, the idea is that you’re going to be fairly matched. Ideally, as with the league play in Starcraft II, this should mean that you win half the matches. I think. We’ll see how that goes. After losing four of my five placement matches in the 4v4 series because teammates dropped out (at least that’s what I’m telling myself), I’ll be playing that season in the bronze division. It’s as bad as it sounds, but that’s absolutely where I belong. However, for some strange reason, I was put in the gold division for the 6v6 series. Is there some way to appeal the decision? I think someone has made a terrible mistake. But however it turns out, Activision has the right idea. There are enough of us playing Call of Duty that the little kids who don’t play so rough should get our own side of the playground.

And speaking of us little kids, I really miss the old killstreak rewards that didn’t reset your killstreak when you died. The new system, called scorestreak, rewards you for quotidian activities like capturing flags, occupying headquarters, planting bombs, and other things that actually win matches. But it reverts to the old ways of taking away all your progress when you die! As someone who dies a lot, this means I won’t get to fly quad drones, call in superjet bombing runs, set up that pulse turret thing, or summon a stealth helicopter very often, if at all. In theory, this should balance out when I’m playing my fellow bronze leaguers. But like the emphasis on a player’s kill/death ratio (don’t ask), Black Ops II still subtly pushes everyone into a deathmatch mentality. I suppose you’re just going to have to play Battlefield 3 if you want to take the “me” out of “team”.

But minor objections about design decisions aside, Black Ops II is another great shooter in a year of great shooters. It’s a competent, confident, generous package, true to its core values, but with enough new to carve out its own identity, enough variety to appeal to a wide range of players, and enough content to belong on your shelf for more than just a quick playthrough. This is the way to do a yearly installment without just phoning it in.

4 stars
Xbox 360