Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Call Of Duty: Black Ops II (X-Box 360) Review – Forbes

Black Ops 2 is an implausible, over-the-top action movie of a game, but it’s still one of the most interesting in the long-running franchise.

That’s the word I think most accurately describes the plot of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.

Other words that come to mind: absurd, over-the-top, implausible, intense, violent, action-packed.

This is what one should expect from a Call of Duty game, of course. You play as a super-soldier, mowing down hordes of enemies, chasing after a cartoonishly evil villain with the fate of the world, capitalism, and your own tragic backstory at stake.

Now, don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing at all to complain about when it comes to preposterous games and their outlandish stories, and if I can suspend my disbelief playing all the fantasy and sci-fi RPGs and epic shooters out there, I can certainly suspend my disbelief for the duration of Black Ops 2.

So let’s take a look at what the single-player campaign of the game gets right, and what it gets wrong.

The Premise

Black Ops 2 follows the events of its predecessor by weaving together two stories—one in the past, and one in the future. It’s the tale of a father and son whose fates are linked together by the actions of a diabolical drug-runner and revolutionary with a powerful need for revenge and a deep distaste for capitalism.

We first encounter Raul Menendez during a rescue operation in the storyline of the father, Alex Mason. Menendez is a narco-terrorist working with all sorts of bad characters and he becomes a CIA target pretty quickly.

He’s obviously a bit off his rocker from the very beginning, but over the course of the game we come to learn that he’s not only completely insane, he’s also an evil genius and a people person capable of uniting 2 billion of the world’s people behind his “Cordis Die” movement while pulling off Joker-style trick moves on the government.

I won’t spoil how it all goes down. Suffice to say the way both plots weave together makes for a much more interesting Call of Duty game than we’ve seen in the past. It’s a Mission Impossible style action-movie of a game, with a whole suite of implausible plot twists, betrayals, and reasonably good voice-acting and direction.

There are moments when the implausibility gets to be a bit overwhelming.

It’s not the big action sequences that bugged me most—we expect these—it’s other moments.

For instance, when a city is undergoing a major skyscraper-toppling invasion, the primary concern of the military is to protect G20 leaders because the fallout of any of their deaths will be so catastrophic. Really? Your city is crumbling into ashes all around you, and we’re supposed to worry about some diplomats because of the political fallout?

Come on.

The unfortunate appearance of David Petraeus as the 2025 Defense Secretary (aboard the USS Barack Obama) gave me a chuckle, and the line “So this is how the 1% live” made me wonder if we’ll actually still be using that terminology in 2025, in which case kill me now.

It’s a good lesson in why fictional games should avoid using real people and pop-culture blurbs as much as possible, especially if they set the game in the future. It’s also really, really bad timing of course, with the Petraeus scandal just hitting. I’m sure the team over at Treyarch had a minor heart attack when they heard of the CIA Director’s affair.

But all told, as far as the stories in Call of Duty games go, this was one of the most interesting I’ve seen. There are a handful (but only a very small handful) of choices the player can make, and these choices can lead to different outcomes at the end of the game.

I only played through the campaign once, so I’m not privy to the alternate endings yet, but my ending was pretty good actually. Very dark.

Brevity is the Soul of Wit

One complaint lodged against Black Ops 2 is the length of its campaign. I’m not sure I agree with this complaint at all. Perhaps I’m biased as a video game critic—perhaps a short campaign can come as something of a relief from time to time. I finished the game in a day which is something I can’t say for many games I play.

No, I won’t hold the campaign’s brevity against it. For one thing, it didn’t seem very different than many other Call of Duty campaigns. And I’ll take quality over quantity with a game like this which really emphasizes multiplayer over single-player. Black Ops 2, for all its wackiness, tells a story that’s simply far more interesting and personal than any other Call of Duty game I’ve played.

It’s still a silly story, and I found myself confused from time to time because certain events take place so quickly that I can’t help but wonder if they’re paving over plot-holes by rushing us along and coating over everything with military jargon.

But honestly, I found the actual length of the game to be just about right, and certainly on par with previous games in the franchise. This has worked out well for Activision in the past, and I see no reason why they should change that formula.


The Gameplay

I realized during my time with Black Ops 2 exactly what it is that bothers me most about Call of Duty games: within each game the rules constantly change.

When I play a game, no matter the genre, I like to understand what the ground rules are. I want to know that no matter where I am in the game, if I have tools at my disposal or actions that my character can take, I can do those things at any time. I may be met with failure if I use those tools in the wrong place or the wrong time, but I like to be able to play through an entire game with the basics of the game’s mechanics intact.

Not so with Call of Duty. There are too many moments where control is taken away from me, where all I can do is walk and follow somebody, for instance, with no ability to raise my gun or jump. Or I’m confronted in one scene with a choice but in another I simply have to do what the game dictates. Or I have a tool that can eavesdrop from long distances but I only learn about this tool for this one mission and then never use it again.

