Saturday, November 17

Call of Duty: Black Ops II Review (PS3 - Single player): Terms of Enrampagement

Note 1: I've decided to review the single and multiplayer component of the game separately, as this is a pretty meaty package. I'm not even going to bother looking at Zombies in detail because I've never really seen the appeal of this mode, and what I did play was fairly uninspiring anyway. 

Note 2: This review contains minor spoilers because real talk.

I've been watching a lot of Archer recently. For those of you not familiar with the show, it's an animated super spy comedy that airs on ABC2 in Australia, and just happens to be one of the greatest shows currently on television (Disclaimer: I don't watch much TV, so make of this endorsement what you will). Normally dealing with the more sexy and violent aspects of the secret agent lifestyle, the character of Sterling Archer is delightfully self-obsessed and carries the excess baggage you'd assume would come with a globe-hopping, partner-swapping, murderous lifestyle. 

Call of Duty: Black Ops II (henceforth referred to as BLOPS 2) is Archer without the sense of irony. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as Treyarch's itinerary for Team Live Badass is so dripping with bombast that it often out-CoDs the average CoD instalment.

In Soviet-invaded Afghanistan, horse shoots you!

Seriously, I don't want to spoil anything, but at one point where I stopped to note a sequence where I took out a tank on horseback, I destroyed a helicopter from the saddle on my loyal steed literally seconds later. Shit gets that ridonkulous; and just when you think, "No way they can top that last bit," sure enough, you'll be flying through a valley in a futuristic wingsuit. While it would've been easy enough for the developers to rest on their laurels - with record-breaking sales for each new instalment almost being a given - it's apparent that they wanted to get players out of the corridor grind I've come to associate with the series. It works, believe me. 

While the series has escaped from the sterile hallways of many a military facility, be prepared for some truly gruesome scripted sequences. There wasn't anything that I thought was unbecoming in terms of the series gore portfolio, but is it too much to ask for the violence to be dialed back from the fabled 11? Throat slitting, immolation and good old fashioned stabbing is all par for the course, and I'd forgive the squeamish for opting out of the more violent sequences. I guess I should note that to Treyarch's credit, you have the option to disable graphic content; but there are times where the level of violence enters Farce City. 

Like I said at the outset, however, the game seems intent on taking itself a wee bit too seriously. There's one level in particular, where you play an enraged character who doesn't seem able to die. He's that pissed that he can tear through throngs of militia when his atomic structure is comprised almost entirely of lead. So angry is he, that at times he simply refuses to use his guns; he'd rather butcher his enemies with a machete. Interspersed between these displays of violence, brought to you by the colour red, the player character screams a loved one's name in time with a track more becoming of a Zumba workout than a gun fight. I actually laughed out loud during this particular level, as I wasn't quite sure how to take it.

While we're on the soundtrack, I should probably mention that it's fantastic. I know, right? Brilliant music in a Call of Duty game that isn't a series of predictable, if not competently-performed, pieces of lofty orchestral music or cliched guitar riffs. Crazy! Trent Reznor's theme is the clear stand out: it has the prerequisite futuristic, espionage-y tones, and is rich in understated brilliance. Other highlights include a Skrillex number that's played in a crowded club, and a twist on the multiplayer theme that scores a plane ride (funnily enough, both pieces of music are in the same level). The dubstep set piece is another one of those instances that just reeks of dudebro, but in a tolerable fashion. I wouldn't normally listen to the wub wub on the commute or while engaging in physical activity, yet here it's presented in a way that seems authentic and inoffensive to my ear holes. Apart from a truly awful track from Avenged Sevenfold that serves as a "reward" for completing the game, your ears are in for a treat.  

The story is as ridiculous as the action; which is to say that it's crazy but somewhat plausible, given the futuristic setting. Central to the plot is Alex Mason - the protagonist from the original BLOPS - and his son, David. As Alex and co, you'll explore some Cold War era scenarios that are, for the most part, interesting, well-paced, and surprisingly fun to play through. David, otherwise know by his codename, Section, is privy to the lion's share of balls-out craziness. The story is broken up by a busted, though commendable attempt at fusing RTS with Assault (a la Unreal Tournament) dubbed "Strike Force". These mercifully-short experiments would be fun if not for the fact that support AI is completely broken. Still, it's nice to have the intensity in Ten City that is the character-driven story missions mixed up with something that doesn't feel as significant. 

While the central characters are shown a great deal of care with respect to the lifelike way in which they're rendered and animated, the generation-old Modern Warfare engine is starting to show its age. Wide shots of large structures can look very fuzzy, and a lot of textures look very muddy and washed out. To be fair though, everything moves at such a cracking pace that I very rarely had time to stop and smell the proverbial polygonal roses. That, and most of the weapon effects and the omnipresent explosions do more than enough to make the mundane seem spectacular.

They say it's much safer than driving to work

The last thing I wanted to touch on was the "choices" players make throughout the campaign, or at least the illusion of choice in certain situations. When I'd hit the halfway point of the campaign, I wanted to see if other games writers were as enthusiastic as I was for BLOPS 2's brand of "Oh no, he did not," action shenanigans. Some were, but most were making a huge deal over the choices that players could make. One reviewer even commented that "[the story is] so full of choices big and small that you might not even be aware that you're making them." If not sure you're making a choice, I don't believe that it's a choice in the case of BLOPS 2: it's a coincidence. It was a coincidence that I didn't notice guards torching a pile of documents that could have been useful. It was a coincidence that I swerved to avoid the obstacle that I believed potentially fatal to both my passenger and my player character. These choices do become more explicit as the story progresses, but earlier on you're not prompted or otherwise informed that there are choices to make!

The single player component of BLOPS 2 is the best I've seen in a Call of Duty instalment since the original Modern Warfare. Almost every scenario that players are confronted with is ridiculous, and entirely worth experiencing.  You may think it hard to pilot a fighter jet with a throbbing erection (Archer reference), but Treyarch strap you into the aircraft and ask you to give it your best shot regardless.  If you have any love of first person shooters, you'll put your name on the sign-up sheet for Team Live Badass.  

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