I've been hesitant to sit down and write this review. Call of Duty Black Ops 2 is undoubtedly a well put together game and actually does a few things to inject something new into the staid and risk averse franchise. However, while undoubtedly able to please its fans, Black Ops 2 hasn't really done much to set itself apart among the crowd in this genre, save for some attempts at innovation in its single player that ultimately fail to work.
I'd like to get something out of the way right now. In the interest of full disclosure, those who have listened to the Sectorcast consistently know full well that I am fond of neither the franchise nor its publisher Activision Blizzard, I have done my best to set that all aside and judge the game on its merits. While true objectivity is impossible, I played the game as I would any other FPS and my thoughts to follow reflect nothing but my opnion on the merits of the game itself.
Black Ops 2's story is a mishmash of modern and cold war era paranoia, jumping between missions set in the 70s and a "day after tomorrow" Second Cold War in 2025. Players who skipped the previous game or merely don't recall its plot will find themselves thrust into a remarkably jargon heavy and newbie-unfriendly plot to go along with their shootin'-dudes simulator. The plot itself is told in a fashion that ultimately comes off rather confusing, it isn't precisely bad but it seems like it's constantly rushing without really bringing along anyone that's not already on the train, so to speak. It's certainly no worse than a summer action flick, but the amount of focus it receives is ultimately a little baffling. The fact that the game does have multiple resolutions determined by the success and actions of the player is to be commended though. While personal anecdotes are generally something I try to avoid, the best summation I can give of how confused I was by the plot is that, at least early on, I had to check a plot summary repeatedly after missions to figure out what I had done and why I had done it.
The actual gameplay is pretty standard Call of Duty for the most part, heavily scripted firefights and impressive set pieces that combine power fantasy and realism in a compelling mixture. The gunplay has a decent enough feeling and weight to it, though as with many shooters with a more realistic style it can be difficult to tell the appreciable differences between weapons of the same type at a glance. Those who have played CoD before know what to expect for the majority of the campaign... except for the "Strike Force" missions. These missions involve moving a squadron of soldiers and future tech through a unique set of missions via swapping between an RTS-esque interface and direct traditional control, these missions unlock in parallel to the campaign and must be done with some degree of punctuality or they will disappear as quickly as they came. It's an innovative but in practice baffling addition, mired in issues of wonky A.I. and a confusing control scheme. While the attempt to innovate is admirable, the execution is severely lacking and while the mode tells the player from word one that they can be skipped, doing so will make the player's ending demonstrably worse which isn't something that the game is as keen to advertise at first. There are only a handful of these missions, but as they represent the lynch pin of the game's innovations their failure is more than a little frustrating.
Presentation wise, the game is as sound as you'd expect, though the game has some odd audio hiccups (on PS3 at least) and slowdown. Oddly, the missions set in the 70s tended to look worse both from a artistic and technical standpoint, the game generally looks rather nice though even if it feels a bit like the underlying engine is showing its age. Voice acting is decent though entirely unspectacular and there isn't much else remarkable on the audiovisual front. It's exactly as you'd expect and not a whole lot else.
As is the case for any FPS worth its salt in this day and age, there's a robust suite of multiplayer options that are probably the real attraction for at least eighty percent of the player base. As with the rest of the game, so far as I can ascertain these modes are largely content to tread water, adding in some new features in an attempt to lure in the "eSports" crowd but generally working on the same reliable and popular framework in use for years now. It's hard to really slight it, it works and it's where the player base inevitably migrates as it does every year. Those coming for multiplayer will leave with exactly what they came for.
I almost feel bad being so... ambivalent about the whole experience. The game is clearly very polished in every aspect that isn't an attempt at innovation, but the core innovation kind of stumbles and everything else in Black Ops 2 feels boilerplate. I'm sure plenty of players will leave the game highly satisfied and ready for more by the time Veteran's Day 2013 rolls around, but I can't imagine this bringing anyone who wasn't already into the franchise before they played Black Ops 2. There's a real attempt to add something to the franchise here, but it simply doesn't work well enough to make the game shine. What's left is merely what everyone already knows. It would be a grand lie to declare Call of Duty Black Ops 2 a bad game, but it would be just as unfair to claim it was a unique and shining exemplar in a crowded genre.
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