More and more frequently, games are being made by a bunch of studios rather than just one. Different studios work on different parts and someone in a dark room with weird magic stitches them together and hopes players won’t notice.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is an especially weird example because, despite feeling like it was crafted by three or four houses, it was made by just one studio. Some parts show an impressive amount of polish, while others never quite work right, and it makes for an interesting package.

Black Ops helped Treyarch differentiate itself from the other studios in the Call of Duty family. Black Ops took the series away from the real world and into something a bit more like science fiction – the stuff we like to imagine is happening behind the scenes. Jaunting back and forth from the twilight of the Cold War in the 1980s to the near future, 2025, Black Ops II is really the story of villain Raul Menendez, told mostly through the eyes of the (Black Ops’ protagonist) Alex and David Mason, father and son. We witness through them the origin and rise to power of the megalomaniacal revolutionary through various conflicts and proxy wars.

Of Branches and Side Missions.

Call of Duty‘s campaigns have been accused, especially lately, of being theme park rides or action movies, and predictable ones at that. Black Ops II tries to fix issue, for better or worse. For the most part, the campaign delivers what fans expect: a variety of stages with little in the way of exploration but a massive payload of explosions and excitement. Treyarch tries to mix things up with a few new elements intended to give the campaign some much-needed replay value.

For the first time in a Call of Duty game, there are branching story elements that can change later levels and the ending itself. This is a great idea, and a good direction for Black Ops especially to go in with its greater emphasis on story and characters, but the options presented are too few to feel like they’re making a difference.

Also new this time around are the Strike Force missions. The main campaign introduces the first of these missions, but the others are optional. Rather than controlling your soldier directly, Strike Force missions are a sort of First Person-Real Time Strategy hybrid. You can control any of your soldiers at any time, as well as switching to assume direct control of the combat machines on the field. The idea is interesting, but the AI makes it a tough concept to swallow. Soldiers don’t act like soldiers and things go awry when you attempt to control them from the bird’s-eye view game suggests. This is particularly frustrating because the Strike Force missions do apparently have some effect on the story, though I wasn’t able to see it in action for myself.

The last big hurdle in the campaign mode’s path to success is the story itself. As it centers on Raul Menendez, he’s necessarily a primary component. The problem is that he’s incredibly silly. He doesn’t even come across as the Bond villain I’ve seen some players describe him as. He’s more like a G.I. Joe villain, and the lack of real development makes him impossible to empathize with. He’s not a human, but more of an omniscient, prescient caricature.

The story itself is pretty straight-forward, but the back-and-forth storytelling style makes it unnecessarily confusing. It’s never hard to tell which era you’re in, but sometimes it’s less clear just what it is you’re doing there. Maybe that was an intentional decision to convey the unnecessary nature of war and the confusion the soldiers on the front lines experience. Probably not.

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For the first time in a Call of Duty game, there are branching story elements that can change later levels and the ending itself.

The Magical Mystery Zombie Tour.

Treyarch’s infamous Zombies mode returns as well, bringing with it the new Tranzit mode. With the novelty of the mode having worn off over the years, Call of Duty‘s undead arcade mode is definitely in need of something new, and Tranzit, a sort of mini-campaign, helps flesh it out, pun definitely intended.

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Tranzit gives us, rather than a bunch of disconnected levels, a sort of loop of smaller areas connected by an automatic bus that you can choose to board or not depending on whether you want to keep exploring the area you’re currently in. In each area, various parts lay about, waiting to be assembled into a mounted machine gun or whatever else to help out the player.

The parts are, unfortunately, nigh impossible to find. It’s fine that they’re not highlighted to make them obvious the way many games do, but walking right up to them often doesn’t activate the dialogue box that lets you pick them up. I often had to adjust my stance a few inches this way or that to get it to highlight. When you’re trying to fight off the undead hordes, this becomes more than simply annoying. It’s a good idea, but the execution needs a lot of work.

Polished clockwork

callofduty-pick10When it really comes down do it, though, the campaign and zombie modes are really just bonuses for most players. We’re here for the multiplayer, and that’s what matters, and the multiplayer is exactly what makes it feel like the game might’ve been cobbled together from different studios’ creations. The campaign and zombie modes are interesting but have some difficult issues.The multiplayer, on the other hand, is more polished than it’s ever been, standing out from the other elements with not only the quality we’ve come to expect from the series overall, but with great tweaks and major changes by Treyarch that will surely end up adopted in sequels to come and maybe even see variants in other multiplayer shooters.The class creation are has received the biggest overhaul with the Pick 10 system. Instead of filling in all the requisite blanks with required items (sidearm goes here, perk goes here, and so on), each class slot is now given ten points to spend, with each option being worth one point. If you never use your pistol, don’t bring one into battle. If you don’t like any of the level 2 perks, don’t bother. Instead, go in with a decked out assault rifle and extra concussion grenades at your side. There are also unlockable bonus perks that will let you do things like take two perks from a given tier instead of just one. Pick 10 is a subtle change to the formula, but it gives experienced players the chance to really play the game how they want without any extra gear bogging them down. I enjoyed the freedom as someone relatively new to the franchise, and the more seasoned players I talked to were getting a lot out of it as well.League play, too, adds another wrinkle. After a few test rounds, league mode will put you into a group that matches your skill level. If you’re a ringer, you’ll race up through the ranks and graduate to a level more suitable, while other players will find themselves pitted against people closer to their skill level. I didn’t try this extensively myself, but it seems especially well suited to people who find themselves frustrated when they get wasted in regular multiplayer but still want that interaction.

Kill streaks have been replaced with score streaks in this iteration of Call of Duty‘s multiplayer, and with it returns an emphasis on teamwork. Bloodshed is not the only way to play the game, depending on the game type; collecting dropped tags and capturing flags can keep you competitive with other players, too.

The guns feel stronger than in past iterations, and while I actually liked it, some more experienced players seemed less pleased.

Come for the multiplayer, the rest is fluff.

No game with a real single-player mode sells more for just its multiplayer than Call of Duty. Game developers complain about people not finishing their campaigns, but with Call of Duty it’s a matter of people never starting. Call of Duty: Black Ops II isn’t going to change that, but that’s not a bad thing. The multiplayer is tight, fun, and has enough new elements to make it feel fresh. Hardcore Call of Duty fans already own it, but those who might’ve strayed from the series for a few years will want to pick this one up.

We purchased a retail copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 for the Xbox 360 with company funds. We played the game’s full campaign on normal difficulty, as well as 4 hours of Zombie Mode and 10+ of Multiplayer.

Curious about how we score games? Read this.

Rating

7.0

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