Call of Duty: Black Ops II Review: Hello Lawyers!

What’s that you say? You’re expecting me to relentlessly tear into this bastion of mainstream gaming with the force of an elephant covered in spines? Oh, ye of little faith. This review is (an attempt to be) more nuanced and varied, and part of the reason for that is the game is so strange from my critical perspective that it’s going to take some time to work out. Read on.

The thing that hit me like a train from the first mission was that this game is very, very racist. Not in that kind of Final Fantasy ‘there aren’t many black people and those there are are slightly stereotypical’ way that’s irritating but ultimately harmless, no. I mean in the ‘mowing down hundreds of identical black people with a helicopter as they charge towards our snow-white hero with machetes’ way that makes me feel ashamed that this game was ever green lit. Five hundred thousand people died in the Angolan civil war, but this game feels it appropriate to have the player contribute to that number.

The fun doesn’t stop there, oh no – you spend the rest of the preposterous plot blasting other flavours of brown people, from Cubans to Pakistanis to Panamanians, all in the name of – well that’s just the thing. Say what you will about Modern Warfare, at least its insanity was coherent. This feels like Activision took every toy in the USA’s toybox, chucked them on the floor and started making plane and machine gun noises for eight hours. There’s no reason for what’s happening beyond trying to justify the officially sanctioned murder of an Occupy Wall Street leader who’s quite rightly pissed off that your dad’s mate murdered his wounded sister while trying to murder him. Following this? No, neither am I.

So, you say you’d like to know how they tie this one together. Well, join the club. I stayed up past deadline to finish Black Ops II and all I got for it was a couple of crashes while I tried to escort not-Hillary not-Clinton through the streets of Los Angeles. That being my computer’s fault and not the game’s, I won’t dwell too much, but I really could not be bothered to carry on with the single player any further.

Still, you don’t buy a Call of Duty game for its story any more than you buy a dog for its collar, and I’m happy to report that the multiplayer is still adequate. It’s absolutely frantic and brutally unfair a lot of the time, but you get opportunities to inflict injustice on your enemies too, so I suppose it all works out in the end. There are a ton of game modes to play – the most fun and interesting are the weird ones like Gun Game – that should keep everyone satisfied until the next inevitable installment comes out, and the maps are many and well-designed.

Weapon balance is a bit odd – it’s almost as if there were too many weapons for the developers to bother testing them properly so they threw together a random number generator and called it a day. Some of the rocket launchers are so devastating you’d think they were auto-targeting death rays and the sniper rifles are so pitiful in the tight confines of the environments they may as well be Fisher Price toys. If you’re into your attachments you’ll be well served, with expanded and quick reloading magazines among half a dozen different types of sights, two barrel expansions as well as other gadgets like laser targeting. All of which count for nothing when combat comes down to who sees who first, but the thought was nice.

I’m actually very surprised how well this game ran on my three-year-old machine, though a small resolution downgrade was required. Additionally, the servers seemed to be holding up well even on launch day, and I didn’t once see a disconnect due to server traffic or even much lag.

Zombies returns with an interesting new game mode revolving around taking a bus through several different maps and gunning down hordes of the undead (another race criminally represented in this series). It’s very, very difficult and if like me you’re a friendless misanthrope you’ll be hard pressed to have a good time when the shuffling moaners are chewing on your neck. However, it seems like it’d be a good laugh with friends and since it’s a free addition I’d certainly support it as a reason to buy it that isn’t the single player.

There’s just something inherently unwholesome about Call of Duty: Black Ops II, and it’s not just the length of the title. If you’ll allow me to explain my feelings about Call of Duty in full, I’ll gladly take the opportunity. Thank you. You see, Call of Duty is mechanically fine. It’s simple to pick up and play, it looks reasonably nice, but not so much it hurts anyone’s processor, it has lots of explosions and flashing lights to keep players entertained for a while and the multiplayer is visceral and fast-paced enough to keep people hooked. But while it ticks all the boxes, it does nothing more than stagnate, bringing back barely-altered aspects from previous games like a zombie that won’t quit. Occasionally they’ll try something new, like the half-assed Strike Force missions that try to go all real-time strategy but make a huge mess of the controls, or they set it in 2025, but it always feels just the same, only a little less fun.

