Stephen made a great point earlier in the week when he compared Black Ops II to, of all things, Mass Effect. The way the game is punctuated with moments that can re-shape an entire experience with a single decision is an unexpected and welcome move for a series that's so often criticised for being little more than a roller-coaster with explosions. WARNING: THIS POST WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS
Its just a shame the execution didn't pan out as well as the intent.
The idea with Black Ops II's branching storyline is that there are a number of ways in which your actions can alter the outcome of events in the story. Some of these come in the form of clear and calculated decisions you must make. Others take the form of split-second reactions you must make in the course of the game's action. The rest involve scouring every level and making sure you've secured extra pieces of intel that lie outside your core mission objectives.
The effects these actions take can vary; some will have almost no effect other than some extra dialogue lines, while others are so drastic they can save/kill characters and dramatically alter the outcome of the game, to the point where the conclusion to your particular story is completely different (the game includes three endings).
It's here I've run into a serious problem with the game's ideas on how to build a story based on your actions.
I finished up the game's singleplayer campaign last night, and up until literally the very last second of gameplay, I'd found myself pleasantly surprised. Black Ops II is easily Treyarch's best shooter to date, and I especially appreciated the ways they'd made the story more personal and easier (a relative term) to follow.
But then the ending sequence kicked in, and I was treated to the most punitive, depressing sequence of events I can remember at the end of a big video game. You can see it to your left. This was not a "different" ending, it was a kick in the teeth.
What stings is that I had no idea how I'd ended up with it. To go back to the Mass Effect comparison, in Mass Effect 2, if you get the "bad" ending, you sure as hell earned it, because you didn't prepare and you got everybody killed. Yet in Black Ops II, I'd saved the President. I'd saved the aircraft carrier. I did the "right" thing and captured the bad guy instead of killing him. So why was I being shown such a dreadful sequence of events, as though I'd somehow screwed up?
Because, having compared my choices to those who received the regular ending (not the ridiculously good one), the only discrepancy I can see is that three missions back, I'd spared the life of Harper and, while playing as an undercover operative, been shot. For some reason, this later means that Karma, a woman vital to the US war effort and who has (as far as I know) no contact with the dead character whatsoever, is shot on board the USS Obama in a cutscene the player has no control over.
That's it. Because of that, and in spite of my "correct" choices and actions over the other hours of the game, I was given an ending in which the enemy escapes from captivity and murders one of the other major characters. Um, thanks. Way to end the game on a real downer, undo everything I'd worked for over the campaign and make me feel like a complete failure.
If an ending is to be seen as "alternate", it needs to be just that. A series of endings that are different, not clearly ranked. 2011's Deus Ex, for example, featured a number of endings that were nothing but grey areas, a suitable conclusion to a game that's played almost entirely within one. Ditto for Mass Effect 3.
When you make endings clearly "good" and "bad", though, you're not making them reflections. You're making them rewards. A "good" ending, and this game has two of them (one so "good" it's comical), is what you get as a result of hard work or adherence to a game's clear framework. You should only get the "bad" ending if you're lazy, or screw things up.
The way I got the "bad" ending in Black Ops II was the result of neither. I put in the hard work, made a ton of good decisions (see above!), and was then given a depressing ending based not on my direct actions (or inactions), but on something unrelated I'd done three missions ago. Had it at least been the result of a decision I'd made that directly affected the characters in question — or if they'd given me a chance to save Karma, and I'd failed — that would be fine. If it was the only ending possible, as though this was canon, fine. But to punitively lump it on me when I've got no idea why is a shitty way to end a video game.
I'm not complaining that it ruined the entire game. It's still a terrific example of what it is; a linear military shooter with amazing set-pieces and solid gunplay. I'm just disappointed that, like Dishonored did with its narrative discouragement of action gameplay, a major 2012 video game made the brave step to include multiple endings, only to so poorly butcher their execution.