Call of Duty: Black Ops II is like the neighborhood of the Three Little Pigs. It hogties a campaign, multiplayer and a zombies mode together with mechanical rope, just daring the player to huff and puff it all down.
The blockbusting, roller coasting, set-piecing campaign pulls from both Call of Duty: Black Ops and Mario Party, sampling discrete chunks of explosive first-person shooter experiences that each require a small amount of explanation and no mastery. The shelter of a “branching storyline” can’t stand on its own for more than a few action-packed sequences.
Multiplayer chases the impetus of expertise, alienating its emergent narratives from the relatively shallow military double-crossing in the campaign’s mini-stories, and creating a subculture all its own. Not since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the game that changed the course of military first-person shooters, has the competitive online component had so thoughtful an architecture and such a wide foundation.
Riding the undead bus into a sudden zombie apocalypse in the third pig’s house, Zombies, retains the arcade shooter framework that has built a sturdy following since Call of Duty: World at War and clears room for some sizable space additions. It may not hold the overt irony of Nazi Zombies, but the clever writing, frantic pacing and maddening dependence on teamwork make this the strongest entry in Call of Duty’s zombie series.
Where the house that zombies built keeps its expanding universe under one visionary roof, the single-player campaign has several diverging thatch canopies. To be clear, the whole time-travelling, geo-political, high stakes terrorist round-up comes as close to poignancy as the rigid form can get, and the conceit doesn’t need or desire embellishment. But I found its intentionally compartmentalized nature (80s and 90s war stories bleeding into a near future baddie hunt cut with patricide revenge and a hint of technophobia) too off-putting as a whole.
I was mortified by the too-easy African genocide battle, then taking down those helicopters from horseback in Afghanistan. That part with the psychological struggle was tense, and the red-faced machete slaughter certainly hit a rare, repulsive note. Then there was that gun that could shoot through walls, and the future-jet dogfight and those optional Strike Force missions with tactical command controls and objective-based game types? Oh yeah, and Noriega was there for a bunch of it, and I shot a lot of non-Americans while peeking around cover and with robots with guns.
Each vignette holds enough graphical and environmental detail to be its own game, and it’s all a sideshow. Clicking the left trigger to snap to targets, firing, recovering, repeating, and finding the next vehicle or extreme sports moment guides the player’s attention, as voice commands and timers funnel the action forward. It’s not a crime to be linear, and it’s rather admirable to build a believable aircraft carrier inside and out. It’s a shame to sideline these real labors of development love and potential for unspoken narrative (some call it Atmosphere) in order to focus on some explosions and plot twists.
I found the human story in Black Ops II’s multiplayer much more compelling, as its systems have been cleverly overhauled to support the kind of strategic puzzle-solving that lies at the core of great competitive shooters. While the campaign—on normal difficulty or easier—aims to satisfy the infrequent gamer, multiplayer aims straight for the veterans of videogame wars.
Black Ops II is the sixth game in what I’ll call the series’ “modern affection”, meaning all the games from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare on. For millions of the Call of Duty faithful and millions still of the Call of Duty curious, the swift, crisp mechanics that are now a given of the series have been incubated and learned over the last five years. Ostensibly, several million of the gamers playing Black Ops II online have been playing it for around five years now. They’re good at this.
So it’s no surprise that when I jumped into multiplayer on release day, myself a series faithful and multiplayer aficionado, I watched my nameless soldier receive headshot after cross-map sniping headshot with weapons these players could have only been using for twelve hours max. We’re adept at this routine by now, and even during the first few matches I could feel the automatic, internal mapping of each stage’s choke points, natural divides, and high-traffic areas, and the gratification of a well-maneuvered kill. I’m guessing that my experience will be a familiar one to those willing to sink a meaningful amount of time (30+ hours) into Black Ops II’s multiplayer.
