Treyarch still has a lot to prove with Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.
Before the original Black Ops was released in 2010, Treyarch was the Call of Duty "B-squad" — 2006's Call of Duty 3 was abysmal, and 2008's Call of Duty: World at War was only OK. Treyarch came into its own with Call of Duty: Black Ops, creating its own universe and setting a new high-water mark for Call of Duty campaigns. Multiplayer was fantastic and the Zombies mode was far more complex than it had ever been.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is a chance for Treyarch to demonstrate that it has more than one stellar game in the tank, to show that the lofty expectations set by the original Black Ops can be reached.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 easily hits some of those expectations. At times it's genius, as with the multiplayer's redesigned class system. But at others, it doesn't feel like it's trying very hard.
Occasionally, it's a complete mess.
Black Ops 2 replaces the COD class system with the radically different "Pick 10"
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 dramatically alters the status quo in Call of Duty's genre-dominating mulitplayer mode with a new create-a-class system. Since the original Modern Warfare, players have customized their classes by picking three perks, two weapons, one piece of lethal equipment and one piece of non-lethal equipment. That rigid structure has been discarded in Black Ops 2 with "Pick 10."
Traditional equipment choices remain, but with one crucial change: They're all optional. Every slot filled costs a single point. You don't need to walk into battle with a secondary weapon — you can leave that slot open and take an additional attachment for your primary weapon, or a second non-lethal grenade. Don't find any of the second-tier perks that useful? Ignore them and spend the point elsewhere. Wild Cards let you bend the system somewhat, allowing you to equip two perks from the same tier, for example. In the interest of balance, these effectively cost two points — one for the Wild Card and a second for filling the additional slot it grants you.
Building your character in Black Ops 2 feels more like an in-depth RPG that forces you to carefully weigh where best to spend skill points. I'm terrible with grenades and I almost never use my secondary weapon. So, instead of bringing those items, I was able to equip more useful hunks of metal with the points I saved. It opens the door for experimentation and customization wider than other shooters offer.
More subtle changes to multiplayer yield other big improvements. Kill Streaks have been replaced by Score Streaks, and players looking to support their team rather than focus solely on kills have been given more ways to earn points. Capturing flags or laying down defensive equipment yields points to fill up your Score Streak meter. Kills do this as well, of course, but depending on the mode, you may find that focusing on objectives will fill that meter faster. Invariably you're going to be in a match where your adversaries are going to be dropping all sorts of turrets and microwave lasers around — and getting points for it — and it's going to be the guy who was smart enough to bring an EMP along who will save your team's collective butt, all without getting a single kill. This encourages players to act as a team instead of lone-wolfing their way around the map to keep their kill/death ratio up, and playing as a team is more fun.
These excellent new additions are layered atop an already-refined multiplayer blueprint, which is as good as it's ever been. Black Ops 2 multiplayer feels like a Swiss watch I could never afford.
Treyarch took a big risk with the Pick 10 create-a-class system, and it paid off, reimagining how players customize their experience. They could have stopped there, but the developer's drive to go deeper, changing certain core elements of Call of Duty multiplayer to encourage more teamwork, makes Black Ops 2 online play even more remarkable. No other online shooter is offering a better experience right now.
Treyarch's risks in Black Ops 2's multiplayer resemble the audacity of the first Black Ops' campaign. That game told an edgy, twist-filled story, highlighted by historical events and psychological mysteries. I was actually curious how the game's story would end, and by the time the credits rolled, I was satisfied — a rarity for the franchise.
Set in 2025, Black Ops 2's campaign focuses on main character David Mason's search for an enemy whose aspirations involve hijacking military technology and using it against America and its allies. Accomplishing this requires a magic computer chip and some spitfire technobabble but seemingly not much else.
Black Ops 2's main campaign problem lies with its antagonist. Much of the campaign is dedicated to learning his history and motivations, most often through flashbacks. This would have worked if Black Ops 2's villain was believable — properly explained motivations make for a more complex story — but said villain's motivations are clichéd and absurd. He comes off more like a cat-stroking Bond character than someone to whom I could actually relate.
