Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 single-player review: back to the future

A great story, cool set pieces and interesting gear make Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 a fun and engaging game, but aging technology behind it keeps it from being great.

10

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.

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.

From The Chatty
  • reply
    November 13, 2012 12:01 AM

    Devin Connors posted a new article, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 single-player review: back to the future.

    A great story, cool set pieces and interesting gear make Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 a fun and engaging game, but aging technology behind it keeps it from being great.

    • reply
      November 13, 2012 12:21 AM

      I thought I would come here and read a real review on the game instead of a hyped up 10 year olds opinion which seems to be running through Metacritic. I'm really not interested in the MP Side of things, unless of course they decide to ditch the streaks and make it a more pure experience. Looks like it will be a rent this year.

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        November 13, 2012 6:17 AM

        So because he didn't think it sucked. You accuse him of being some juvenile fanboy? Damned if he does damned if he don't.

        Some people still like these games. Hell I'm sure I'd still like it if I were to play it. Not AUD$89 like it, but I'd still like it.

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          November 13, 2012 9:20 AM

          I think he was calling the Metacritic reviews juvenile fanboys.

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          November 13, 2012 11:35 PM

          Nope, I clearly said. "I thought I would come here and read a real review of the game INSTEAD of a hyped up 10 year olds opinion." meaning Metacritic can fuck itself for today :)

      • reply
        November 13, 2012 11:23 AM

        "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."

        That doesn't at all sound like a hyped up 10 year old's opinion. You sir, are wrong!

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          November 13, 2012 11:34 PM

          You sir, can't comprehend. I was implying that shacknews review well and that It was nice to see a real honest opinion on an over rated game over a bunch of people screaming "OMG COD IS EVEN BETTER!!!" when it clearly isn't

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            November 16, 2012 6:50 PM

            Ah you're right, I read through your post too fast.

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      November 13, 2012 7:13 AM

      I will probably never touch the single player, but does the game still feel like Call of Duty? E.g. runs at 60FPS and has that snappy movement and predictable feel of the guns.

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      November 13, 2012 7:14 AM

      More and more lately we are seeing developers hit the wall of what is technically possible on the current generation of consoles. Even developers who used the knock it out of the park (like Criterion) seem to be pushing the consoles beyond what they can or cutting back on frills to allow it to run. It almost seems like proof of the existence of the next generation of consoles because you can almost tell that developers have that goal in their mind now... they are ready to move on. Need for Speed has slowdown and isn't super crisp (where past Burnout games were always 60fps and showpieces for what the hardware can do). Assassin's Creed III seems to have similar issues. There are other examples.

      I really can't wait to see what the new systems can do. I think the industry is ready.

      (I guess by the content of this post you can probably tell that I could care less about the game being reviewed here - I haven't really cared for years).

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        November 13, 2012 7:24 AM

        the cod series has never come close to hitting that wall. just look at how great halo 4 looks compared to black ops 2. its night and day

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          November 13, 2012 7:28 AM

          In its defense CoD has always run at 60 fps though, which I appreciate, and it's not a terrible looking game by any means, even if it isn't up to the standard set by games like Halo 4 and Uncharted.

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            November 13, 2012 7:47 AM

            this is very true. 60fps is a pretty crucial aspect that I forgot about.

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            November 13, 2012 8:10 AM

            All my games run at 60 fps :)

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          November 13, 2012 7:53 AM

          Yeah, but even Halo 4 chugs sometimes in MP. But yeah, Halo 4 is almost impossibly good looking. I can't believe what they are doing in that engine.

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          November 13, 2012 10:49 AM

          au contraire, CoD is probably more optimized and pushes software design and console hardware harder than any other game out there. It just does so in different ways that shiny full screen particle effects. The stuff they do is crazy impressive. I'm very interested to see how the live streaming works for Blops 2. I still haven't found a good explanation.

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        November 13, 2012 9:28 AM

        It shouldn't have to hit the wall due to console's wimpy power levels. The PC can handle whatever they want to throw at it. Look at BF3, baby. Such a better game and series.

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          November 13, 2012 10:29 AM

          It just seems like with the games coming out in the past few months, the PC has gotten so far ahead of the consoles that developers are finally getting sick of squeezing everything down to 360 / PS3 levels of detail. This year the PC versions of the big title games are really the version to get. You can play these games on the 360 but you can almost feel the developers giving up on the consoles. It's like they got it to work on this generation because they had to. Their minds are already set on the next step.

          And yes, Battlefield 3 is absolutely the better game at least in terms of engine and MP (as far as I'm concerned).

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      November 13, 2012 1:13 PM

      Now can we make the game work in 1080p? this is making me mad.

      still no fix.

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