Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Post-Modern Warfare

Sorry, bro, I gotta level up my succubus!
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: November 27, 2012
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Here at the TPS offices, we're not immune to the malaise of seeing a yearly Call of Duty entry any more than we tend to scoff at the certainty of seeing a new Madden or Pro Evo entry every year; it's just one of those things that hit like clockwork, but even at our most jaded, there's no denying that these games offer an experience that's really unlike any other. Insinuations of the series devolving into a series of corridors and shooting galleries have never really sat well with any of the staff -- even if at times parts of the games have felt that way.

With their latest entry into the cash printing franchise, developer Treyarch clearly felt they had something to prove. The mass exodus of more than a few staffers from series creators Infinity Ward almost feels like a clichéd sports movie. After playing second string, being benched for most of the season, the star players were gone and it was their time to shine. I've never been good with metaphors -- much less sports ones -- but in a very real sense, this was Treyarch's chance to assume the mantle of CoD leadership. With progressively larger takes year after year despite the industry's overall profits sinking amid a protracted console hardware cycle, could the supposed second string pull off an experience as grandiose and yet surprising as the folks that actually made the series?

I'll spare you a few thousand more words (though they'll be right down there if you want to find out why) and just come out and say it: yes. Definitively, undeniably, this is Call of Duty as defined by the Modern Warfare formula, and then some. There are some serious issues with the online, but I'll get to those in a bit. What I want -- nay, need -- to focus on is just how much the single-player campaign (you know, the stuff everyone seems to skip on the way to the multiplayer) stays true to the epic setpiece moments while offering something truly different this time around.

See, at multiple points during the campaign, the story has the ability to branch based on your actions. More interestingly, though, those points are not emblazoned with some kind of massive neon sign saying "pick a button to choose your path" (though admittedly that does happen at least once). Some of the effects are far-reaching and completely story-changing, while others offer more subtle derivations. In the end, there aren't a huge number of possible outcomes -- just four in total, but as slightly different as some of these are, the events that play out while traveling along these paths can be wildly different.

Despite being a bit late with this review (we wanted to make sure we'd dug into every part, particularly that troublesome online stuff), I'm going to avoid spoiling anything about the story. Suffice it to say that as David Mason, son of original Black Ops co-lead Alex "The Numbers" Mason, things in the year 2025 are precarious. The rise of a billion-strong political adjunct called Cordis Die has transformed the socioeconomic situation even among world superpowers -- most notably China, who after a crippling cyber-attack on their stock exchange, cuts off the world's supply of rare-earth elements (nee minerals), effectively plunging the planet into a second cold war, with rare-earth-hungry America starved for the resource most necessary for the manufacture of all the cool whiz-bang gadgets you'd expect us to have in 2025.

The original Mason, along with buddy Frank Woods (who provides flashbacks from his hobbled state in a military retirement home) are the flip side of the coin. With introductions from Woods to David Mason about what went down in the 80s, a clearer picture of what happened to Mason (notably absent from most of David's life), Woods (who raised David in lieu of Alex) and a mysterious drug lord named Raul Menendez is made clear. See, thanks events that went down throughout Central America and the Middle East, Menendez managed to avoid capture (though not without some heavy scarring) and rose to power as leader of Cordis Die.

The two narrative threads intertwine often, with missions regularly swinging from the past to the future, but it's a testament to the choices of weaponry (both real and possible) that even without some of the futuristic tech, the stuff you go pew pew with in the 80s is still plenty to give gun nuts proverbial (and we hope that's all) stiffies. When things do head into 2025, it's everything you imagine near-future warfare would be; tons of drones, lots of weapons that burp thousands of rounds per minute and in one particularly memorable scene early on, gloves that stick to rocks like Spider-Man and a wing suit enabling an absolutely thrilling entry into the Cordis Die compound.

Despite spanning half a century and branching after things start to pick up a head of steam, I can't help but applaud Treyarch for not loading up the campaign with familiar beats -- and when they do, they're often flipped in such a way as to make them feel fresh. No coordinated sniping, no slo-motion first-person death of a main character, no overabundance of slo-motion breach-and-clear bits. What you will see are bits that really give the future thrust of the story some oomph -- stuff like avoiding drone patrols through flooded streets or sniping through walls or a shootout in the middle of a club (blasting Skrillex as apparently clubs still will in 2025) while vaulting over cover or attacking invading forces while on horseback or a rage-fueled machete massacre. The same adherence to huge setpiece moments is here, of course, but the story does tend to zig when others have zagged (or zag when they zigged), with Menendez as an interesting villain who always seems to be one step ahead of those pursuing him.

For the first time since the games were created, I actually found myself re-playing the campaign, not to suffer through the insta-deaths of the higher difficulties for Trophies, but to see how the story could be different (and, yes, to get some non-difficulty-based Trophies). There are moments in Black Ops II's campaign that are easily the best the series has ever seen, from an atmospheric stand point, from a scripting standpoint, even just from the setting as a whole. Stuff goes down in this game that is a joy to both see and control -- to say nothing of react to -- and the phrase "organized chaos" for once only defines part of what makes things so thrilling.
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