Activision

Too late to seek a newer world: PAR plays Black Ops 2 multiplayer

Too late to seek a newer world: PAR plays Black Ops 2 multiplayer

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2

  • 360
  • PC
  • PS3
  • Steam
  • Wii U

$59.99 MSRP

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Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare revolutionized the series’ multiplayer and turned it into a household name five years ago. Its fast and furious nature, coupled with a variety of game play-changing unlocks and customization options made it both an instant classic and a monumental success. Black Ops 2 feels like a refinement on that game’s formula, and fans will no doubt find plenty to enjoy.

But if you’re not already a fan of Activision’s military shooter franchise, there’s not much reason to become one now. Black Ops 2 does many things right, and it is a fun game, but it’s familiar territory. Everything that has made the series fun up to now is back and better than ever, but everything for which the series is criticized has also returned.

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match

One of developer Treyarch’s goals with Black Ops 2 was to make the game more accessible. Game design director David Vonderhaar announced at a preview event for the game that the fact some people never touch multiplayer “bugs the shit” out of him and his team. To this end, Treyarch fleshed out Combat Training mode, instituted League Play, and replaced Killstreaks with Scorestreaks – a system that rewards players for a variety of actions, not just virtual murder. The results are so-so both in their presentation and execution.

Combat Training partners you with a mix of players and bots and has two sub-domains: BootCamp, a playlist of standard deatmatch, and Objective, a playlist of mixed objective-based modes. You earn level and gun XP as normal in BootCamp, and at half speed in Objective.

While Objective Combat Training is always available, BootCamp is locked off after level 10, and therein lies a problem: even as an inexperienced player, I rose from level 1 to level 4 after a single BootCamp match. It didn’t take many more matches to reach level 10.

My quick rise was unexpected, and soon I was thrown out into the cold of public matchmaking with no idea what I had done right and wrong. I felt none the more at home thanks to my time spent in the mode, and if I hadn’t visited Treyarch in September, where I was explicitly told what the mode was, I’m not sure I would have ever checked it out. There’s no tips or suggestions, nothing pointing players to the mode. For something that aims to make newbies feel welcome, that’s an issue.

League Play is broken up into two segments: the Moshpit Series and Champions Series. Moshpit is a mix of 6v6 Team Deathmach and objective modes that use standard rules. The Champions series features only objective-based modes, meaning no care packages, no tactical insertions, and teams are limited to 4v4. In both series, you move up and down a skill ladder until you’re matched with a team of similar skill. Moshpit factors in only your personal rank, while Champions will take your team’s rank into account as well.

League Play starts players off at maximum: everything is unlocked, every perk, weapon, Wildcard and Scorestreak is available. You play five placement matches, after which the game will start to match you up with players of approximate skill. It gets better and more accurate the more you play, and most of my matches were very close races to the finish.

Public matches, by comparison, can feel wildly unfair. At level 8 I played a 3v3 game of CTF with one team consisting of myself, a level 23 player, and a level 28 player. The other team consisted of players levels 30, 33, and 42. In another match, this time at level 12, I was the only player below level 20.

If someone’s level merely reflected time spent playing the game this wouldn’t be an issue, but in Call of Duty, levels mean unlocks, and unlocks mean power you can plug into your custom loadouts. The people I played against weren’t just better than me, they had access to better equipment.

Black Ops 2 gives you base classes with a standard selection of high-level weapons and complementary perks in addition to custom classes, but this means that in situations like the ones I just mentioned, you have to choose between having a comparatively weak custom class or a standardized set of equipment you don’t gain gun XP with. In other words, it’s the choice between progressing your class and choosing a loadout you may not like just so you can compete.

So, the question is, “If I can play in a league that gives me every game play option and does better matchmaking, why would I play in public matches?” Public matches allow you to choose exactly what type of mode you want to play while League Play mixes things up, and public matches are what unlock things like weapon skins and calling cards. If you want to relax and give your gun some new hats, public is where you go. If you want to focus on competitive play and upping your rank, head into League Play.

Pretty pretty soldier dress up

Customization is the addiction fueling Black Ops 2‘s multiplayer. “If you can just get 15 more kills, you’ll get this cool calling card,” it teases. “If you just play with this gun a little longer you can give it a sweet paint job!” It’s always neat to see what sort of weapon an enemy has; even if someone slaughtered me, if they’ve got a laser sight that looks like the Predator’s, I’m cool with it.

