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So, once again, Christmas has arrived. What better way for me to celebrate the festivities (and avoiding the apocalypse) than with a marathon session of my shiny new copy of Black Ops II?
This review will mainly focus on the campaign -- I haven't actually played MP or Zombies yet. I might update with my opinions on these two modes later on, however, so watch this space.
Call of Duty has always given us lots of crazy-awesome scenarios -- raining Predator missiles down on Russian soldiers in the Virginian suburbs. Mowing down Soviet prison guards with a man-portable minigun. Jumping across a gaping chasm on a snowmobile. However, I'd say BOII pretty much takes the gold by giving us... attacking a Russian armoured column in Afghanistan while on horseback. It's crazy, but it's the good kind of crazy.
To be honest, I was rather skeptical about BOII's campaign after being let down by the story in the first BO, but Treyarch have outdone themselves this time. The campaign is a genuinely engrossing experience, not least because of the fact that you have more choices now (which I'll get back to in a bit), but also for delivering an epic thrill-ride with the sort of explosions and mayhem that Michael Bay would be proud of.
BOII's campaign takes us through two basic timeframes -- the exploits of Alex "the Numbers" Mason and Frank Woods during the final years of the Cold War, and the actions of Mason's son David, codename "Section", in the year 2025. Both scenarios are linked to the search for the game's big bad, Raul Menendez.
The 1980s sections certainly have their moments (like the aforementioned horse-and-rocket-launcher combo), but it's the 2025 parts that really stand out, thanks to all the new technology. How about the Target Finder, which helpfully outlines all hostiles with a little red diamond? A sniper rifle that can penetrate walls? A wrist-mounted grenade launcher? I am so there! It's a genuinely refreshing and welcome change from the cool-but-overfamiliar weaponry we saw in, say, MW3. On this basis, Treyarch have my respect.
A Question of Choice
I'm sure that I wasn't the only one who was really excited when I heard about how we would have multiple choices in the campaign, and multiple endings, as well. This is a huge step forward for a CoD game, where previous campaigns have often been criticised for their linearity. The freedom isn't on the same level as that of, say, Heavy Rain, but it's still great to have it at all.
Freedom of choice makes for some great replay value, as you can experiment with different ways of doing things. For example, the escape scene in "Fallen Angel". Do I want to cover the team's escape using a commandeered drone, or be on the ground driving the SOC-T? After a bit of experimentation, I discovered that I was more comfortable with the drone, because I am a pretty piss-poor driver.
Unfortunately, these choices are rather undermined by the enemy AI. For all the fancy gadgets and epic machines, the AI has scarcely changed a bit. They'll hide behind cover, pop out and shoot at you, maybe toss a grenade or two, until you kill them. And that's it. At a grass-roots level, you can still almost feel the giant puppet-master in the sky tugging on the AI's strings, which is rather disappointing.
Strike it Lucky
One place where choice really shines, though, is the Strike Force missions. These missions put you in charge of squads of random soldiers, completing various objectives around the world. And the best part? They're sandbox. That's right -- for the first time, you are free to proceed through and complete the mission as you see fit. Personally, I had a real sense of accomplishment knowing that it was my choices and actions that saved FOB Spectre and protected India from an SDC invasion, destroyed an enemy ship and saved Iran, and protected a convoy of diplomats in Afghanistan. Then I screwed up the assassination in Pakistan and got both Russia and China pissed at the US. Oops.
Bombs for the Zombs
And now, onto the bonus mode that has become the hallmark of Treyarch's CoDs -- Zombies. Normally, I'm not the world's biggest Zombies fan, preferring Special Ops and MW3's Survival mode. That being said, the zombies in BOII aren't bad -- they aren't bad at all.
TranZit is the mode that particularly stands out however. Unlike the old Survival mode (which is still here), TranZit puts you in a semi-open world where you can fend off the undead hordes in any of five different locations around the map, including a diner, an abandoned farm, and an old power plant. The different areas are made accessible by a dilapidated bus that circles the map and is driven by a smart-mouthed robot (as you do). It happily nails the blend of tension, action and humour that Zombies has become known and loved for. Building shields out of car parts to hold back the undead, or missing the bus and getting torn apart by dozens of "no-good freakalopes", as Russman so lovingly refers to them, is an experience I won't forget in a hurry.
Overall, I am immensely pleased with the experience that Treyarch have given us with Black Ops II. The choices and storyline in the campaign are simply wondrous, and Treyarch deserve to be applauded for that. However, relatively dated graphics and mediocre AI still leave you with the nagging feeling that it's going to take the next generation of platforms for CoD to become truly innovative.
Lasting Appeal: 18/20
Total Score: 86/100