I've spent the last week playing Call of Duty: Black Ops II's multiplayer; arguably the real reason many will purchase the game. While I still have a lot to experience — the number of unlocks is ridiculous and the competitive metagame is difficult to discern this early — I still think I've got a reasonable feel for it all.
Good enough to at the very least say with confidence that Black Ops II does nothing that would entice someone who was turned off by the series before, though Treyarch has made a few changes to the franchise.
Where the single player saw huge changes to the franchise, and zombies saw some alterations as well, multiplayer, on the whole, will be familiar to anyone that's played a major iteration of the Call of Duty franchise in the last few years. It's still a fast-paced twitch shooter that has maps with dizzying number of nooks, crannies and corners that encourage a frenetic style of play.
Black Ops II feels like another iteration that tweaks things a little. The game largely plays the same, except for a few changes, which in my opinion aren't significant enough to make the game feel any different.
The only people who will think the changes in Black Ops II are significant are the more hardcore of the bunch, for whom any change, however small, feels like a huge thing. For everyone else: hey look. It's more Call of Duty — almost exactly like how you remembered it, too.
I want to touch on spirit of the multiplayer as a whole before I delve into the nitty gritty, just so I'm clear on what that classic Call of Duty multiplayer feel is. The marvel of the franchise for me is how paranoid one can become while playing.
You always feel like you could be shot down in a split second. This creates tension that gives rise to both bold and guarded measures — maybe you brave that hallway, Rambo style, or maybe you camp it out for a short while.
That tension is always palpable, especially when you consider how fast the game moves. You have to keep up, or make sure nobody gets the drop on you. Everything is a potential threat and sometimes you shoot at nothing at all, or knife at teammates — you get spooked and react with your sole defence, a trigger finger. You develop your reflexes to be as rapid as they can be, and yet you never feel it is swift enough. Who has not, at least once while playing Call of Duty, felt old because of their reflexes?
Every death is a shock in how quick it happens, yes, but in how quick it leaves you, too. Alive. Dead. Alive. Dead. They start to blur. If you're losing, the difference between the states might start mattering less and less to you. For the engaged, a death can feel like a gasp cut short because of how suddenly it happens, and then how suddenly it's gone.
Yes, Call of Duty is addicting. Very much so. But if you asked me to describe it to you in one word, that'd be "traumatic." And yet in spite of that, or perhaps because of that cutthroat environment, you start craving any ounce of success you can get. The high of a kill feels more pronounced than it might in a different game — so maybe scorestreaks are unfair, and maybe they just allow those who are winning to bulldoze that much more efficiently. But, goddamnit, you feel like you earned them.
And as a quick aside — now compare to the current political landscape, similarly paranoid, similarly making enemies out of everyone, similarly carried by that "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality no matter how unfair it might actually be for everyone else. Truly, I can't think of a game that better reflects the society that created it. I almost feel guilty for finding the multiplayer so thrilling, but this guilt is overridden by a constant fearful vigilance punctuated with short-lived rushes of adrenaline after I land kills. I got you, you bastard.
All of that has been the crux of the franchise for a while now, and that hasn't changed with Black Ops II. No reinvention, no evolution — same thing with different maps and new guns. You're still playing a variety of modes, from death match, to objective-based, to party games as well as combat training for newbies. There additions, sure, but nothing major. Notably, these are the inclusion of League Play, Scorestreaks (basically killstreaks, only not just for kills) and the new Pick 10 system.
League Play, I suspect that many will welcome with open arms. Here is why: there are no unlocks. Everything is available to you from the get-go — all the guns, all the perks, all the scorestreaks, and so on.
Everyone is on the same playing field, so to speak. It's up to you to figure out what best suits your needs, and the game doesn't get in the way of you experiencing what you want to play, and how you want to play it.
Compared to the other modes, which require you to sink a considerable amount of time into them to unlock stuff, this is a godsend. Point blank, I hated starting out in the Core playlists because it was immediately obvious that the game was not balanced. It can't be. Whoever has the better gear will invariably win in a duel, and the starting guns suck. Every bit and bob you can customise — attachments, abilities (ie, perks) and extra gear makes a huge difference in how effective you can be on the battlefield.
That and, the more you participate, the better League Play is able to pit you against similarly-skilled players. You start off with it requiring you to do a number of "placement matches" that assess you skill level, and then put you on a ladder with a division and a subdivision. Regular matchmaking might put you against someone 10, 20, 30 levels your senior. Needless to say, that's awful. I'm having a hard time thinking of why I'd ever really want to go back to normal competitive — the only thing I can imagine sparking that action is being overtaken with the desire to grind. That's, uh, not likely.
