Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 - The State of Call of Duty
by Stuart Davidson - 4th December 2012
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 - The State of Call of Duty
Over the last decade Infinity Ward built the Call of Duty franchise to be one of the biggest in history, and the most critically acclaimed. This should have been no surprise given their previous success with Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Infinity Ward continued their success story with Call of Duty 2 but when the third game in the franchise was in development it was Treyarch who brought the game to market, allowing Infinity Ward to freshen up the franchise soon after with Modern Warfare. Modern Warfare was the brands first move away from a World War 2 setting and allowed much more creative freedom which assisted in keeping critical acclaim high.
This dual development method continued within Activision with Infinity Ward and Treyarch alternating the development duties. A move which saw a yearly release schedule for the next installment of each game... but not necessarily the same level of praise with each.
Then things got messy and regardless of who was in the right or wrong the COD brand was at risk of significant problems when many of the staff involved at Infinity Ward left Activision during the COD: Modern Warfare 3 development/release process. The game hit with positive reviews, though not to the same level across the board as previous Infinity Ward outings but it was a commercial success. There is no doubting though that Treyarch would be under much more pressure now as the custodians of the franchise and in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 we got to see if they could deliver.
In short, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is worth buying. It offers some great battle sections and a good level of quality which many games lack but at the same time it could have been so much more. Today we take a look at what isn't great in Black Ops 2...
NOTE: Today we are focusing on the Campaign mode... check out our sister site Cadred.org's multiplayer overview for those aspects. (Video at the base of this article)
More of the same?
Given that this is the 9th game in the Call of Duty franchise, and the second Black Ops game, it should come as no surprise that BO2 feels very familiar. The usual FPS style controls are present and we play through a plot which is split into various story threads with our aim being to save the world. In theory all very normal, however the execution isn't great. Why? Well there are numerous key reasons so lets take a look at them...
In both the disjointed writing and missions which jump about too quickly, the human elements of the game get a little lost and as a result any empathy we have to the main character (or characters) is somewhat lost. In a game which looks to spin various timelines and story threads together it is critical that more time is spent building each rather than throwing us into battle over and over in different settings. Not that the battles are lack entertainment, there are some great scenes throughout Black Ops 2 but all too often the game substitutes scripting for in the face action, or attempts at being controversial. It could even be said that there is a certain level of trash novel, or maybe 80s dross action movie mixed in here which just doesn't work any more. Do we really need to have the over the top Admiral figure blurt out "cocksucker" at every opportunity? It adds nothing other than to cheapen the experience and give a lower opinion of the writers and producers than would otherwise be the case. Amongst other things, its just lazy.
With such a long history and fans who have played through up to 8-9 previous games (depending on if you include MOH, etc) there had been rumblings previously that COD was too linear. In an attempt to freshen things up Treyarch have tried to open the game up a little in a few ways. Firstly we get some horse action in the desert, we also get a look at future technology in the second timeline and the Strike Force Missions along with various in-game choices that customise the story.
Horse action is pretty simple, we are on a horse rather than running or sitting in a vehicle. No problems there... future technology makes for some interesting additions to the game but it and the branching story/choices fall a little flat overall. The core of these issues is that the game all too frequently pushes us down a route. In the first battle scene for example we have a wide expanse in front of us, yet are restricted to a narrow corridor within this. Stray outside that and events don't trigger, messages start prompting us to move back and any sense of out of the box thinking we had to taking on the enemy is lost. Moving forward to the future a scene with huge potential has us launch off a cliff with mechanical wings, flying down towards the enemy with our squad. Move off the intended path and its certain death for us. Its about as on rails as a non-rails section of gameplay can be.
For all these simple deaths are annoying, elsewhere in the game we are essentially invulnerable. Certainly that comes down in part to the regenerative health that is so common in modern games, but also the balance seems off. As was the case in a previous COD incarnation, we play as the enemy at one point and to see a character wade through pretty much a whole army without coming close to feeling in peril just isn't right... nor is it when we do the same as our main "hero" character. The lack of danger detracts from the whole experience, leaving us to once again have little thought about what we are doing. The same feeling also flows through the Strike Force missions, sections of game which branch off from the main campaign gameplay to introduce some almost RTS esq play mixed with the ability to control machines along with soldiers. Here, while we control one element of the mission the rest of the "map" action is under AI control and rarely does it get things wrong, it is hard to fail these areas without really trying.
