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.