It's November, so three events are sure to happen, come Hell or high water: Thanksgiving, the beginning of the college basketball season, and the release of a new Call of Duty game. Activision's latest annual release, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, is an invigorating story-driven look at future war, marred ever so slightly by aging technology driving the game.
Black Ops 2 is a tale of two Masons, tied together by characters old and new. If you've played the original Black Ops back in 2010, then you already know Alex Mason, the protagonist who chased Dragovich and Kravchenko to the ends of the Earth. This time around, Mason's missions stretch across the 1980s, from Afghanistan to Panama, as he fights Cold War-era Russians, MPLA forces in Angola, and other foes through time. His son David fights in 2025, where he's followed in his father's footsteps. This isn't his daddy's Cold War, however; China is the new power standing toe-to-toe with America, and the world finds itself in a new, but familiar position. Proxy battles still exist, but they're now complimented by cyber warfare and PMCs (Private Military Contractors). David finds himself on these proxy battlefields, much like his father several decades earlier, while dealing with advanced weaponry and fleets of drones coming from all sides.
The story is one of the most interesting in the Call of Duty series to date. An amalgamation of historical fiction and a surprisingly believable take on our world's future, game director Dave Anthony and writer David S. Goyer successfully manage to capture the franchise's Hollywood polish whilst mostly avoiding "that's impossible!" moments.
The futuristic setting affords the game some fantastic equipment to play with. Everything falls into two distinct categories: natural progression or prototype-turned-reality. The FA38 fighter, for example, is inspired by the F-35 fighter currently used by the US Air Force and Navy. The fictional M8A1 assault rifle doesn't look too dissimilar from the XM8 platform, and there are plenty of real weapons in the game as well (AN-94, M27, AK-47, etc). The flip side of that coin is the copious amounts of future tech and weaponry, like the Storm PSR (it's like the railgun in Eraser, but smaller), target-identifying scopes, wall-climbing palm-sized spider drones, active camouflage, and nanomachine-infused rock climbing gloves. None of these things are used on the modern-day battlefield, but they all represent technology that our soldiers will likely use in a generation or two.
While the new weapons introduce some interesting new gameplay mechanics, some make the campaign a cakewalk. The target finder scope, for example, removes the need to find your enemy. Instead, you're simply looking for a red square around vague life forms off in the distance. The Storm PSR is the worst offender. Like the Farsight railgun in Perfect Dark, the Storm highlights enemies, including those behind several cars or thick concrete walls, and pulverizes them. The missions where the Storm is available are the easiest, by far. You'll never need to leave cover, and you can kill anything, human or otherwise, in a matter of seconds. The future is a scary place.
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Strike Missions prove to be one of the greatest additions to the single-player experience. Fusing FPS action with basic overhead RTS elements, this mode offers a refreshing change of pace from the run-and-gun tactics that have become all too familiar. The RTS elements add depth without being cumbersome; I hope we see more of it in DLC and whatever the next Call of Duty game is.
Unfortunately, the ambitious story, set pieces, and gear in Black Ops 2 are hampered by the technology powering the game. The experience feels sloppy, thanks to dated graphics, primitive special effects, and AI that's on vacation. While it's easy to blame the aging console generation, Halo 4 serves as a reminder on how visually stunning current-gen games can be. Does Black Ops 2 look better than MW3 and the original Black Ops? Yes, but just barely. It seems like the real elbow grease went into the pre-rendered cutscenes, which look dramatically better than gameplay.
The AI in Black Ops 2 is non-existent, a fault that's only amplified by the new weaponry. The sight on my SWAT-556 highlights enemy targets in red squares, making it that much easier to mow them down. Of course, mowing them down is already a breeze when flanking is out of the question, and they remain stationary behind the same piece of cover for the duration of the firefight. Every time you enter a room, the enemies either run straight for you, or they cling to one piece of cover. Whether you're fighting through the streets of LA or a generic, bland marketplace square in Yemen, enemies do not change how they react to your tactics. Sadly, and uneventfully, many encounters ultimately become mere shooting galleries; Black Ops 2 is as predictable as its predecessors.
There is fun to be had in Black Ops 2, but it can be hard to see it at times through the sea of shortcomings. The compelling narrative and Goyer's script is marred by lackluster tech that can't fully realize its vision. The fun gunplay made possible by the futuristic setting is disrupted by an overpowered weapon that upsets the game's balance. And while the standout Strike Missions prove that the franchise still has worthwhile innovation left in it, their brief appearance in the campaign will leave you wanting. Activision will need to have something truly special lined up for 2013, if they expect its already-dated technology to stutter its way for next year's game.
This Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 review was based on a retail Xbox 360 version of the game provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC and PlayStation 3, and will be available on Wii U on November 18th. A separate multiplayer review will be available on Shacknews later this week, to ensure the reviewer gets sufficient time playing with the online community.