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Black Ops 2 campaign debriefed: time paradox

Friday, 16th November 2012 08:51 GMT By Dave Cook

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2′s campaign ventures into the future, but do its ideas feel like relics from the past? VG247′s Dave Cook investigates.

When it first hit the scene the Call of Duty series retold history by putting a Hollywood slant on real tales of courage and sacrifice. Today, you’re essentially James Bond in a fantasy world performing death-defying feats, playing around with gadgets and saving the world from an assortment of maniacs almost single-handedly.

This is perfectly fine, of course, as the series has never been a war sim. Its silly, over-the-top fun for fans of action cinema everywhere, and while it doesn’t batter the senses like Modern Warfare 3′s ‘let’s just throw more shit on the screen’ ethos, this is a spectacle in its own right.

However, the original Modern Warfare campaign is widely regarded to be the zenith of Call of Duty campaigns despite its relative simplicity, and quite rightly, because it’s a focused effort that really stands up if you revisit it today. So much so that many gamers have desperately want the series to match or surpass Infinity Ward’s effort.

“It’s only when Menendez’s endgame is revealed that you actually become conflicted. He’s fighting for the 99% – the poorer classes – and the campaign strong-arms you into accepting his cause to some degree.”

Treyarch’s first Black Ops gave it a decent stab, its tale of redacted CIA dossiers, mind-bending sleeper agents and the madness of Vietnam had the potential to raise the bar, but it got a tad too wacky towards the end to be taken seriously as a epic showstopper.

By looking to the year 2025, the studio has wisely given itself a blank canvas to explore a whole new assortment of global conflicts and expensive new toys, yet continues to fall back on action movie parodies and familiar gameplay issues. But it is still the best contender to Call of Duty 4′s crown to date.

The plot kicks off with an elderly Frank Woods retelling the story of how Alex Mason and Hudson rescued him after the events of the first Black Ops. It’s during these flashbacks that you’re introduced to Raul Menendez, the villain of the piece.

He’s a great bad guy – his harrowing past as interesting as the future he’s trying so hard to dominate. Dark Knight scribe David S. Goyer has tried to fashion a sympathetic villain in Menendez, but some attempts at pity fall flat, and serve to amuse instead.

It’s only when Menendez’s endgame is revealed that you actually become conflicted. He’s fighting for the 99% – the poorer classes – and the campaign strong-arms you into accepting his cause to some degree.

Two future missions expertly contrast the distinct class divide. The first is a tense battle up a flooded street in Afghanistan as civilians pick through garbage for scraps. The next moment, you’re infiltrating a man-made island resort.

It’s a holiday paradise where a weekend trip ‘costs more than you make in a year’, according to protagonist David Mason. The opulence of its shopping districts and garish nightclubs with their pounding dubstep underline a world gone wrong.

All of this makes Menendez’s final play – which isn’t just to steal America’s drone fleet, you’ll see when you play it – more poignant, and depending on how much you care about Call of Duty plots, you may be drawn in a little by his goal too.

Before that however, players will travel the globe with Woods and Mason, as the ‘numbers’ indoctrination rears its ugly head again, and granted, although it’s based on low-tech gear, you will experience some of those highly entertaining set pieces that the Call of Duty series delivers so well.

“Once you’ve had a taste of the future you probably won’t want to go back to the past, that is, until you realise that the mess of unanswered plot threads are actually starting to come together, making sense of what, at first, appears to be a total mess.”

The future missions are without question the most engaging of the campaign however, offering some genuinely refreshing locales, encounters and equipment to use. It’s all set against the boiling threat of a cold war between America and China over natural resources, and Menendez’s attempts to manipulate both sides using his fanatical cult Cordis Die.

Although it’s a neat set-up that asks some very poignant questions about the very real threat of resource wars in our own future, but the potentially chilling angle falls away to that same old action madness in moments. Again, the latter half of the game sees the plot improve.

All of this is fine to a degree, as Treyarch has rammed as much content and distractions in the mix as possible. For example, an early siege on Menendez’s underground facility sees players using stealth cloaks, wing suits, hacked turrets and turret drones in the space of ten minutes. It’s chaos.

