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Call of Duty: Black Ops II
Graphics: 8.3
Gameplay: 8.4
Sound: 9
Control: 8.9
Replay Value: 8.8
Rating: 8.7

The new Call of Duty is here. Without much fanfare, little in the way of promotion, and a bare minimum of general hype, Black Ops II snuck onto the scene…wait. That doesn’t sound right. Ah, I wrote the opposite, the antithesis of the true phenomenon that has become the mega-blockbuster CoD franchise. Sorry ‘bout that. Anyway, there’s no doubt that fans of the series should be satisfied with Treyarch’s latest effort, as the campaign is solid, the multiplayer is still stellar, and despite a few new ideas that didn’t quite fly, at least it has new ideas.

While many have called for Call of Duty to adopt a new engine – considering the current engine has been around for over six years – it’s unfair and inaccurate to condemn the visuals in BOII. It really is amazing what the developers have gotten out of that engine, as the detailing is great, the action continues to run at a silky smooth 60 frames per second, and there are plenty of wicked impressive set pieces. With eye-popping effects, slightly more refined character design, and better environmental creation than before, this one really looks great. Just not “amazing.”

The sound is in much the same boat, as we get fantastic voice performances (Treyarch obviously went after top talent) and a bevy of speaker-rending effects that continually amplify the battlefield experience, online or offline. The soundtrack is good, the balancing isn’t perfect but it remains technically stable throughout, and the overall audio presentation is generated for one purpose: Give this Hollywood blockbuster a true kick-ass feel. One can easily spot some unevenness if one is so inclined, but you’re often so caught up in what’s happening that it’d be superfluous to nitpick.

There’s actually a lot more to say about the campaign than you might think. The vast majority couldn’t possibly care less about the single-player adventure, so to most, analyzing the campaign is a waste of time. Yeah, well, it’s still a part of the product and as such, it can’t be ignored. And you wouldn’t necessarily want me to ignore it, because it’s the one aspect of this new CoD production that shows glimpses of freshness and innovation. Not only do they attempt a more complex and intricate storyline (what with the time traveling and all), but they also implement a few new gameplay mechanics. Yeah, I was a little surprised, too.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

First and foremost is the inclusion of choice, which isn’t new to this generation of interactive entertainment, but it has never been featured in Call of Duty before. This time around, our actions and decisions do have an impact, even if that impact isn’t seen until much later in the game. For instance, there are ways to be merciful rather than vengeful, and other events are even timed. If you come across enemies burning up valuable evidence, the faster you eliminate them, the more of that evidence you will retrieve. These are the kinds of progressive mechanics that we don’t normally associate with this series, right?

So for that, Treyarch should be commended. It’s too bad that our choices too often seem far less important than the game would want us to believe, but at least the options are there. It adds another dimension to a campaign that most assume will be extremely straightforward and even repetitive. On top of which, it opens up the game a little; linearity is a hallmark of the CoD campaign and the developers found a way to expand upon that basic concept. And they did so without altering the structure the fans know and enjoy, so it’s kind of like killing two birds with one stone. Besides, while the game is still pretty brainless, these choices add at least some intelligence.

I’m more appreciative of this addition than I am of the new Strike Force missions in the story mode. Those, I could’ve done without. I’m not a real-time strategy fan in the first place and in the second place, a strategy style just feels out of place in a balls-out, crank-it-up shooter. The Strike Force missions have you entering a larger area and controlling allies with a top-down tactical view so for some, this may seem refreshing. For me, it clashed with the core concepts of the franchise and sort of threw me off my game. When things don’t fit, I tend to notice them quickly.

However, that being said, I would put aside my aversion to this mechanic (which is indeed opinion) and give it more credit if it functioned correctly. It’s simple enough to handle but issuing commands and having your allies do exactly what you want seems flawed. Even worse, although they’re basically optional in that you don’t have to complete them to move forward, the Strike Force missions can significantly alter your ending. …okay, so they’re not entirely optional then, are they, Treyarch? I applaud the devs taking a risk – because it’s definitely a risk – but this is one risk that doesn’t pay off. It's not quite properly implemented.

Beyond that, the campaign is filled with nonstop entertainment. Going back and forth between different time periods lends the story more variety, the set pieces are massive and all sorts of crowd-pleasing, and the pacing is just insane. I’m not the biggest supporter of such ridiculously fast-paced campaigns – I’d like at least some downtime here and there – but hearkening back to my point about “fitting in,” this definitely fits. The Strike Force missions don’t. But when it comes to the driving, pounding force of the fun-filled story in BOII, it’s tough to not recommend a play-through.

The multiplayer? Oh, it’s still distinctly Call of Duty and specifically, distinctly Black Ops. Yeah, the zombies are back and if you want to rip through hordes of the shambling undead, you’ll want to give the Tranzit Mode a shot. That’s where you get shuttled through a totally wrecked town where the zombies are running amok. There are all sorts of Easter Eggs to find as well so even though it’s nothing all that new, there are reasons to come back for more. The other modes are familiar and they all work extremely well; there’s a certain level of depth and versatility you don’t typically find in any other multiplayer experience.

Perhaps the biggest change is the addition of the Pick 10 system, which amps up the depth and customization even more. Basically, you get 10 points for a loadout and there’s a fair amount of strategy in selecting your perks, secondary weapons, and wild card bonuses. Each perk you pick costs a point so you have to consider the map and what you have at your disposal. It’s difficult to compare this to the contract and currency mechanic we had in the original Black Ops. I have a feeling the CoD community might be split right down the middle on that subject, as both styles encourage customization and freedom, but both are distinctly different.

As for the reported problems pertaining to the PS3 version, I really haven’t stumbled across many. The game froze once toward the end of the campaign, and I did see that “server unavailable” error (or whatever it was) once or twice when going online. But the game plays smoothly and technical hitches and glitches are mostly nonexistent in my eyes, which is in stark contrast to last month’s Medal of Honor: Warfighter. For the most part, Treyarch’s production is sound, reliable and stable. But if you are experiencing issues, here’s hoping they deliver a fix-it patch ASAP.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II is an interesting blend. It consists of everything I expected to see and a few things I didn’t, the latter of which surprised me. I can’t say the Strike Force missions were a good idea but at the very least, they’re a departure from the norm. And the addition of player choice is definitely a plus. As for the rest, the high production values, Hollywood-esque presentation, relatively intriguing campaign, and a multiplayer that delivers on all counts, it’s hard to say this year’s CoD falls short. Some can say the multiplayer is too similar but hey, this is Call of Duty. The fans know what they like by now.

The Good: Solid visual presentation with spectacular set pieces. Great voice work. Entertaining, enjoyable campaign. Addition of player choice infuses story with another layer of depth. Fluid, reliable control. Multiplayer is still tops.

The Bad: Story can get convoluted. Strike Force missions are a miss. Not quite enough innovation on the multiplayer front.

The Ugly: “I don’t mind zombies but they’re starting to feel just a tad played out in CoD.”

11/15/2012   Ben Dutka