The emblem editor may be my favorite customization option in Black Ops 2. The original Black Ops allowed for 12 image layers which could be moved, rotated, stretched, flipped, and colored for players who wanted to create custom emblems. Black Ops 2 more than doubles that amount to a total of 32, and the added freedom has led to some interesting results.

I love tabletop roleplaying, and my very first Dungeons & Dragons character was a daemonfey named Kaiph. I used all 32 layers to create an approximation of a dracophoenix, her family’s house crest. My girlfriend used the editor to make an angry, gun-toting, cigarette-smoking dolphin. The versatility on display is awesome.

It should be no surprise that other players have abused the editor’s power; I also saw a penis, a set of naked tits, a soldier violently spewing diarrhea, and a swastika. Such players are in the minority and there’s an option to report offensive emblems, but it’s still an unpleasant experience to come across.

Little will change how your character looks; depending on the mode you’ll always be a variant of the same player model as everyone else, and you won’t be able to customize their appearance. For a game that stresses levels, experience, and winning so aggressively the lack of ways to show off your rank aesthetically is an odd oversight.

Pick a perk, any perk

What is not an oversight is Treyarch’s “Pick 10” system. In previous Call of Duty games, players had to balance their custom class according to guidelines. The basic structure went as follows: One primary weapon, one secondary weapon, one lethal grenade, one tactical grenade - two in the latter games - and three perks.

Now, you can ditch all that. Pick 10 is a point-buy system that allows you total control over your class. Each weapon, attachment, grenade, and perk cost one point, and you’re free to delegate them as you see fit. Don’t want any grenades? You don’t need them. Want your secondary weapon to be another primary? You can swap it out with the use of a Wildcard, which are little “cheats” used to tweak the system.

Pick 10 isn’t revolutionary, but it takes Black Ops 2 into a better, more open direction. Perks no longer evolve into Pro-level perks, and the Wildcard system even replaces some old perks, such as the ability to wield two primary weapons, as mentioned above. You still need to level up to unlock options for your custom class, but you don’t have to buy anything you don’t plan on using. Instead, use the tokens you receive upon leveling to unlock what you want. When playing against enemies that are at your level, the system feels balanced. Play against someone too high and they’ll likely stomp you into dust. Play against someone too low and they’ll be easy pickings.

In addition to its standard modes of Team Deathmatch, Free-For-All, Capture The Flag and so on, Black Ops 2 introduces two new modes: Multi-Team and Hardpoint. Multi-Team is simply team-based matches with more than two teams, while Hardpoint is akin to Halo‘s King of the Hill mode. In Hardpoint, you need to make it to an area and stand within a set of boundaries while keeping enemies out. Every second you stay in the boundaries earns points.

As much as I like Hardpoint, I spent most of my time in the Party Games lobby, where games were a bit more hectic and casual. Each of the modes within Party Games is from a previous Call of Duty, though they may have been named differently. My favorite, “One in the Chamber,” was a Wager Match in the original Black Ops. In that version, you had to risk losing money and thus, potentially not be able to afford unlocks. Black Ops 2 does away with that, and I had a lot of fun with it.

It’s a trap!

Multiplayer in Call of Duty is a volatile mix. It combines the dread and anticipation of adventuring through a haunted house with the frantic, adrenaline-pumping experience of deep-sea diving straight into a feeding frenzy of sharks. Whether or not you’ll like the multiplayer will depend on if you like your multiplayer to be a slow hunt or a spastic whirlwind of death. Again, not much has changed.

Vonderhaar told me in September that player health had been increased from previous games, and that seems to still be the case. The change is small enough for it to not drastically effect how the game flows while being significant enough that veteran players will notice. It didn’t really have much bearing on me, as a shotgun to the face from someone camped around a corner will still kill you.

Learning maps is crucial to success in Black Ops 2. They’re tight, claustrophobic, full of debris or obstacles, and full of spots for campers to hide. Camping is a cheap technique, and some of the people I connected with were more than a little displeased whenever a camper took them down. Still, you can’t argue with results: it was the campers who typically fared the best.

Overflow is my favorite map, as it avoids many of these problems. Most of the map is open, with only a handful of interior sections, making it more difficult to surprise one-shot kill another player. The streets and alleyways curve so that it becomes more difficult for campers, and the size makes it so that you’re never too far from a potential kill or threat.