At points it often feels like Treyarch has attempted to curry favour with gamers who dislike the future setting, as a 1980s attack on a Nicaraguan villa echoes the original game’s Bay of Pigs opener.

These are perfectly fine missions, but once you’ve had a taste of the future you probably won’t want to go back to the past, that is, until you realise that the mess of unanswered plot threads are actually starting to come together, making sense of what, at first, appears to be a total mess.

New to this year’s offering are four Strike Force Missions that break up the core plot at points. These quick, tactical skirmishes can be failed and will change the backdrop of the game’s ending accordingly, such as getting China on your side and other factors.

The hook here is that these missions give you greater control over the battlefield. The first scenario sees your squad defending a drone factory in India from Menendez’s forces, and players are given an assortment of troops, turrets and a CLAW mech to get the job done.

You can hop in and out of any single troop or AI tech device at will as you defend multiple objectives from enemy fire. For a better view of the battle you can jump into an overhead perspective and command troops from above.

Battles quickly become a mess as you scramble around with nowhere near enough troops to defend all three objectives at once, and a confusing control system to contend with.

“Strike Force Missions are a proof of concept that real tactical play could work in a Call of Duty paradigm, but a lot more work is needed to nail the formula down.”

It makes sense over time, but every time you restart you will lose a strike Force Team, meaning you can’t complete all four missions. You’re not given enough time in the heat of battle to properly adjust and understand to Treyarch’s new ideas.

You will eventually – near the end of the mission timer – have so few enemies to worry about that these solo attempts become possible, but at the outset the action quickly becomes bewildering as you try to remember which button does what. More room for practice runs is needed.

Insanely harsh timers are also punishing for newcomers, offering little margin for error. For all of their rough edges however, Strike Force Missions are a proof of concept that real tactical play could work in a Call of Duty paradigm, but a lot more work is needed to nail the formula down.

It’s a shame, but these shortcomings mirror many prevalent issues across the Call of Duty saga that refuse to go away. You still can’t open most doors on your own, instead being forced to wait for your AI buddies to stack up and do it for you, and at points it feels like you’re forever chasing HUD markers.

Granted some areas have been widened considerably and do lend opportunities to approach objectives as you see fit, and hidden weapon and tech caches offer incentive to explore rooms off the beaten path, even if they are just an arm’s length away.

The corridor nature of the series can only be masked so far by widening it a little, so it would be genuinely refreshing to see those battlegrounds expanded significantly to match the locales from Halo, or to a lesser extent Crysis 2.

An early mission on horseback sees Woods and Mason riding around a massive desert expanse, but there is only one proper path. Straying too far will cause the mission to end, or for you to be torn down by enemies. It’s an illusion, even if it is a very attractive one.

There is still no real incentive or scope for experimentation, exploration or initiative. There is still a deeply ingrained carrot and stick mentality at work here, and although such restrictive design gives rise to the set-pieces fans know and expect from it, Call of Duty has the potential to go much bigger.

Perhaps the next generation will yield such a shift in scope? It’s difficult to tell, but it’s clear that Treyarch has attempted to address many of the series’ campaign issues over the years, and for the best part it has merely papered over the bumps, rather than stamping them out completely.

Play areas are slightly bigger, the corridors have more junctions and the visuals are a relative step up, and as such, the Black Ops 2 campaign is indeed a super effort despite its flaws. But these are flaws that become less tolerable with each passing year.

Something’s got to give, and it feels like this is confidently the biggest step in the right direction for some time. Love or hate the end product, Treyarch deserves kudos for having the balls to try and trigger the sea change we now need. Your move Infinity Ward.

Disclosure:

  • This review was written using a retail copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 bought by Dave himself at £44.99 and reviewed at home. VG247 did not attend the game’s official review event.

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25 Comments

  1. Patrick Garratt

    Still haven’t got it. I’ll buy it this weekend, I think.

    #1 2 years ago
  2. Dave Cook

    @1 You’ll love it Pat. You’re a fan of dubstep right?

    #2 2 years ago
  3. Erthazus

    I remember some youtube stream of Black Ops 2 campaign.

    It was just so lacking in quality. I remember one level when you are on the horse with the stinger (STINGER FOR FUCK SAKE on the HORSE) shooting soviet (!) vehicles (!) and helicopters with infinite ammo in Arcade mode (Oh well, that is a controller issue obviously.)