No one ever said you had to have a great narrative to have a fun Call of Duty campaign. Modern Warfare 3's story was laughable, but was filled with so much mission variety that it was hard to get bored. Only a pair of missions in Black Ops 2 stand out, one offering a major structural departure from the linear Call of Duty mission format, the other an interesting glimpse into civilian life in the year 2025. More often than not you're running from one uninteresting room to the next, shooting guys.
The worst bits are handily labeled as Strike Force missions. These abandon the messy main story in favor of a messy side-story involving an impending war between the US and China. Strike Force missions have you commanding small squads of robots and soldiers to complete objectives in a limited amount of time. In a tutorial mission, you're instructed to utilize an overhead, tactical view to issue commands to these squads.
DO NOT LISTEN.
The artificial intelligence in Strike Force is broken. It will not go where you want it to go. It won't fire at targets you want to blow up. It's useless. From the point of view of a soldier, you can order others to follow you. But they won't. They'll just stand where they are, forcing you to march across the map and attempt to Rambo your way through on your own, dying repeatedly in the process.
Zombies mode in Black Ops 2 remains comic relief
Zombies mode fares better than its single-player cousin, though it fails to make drastic changes on par with multiplayer. Zombies offers what it's always offered: a co-op experience where up to four players battle the undead using goofy weapons while spouting over-the-top catchphrases. It's comic relief.
This year's big change for Zombies is called Tranzit, but it turns out to be not much of a change at all. Tranzit is story-driven, filled with Easter eggs and hidden mission objectives. The curveball is the addition of an AI-driven bus that can be boarded in order to access different parts of the map. Plenty of memorable moments can occur — the bus can pull away, for example, leaving a lone survivor to face the undead hordes as his buddies speed off, laughing into the night. Zombies will also climb on the bus in the middle of a trip, making for a close-quarters bloodbath in a mobile death trap.
But the bus feels underutilized, as it simply shuttles survivors between four different but small maps, all of which combined might add up to the size of one of the larger DLC maps from the original Black Ops, like Moon or Call of the Dead. The addition of Tranzit might have die-hard Zombies fans digging into every nook and cranny on launch day, trying to figure out the mystery of this post-apocalyptic wasteland. But newcomers and those who have been put off by Zombies in the past won't find a whole lot here to entice them deeper into the world. The difficulty is still punishing, even on the new Easy setting, and the lack of player direction often left me clueless as to where to go next. If you're trying to see the mode's main story, you're likely to be forced into searching online for the solution.
Part of that solution involves building tools, a new addition in Zombies. Seemingly random parts can be found throughout the game's four maps and, when combined at a workbench, they form something far more useful. While it's a neat concept, the game is picky about when and where you can pick up parts. Even standing in front of one and staring at it might not give you the prompt to pick it up. Often I was forced to move a millimeter to the left or right, in the hope that the prompt would appear, all while the zombie hordes continued to move in behind me, threatening what could have been an otherwise perfect playthrough.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is made up of so many dissonant parts that it's hard to believe they were all made by the same studio. Black Ops 2's campaign and Zombies mode are disappointments, especially coming off the across-the-board success of its predecessor.
But it's a testament to the extraordinary quality of its multiplayer that Black Ops 2 won't go down as a forgotten entry. For most, that's probably enough to strongly recommend it. A saving grace, if ever there was one, Treyarch has taken big risks with the most successful multiplayer formula in online shooters since online play and party systems. That innovation, combined with the constant refinement of Call of Duty's multiplayer mechanics over the years, makes Black Ops 2 the best online shooter out there.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 was reviewed on Xbox 360 debug units primarily at an event held by Activision and Treyarch in Carlsbad, Calif. between October 22nd and October 24th (details here). You can find information about Polygon's ethics policy here, and see an explanation of Polygon's review process and scoring rubric here.