What’s most bothersome about every map and game mode is the lack of risk vs. reward game play, which is nurtured by the community. In one CTF game, my team yelled at me for going after the flag while we were two points up. I asked why they didn’t want me to score and end the game. “We want to get some fucking kills in, dumbass,” one guy shouted over his headset. There is an intense obsession with kill/death ratio, and despite my insistence that on Capture the Flag mode we should probably, you know, capture the flag, no one but me wanted to risk ruining their KDR.

This lack of the interplay between risk and reward carries over to Scorestreaks as well. Scorestreaks have replaced Killstreaks in Black Ops 2 by giving players points for performing actions other than just killing one another. In a Hardpoint match, for example, you’ll gain points not just for killing the enemy, but for taking control of, and defending, the Hardpoint. Those points count toward earning your Scorestreak.

The more I played, the more I felt like I wasn’t getting Scorestreaks because they were truly useful – save for The Guardian, a directional microwave emitter which comes in very handy during objective-based matches. I would have won anyway, Scorestreaks just make the path toward winning a bit faster and more cool to watch. That’s pretty superficial reasoning, and doesn’t help keep matches close or tense. Modern Warfare 3 had Deathstreaks, which could help turn a game around, but they’ve been cut from Black Ops 2.

Very rarely did I see a losing team use Scorestreaks to turn a game around. Instead, what I mostly saw was a winning team being rewarded for playing well, and the losing team being taught a 15-30 minute-long lesson about how bad they were. That’s great when you’re on the winning team, but not so fun when you’re on the other side of the fence.

The only Scorestreak that produces a good balance of risk vs. reward is the care package. This is a returning favorite from previous Call of Duty games, where a helicopter drops instant access to another, random Scorestreak. Since anyone can grab a care package, you want to be careful about when and where you place them. If you’re holed up in a corner with bad guys closing in, you have to decide: do you want to call in the care package and hope that whatever’s dropped can take out the incoming foes, or do you give the other team a point by dying and try to make up for it by calling in the package once you respawn? If the former plan doesn’t work, enemies could get to the care package first instead, while the latter plan requires giving the opposing team a free point.

Few other Scorestreaks operate in the same fashion. Since Black Ops 2 is set in the near future, there are all kinds of drones and robots to call in once you’ve acquired the necessary points. There’s the Hunter Killer Drone, which is a “paper airplane of doom”; the A.G.R., a small but heavily-armed robot; the Escort Drone, a helicopter-like flying death machine; and Sentry Gun, to name a few. You can take manual control of some of these, but most are automated, and don’t need any input from you. Your team just gained an armor-plated death machine, literally, and they did so at no risk to them, save for earning the points it took to use it. Automated drones which can be called in and ignored don’t add to game play, they replace it.

Thankfully, these drones aren’t invincible. One blast from an EMP grenade and anything electronics-based will be out of commission. The other near-future tech is really cool as well. One targeting attachment literally paints a target over your enemies as they wander into view, which is a major assistance for aiming, especially against long-range foes. Another targeting attachment sends out a sonar-like wave that passes through the environment and reveals enemies.

Different, and that’s okay

All of the above might seem like I’m ragging on Call of Duty for being Call of Duty. I’m not. I’m not even saying Black Ops 2 is a bad game. There is much to like here:

The Pick 10 system opens up multiplayer in new ways while feeling familiar and comfortable. The customization options are abundant to the point of ridiculousness, and addicting to unlock. Theater mode has been expanded and it’s easier than ever to both revel in your moments of triumph and analyze your moments of defeat. The game runs as smooth as silk covering a butter-smeared baby bottom, and the series’ core game play of “shoot fast or die fast” remains intact.

The game is both fresh enough to sustain fan interest while comfortable enough to feel like home. The game may feel frantic, but it’s not mindless. It may not always play fair, but it’s not broken. Its community may not always be charming, but the presentation certainly makes up for that with its own charm.

Black Ops 2‘s biggest weakness is the fact that this is the ninth game in the Call of Duty series, and it feels like it. The game has evolved, but there’s only so much you can do to remove and add features to a base that has been so thoroughly iterated and adjusted already. The end result is the same: the game’s millions of fans will be happy, and those who turn up their noses at the franchise will continue to do so. The game still lacks an easy entry point for new players, and losing can be brutal. The community is aggressive and win-oriented to a degree that’s relatively unique in multiplayer gaming.

Bringing in new players while trying to hard to appease the game’s millions of die hard fans may be impossible, but these changes and additions at least make the attempt. Black Ops 2 isn’t treading water, but it’s also not taking many risks with the formula.