League Play also seems like a good choice for those interested in clans, or those interested in forming a team for the league. I've not been able to fiddle here just yet, but I figure that once I get a core team of interested friends going, I'll probably make a league team right away and never go back.
Granted, you don't get to pick the modes when in League Play, and there are a couple of cosmetic unlocks you can't get in League Play, either. I'd wager you'll also be playing in a more serious environment, and that might not be appealing to everyone. Personally, I'm fine with all of that if it means having access to what I want immediately and playing against similarly skilled people.
Plus, if I want something not-serious, I can always boot up party games. This is where all the old wager matches from the first Black Ops went. I'm sad that I can't bet points on my performance in matches anymore, because the frenzied, almost hedonistic play of Call of Duty plus betting seems like a match made in heaven (or hell, depending on how you look at it.) But even without that, party games are a blast — I'd go so far as to say that they are my favourite thing in BLOPS II's multiplayer.
I am particularly fond of Gun Game and Sticks and Stones. The latter requires you to land a kill with every single weapon. So you start off with a pistol, then two pistols, then another gun, then a shotgun, and so on. I like this mode because it requires me to be versatile; I can't default to the gun that I prefer. I like this mode so much, in fact, that I stopped writing this mid-sentence to go play a couple of gun game matches. It's just that excellent. Sticks and stones, meanwhile, is a mode with only a crossbow, a ballistic knife and a combat axe. Have fun and oh — try not to get hit with the axe, because that nets you a "humiliation" where you're reset back to zero points.
Going back to what's new for a second — scorestreaks. The idea was to replace killstreaks with something that rewarded kills AND other stuff too. This is particularly important when we're talking about objective-based gametypes. You need your teammates to all be on the same page, trying for the same goal. So now you can get a UAV for killing a few people in a row, or you might get it for capturing a point. In theory, this is a great addition.
Here is the problem: Call of Duty is not a collaborative game thanks to the overall community, nor is it one that gives powerful incentive to change lone-wolf, kill-focused type play. Giving me extra points for capturing a hard point does not make me more likely to go after the point, especially given how much more lucrative maintaining a high K/D is to the community and how easily you die.
The way I see it, the franchise has got years and years and years of gearing the community to think of the game in a certain way, to play in a certain way. Everything from the map design to the health and so on facilitates a certain mode of play — and Black Ops II is still mostly the same as it was before, design-wise.
Unless you make some radical changes to the design, people will largely play the same. And why not? Consider that both killstreaks and scorestreaks only reward those who are doing well. So if you're already winning, this just cements the win that much more. So uh: what part of that is more likely to make me to play any differently? How will scorestreaks change the usual "do-well-do-better" or "do-bad-do-awfully" reward paradigm found in the franchise, which is available if I just keep playing for kills (hypothetically)?
I will say that the scorestreaks seem less rage-inducing now. They still reward players who are already doing well, but so far I've yet to be in a match where it was completely impossible to so much as breathe because a player managed to get on a roll with them.
Also new is the Pick 10 system for custom loadouts. Everything you equip costs one point, and your ability to mix and match is fantastic. Almost anything goes, as long as you don't spend more than 10 points. We're talking like, having two primary guns at once type mix and match.
Personally I'm running something that gives me three attachments to my primary gun, but because of that, I only have one grenade instead of three. I also have "Perk 1 Greed" wildcard (wildcards are intended to "mix things up" or bend the rules of the class system.) Perk 1 Greed allows me to take both hardline and lightweight as initial perks. Normally I'd only be able to pick one out of this set. Having this enabled, however, means I don't have a secondary gun — at least, this is what I got rid of to make room for another perk. But I never really use my secondary gun or grenades, so whatever!
And these are the notable changes to Black Ops II — if these sound major, it's because I've spent time on minutia moreso than it is because the game has become significantly different.
You also have the ability livestream or shoutcast — things I've not significantly explored, admittedly.
There are other elements that make a return: you can customise cosmetic things, like skins on your gun, or your knife. Unfortunately the things I cared about the most — customising your appearance or etching letters onto your guns, like you could in the first Black Ops — are absent. Shame! It was badass to be able to put on warpaint, even though everyone tried looking like the Joker.
But overall Black Ops II is still the Call of Duty you love...or you hate. It plays the same, it largely functions the same — not a bad thing, by any means, if you happen to like the game already. Those who are sick of the franchise might want to sit this one out though.
I can't help but wonder how long Call of Duty rests on its laurels. You do it for long enough, and it's not having the luxury of remaining stagnant because nothing else comes close, but rather opening up the opportunity for someone else to come and take the crown.
For now, rejoice: there's more Call of Duty to be had, some will find it as excellent as always and others will become or remain burned out on it.