Always outnumbered, never outgunned
Black Ops was a remarkable achievement for Treyarch. By finally carving out their own vision of the franchise, one steeped in Cold War history and with narrative focus, the studio broke out from under Infinity Ward's imposing shadow and pulled off one of the most compelling games in the series. It was a breath of fresh air, not afraid to tinker with the formula and inject some much-needed flavour.
Following it up was never going to be easy. While Black Ops II continues to rock the formula boat in good ways, the sequel dials it up in weird places - and down where it maybe shouldn't - and overall feels less like the bold move forward it hopes to be.
Splitting its time between the late 1980's and the year 2025, Black Ops II's campaign tries to tell a more personal story centered around vengeance amidst the chaos, or, one might argue, chaos as vengeance. The common thread running through both eras is Raul Menendez, a man from Alex Mason's and Frank Woods' past whose master plan Alex's son David has to put a stop to in the future.
Black Ops II introduces an element of player choice and consequence, allowing actions in one mission to influence later stages. Some actions are as simple as recovering evidence before it's destroyed, while others come with more weight; as a result, this yields the first Call of Duty game with multiple endings. As actions won't influence events too drastically these forks ultimately feel minor, but they do add a little life back into a campaign structure where the rails were becoming increasingly apparent with each game and adds replay value beyond higher difficulties. Players may also customize loadouts before heading into a mission, choosing primary and secondary weapons, attachments as well as up to three perks. The default setup for each mission is more than adequate, but it's nevertheless nice to tweak equipment to your preferred play style.
Between its minor branching paths and the personal tilt of the story, one certainly can't say that Treyarch's offering lacks narrative ambition, even though that ambition may not always pan out. The story's concept is intriguing but unfolds all over the place, tenuously linking its beats and never quite managing a clear plot line. Attempts at emotional weight largely fall flat, and without it the stakes don't feel any more high than cartoonish moments of wartime bro-rage; Black Ops II's story builds itself up so seriously that it nearly loops back into parody.
So too do the signature "Call of Duty moments" of the campaign, situations so over the top that the top looks like an ant from up there. Where can a series go after blowing up the Eiffel Tower? In one odd Cold War moment, the desert, galloping about on horseback firing rocket launchers at tanks, apparently. It feels as though Treyarch has tapped out what that era can offer at times, made up by the future and its droves of drones.
Future tech is by far the most interesting part of Black Ops II, finally pushing the franchise into new territory. Weapons that can shoot through walls are cool and all, but drone warfare is really where things get mixed up. Beside new enemy types and friendly combatants, drones allow for the new Strike Force mission type where players can jump in and out of control of soldiers and drones to attack, defend and capture objectives. Completing Strike Force missions plays into the story but we found them to be overly complicated and not all that fun — controlling drones is a cumbersome affair with little benefit, and the mechanics of switching between characters and directing squadmates is overly complicated and confusing. In practice it's far easier to just stick with a soldier and run around, which isn't all that fun in this mode to begin with. With some ironing of kinks Strike Force could be a really fun mode, and we hope that the idea returns improved next time out.
Undoubtedly improved is the franchise's immensely popular multiplayer suite, no longer the half-step to which Nintendo players have gotten accustomed: the bolstered 16-player count allows the maps to fill with their intended numbers and not feel so empty, kill cams and customized emblems are in, as are all of the playlists and easier voice chat (you can buy specialized headsets but really any with a mic will do, including Apple buds). However, feature-parity isn't quite there: Call of Duty Elite is not supported on Wii U.
Treyarch has made some smart tweaks to equipment unlocks and loadouts. CoD Points and the generally great Wagers are out, replaced with more streamlined unlock tokens awarded as you level up. These can be cashed in for new guns, attachments, perks and all that jazz. More significant is how loadouts are constructed: they are now unit-based constructs that allow greater freedom instead of having to fill one of each predetermined slot. Each item is worth a certain number of units, and up to 10 can go into battle. Want to start with six perks, a single grenade and a combat knife? Go for it. Hate secondary weapons? Add another primary attachment instead. This is one of the more significant tweaks that loadouts has seen, and it's a good one.
There's lots to tinker with and unlock, but sadly player population is anemic at the the time of writing: you'll find around 1,000 players during peak hours and on weekends, which is enough to ensure that finding a game isn't difficult so long as your game is Team Deathmatch or one of the other more popular modes. The less popular game types will typically have a game or two going, but enter Party Mode niche territory and the takers are few and far between. Black Ops II's Miiverse community is filled with players seeking challengers in other playlists but is inaccessible when connected to the game's servers, so getting a round of Gun Game going will take some legwork. League Play, the game's attempt at ranked eSports-like competition, is virtually dead in the water.
Zombies is back and sees growth of its own. At its core, players still need to work together to take out never-ending waves of the undead, rebuilding barricades and generally shooting a lot of things to earn points with which to buy weapons and shoot more things. Tranzit mode directs survivors across multiple areas, and Grief pits two teams against each other — unable to just shoot it out, the team who outlasts the other wins.
Control options are plentiful: keeping all options from the Wii games, players can jump in with the GamePad, Wii Remote and Nunchuck, Pro Controller, Classic Controller or even the Zapper if feeling masochistic, allowing anyone to find a comfortable solution. Opting for the GamePad isn't much different than a Pro Controller apart from size, as the second screen is fairly useless during the campaign — instead of de-cluttering HUD elements or anything, the screen just shows your mission objectives (which never need referencing anyway). In multiplayer you can tinker zoom in and move around the minimap or swap to a different custom class with a simple tap of the finger — a small change but immensely convenient. You can warp the whole game to the GamePad for off-screen play; when playing with two on the same console, one can play on the GamePad and the other on the television screen with a different control option. While we wish the GamePad was used with more sophistication in the campaign — the second screen certainly would have made Strike Force missions easier to strategize — Black Ops II sets the bar in a reasonable place for the series on Wii U.
While it's nice to finally have a "proper" Call of Duty game on a Nintendo console that makes convenient if simple use of the GamePad, it's a shame that Black Ops II isn't one of the series' best. The futuristic setting can't save the campaign's goofy narrative and increasingly arbitrary set pieces from leaving a dour taste, but the Zombies expansions breathe new life into the undead and the robust multiplayer suite is still top of its class — even if a currently struggling player count on Wii U hampers certain playlists. Black Ops II may not knock it out of the park, but it has it where it counts.