Another year, another Call of Duty game, though this year proves a little more unique. Black Ops II continues the story of Alex Mason from the first Black Ops game but also explores the story of his son in the year 2025, complete with futuristic weaponry and even special tactical missions. Zombie mode and of course the huge online multiplayer system return as well, all in high definition on the Wii U. Surprisingly, Black Ops II proves the franchise can still provide some new and entertaining twists, even if the majority of the series’ style remains unchanged.
The story is split between two timelines, one in the last years of the Cold War in the late 80s and one in the year 2025 when a terrorist organization threatens not just the U.S. but the world. Connecting the two time periods is Alex Mason–protagonist of the first game–and his son David, a Navy Seal in the year 2025, as well as an overarching antagonist, Raul Menendez. As you might be able to tell already, this is a much more complicated story than previous CoD games, which is not completely for the better. The story jumps back and forth between the two timelines which certainly helps build mystery and intrigue, but it also makes some details needlessly convoluted, especially when mission briefings bombard you with information that isn’t easily assimilated into the over-the-top action of the gameplay. Still, it’s an admirable attempt at a more complex story, even if the execution isn’t great, and the game even supports multiple endings based on your actions, making the campaign much more replayable than just playing on a harder difficulty.
For the most part the gameplay hasn’t changed significantly: virtually every mission still has you charging against hordes of enemies with a small group of ally soldiers that do very little to assist you. There are still a variety of weapons and weapon attachments as well as fancier gadgets like being able to direct flying drones to attack a target. The missions in the Cold War are going to seem very familiar if you’ve played any other CoD game. However, the 2025 missions provide a number of interesting twists. First and foremost, the futuristic setting gives you a wider variety of guns to use which can be a blast to use and are surprisingly noob friendly, such as advanced targeting sights that let you see enemies more clearly. These new guns manage to be not only useful but fun, all without being too outlandish or ridiculous. Furthermore, you can customize your weapons before each level of the campaign which again helps replay value but also lets you play the way you want to. With so many guns in the game, it’s a huge boon to the player to be able to use the ones you’re most comfortable with.
The other big addition is the Strike Force line of missions which are far more tactical than the campaign’s usual “kill everything and press forward” mentality. You can even play these missions without ever controlling a human character–instead you can direct teams composed of soldiers, gun turrets, or drones to move around a battlefield and attack or defend objectives. These missions are a breath of fresh air for the series and offer a great twist and new sense of challenge for CoD players and fit right in with the 2025 setting. They’re even optional if you find yourself not enjoying them, though that could have ramifications on the ending you receive. Treyarch clearly took some care to give the latest CoD a fresh style while retaining the main features of the series, and in that respect the campaign is a huge improvement over its predecessor’s, Modern Warfare 3.
Zombie mode also returns from the original Black Ops, where you’re in a desperate bid for survival against ever increasing waves of undead attackers. The basic idea remains the same–kill zombies, earn points for killing zombies, and use those points to buy better weapons or access to more areas–but Black Ops II features three modes within Zombie mode that, if nothing else, give the player even more options for zombie slaying action. Survival is exactly what it sounds like, Tranzit lets you move from one location to another via a bus, and Grief pits two teams against one another all while fending off zombies. Played solo or online with others, Zombie mode is an excellent alternative to the campaign and main multiplayer modes–Zombie mode feels like its own small survival-horror game within Black Ops II, and no less entertaining than the rest of the game.
As always the main draw of CoD is the multiplayer, and Black Ops II offers a few new features to the familiar experience-points-based system. As usual the more you play and earn experience the more you level up and gain access to more weapons, weapon attachments, and perks. It’s still a bit of a grind for new players to work their way up to the stronger weapons–or perhaps just the weapons you want to use if you’re familiar with the series–but Black Ops II does give you some freedom in creating your unique loadout. While past games gave you one primary weapon, one secondary, three perks from three different categories, and two types of grenades, this game gives you ten “slots” for any of these guns and features. For example, you can choose not to have grenades at all if you’d rather focus on perks–and you can add extra perks as well if you’re willing to sacrifice two slots for the luxury. This system provides even more customization in how each player approaches the game and it provides you with plenty of freedom curbed by a balancing act that ensures no one can completely exploit the system to gain an unfair advantage. For players familiar with the CoD multiplayer system, this is a pretty significant change, and a more than welcome one. The other major difference in Black Ops II is changing kill streaks to score streaks, meaning it’s not just kills that let you call in bonuses but anything that gives you points such as assists or completing objectives in certain game modes. Again this is a beautiful evolution of the multiplayer mode to make these bonuses more accessible to everyone, especial in objective-based game modes where they’re sure to wreck even more havoc. These are relatively small changes that help make the multiplayer feel fresh even after the past few years of similar gameplay year after year.
With the Wii U’s Gamepad you have all the same buttons as PS3 or 360 controllers, so for once the developers don’t have to awkwardly map each action to an unnaturally placed button. The Wii remote and nunchuk controls are still available but the gameplay structure is far better suited to a more traditional controller, whether it’s the Gamepad or Wii U Pro. Furthermore the Gamepad’s touch screen shows mission objectives, display options, and also score streaks on multiplayer. The game doesn’t use the touch screen extensively, but it’s still handy to have faster access to these few items. Black Ops II does, however, take advantage of offscreen play, which can even be used in multiplayer so both players have a full screen–even if the Gamepad’s is significantly smaller. There’s a small, noticeable drop in the picture quality on the Gamepad and it can be harder to discern small or distant targets, but for the most part offscreen play works great here and is incredibly convenient if you’re caught up in a multiplayer match when someone else wants the TV.
Visually, Black Ops II is not much different from its predecessors on HD platforms, but only now can Nintendo fans enjoy the game as its meant to be seen. There’s an impressive amount of detail poured into the scenery and characters, especially when they’re blown up or otherwise maimed. The art style hasn’t really changed at all–even in the 2025 missions–but the game looks good, and the crystal clear picture makes sniping distant targets easier. There’s not much to speak of in the audio except for the extensive voice acting which is all performed quite well. A common problem in these CoD games, though, is the uneven balance between sound effects like gunshots and the voices. It’s often difficult to hear allies’ directions over the din of combat which isn’t always a huge loss since anything important will be spelled out in the mission objectives, but it’s still an annoyance.
Obviously the online multiplayer and Zombie mode promise nigh infinite replay value, but even the campaign can lure you in for a few extra replays to experiment a bit, ensuring Black Ops II has more than enough replay incentives to justify playing the game for months to come. The one downside is that the online community is a little small when you branch out to the more varied game modes such as capture the flag. Team Deathmatch has plenty of players at virtually any time of day, sure, but the other modes are much more limited, making it harder to play the exact game you want unless you coordinate with friends. This is a relatively minor complaint though–otherwise it’s easy to jump right into the online community.
Call of Duty has managed to remain successful over the past few years despite very little change in the game’s core formula, but Black Ops II manages to change that, at least a little. The campaign is far more varied, and in unique new ways no less, while the familiar online multiplayer gives further customization options to create your perfect loadout. Wii U owners looking for a solid online game to sink their time into can hardly do better than Black Ops II.