Speaking of which, they seem to have put very little thought into how this whole future is supposed to work. On the one hand, there are slight upgrades on existing weapons, like enhanced sights and newer grenade launchers, but on the other there are walking minigun robots, energy shields and a huge floating city. I mean, consistency is nice. 2025? Energy shields? Think back to the military as it was in 1999. Were they fighting with sticks? No. Of course not. There were a few less drones and no Eurofighter, but that’s all. The military of 2025 will be basically the same, only slightly more in thrall to China.

The ethical problems with this game are mammoth, and not just the hot spicy racism I mentioned earlier (although in Treyarch’s defence I did shoot some white people. They were Russian though, so to the Americans it doesn’t count). The fact that an economic equality movement is seen as untrustworthy and violent, the fact that the only women in the game are a sickly victim and two characterless McGuffins and the fact that it seems to glorify the military and weaponry in a fascist fashion (try saying that twenty times quickly) all make me feel desperately uneasy about it. It seems, well, evil.

Black Ops II is a perfectly functional game with a heart of darkness. If you’re given it, you’ll have fun. If you buy it, you’re promoting its bizarre, incoherent and often disturbing messages. Depending on whether or not you care about these issues, give this game either a 1/10 or a 9/10.

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Robin Wilde

Co-Editor of Cubed Gamers, meaning I send out, take in, edit and upload content. I'm also in charge of doing much of the graphics and design stuff for the site.

5 comments

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  1. Uthly 18 November, 2012 at 02:53 Reply

    Heheh, watched a walkthrough for this game ’cause I’m the kinda person that’s easily entertained by flashy explosions and cover based shooting games but lacks the money to buy them, and by the time I caught up with what was happening, I was convinced the Americans were the bad guys. The ‘bad guy’ in this game was just trying to do right by his horribly scarred sister, you even get to play as him in one mission and witness his compassion for her as he runs around gutting people.

    A good review, but I can’t help but feel reviews about shooters are becoming more and more like the shooters themselves. Comment on the racism ’cause everyone’s black or Russian? Check. Complain about the plot, or lack there of? Check. Make snarky comment about how the game was concieved? Check. Still, I enjoyed reading it!

    • MrNameless 18 November, 2012 at 03:02 Reply

      You make an interesting point that I realise I didn’t bring up – I thought of the Americans as the villains as well. There’s a mission in which you’re given the choice between keeping on the antagonist’s good side while working undercover by shooting your handler and attempting to shoot the antagonist. I very easily chose the former option, even though it’d probably make the ending worse.

      Unlikeable protagonists can work in horror games where the player is supposed to find them despicable, but really I struggle to empathise with the characters or their motivations on any level. All I see them be is brutal psychopaths while the antagonists at least genuinely believe in their cause.

      • Uthly 18 November, 2012 at 13:00 Reply

        You said you stopped playing the game, and in all honesty, the endings aren’t much to sniff at. There are four in all, if you include the ‘Silly Ending’ from the end of the credits. The thing is, I can’t see how any of your choices throughout the game influence the ending, as the ending itself is decided by one choice at the end of the last mission… That makes all your previous choices (Few as they may be) null and void. Maybe those choices just swap up gameplay a bit, try to add replay value?

        There is an Easter Egg ending, where as you have to be a bad shot in one mission, but despite the happiness you might get from it, it’s quickly dashed by what comes after… Surfice to say, all the endings make you lose in some way, the only difference is the severity.

  2. Patrick Murphy 17 November, 2012 at 01:19 Reply

    “This feels like Activision took every toy in the USA’s toybox, chucked them on the floor and started making plane and machine gun noises for eight hours.”

    I actually choked on my dinner imagining this. Great review, and I’m glad you’re actually examining race and gender as applied to the game. They’re sadly under-discussed in video game culture, so it was refreshing to see that there are people who care about it.

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