Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 multiplayer review: same, but improved
Editor's note: The single-player review of the game can be found here.
As with every entry in Activision's annual FPS franchise, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 needs to accomplish many things. Not only must this year's entry satisfy the existing Call of Duty fanbase, it must attempt to expand that audience, bringing back detractors into its fold. Over the years, would-be fans have been turned off by a number of issues, including Kill Streaks, balance issues with the loadouts, unlocks and rewards.
While the core multiplayer experience of Black Ops 2 has the same basic framework as previous Call of Duty games, Treyarch has addressed many of those issues: revamping the way you customize your loadouts, fine-tuning core components, adding new game modes, and filling out the baked-in competitive aspect of online play.
The "Pick 10" customization system is the first big change, as you are no longer trapped by strictly defined classes anymore. When you go to create a custom class, you can spend ten points, each representing a single weapon, perk, and attachment. Wildcards further allow you to bend the rules, letting you have a third weapon attachment in lieu of another piece of equipment, for example. The default loadouts usually have two non-lethal grenades equipped, and as someone who's never been too grenade-happy in Call of Duty, I found myself dumping the second flashbang or concussion grenade while adding a third attachment to my primary weapon.
A lack of customization was never a flashpoint when talking about MW3 or the original Black Ops, but it's a welcome addition that really allows you to address your strengths and weaknesses as a player. That said, the process of unlocking weapons still leads to some balance issues. The starting weapons aren't nearly as effective as unlocked items, particularly when attachments are factored in. This isn't an issue in League Play, where everything is unlocked, but it runs rampant in the Public arenas. The problem is only exacerbated by streak rewards.
The franchise's notorious Kill Streaks have been retooled, this time into Score Streaks. Instead of counting kills, Score Streaks add up points earned from kills, assists, objectives--essentially anything that adds to your end-of-round score. Instead of needing three kills for the first reward, you need 350 points, and so on. Streak rewards like the UAV and air strikes are unchanged, but a method that encourages teamwork and objective completion has replaced that tired "kill 'em all!" mentality. While the route to these rewards has changed, an incredible number of rewards used during every round is still a problem. I feel like the powers and advantages bestowed by the UAV are watered down when one is popping off every minute or so, and some of the futuristic weapon rewards are maddening.
The most annoying of the new streak rewards is easily the Hunter-Killer drone; toss it in the air like a paper plane, and watch it home in on whatever unlucky enemy soul is out of cover. There were several rounds where more than half of my deaths came from these pesky planes, to the point where all of my loadouts needed the Cold Blooded perk (invisible to enemy targeting systems). Similar to my exploits in single-player, it's another example of how the future tech in Black Ops 2 can put a damper on the whole experience. The whole "future war drone" aspect in Black Ops 2 is appreciated, but I'm not sure if it translates as well to the multiplayer experience. I think back to the original Modern Warfare MP, and how the helicopter strike that could be called in was destructive, but counter-balanced by RPGs, or even steady gunfire. In Black Ops 2, there's no defense against the Hunter-Killers besides the perks. The same goes for the Dragonfly quadrotor air drones, which are so hard to see you're dead before you can fire back. I can handle being gunned down 10 times in a row by some 12-year-old Call of Duty prodigy, but it's frustrating when I can barely see and target an air drone on my 50-inch HDTV. If you weren't a fan of Kill Streaks in previous offerings, Black Ops 2 won't change your mind.
One of Black Ops 2's new modes, Hardpoint, garnered a lot of my attention. Not only is it new, but it's also incredibly challenging and thought-provoking. Each Hardpoint is typically an enclosed room or ruin, so each point has any number of ins and outs to cover. In an ideal server, teammates are clueing each in to what door or window they're taking, where the enemy is approaching from, while lopsided losses stem from everyone jamming into one entrance like the Three Stooges. Hardpoint demands your best when it comes to teamwork, quick-thinking and counter-assaults, and it's a definitive multiplayer experience if you're teammates are even remotely competent.
Multi-Team is a wholly new experience, despite the same maps, as you are always outmanned and outgunned. Quality teamwork really has a chance to shine, and a lack thereof will leave you facepalming in sheer frustration. Thankfully, during a few rounds of MT Kill Confirmed, my deadly trio was at its finest. We wandered around the Drone map like ronin, setting ambushes in the underground lab tunnels and raining fire on the jungle below from the east side towers.