Compare this approach to a game like Dishonored. In Dishonored you know what tools are available to you at the start of each mission and then you utilize those tools how you see fit. Your obstacles may shift, but your capacity to overcome those obstacles is unchanged (outside of upgrades.)

In Call of Duty the rules change constantly but the game holds your hand through each shift. This makes the entire campaign feel like one very long tutorial—and perhaps it is a tutorial for the much more important multi-player—but when some tools are only used once throughout the entire game one can’t help but wonder why they’ve been included to begin with.

With stable rules and a choice of tools and weapons at your disposal throughout the game, multiple approaches to each mission, and no gimmicks, a Call of Duty game could be a lot more fun to play.

At the same time as I realized this about the Call of Duty games, I found myself understanding why quick-time events (QTEs) bother me so much. A QTE is basically just a way to give a cut-scene the facade of interactivity.

In Call of Duty, QTEs and rule-changing go hand in hand. For instance, sometimes when I try to open a door I need to press X repeatedly in order to shove it open. Other times, this is handled all by itself in the cinematic. I’m never quite sure what to expect.

This also means that by and large every QTE in every game will be a rule-changer.

In Assassin’s Creed III sometimes when a wolf lunges at you, you need to press a button or two to dodge and kill it. The QTE cut-scene is very cinematic, but it changes the rules of gameplay in a truly disorienting and baffling way. Why can’t I just kill the wolf the way I kill everything else? Why am I suddenly lurching out of the gameplay and its stable rules and into something else?

When rules change suddenly and arbitrarily in the middle of a game, fun dies.

There are two types of immersion in video games: 1) the immersion in the game world itself, achieved largely through graphics, ambiance, music, and so forth; and 2) gameplay immersion, in which we are so wrapped up in following the game rules in order to win, we forget that we’re holding the controller in the first place.

QTEs and the rule-changing in Call of Duty games are immersion killers, as they are for any game. In the case of Black Ops 2, QTEs are actually mercifully rare. But the rule changing is a problem.

Strike Force Missions

Optional “Strike Force” missions accompany the main campaign. They ought to be fun, but they’re really not. The half-baked RTS element shows a great deal of promise, but the missions would play better as multiplayer maps. It’s just too messy to be very much fun in a single-player game.

That being said, maybe the next Call of Duty game can break the mold and drop the first-person shooter thing entirely. A turn-based or RTS Call of Duty game could be fun if it weren’t messy and broken by design.

What happens in Strike Force missions is you get to control squads and various machines in order to pass each mission. Defend three points from the invading enemies and you win, for instance. You can do this by inhabiting various units or using a top-down strategic view. This top-down view is tricky to use, but when you’re in an actual unit you’re almost entirely useless as a commander.

Eventually I just gave up and played super-soldier style. Take out a few enemies, die and pop into some other body, kill some more, die, pop into another body. Some people may master this system but I found it mostly a distraction from the game itself.

Ammo, Weapon, and Health Management

The contrast between Black Ops 2 and Halo 4 ammo, weapon, and health management is stark. In Halo 4, you end up needing to swap weapons out all the time. You almost always run out of ammo for any particular gun, and the most powerful guns run out especially quickly and are much harder to find.

In Black Ops 2 this is never a problem, and I think that’s a shame. The limits placed on players in Halo 4 make for an added layer of challenge that isn’t present in Black Ops 2, where ammo refill boxes are always just around the corner.

This all got me to thinking that it would be really cool if a shooter adopted a weight-based inventory system. Carry as many guns and grenades and as much ammo as you want to, but it will slow you down, and eventually you’ll be over-burdened. I mean, two or three grenades just seems too arbitrary. And why can I only carry two guns? Why not five guns but less ammo for each? I realize that arbitrariness in and of itself isn’t bad in a game. Some rules must be arbitrary, and shooters have utilized many different systems.

Ammo management may be important in Halo 4, but in games like Black Ops 2 or Borderlands 2 I’m not even sure why we need to use ammo at all. Why not just have unlimited ammunition for every gun? Borderlands 2 bugs me more because I end up having to open so, so, so many crates and boxes in this annoying ammo grind. Black Ops 2 just gives every gun way more rounds than you’ll use before finding more.

In Sum

All told, I enjoyed my Black Ops 2 campaign.

The story was silly and over-the-top but managed to be engaging regardless. It’s a big summer-blockbuster style action movie at its core, but longer and more fun (and more expensive.)

It even addresses some really important issues like rare earth metals, the proliferation of drones and drone-warfare, and child soldiers.

Gameplay-wise, the core shooting element is what you’d expect. There’s not much new here, but what is here seems to work pretty well. The problem with the game is its hand-holding and rule-changing that make it feel like an extended tutorial rather than a game in its own right.

Should you buy it? Well that depends. I’ll talk about the game’s multi-player next, because that’s where the game makes or breaks."  —  Erik Kain, Contributor [On video games and the video game industry with a dash of RPG.]

"Surprise" - Official Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Live-Action Trailer
[Release Date: November 13th, 2012]

No comments:

Post a Comment

"Be as smart as you can, but remember that it is always better to be wise than to be smart."

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...