The game facilitates these learning curves with a new pick ten system, or build-outs that allow for ten of anything (guns, attachments, grenades, and perks). It’s more flexible than past systems, more appealing to tinkerers, and harder to balance. I haven’t encountered any overwhelming build-outs yet, though there are bound to be some, and then patches to cut them. Call of Duty Elite, a stat-tracking and social service tied into the game, is now free and useful primarily for dedicated players. The same goes for the e-sports live streaming and recording options now easily accessible from pre-game menus. Downloadable maps like Nuketown 2025 reinforce the event-centered philosophy of e-sports, available in online play only for short promotional periods regardless of the purchase method. The debate over who owns digital content seems to have a clear answer here.
At the time of writing, swathes of so-called “hardcore” gamers are leaving Black Ops II multiplayer for Halo 4 and Modern Warfare 3 because of persistent lag and spawn point issues. Whatever the reason for or the intended solution to lag problems, it causes games to not connect entirely, and whole game types to become unplayable for a time. I found some returning modes like Gun Match and Rock, Paper, Scissors to be unserviceable for a few days, and the lag all but killed my experience in Hardcore mode, where speedy reactions are even more crucial.
Poor connections haven’t found as much of a foothold with the third hog, Zombies, and its four-player online matches, but douchebags have. Hey, they might be real charmers outside of a zombie apocalypse, but courtesy is apparently the first thing to go when four strangers are thrust into a cramped bus on a blistering highway between a volcanic town and an undead farm. Treyarch knew we’d be selfish, though, and designed Zombies around that.
It’s possible for a single player to find all the guns, perks, parts and secrets in Tranzit, Black Ops II’s seamless multi-stage expansion on the arcade waves of living dead warfare. Tackling the challenge with allies, though, eases the burden of carrying parts and buildable shields, turbines and turrets which grant access to more areas and weapons. The implements are scattered across four main areas on the map, including some Easter eggs from World at War. Locations and zombie spawn points force players to keep moving, as does the armored bus that runs between the sets. Fiery fissures, for some reason, litter the ground in these locations, making the already difficult task of staying alive frustrating. The zombie shield can bash undead corpses like rag dolls onto roofs, though, so I’d call it even.
Teamwork behooves the individual in Tranzit, which doesn’t stop anonymity (and zombies) from bringing out the ass in teammates. What results is one of the best and truest stories that Black Ops II can tell: the human story of abandonment, betrayal, and sometimes even redemption, a hand forced by the transient nature of the bus.
Like any bus, it has a schedule, and the animatronic bus driver will keep to that schedule in rain, sleet or end times. Some players will board the bus and hop off at the first stop. Others may hop off, find the area hard to defend, and then jump back on the bus as it navigates to the next map. Now the sightseer is stranded, unless they’re willing to tear across the lava-spewing highway that’s guarded by clawing demons. One of the two camps, now divided, will inevitably fall. They will respawn with their deserters at the beginning of the next round. The drama!
Or maybe one member is downed, but not dead, and crawls through a boiling pit to get help from a teammate holding down a nearby shack. Or maybe, as in the competitive Grief mode, one player will tag the other with smelly meat, attracting every zombie on the map and digging a certain grave. Cooperative play becomes so cleverly uncooperative.
As is wont to happen with pigs’ houses, some blow over, falling under the weight of a thin construct like international military cyber-terrorism delivered in installments, or bending under the weight of some laggy, overworked servers. Others, still, were built on the idea that someone, the player, will live in the house, and so the construction should fit his or her needs, even if he or she is a total wad. The pieces of Black Ops II that will capture player attention for the longest time will be those that were designed with players and their environment in mind. After five years, our behavior has become pretty predictable, and when Treyarch capitalizes on these presumptions, Black Ops II clicks. When it doesn’t, it blows the house down.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 was developed by Treyarch and published by Activision. Our review is based on the Xbox 360 version. It is also available for the PlayStation 3, Wii U and PC.
Dan Crabtree has words on Paste, Ars Technica, Kill Screen, and Gamernode. His dog is considered handsome and well-read. You can find him (the human) on Twitter.