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Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Xbox 360) artwork

Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Xbox 360) review

"I was curious to see how the sci-fi elements would play out. Now that I’ve seen them in action, they’ve left me wanting more of the same. One early mission has the heroes strap rocket gliders to their back and descend toward a jungle canopy, which is a cool introduction. Another mission finds your character working his way through waterlogged streets while avoiding automated drones that patrol the area (not to mention floating vehicles that have been swept up by the rushing liquid)."

When I reached the end of the single-player campaign in Call of Duty: Black Ops II and realized that I’d been having a great time and that I actually cared about the characters, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Past titles in the franchise have always offered me something awesome, but I had never actually cared much about the characters. I would maybe like the way a sniper talked, or the guy smoking a cigar would remind me of a former coworker of mine, but that’s as far as it went.

As the campaign’s opening scenes played out, I had no reason to expect that Black Ops II would treat me any differently than its predecessors had. The first few stages seemed decent enough, but “decent enough” is more of a critique than it is a recommendation, particularly given the number of military shooters flooding the market. I continued to push onward, though, and the set pieces grew more interesting as the story leaped around its timeline like a frog on a crazy LSD trip. Somehow, things that initially felt disjointed and uninteresting somehow came together to tell a cohesive tale.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II asset

The fact sheet that I received with the game provides a possible explanation: the storyline was written by Oscar-winning screenwriter David S. Goyer. IMDB tells me he wrote the screenplay for “Batman Begins” and “Dark City,” among others. I don’t actually know enough about his previous work to say how Black Ops II compares, but it’s safe to say that Goyer has done right by Activision.

I can’t tell you a lot about the storyline without potentially diminishing its potential impact. Generally speaking, it tells the story of a soldier with the last name Mason. That man’s father was one of the heroes in the first Black Ops, which meant he wasn’t around home a lot. The younger Mason grew up resenting his paternal figure, in some ways, but the military also raised him and he repaid that favor by becoming a soldier himself. Now he is pursuing a dangerous terrorist named Raul Menendez, who has his own reasons for wanting to plunge the world into turmoil. The characters that populate that military soap opera are all larger than life in many of the usual ways, but they also have motivations beyond “shoot everything that moves.” There are some gut-wrenching scenes throughout the game, and what’s most impressive is that you can actually alter them.

Yes, Black Ops II features multiple endings. I only got one ending myself before moving on to the multiplayer modes, and I suspect most other players will do the same thing. If you want replay value from the single-player content, though, it does exist. Characters live or die depending on your actions. As you work through the campaign, you’ll see reports at the end of missions that highlight the interactive elements and summarize the outcome that you achieved. There are enough branching points available that you’ll probably need to play through a few times if you want to see everything.

Strike Force missions are another addition to the familiar formula, though personally I could do without them. Early in the game, you’re forced to play through the easiest of those missions, and then from then on you can access a few more of them at your leisure (as long as you don’t advance the plot too far). The way those optional missions work is that you are able to view a given environment from a distance. There are points you must protect and enemies you will need to eliminate, and you can move cursors and assign marching orders to your troops. You may also elect to assume control of those troops if you want to get in close to the action. Other games have implemented a similar system in the past, but here it feels like innovation all over again just because it’s so different from what you’d typically expect from a Call of Duty title. Unfortunately, getting used to moving the troops and jumping around the map doesn’t feel as intuitive as you might hope, which is why I’m glad that only the one mission is actually required.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II asset

Fortunately, Black Ops II offers plenty of moments that appeal to me wholeheartedly. I was curious to see how the sci-fi elements would play out. Now that I’ve seen them in action, they’ve left me wanting more of the same. One early mission has the heroes strap rocket gliders to their back and descend toward a jungle canopy, which is a cool introduction. Another mission finds your character working his way through waterlogged streets while avoiding automated drones that patrol the area (not to mention floating vehicles that have been swept up by the rushing liquid). Later in the game, you’ll visit a futuristic resort environment that was one of my favorite sections in the game. There’s a lot of variety in 2025, so I was generally disappointed when a new chapter took place in the 80s and I was stuck wandering through most of the same familiar environments that seem to find their way into every military shooter in existence.

By the time I’d finished the final spectacular few stages in the story campaign, I was quite pleased with my Black Ops II experience and ready to head online in search of people who I knew would utterly destroy me in deathmatch modes.

The first thing I noticed once I started playing on Xbox Live is that the maps in Black Ops II are exceptionally vibrant. Someone really spent a lot of time crafting environments that look absolutely gorgeous on my HD television. There’s plenty of variety, both in the way stages look and in the way they often play. Most maps feature a handful of prime sniping locations--which some people who aren’t me will love very much--but there also is no shortage of cover and there are multiple paths leading to any destination. Usually everything blurs together for me in online games like Black Ops II, but in this case I was delighted by how distinct each environment felt from the next. Locations include the deck of a luxury liner, the exterior of an airship carrier, a futuristic town plaza, a dock with moving crates, and more.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II asset

Character upgrades are also handled differently than I remembered from past titles, which makes victory feel more like a strategic affair and less like blind luck and a quick trigger finger. Class creation allows you to pick 10 adjustments that include perks, weapons and attachments. As you level up your character, you’ll gain access to more advanced options, but you’ll never be able to have everything at once and (if you’re like me) you may eventually find yourself forced to ditch grenades because you want more perks. Weapons are also individually upgraded, so you have to use a particular gun a lot if you want to equip it with the best scopes and other modifications. There’s almost always something new to unlock “in another couple of rounds,” so I’ve wound up playing the game into the early morning hours more often than I’d care to admit.

Finally, there is an extensive mode for people who like zombies. I must admit that I barely touched that particular mode, mostly because I don’t have a lot of interest in the shambling undead unless I’m maybe playing some Resident Evil. Even so, I can appreciate the selection of zombie maps and objectives and the freedom they represent for players who like the undead world’s least charismatic bachelors. I confined my own adventures to an area surrounding a dilapidated old barn. There were wooden fences all around, and the game split available human players into a couple of teams. Those teams then had to work together to keep the zombies at bay. It’s possible to revive fallen teammates along the way, but ammunition is limited if you’re not killing zombies frequently enough. There’s risk in helping a stranger, especially if he’s the sort who will quickly get himself killed again. Things can get pretty crazy, especially once zombies start rising from the soil or leaping to upper balconies.

So yes, there are zombie maps. And yes, there is a thoroughly addictive multiplayer mode with some great adjustments and a bunch of awesome maps and modes. There’s also the campaign, which crams a surprising number of awesome moments into a few short hours, then provides you with reasons to play through it all a second time. When I consider all of those qualities, I have no trouble picturing myself playing Call of Duty: Black Ops II for weeks to come. There’s nothing available that’s likely to change your mind if you’ve decided that you’re sick of the franchise, but there’s enough great new stuff here to keep everyone else delighted and engaged for another year. That’s more than I truthfully expected, and thus I find myself left with no reasonable recourse but to recommend that you purchase the game at your earliest convenience.

Get away from me with that feather, you!


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Staff review by Jason Venter (November 17, 2012)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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