Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (Xbox360)

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Lets cut straight to the heart of this particular situation we find ourselves faced with: There’s a new Call of Duty game out and it’s called Black Ops 2. ‘BLOPS2,’ ‘CoDBlops2,’ ‘the next king of multiplayer,’ ‘the new game industry stomper’ – they’re all referring to this game. Following on from the success of 2011’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and a direct sequel to 2010’s enormous Call of Duty: Black Ops, Black Ops 2 was Activision’s chance to re-instil gamers’ faith in the franchise, and it was Treyarch’s opportunity to cement itself as the lead innovator and developer of the series.

To this end, daring chances were taken with the game’s singleplayer campaign and new (and even exciting) elements have been introduced to online play to keep things fresh, but when it comes to the execution of these bold additions in combination with the touchstones we’ve come to expect from Call of Duty, results are mixed.

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Year after year, the Call of Duty series provides a bombastic (some might even say blockbuster) action experience and Black Ops 2 is no exception. From the word go, I found myself leading a charge in an open field against hundreds of enemies hurtling towards me – gunfire and mortar emplacements exploded ahead, while armed allies and heavily armoured trucks careened through the battle behind me. The skirmish was oddly devoid of real intensity, though – music, sound effects and visuals somehow failed to click and rise to the occasion of the circumstance.

I pressed on, though, and through the game’s military-themed story telling tales of global warfare, technological terrorists and grievous personal tragedy and loss, I hopped from the perspective of one personality to the other across locations around the world, to time periods stretching back to the 80’s from the ‘present’ of the year 2025 – all par for the course, as far as Call of Duty games go. If handled expertly, this method of story-telling can result in a masterful narrative, but despite the series’ insistence on clinging to this technique Treyarch hasn’t managed to get it quite right, resulting in a casually confusing story told through the eyes of no less than five protagonists.

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It’s unfortunate then that Black Ops 2 digs even deeper into the mythos of its own universe with talk of ‘the numbers’ and events from the first game in this series, which means that newcomers will have a very difficult time understanding the story and keeping up with events. Jumping from horse-riding missions in the deserts of the Middle-East and braving the rolling waves of water in a flooded city, to infiltrating an opulent floating resort city and defending an assault on an aircraft carrier, the game was content to place me in action-packed situations with very tenuous reasons to shoot my way out of them.

And shoot I did, but for some or other reason, Black Ops 2 felt to me more like a shooting gallery than any game previously and I surprised myself at the number of times that I tried to simply run through the hail of incoming fire and lobbed grenades simply to get to the next story beat. There is no shortage of weaponry to choose from in order to take down your targets, and taking place in a (primarily) near-future setting, I was also given access to cool technologies like scopes that see through walls and paint targets, and a gun that can fire through objects.

There were even times when I was able to directly control and direct flying attack drones, as well as mammoth, death-dealing, walking tanks. All neat ideas in concept, but these tools are only occasionally included in your arsenal and injected into gameplay at key times as pace changers. It would have been terrific (and terrifically brave of Treyarch) to always have an additional ace up my sleeve in a firefight.

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To further help me take a bit of a break from the first-person action, Black Ops 2 introduces strategy-lite challenges called ‘Strike Force’ missions, where players are presented with an overview of a battlefield with a near-constant supply of soldiers and drones to help protect and claim points on the map. It’s then up to you to direct these assets around the level as you roam overhead and remove incoming enemies, with the opportunity to drop down and control a friendly unit from its perspective.

It’s a bold new addition to Call of Duty, but one that needs more thought and attention in the future if it’s to flourish into a series mainstay. As troops failed to receive my commands, communication over the current state of the battle fought with itself and the overhead roving camera did its best to confuse and annoy me, I was relieved to find out that these missions (save for the tutorial and first challenge) are completely optional and contribute only tangential rewards as far as the campaign is concerned.

It’s perhaps a peculiar thing to note, but the menu system of Black Ops 2 is incredibly slick and allows you to jump between game modes and options at a rapid rate, but the pace of the campaign is chipped down by screens leading to each mission, while the overall pace of the game is strangely deliberate for a Call of Duty game. Modern Warfare 3 and even the original Black Ops whipped by at breakneck speeds, but for better or worse, the story of tragic antagonist Raul Menendez and new hero David Mason (son of Alex) is delivered with a conscious hand – as the action and chaotic story blurred in my periphery, these core characters remained in clear focus, even if their motivations (and resulting narrative) were contrived.

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But who really plays Call of Duty for the singleplayer campaign? Well, I do, but the reason the series has continued to remain such a giant in the videogame world is its multiplayer offering. Black Ops 2 delivers an online experience to match its extremely popular siblings, and some might say it even improves on the formula, but depending on your location in the world you might have some trouble accessing the bounty of features on offer.