It's a lot easier to worry about (and keep in line) two teammates than six, eight or 10. The successes and failures on a small team are more obvious, which makes focused teamwork that much more important and enjoyable. And between Multi-Team and Hardpoint, Treyarch has preserved the multiplayer modes its fans enjoy so much while adding new modes to keep veterans interested, while potentially attracting new fans.
The updated Zombies mode includes both solo and multiplayer options. The familiar Survival mode is back (outlast as many waves of the undead as you can), but the focus is on Tranzit mode. Available in solo and multiplayer flavors, Tranzit is the new campaign component of Zombies, although it's so vague and confusing the campaign label hardly seems appropriate. An automated bus takes you between stages, where zombies, weapons, secrets and some remnants of a plot await you. I still don't really know what the story is about, aside from turning power for the town on while avoiding the zombie horde, with random insults and lines of dialogue peppered in. I never got past the third stage, partly from making dumb mistakes (being electrocuted, running into exploding zombies, and so on), and partly from my party splitting up. The bus that brings you through the world is controlled by a Johnny Cab-looking robot driver, which takes off from each stage--with or without you--after a few minutes and several loud honks of the horn. If you're left behind, it's an unofficial game over. There were two instances where I hopped on the bus as it left, and my teammates were left behind. Despite the Johnny Cab nature of the bus, my teammates accused me of leaving them behind and refused to help me from thereon out. If that's not vague game design, I don't know what is.
Fighting amid wreckage on the Turbine map.
The other new Zombie mode is Grief, which drops two teams of opposing humans in with the zombies. The object is to outlive the other team, but shooting the enemy won't complete that goal. You can stun enemies while they try to revive teammates, similar to the Boomer stunning friends in Left 4 Dead. You can also throw meat their way, which draws the zombies' attention quicker than being a regular, sans-beef human.
All three modes in Zombies are entertaining mini-games, but they ultimately fall short of being a meaningful, value-added experience. The replay value found in Left 4 Dead simply isn't here, especially when you're playing solo. Tranzit is simply too vague and discombobulated to be considered a campaign worth more than an hour of your attention, and Survival is the same mode you've already played a million times. They're all fun, but none of the three are going to define your Black Ops 2 experience. If you want to kill some zombies, you're better off going the Left 4 Dead route.
Black Ops 2 multiplayer has its fair share of failures and successes. Does the whole experience feel appropriately tied in with the campaign? Absolutely. The maps, whether they're pulled directly from the campaign or merely inspired by it, were designed with diversity in mind, and they hit that goal. If you're a fan of the established Call of Duty multiplayer experience, Black Ops 2 takes everything you enjoy and improves upon it. The Pick 10 scheme takes an established, thoughtful customization system and makes it even better, and there's no end to the combinations you can bring onto the battlefield now. If you enjoyed Kill Streaks in the past, the new Score Streaks system gives you the same rewards while refocusing on teamwork and objective completion. On top of established favorites, Multi-Team and Hardpoint are refreshing additions that bring out the best in you from a teamwork perspective, which is what true multiplayer is all about, right?
But if the Call of Duty franchise has left you sour in the past, Black Ops 2 doesn't offer enough to make you want to jump back in. Never in the hours of online play did I feel like I was participating in a wholly new experience. The Score Steaks system is an improvement, but its mere existence will still pose a problem for critics of the series. The means is different, but the end is still the same. As for the unlock system, that's a problem in itself. Pick 10 is a great addition, but your shooter skills are still subject to unlocks, perks and rewards, meaning the better guns will drown out better skill more often than not. There's an imbalance in the game, thanks to additions like the target finder sight and Hunter-Killer drones, that seems insurmountable at times. Again, the futuristic tech that pushes the story forward is one of Black Ops 2's biggest weaknesses. The new game modes like Hardpoint do bring a renewed focus to teamwork, but one new mode doesn't overcome the lack thereof in other game modes.
Black Ops 2 Zombie mode
The multiplayer review of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 was based on a retail Xbox 360 version of the game provided by the publisher, and played over Xbox Live. The game is also available for PlayStation 3, PC, and Wii U.