Critical Consensus: Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
Treyarch's bravery with some difficult choices earns praise, but not all the changes are popular
No pressure, folks - just another product in the world's largest entertainment franchise. A franchise which has steadily increased its phenomenal retail presence over the last five years since its departure from a WWII setting with 2007's Modern Warfare, hitting a high water mark with Treyarch's original Black Ops in late 2010.
That game, despite predictions from Activision itself that it would undersell Modern Warfare 2 by 20 per cent, made $1 billion in revenues in 42 days - almost double Modern Warfare's $550 million chump change in the same period.
An incredible attachment rate for DLC meant that, on average, each of the 30 million plus players of Black Ops spent over $76 on the game in total - totalling over 18 million map packs. A record selling title around the world, Black Ops remains the highest-grossing entertainment launch of all time to date.
So what of the sequel? Despite some pessimism from analysts about its chances at breaking its own records, citing ageing console hardware and engine tech, Black Ops 2 has already tripled the pre-order total of the original.
So do the reviews even matter? A tightly enforced embargo, which only expired at 8am this morning for the UK and Europe, meant that the game had already been available for eight hours by the time the reviews went live, thanks to a plethora of midnight openings from games retailers. For the thousands who queued in the cold to grab their copies for a late night binge before things got really busy, scores were not important. For them, as for so many customers, any Call of Duty purchase is a given.
So far, the Metacritic rating is similar to its predecessor's, hovering around 85 per cent on Xbox 360, whilst Black Ops ended up at 88. 31 Reviews had been posted at the time of writing, ranging from 94 to 80 per cent, but there were a few notable gaps, including GamesIndustry International sister site Eurogamer, as a few outlets eschewed Activision-organised review 'events' or waited to get a better look at public multiplayer.
Looking at a range of scores from some of the biggest media outlets today, the trend is to see a wave of pleasant surprise at some interesting tricks worked into the single-player campaign to keep things fresh, including a range of choices which lead to multiple endings and a geographically and horologically diverse storyline. Multiplayer sees some new tricks, including a deepening of the RPG-lite perks and classes system, as well as plenty of new guns and gadgets.
Despite that, there's a general feeling that Treyarch haven't stretched themselves quite as far as they might have, and may not have brought as much innovation to the table as they did with the original.
Starting at the low end of the scores, we have Russ Frushtick at Polygon, who awards an 8/10 - painting Black Ops 2 as a Treyarch's chance to prove that the original wasn't a fluke but a sign of the quality to come - an attempt which he feels offers somewhat mixed results.
"These excellent new additions are layered atop an already-refined multiplayer blueprint which is as good as it's ever been. Black Ops 2 multiplayer feels like a Swiss watch I could never afford."
Russ Frushtick, Polygon
"Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 easily hits some of those expectations," says Frushtick. "At times it's genius, as with the multiplayer's redesigned class system. But at others, it doesn't feel like it's trying very hard. Occasionally, it's a complete mess."
Opening with a run-down of the changes to game's multiplayer, a consideration much more weighty than that of the single-player for most readers, Frushtick praises the flexibility of the new "create a class" system which allows players to balance weapons, attachments and equipment themselves rather than adhering to pre-set choices. Alongside these improvements come encouragements for support roles, with the kill-streaks of previous games being replaced by score streaks, letting players build momentum for the potentially match-changing rewards which they offer in more tactical or defensive ways - a lesson perhaps learned from EA's Battlefield series.
"Treyarch took a big risk with the Pick 10 create-a-class system, and it paid off, reimagining how players customize their experience," Frushtick believes. "They could have stopped there, but the developer's drive to go deeper, changing certain core elements of Call of Duty multiplayer to encourage more teamwork, makes Black Ops 2 online play even more remarkable. No other online shooter is offering a better experience right now."
A new ranking system also receives cautious praise, but Polygon rightly points out that it'll take a few days of public play before the effectiveness of this system can be properly assessed.
Where Black Ops 2 compares unfavourably with the original, says Polygon, is in the execution of its single-player campaign story, which drops some of the intrigue and characterisation of Alex Mason's story in favour of a villain who is "a cat-stroking Bond character" who attempts to take over the world of 2025's advanced military technology with "a magic computer chip and some spitfire technobabble but seemingly not much else."
This, says Russ, results in "Only a pair of missions in Black Ops 2 stand[ing] out, one offering a major structural departure from the linear Call of Duty mission format, the other an interesting glimpse into civilian life in the year 2025. More often than not you're running from one uninteresting room to the next, shooting guys."
In addition, the game's "Strike Force" missions come under some heavy fire. Intended to break up the single-player structure with a side-story about an impending Sino-American conflict featuring RTS style elements, Frushtick instead sees them as the game's weakest points, thanks to "broken" and "useless" AI. Some of the alterations to CoD's much-loved zombie mode are judged to be more successful, but the map-hopping bus of Tranzit and the mode's part-collecting crafting system seem to fall shy of the series' high standards.
"Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is made up of so many dissonant parts that it's hard to believe they were all made by the same studio," Frushtick concludes. "Black Ops 2's campaign and Zombies mode are disappointments, especially coming off the across-the-board success of its predecessor.
"But it's a testament to the extraordinary quality of its multiplayer that Black Ops 2 won't go down as a forgotten entry...That innovation, combined with the constant refinement of Call of Duty's multiplayer mechanics over the years, makes Black Ops 2 the best online shooter out there."
At the other end of the score spectrum to Polygon is IGN, rolling out an extensive 9.3 review from Anthony Gallegos which focuses on the innovations and additions which, for Gallegos, make Black Ops 2 "far more than 'just another Call of Duty.' This is an evolution."
"You can shape it, but this story isn't about the hero."
Anthony Gallegos, IGN.
Gallegos is much more taken with Raul Menendez, the villain of the piece, than Polygon was, painting him as a multi-faceted character with plausible motives for his chaos-causing and death-dealing, meaning that "the story successfully casts Menendez in a light where I'm still not sure how I feel about him.
"At times I wanted him dead, while at others I felt like he had a right to want revenge. Hell, I even vacillate between agreeing with his end goals. Like the film Inglourious Basterds, Black Ops II becomes less about you and the 'good' guys, and more about the motivations and perspective of the villain."
Continuing his praise of the narrative drive and diversity of Black Ops 2's story, Gallegos also takes time to talk positively about the moral choices on offer, "a brilliant riff on the traditional Call of Duty campaign design" which gives a personally engaging campaign full of consequence. Nonetheless, its in the Strike Force missions, which frustrate Gallegos almost as much as Frushtick, that these consequences are most keenly felt, which limits their effectiveness.
"These tasks are worth playing because of their crucial role in the creation of your story, but the limited command controls make them less exciting," Gallegos writes.
"You can order your troops around the map from a strategic overhead view or via the usual first-person control, though neither is as tactical as intended. You can't rally soldiers on your position, and your AI allies will rush to die. Each objective essentially comes down to ordering my troops to move from point to point as a huge group while I single-handedly save the mission by taking direct control and fight a horde of foes."
Gallegos goes on to offer his appreciation of the sense of place and plausibility conjured by the game's locations and architecture, building a coherent picture of a believable near-future whilst also introducing mission-specific challenges which indulge those who prefer their achievements to come with a ding and some Gamerscore rather than character development and immersion.
Treyarch's close attention to the finer points of multiplayer, which could have brought the axe perilously close to the neck of the golden goose, are judged to be almost universally successful by Gallegos, who is clearly enamoured with the "genuinely fun and intuitive" 'Pick 10' class system. In addition to this overhaul, he also picks out the changes made to 'Prestiging', which previously had reset bonus stats for characters when experience with a weapon had been maxed out.
Instead, experience now carries over and offers a number of new options to play with for the hardcore and, for Gallegos, "completely changes my attitude towards Prestiging, and makes it something I actually want to do."
Again, the new matchmaking system is warmed to, but with the reservation that only full-servers will tell the full story. Improved social services, thanks to the newly gratis Elite and fine-tuned Youtube publishing are also noted, depsite being curiously limited to consoles.
Striking a balance of these two opinions is Dan Ryckert of GameInformer, settling on a score of 8.5.
Again, a departure from the linearity of previous titles is welcomed, as are the unsignposted consequences of both the subtle and overt choices on offer. For Ryckert, these choices offer a cleverly nuanced individual experience which will add a 'watercooler' aspect to the game, encouraging discussion of options chosen and the ramifications which transpire.
"The weight of your decisions isn't on the level of a game like Heavy Rain, but the system had me talking to others about their experiences in a way I had never done before with this series."
Dan Ryckert, GameInformer.
Ryckert also sides with both Gallegos and Frushtick over the annoying nature of the Strike Force missions which intersperse the main story, calling them a "pain" which prevents the campaign from sitting favourably alongside that of the original. He is, however, another fan of arch-villain Menendez, calling him "one of the best antagonists in the series."
Curiously, Ryckert seems undecided on just how much has been done to refresh the multiplayer aspects of the game, saying on the one hand that it's been approached with a “if it ain't broke… mentality" but also asserting that it "gives multiplayer fans countless tweaks and changes to the formula to keep them occupied until next year's inevitable installment." Primary among these is again the Pick 10 system, but Ryckert also picks up on some subtler changes which he identifies as pushing a clearer e-sports agenda. A lack of new match types is a disappointment for Ryckert, but he concludes on a positive note, praising the choice to make changes were a rehashing of a proven formula may have sufficed.
"Even if Treyarch misses the mark on occasion," he summarises, much in line with general opinion, "I respect the developer for taking chances with a series that would sell just fine if it stuck with the status quo."