    I watched one level and it was full of shit every 5 seconds or so.

    Or.. Funny story sequence where you are trying to interrogate “Soviet soldier aka some kind of Boris” and if you choose to kill him these guys (muslims, whatever) are going to kill americans while saying: YOU (Americans) will be always our TRUE enemies.

    Why? WHY? Why? This game does not even explain That. I mean, daaamn, how can humanity create something like this?

    Oh and, I remember the sequence with helicopters. They have fogs from Call Of Duty 2. That is just wow… I want to hear how much was spent money for the developing.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. Dave Cook

    @3 Yeah, it’s called ‘fun’. Try it some time.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. Patrick Garratt

    I wub it, yeah.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. Erthazus

    @4, That’s not fun. That is stupidity. Gameplay in this game is outdated thing from 99s.

    Shooting (!) vehicles (!) from a stinger on a horse in arcade mode =/= Not fun.

    Also, horse controls are horrible for a horse. I liked the fact that If shooting starts around you horse is going apeshit, but when you shoot from a Machine gun that robotic horse stands still. That is just moronic at best.

    #6 2 years ago
  7. Dave Cook

    @6 Yes, the whole series has become a parody of stupid action movies and makes no attempt to hide the fact. Some people like that angle though. it’s why Commando is one of my all-time favourite movies, it’s such an unfettered guilty pleasure. It’s crap, but enjoyable.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. Johnny Cullen

    I actually love the campaign for BLOPS 2. And if you had heard me say that for this or BLOPS 1 a few years ago due to both being made by Treyarch, I would have slapped myself. I didn’t enjoy Modern Warfare 3 last year, but I’m a big sucker for Cold War-like action games (this and MGS3 basically, not to mention I’m gasping for Agent right now).

    So yeah, I’m definitely in for one more Black Ops game when it comes back to Treyarch.

    #8 2 years ago
  9. Dave Cook

    @8 Well said, this feels like a cold war take on the future. It’s the conspiracies and cover-ups that I like. The Noriega scenes are brilliant. Very tense.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. griffpaul

    have to agree with Erthazus here. guilty pleasure or not, if you’re critiquing a game then you have to know the difference between something being bad game design or an acquired taste.

    If explosions in games are all you can appreciate then yeah this probably is the best game ever, but this is easily one of the worst call of duties – single-player wise anyway.

    its just stupid, more than anything. like a teenagers wet dream, but without the quality of previous CODs

    The biggest disappointment was the ‘tactical’ missions. Strike force missions? They start off cool, but you soon realise that there’s no depth to it whatsoever. Shame, I would’ve loved a bit more of those if there was any depth to it.

    #10 2 years ago
  11. Dave Cook

    @10 it isn’t badly designed though. From a design standpoint the levels are mechanically sound, the visuals are a slight step up, the gunplay handles superbly and more.

    Or do you mean design as in the plot and direction? I’m not having a go, just want to nail down what you mean :)

    #11 2 years ago
  12. Custard Ganet

    @6 Yeah? so how many hours have you sunk into this game you despise so far? probably around the 40 mark by now right? Prestiged once maybe…

    #12 2 years ago
  13. G1GAHURTZ

    Yooooooooo!

    Haven’t touched the campaign yet.

    Been on the MP, and had two games of zombies.

    In fact. I think I’m off for another session, right now…

    #13 2 years ago
  14. griffpaul

    @11 I guess I mean mechanically in a similar sense to Erthazus in that the horses don’t even react when rockets and guns and helicopters are flying everywhere. That bit could’ve been cool if they kept the ‘action’ to a minimum until off horseback, like a charge into battle and little else. A crescendo or something.

    But elsewhere, I think mechanical it’s lacking when compared to the rest. Okay, so it doesn’t have Modern Warfare’s respawning enemies, but you can see them literally pop into few.

    As for game design, that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with mechanics. Deciding to have a bit on a horse is game design and that – in itself – isn’t a bad thing. its more the way its done and that is bad game design.