The usual selection of multiplayer modes are here, from Team Deathmatch, Free-For-All and Kill Confirmed to Capture the Flag, Demolition and Domination, with a new mode in the form of Hardpoint, too. The available game types in Black Ops 2 will no doubt cater to your every desire for both team- and solo-based multiplayer action, with opportunities to enter alternative ‘Hardcore’ versions of these modes as well. Party game modes are also available with Gun Game, One in the Chamber, Sticks and Stones and Sharpshooter included to provide frenetic fun with friends (and enemies).

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‘League Play’ is new to Call of Duty which is where you’ll be placed into matches against similarly skilled players by way of a new matchmaking method, while theatre mode is back to allow players to record and share videos (and screenshots) from their matches, all of which is intelligently displayed for easy in-game browsing. Also new to Call of Duty is ‘CoDCasting,’ where players are able to commentate on an on-going multiplayer match, live as it happens, as others watch and listen, which holds great potential for the future of Black Ops 2 as an e-sports favourite.

The other big new addition to Call of Duty with Black Ops 2 is the way you choose your gear. Ranking, experience points, scorestreaks and unlocks are handled in a similar way to previous games (the more you play, the more you earn and unlock), but with the new Pick 10 you’ll need to think a little more carefully about the weapons, attachments, perks and equipment you assign in Create A Class. You’re only given ten slots to fill up with your choices, with Wildcards to further help you customise your load-out to your playstyle and push your character more towards speed and stealth, for example, as opposed to a strategic, plodding sniper.

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The Pick 10 system is definitely interesting in the way it made me think about every consequence of my choices – do I really need that weapon stock and tactical item when I could take a Wildcard and a second grenade instead? – but there was a point where I was satisfied with my load-out, and beyond idle experimentation, I didn’t see a whole lot of reasons to fiddle with my selections. I have no doubt players will find great combinations of items to push this system even further and hone their characters to perfection, but if you know what you like then you’re going to settle pretty quickly.

Rounding out the online offerings of Black Ops 2 is the revised Zombie mode, which this time sports much more of a ‘story’ as you and three other players are able to travel from one creepy location to the next while building up barricades and buying better equipment with accumulated cash in an effort to gun down increasingly determined hordes of shambling dead. The eeriness of the Zombie mode is unnerving and hearing the otherworldly screams of the glowie-eyed undead should be experienced with friends. If you’re all in the same room, all the better.

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All of these multiplayer modes and features in Black Ops 2 are very generous indeed and match any other similar offering available this year… if they were all consistently accessible. Here in South Africa (and I’m guessing other parts of the world, too), trying to reliably find games online is a fool’s errand and I overall spent many more hours trying to get into a match (of anything, even Team Deathmatch, something!) than I spent actually playing.

Almost two weeks into launch and a patch later, the situation is no better. Meanwhile, I’ve had no problems at all finding games of Halo 4 and Medal of Honor: Warfighter on the same platform. How is it, then, that Treyarch and Activision aren’t able to work the same magic as 343 Industries and Microsoft, or Danger Close and EA, with an even greater audience to work with? It’s incredibly disappointing and frustrating, and an issue that doesn’t seem to have a fix in progress. It’s only thanks to the kindness of complete strangers and people on my friends list that I was able to get into most of my games at all. For a series that thrives on multiplayer, its peculiar that this is such a problem for any player, no matter their place in the world.

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Is Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 the best game in the franchise? Is it worthy of the multiplayer crown that the series seems to effortlessly retain year after year? Reservedly, I would say ‘yes’ to those questions but there would be extreme caveats attached to the answer. Treyarch needs to fix the problems players such as myself are having finding online matches – it’s unacceptable that over half of the game is unreliably playable for people who have most likely paid for this portion of the game, despite its new features and wealth of ways to play.

The campaign of Black Ops 2 is definitely the most interesting and varied of any of the Call of Duty games before it, with more risks taken and a more personal (and slightly more precise) story told, but there is still some work to be done before the series is considered an overall leader in the first-person shooter genre, with refinement necessary in key areas to transform its additions into true innovations. Personally, and going forward, I would also like to see the singleplayer and multiplayer portions of these games to be more integrated and to play off of each other instead of being quite so disparate, but it’s become tiring looking forward to subsequent annual franchise entries to break the mould and blow us away with something we couldn’t have conceived.

The action sequences continue to be ‘blockbuster’ in nature and the multiplayer is still fully featured, but I’ve got my hopes up too often and ended up being fooled more than once. From now on, it’s shame on me.