Elsewhere little thought is put into smaller aspects of the game. We have to pick some locks for example and in RPG land that might give us a decent little mini-game challenge, but all that really happens here is we line up, hit a button and watch an animation. It wastes the gamers time and again adds little. For each level we can also vary weapons carried by our character but there is barely any point, the default options always get us through to the end and other than some sections where ammo can get a little low we need not think about any sort of weapon choice. If something is needed, we already have it or will have grabbed it along the way.
Moving on from there, for a game which looks to offer alternate endings, it feels almost like they have been bolted on. Decisions are made for us in some areas where it would have been nice to have options, elsewhere it doesn't really matter which choice we make and when it comes to the end scenes it is completely obvious how things are going to play out removing any real thought from what we might do. In a way its a little harsh to criticise Treyarch for trying to vary the game a little, following criticism of not doing so as much in the past, but in this case a strong focus on where they wanted the story to go would have been far better than uninspiring choices which have little real meaning.
COD also looks to be an entertainment experience rather than just a game... and on the console (specifically Xbox 360) we found that the experience was decent. Yes there are glitches here and there where characters magically jump from location to location when scripted events kick off and minor display issues creep up but overall the game works as an event. On PC however this is far from the case, especially for those on high end hardware.
While Ubisoft, EA and the like are looking to push PC gaming to a level consoles can only dream of at this time, Treyarch and Activision are stuck a few years back. (Granted we also despair when Ubisoft delay PC releases past those of the console equivalent) Focusing on console with PC clearly an afterthought Black Ops 2, or Call of Duty as a whole, could be so much more as a campaign experience if some time was taken to bring the engine up to date rather than hit yearly releases. The menu for example is messy on PC, we get extra bugs such as ghost characters appearing and disappearing at random, the textures just are not up to scratch against the competition and those on Surround/Eyefinity systems suffer through dire support for their systems where a 3rd party application is required to get the game looking in any way decent, and even then the game still suffers from camera angles being off, cut-scenes being plain broken and items not rendering correctly. Its not rocket science to fix, even the most basic games around work at 5760x1080 but not Call of Duty.
Moving to the audio Black Ops 2 is filled with famous movie stars, Sam Worthington, Michael Keaton, Tony Todd and the like and they do deliver the lines with some quality... in fact a good level of quality because there are some dreadful voice overs out there, but the script is so average that they may as well have been no-name actors. This mediocrity also extends to the soundtrack where there are no issues with the quality of the score but the implementation is off. The battles try to throw as many enemy forces at us as possible, the implementation of the score tries further brute force methods of overwhelming the senses. Throw as much noise at us as possible in the action and maybe we won't notice that there isn't much to think about here... and thats when the music fits the theme of the mission rather than clashing with it. We would be staggered to find that Jack Wall (composer) had enough involvement in the development process such is the mismatch of onscreen to aural aspects in numerous missions.
Where do we go from here?
It's easy to say that COD needs freshening up, without doubt it does... but whether Treyarch have the ability to do this is another matter. For years now they have relied on a brand that another developer was pushing forward, providing companion pieces to the main games but without that, rather than move in their own direction Black Ops 2 continues down the same route for the most part... and when it doesn't the results are less than impressive.
Two things could still take the franchise (back) to the next level, firstly Activision and Treyarch need to embrace new technology. That could be next gen consoles but equally it could be PC. Use the tech available and push the game as far as it can go visually and on a audio front. Use this to then push the other areas of development... focus less on hitting a release and more on scripting... challenge the team, challenge the gamer. Don't substitute generic action, trash dialogue and shocks for quality.
Alternatively the catalyst to make a better COD, taking it from good to great, might come from an external source. That could be a new franchise which redefines what we expect from a FPS, it could be that those who left Infinity Ward return in their new form with an epic shooter which forces Activision to try harder. After all, those Infinity Ward guys created Medal of Honor, proved they could create multiple franchise with the release of Call of Duty and now should have a desire to out-do anything COD does... plus the need to create a new engine, or work with something newer without restriction should inspire.
Clearly this article has focused on the negative aspects of Black Ops 2, and we need to be clear that there is a decent game in here (maybe hitting 80% if you are into review scores). It just could have been so much more with some extra focus on the gamer, polish of the game and desire to push every element further. Plus, we got to learn that in 2025 guitars will float and not need straps... that's something to look forward to, right?
As noted earlier, here is a detailed look at Multiplayer from Cadred.org...