The arrival of the year’s Call of Duty is more than just a mere game release these days. It’s an occasion marked like a Hollywood premiere as the stars come out, stores open at midnight and many of the games-buying public venture out to pick up what might be their only purchase in months.
In the face of such hype it’s easy to get forget there’s a game to be played and this year’s offering, Black Ops 2, marks perhaps the last Call of Duty we’ll see on current-generation hardware, so prompting certainly a graphical shift (and hopefully a shift in gameplay too).
Black Ops 2, like a gaming compendium of old, wages its war across three fronts: it’s single-player campaign, standard multiplayer options and the survival-driven Zombies mode each very much its own beast as each vies for our attention.
To address each in order; the campaign mode comes with the usual bombastic world-ending danger, huge explosions and gung-ho heroes. Add to that an era spanning plot (the future and the past in one game, whatever next?) and a villain straight from Bond and you’ll know what to expect.
There is something new in the shape of ‘Strike Force’ levels, which still ask you to shoot things, but to do so while managing friendly forces via stripped-down real-time strategy options. Otherwise it’s by-the-numbers Call of Duty which retains all of the series’ limitations.
Yes, you will traverse stages which throw unlimited numbers of bad guys at you until you reach a certain marker. And, yes, you will blast through rooms of hostiles which will only let you move on once the enemy threat has been removed.
The AI has barely moved on from previous outings either. Most of my deaths were caused not because I was cleverly flushed-out and surrounded, but rather through sheer weight of numbers (and bullets). It’s something of a cheap tactic, and like the linear stage design, one that’s beginning to feel outdated.
Classic multiplayer fares better. Again, little has changed, but the frenetic pace of online skirmishes is what Call of Duty fans expect, and Black Ops 2′s fighting is some of the series’ most fast-paced yet (though won’t convince those who’ve tried past entries and failed to engage).
Expect to amass kills quickly and die frequently, no matter what game type – deathmatch, capture-and-hold, etc. – you’re playing. The fact that death is barely punished means you’ll be resuming play almost as soon as your previous body has finished crumpling to the floor – so is the lot of the Call of Duty online junky.
Next up is the somewhat improved is Zombies mode, where survivors must cover each other in the face of ever more aggressive waves of zombies. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but when played with a well-intended group it provides some of Black Ops 2′s tensest moments; even if it’s presence feels oddly jarring alongside the other two main modes of play.
By offering three distinct play types it’s hard to shake the feeling that Treyarch – and Activision in turn – are either trying to please all, or are entirely too conscious that no singular part of their game stands on its own merits.
More than anything it’s this sense which suggests that Call of Duty is a series in need of fresh impetuous. It’s not that Treyarch have created a bad shooter, it’s just that Black Ops 2 is no longer a genre leader in any aspect except for high that patented high octane multiplayer (and even here it’s only really a refinement of the original Black Ops).
Ultimately that won’t (and hasn’t) stopped people buying it and enjoying it in their droves. Like the dumb action movie you’ll watch while knowing you could be doing something more formative with your life Call of Duty is a guilty pleasure; just one showing decided signs of ageing.
Format: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
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