I guess it would have been too much to ask for developer Treyarch to go two for two with the Black Ops brand. That immediately starts this write-up off on a negative foot, as if I’m going to bash the living hell out of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2’s campaign, but that’s not entirely the case. It’s just that I walked away from the game’s single player mode thinking back on the mistakes it made more than the bits it nailed.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is the tale of two Masons – Alex, from the original game, and his son, David. The campaign jumps back and forth through time with these two characters – among others – to detail the rise of power of the game’s main antagonist, Raul Menendez. In fact, the true story of this game is Raul’s story. Developer Treyarch, along with screenwriter David Goyer (The Dark Knight), set out to create a sympathetic villain in Black Ops 2, something this series has sorely lacked, instead going with the run-the-mill extremist variety.
Sadly, try as they might, Raul comes off as exactly the type of enemy Treyarch attemped to avoid, parading around as just another stereotypical terrorist pissed off by the unforunate death of his sister and our nation’s decadence. Finding empathy for the character is also hard to come by when you’re put in Raul’s shoes for a few brief moments, handed a machete, and let loose to slaughter hundreds. But then again, the developers tackling the Call of Duty games have never been able to toe the line to build a character you have a white-hot passion to kill, yet somehow empathize with.
It also doesn’t help that, like previous entries in the CoD line, Black Ops 2’s narrative jumps around way too much – in time and in perspective - to deliver a story that flows naturally from one moment to the next. The campaign of the game feels more like a bunch of cool, blockbuster-esque moments – par for the course these days with Call of Duty - than an intricately woven mosaic. There are also some intriguing subplots that are unfortunately never explored, like why Alex Mason's son decides to join the military even though he resented his father for it as a child. Where's that story?
Yet, make no mistake, the missions, taken by themselves, are damn cool, both the ones set in the ‘80s following the cast from the original Black Ops and the stages set in 2025. However, the developer’s goal should not be to just throw money at a game to create cool moments, but instead figure out what story you want to tell and use that as your foundation to build your set pieces around. The original Black Ops managed it – or at least tricked me into believing it did – while Black Ops 2 walks right into the same pitfalls Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare series has fallen into with its last two iterations.
But where I will toss Treyarch heaps of praise is with the game’s dynamic branching story moments. At its core, Black Ops 2 is another cover-shoot-push-repeat shooter, just like all the games in the series before it, but at least Treyarch is stretching its legs to deliver moments that feature actual choice and consequence. That’s truly commendable, considering the developers could have just coasted by on brand recognition, not changing a single part of the established formula, and still watched as the money rolled in.
Granted, these branching story bits are not pulled off entirely right. The branching moments of the main campaign – kill him or don’t, save her or don’t, etc. – happen frequently and organically and provide the game with some much need replay value should you be interested in seeing how the story could have played out had you made some different choices. But when you dive into the game’s “Strike Force” missions, these branching story beats become a headache.
In theory, these tangential missions are neat and add some much-needed context to the global clustercuss going on, but the execution is another matter entirely. You can choose to command your squad of faceless/nameless soldiers and drones from the sky, barking orders to secure defensive positions or blow up enemy strongholds, but you’ll quickly discover it’s rather pointless. Your minions are morons unless you directly control them. So instead of feeling like a commander with a bird’s eye view, you’re forced to become a one-man army on the ground in order to save the day, while the rest of your teammates run in circles and shoot at the sky.
Look, I know I’ve been rather harsh on the campaign of Black Ops 2, but I feel it’s justified at this point. When it comes right down to it, Black Ops 2 should not be making the same exact mistakes past Call of Duty games have made when it comes to telling a proper story. Creating characters you actually care about and pacing out the narrative correctly go a hell of a long way further than throwing me into my umpteenth “Man that turret, soldier!” moment. With that said, Treyarch is definitely on to something with their dynamic narrative-branching segments, and I’m excited to see how they build on that foundation in future games. But if that future is as unremarkable as Black Ops 2, I don’t know if I’ll be along for the ride - willingly.
Note: Look for our review of the game’s multiplayer component and Zombies mode to hit in the next few days. We still have a lot of Black Ops 2 to play before we can give a final word on those modes. Our hope is that they redeem the overall package.
We received one review copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 for Xbox 360 from Activision. The game arrived on launch day, so we weren't held to a review embargo. Before starting this write-up, we completed the game's entire campaign and all the Strike Force missions that came along with it. The post credits sequence still haunts our dreams.
Erik Norris is the Gaming Editor for CraveOnline. You can follow him on Twitter @Regular_Erik.