    Course I don’t play COD for the single player so it’s kind of a useless argument, I just think saying its the best yet it perhaps a little much. especially when you seemed more negative towards the multiplayer, which actually IS the best yet. Ha

    #14 2 years ago
  15. absolutezero

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Inm29K9L9q4&list=ULInm29K9L9q4#t=2538s

    No spoilers present but my God what on Earth were they thinking.

    #15 2 years ago
  16. Dave Cook

    @14 Yeah I still think Black Ops 2 multiplayer is the best by far, I just think there is still room for improvement. Been playing it lots since I got it :)

    #16 2 years ago
  17. griffpaul

    @15 I actually enjoyed that bit!

    @16 to be honest I don’t see how you can say that about the multiplayer (which is true, I won’t deny it) when the same is true of the single player. different story, yeah, but its still the same bits.

    the nano gloves bit, for example, is the same as the ice-climbing bit of MW2. Then a tree mystically falls on them to create a sense of danger? yawn.

    I guess I just want more from my games, to be honest.

    #17 2 years ago
  18. Erthazus

    “it isn’t badly designed though. From a design standpoint the levels are mechanically sound, the visuals are a slight step up, the gunplay handles superbly and more.”

    CoD:BO2 Design is flawed as F.
    From a design standpoint the levels are small corridors where you don’t even require to shoot enemy at all. Basically it’s running “from A To the next checkpoint”. Levels that are biger are basically small arcade 3 minutes of gameplay.
    Visuals are the same as before. There are even fogs from Call Of Duty 2 not to mention about horrible textures, animation, lightning. There is absolutely nothing that is up to date.
    Gunplay is from 1999s thanks to John Carmack and his engineering skills. It’s SEMI-automatic without dispersion and other stuff that “Real weapons” must have.

    They even have railguns there… Really.

    Today I saw some “strategy” mini game in BO2. I don’t know what it is but gosh… What a piece of shit that mode is.
    Basically you can die as much as you want and shoot shit at the same time not to mention that bots that are fighting for you are stupid as hell, basically 95% of the kills are from You.

    I just don’t know what to say. Who created this piece of “Something clever and incredible”.

    But riding on a horse shooting soviet vehicles from a stinger in 80s will be my favourite part because it’s truly speaks about game quality.

    #18 2 years ago
  19. Dave Cook

    @19 your existence on these pages is to troll. That’s what you enjoy doing. I won’t argue with you any more or give you any more fuel :)

    #19 2 years ago
  20. Erthazus

    @20, Sorry, but you don’t know what is “troll”. Everything that i said is my personal opinion.

    So you really believe that small corridors are not true in this game or that Visuals are better? Is this some kind of trolling, Dave?

    #20 2 years ago
  21. Hcw87

    So in previous cod games (not sure about BO1), you have infinitely respawning enemies, so you have to move forward all the time in order to stop their respawning (can’t stay at a distance picking off the enemies before moving forward etc).

    Does BO2 still have this flawed design in campaign?

    #21 2 years ago
  22. Deacon

    lol… let it go Erth, it’s Friday man!

    I’ve only really got one thing to say about BO2. I’ve watched quite a few gameplay videos online, and I really don’t know if it’s just me, but sheesh man that engine is looking tired. Don’t get me wrong, it looks like they’ve achieved great stuff with it – especially in campaign, but primarily when watching MP footage, the levels, lighting and scenery look like something from 2005! :p

    I’m no graphics whore, nor am I am FPS whore. Nor is CoD my specialist subject. I may just have seen some bad examples, I’m not watching 240 x 360 videos here though.

    And yeah, sorry, I know the graphics/engine thing must be getting a bit old now.

    #22 2 years ago
  23. Dave Cook

    @22 no infinite respawns in the campaign apart from some of the Strike Force Missions, but then again your team has infinite respawns too so it’s fair.

    #23 2 years ago
  24. G1GAHURTZ

    @20:

    +1

    ——

    Don’t really have time to read all this, ‘cos I’m playing the game instead.

    League play has taken this game to a whole other level for me, though. (Platinum baby, yeah!)

    I probably won’t touch the SP for a few months, if I ever do. I’m not sure I’ll ever really understand why people prefer SP to MP in general…

    #24 2 years ago
  25. JimFear-666

    this game is my goty only for the easter egg after the credit haha :P

    #25 2 years ago

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