After all of the chic whining about the Call of Duty franchise- whether it’s from retro-obsessed indie hipsters that ironically bemoan its glacial pace of innovation or from so-called “fans” that take to the ramparts over any perceived infraction of entitlement that results in a game lesser than the original Modern Warfare- it all doesn’t make a lick of difference. The game won, pal. It’s a cultural phenomenon, the blockbusting-est blockbuster in its medium, and it’s been a consistently successful brand not only from a marketing perspective, but also a design one. I’m not a Call of Duty apologist, even though I’ve been subjected to the “why don’t you just go back to playing Call of Duty” responses from forumistas chagrined by my not-so-glowing reviews of games like Portal 2 and Fez. I don’t have to apologize for it, it’s a good mainstream game. Every year.
This year brings us, of course, Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II. The good news that fans will want to hear is that it stays the course, maintains its core competencies, throws out a couple of sloppy curveballs and occasionally manages brilliance. Don’t hand your ticket to the man and get on the rollercoaster expecting it to be a Ferris wheel this time. If you know what to expect you’ll get in and enjoy it if you’ve already enjoyed it before. If you want a revolution in the way we play video games, I’d suggest you go looking at less polished, less expensive, less mainstream games.
The top-of-mind bad news is that the single player campaign is utterly atrocious, the worst that I’ve seen in a Call of Duty game to date. Sure, there are some neat tricks that Treyarch pulls off in it. There’s a surprisingly organic branching narrative with multiple possible outcomes- and sometimes it’s completely transparent as to what the actual choices or results are going to be. Who doesn’t want the freedom to pick a pre-mission loadout and party like its 1999 all over again? Then there are challenges, incentivizing replay. On a structural level, Treyarch was definitely on the right path. But everything else about the solo game is a wet sock.
The writing is incomprehensible, with the trademark Call of Duty machismo oddly neutered in a morass of bullshit espionage and, well, Black Opsian tropes. Big-name actors add no gravitas to the proceedings, no matter how many times someone says the word “cocksucker”. Between watching future super-soldiers suit up in flying squirrel suits (see also: New Super Mario Bros. Wii U), a hilarious scene where you shoot down multiple Hind helicopters with a Stinger missile while on horseback, an unintentionally funny hallucinatory one-man machete massacre, and a guest appearance by the original Panamaniac Manuel Noriega, I found myself rolling my eyes and thinking “this shit is really stupid” more than “damn, that was cool”. Something went wrong on the way over the top- and I usually like the silly, obnoxious machismo and ridiculous GI Joe-isms.
It’s also unfortunate that the storyline is yet another Brown People Shooting Gallery, moreso because once again the game makers have mistakenly thought that throwing an endlessly spawning parade of them at a player until they touch a checkpoint is fun. The environments, including some near-future ones, are more open than in past Call of Duty titles and that’s appreciated, but that goodwill is practically undone by some truly awful real-time strategy segments. Yes, you heard that right. There are a couple of optional missions where you’re put in charge of marshaling soldiers and robots around a map, occasionally taking charge of one to get the job done. AI is terrible, control is sloppy, and it feels like trying to keep molasses from dripping off a table. But hey, they tried, right?
Meanwhile, the multiplayer is as it always has been- which is to say that it’s great and it more than redeems the single-player game. Fast-paced, fatless shark tank action that feels hectic, immediate, and occasionally thrilling. Maps are great, modes are fun. Just keep the lads on mute if you want to retain your sanity, and I would advise you not to look through other players’ personalized emblems unless you just WANT to see an erect penis against a pot leaf background, ejaculating swastikas onto the silhouette of an AK-47. Like I said- you know what to expect.
The new Pick 10 system, whereby you have ten loadout slots to make a truly custom build, is genius and I hope that Infinity Ward and other developers carry it forward. It makes building a loadout a slight exercise in resource management and budgeting, and it also provides a greater sense of strategic import. I don’t like to use secondary weapons, so I can choose to not have one at all in favor of adding a “card” that gives me an extra attachment slot on my primary. I like instant-kill hatchets, so I take a card that gives me a second Lethal slot. The attention to balance and planning is impeccable, and I’ve found playing around with builds to be much more satisfying than in past Call of Duty games- or any other shooter for that matter.
Zombie mode, who knows. I’ve never cared for it, and it appears to have become more complicated than ever before. I’ve barely touched it myself, but it is the third part of the suite if you’re among the interested. I didn’t last long once I heard the annoying “funny” character voices.
It’s hard to call a game that bungles one of its tent pole offerings so badly great, particularly when you don’t really care for a second one that by most other accounts is great. But as a purely multiplayer shooter (with lots of options for custom games including bots), Blacks Ops II is great. No, it is not a completely new paradigm and yes, you will be shooting people, dying, and then shooting people again. That’s the genre, folks. Like Halo 4, it represents the most recent refinement to a hugely popular mainstream success. Treat it as such, and you might find yourself willing to overlook whatever components don’t work for you and getting plenty of value out of this title for months to come.