Call Of Duty: Black Ops II: The Kotaku Review

Six years after the death of Saddam Hussein — just couple of days ago — I decided to watch the video of his death for the first time. I did this because in Call of Duty: Black Ops II's attempt to explain its plot, I was shown a brief glimpse of a YouTube video showcasing the director of the FBI being burned alive. This shocks me for a second — is that something that could really happen, or is that somewhere the game takes liberty in its fiction? Could I just hop online and watch a recent high profile figure...die on a major media website? I can, of course — Saddam is a testament to that. In the moment that this hit me, I started to realise that the world of David Mason — son of Alex Mason, and the new primary protagonist — is one we are familiar with, one we may already be living in barring the existence of a few futuristic weapons. It's all less "near future" than you'd think.

Black Ops II tells the sometimes confusing story of psychotic narco-terrorist Raul Menendez, alternating between segments in the past narrated by Frank Woods that explain why Menendez harbors intense hatred toward Americans and "present day" segments that see David Mason trying to hunt Menendez down. This all occurs in a world where terrorist organisations have Twitter accounts, YouTube accounts. Compare to the real-world — where we have things like announcements made by Anonymous on Twitter, or videos of war crimes uploaded to Wikileaks.

The game exists in a reality that is similar enough to our own that I felt enticed by the ideas and the politics it presented to me, yes, but particularly what these things say about the society that borne them. Though a small detail — Black Ops II is full of them, if we look beyond the competent set-piece shooter — the video of the FBI director caused me to try to understand something that I couldn't encroach when I was just 16. I'm talking about the ruthless happiness that overtook most people I knew who heard the news that Saddam is dead. We did it, we did it, and there's the proof. Go on, watch it.

I couldn't watch it then. I was unnerved by a war I did not understand, unnerved by death claiming a man I knew little about beyond the constant assurance that he was "bad." The bad man died, so I should derive pleasure from watching his neck break. Like a good American. More than that: like a devout consumer of technology, of information.

WHY: Black Ops II feels great to play, especially when futuristic weapons are involved, yes — but it also makes you think.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Developer: Treyarch

Platforms: Xbox 360, Windows PC, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii U

Released: November 13

Type of game: First-Person Shooter

What I played: In a copy of the game provided by Activision, I played about 8 hours of campaign, having done most of the Strike Force Missions, as well as a couple of hours of the multiplayer in addition to that.

My Two favourite Things

  • Your choices matter, and can affect the outcome of the story.
  • Gadget lust: salivating over futuristic weapons, like the one that allowed me to see through walls.

My Two Least-Favorite Things

  • The plot is sometimes confusing or unclear, and eventually I found myself not caring about it anymore.
  • The villain starts off seeming as if he'll earn your sympathy, only to be characterised as a psychopath...just like most villains. Boo — this is boring and easy.


  • "Choice of Duty: This person lives, but that other one dies. Because I said so. — Patricia Hernandez,
  • "I had no idea the future had such awesome guns." — Patricia Hernandez,

Deep down, I think I felt that something was changing — something that now, wouldn't even seem that odd. Oh, did so and so die? Yeah, someone captured it on their cell phone, check it out on YouTube. Did that guy swindle the nation? Yep, that's what the Internet says — here's the link. The age of transparency: we can see everything, yet retain the luxury of remaining ignorant.

I don't believe the things Black Ops II will make the observant among us reflect about is intentional, but elements like these remain the most fascinating thing about the title. I say this in spite of playing the prototypical Call of Duty experience many of us are familiar with: yes, the game is mechanically great. You will feel powerful as you play, you will experience thrills as you go between shooting sections, vehicle sections, drone segments, even stealth segments. You, single soldier, luck out to find reality practically bending to your will with the help of a gun and the occasional high tech toy.

Explosions will always barely miss you, and you will narrowly do the impossible with enough frequency that you begin to wonder if some higher force is involved — not to part the red sea, but to allow you to play through the full glory of American individualism one set piece at a time. I have a difficult time explaining some of the crazy, implausible things I did otherwise — like dragging a mostly dead man through a legion of enemies in the jungle or jumping into the cockpit of an aircraft I have 0 experience with (the game itself makes sure to point this out!) yet piloting it with ease. Or blacking out a number of times in a row in a period of five minutes, but still being fine. The scripted world waits for you, and only you, before anything is allowed to happen — so you get the feeling that this is likely how the world thinks an American perceives things.

I also say the ideas in Black Ops II are the most interesting part of the title even though the game features some of the biggest changes to the franchise in years. Notably, your choices matter and can cause branching storylines with different endings. Comparing notes with Kotaku's editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo, we found that we got wildly different details leading to very different outcomes. Some of the fluctuations are easy to foretell: someone either lives, or they die. Simple enough.

Other possibilities are difficult to discern, though the end of every level greeted me with the results of my operations. I am inclined to read this screen as one that presents variables of a malleable story, making me wonder what I had to do to experience something different. Baseline, I knew that Strike Force Missions — optional squad-based levels that one can fail — can change things immensely. In one main-story mission, I failed to rescue a high value target. A SFM appeared, where we tracked down the target's location. This meant that I had a second shot at rescuing the target, and, had I ignored it, my story would have been missing an important character.

Seeing all the different possibilities — should they exist — is good enough reason replay the game, if that's your thing. SFMs are also worth experiencing if you are interested in spending more time with robotics and drones. The main campaign gives you access to these on occasion, but not too much — it mostly continues the paradigm of one-super-soldier-taking-matters-into-his-own-hands. A premise that I can't help but wonder how long it takes before it is phased out judging from real-world drone efforts; it already feels a tad disingenuous when Frank Woods says the world will always need men like him.

But all that stuff was of little consequence to me. For all that we bemoan the saturation of the shooter genre, I don't think finding a shooter that feels enjoyable or entertaining to play is particularly noteworthy anymore. Obviously some developers falter, but in the realm of AAA, certainly when deciding between major Call of Duty iterations, it's like we're picking between different cuts of steak.

Intentional or not, Black Ops II made me think. It's not a cerebral title or anything, but it doesn't have to be. For instance: part of what a near-future Call of Duty required was the imagining of new weapons. Or should I say new toys to play with? Gadget lust was in full force while I played, with me almost salivating over some of the tech the game gave to me.

The problem — if you would call it that — with a tech-fueled war is that we think is tech is cool. We

want the newest iPod, the newest console with the touch screen. It doesn't even have to be things we can buy. I know I've personally watched videos breathlessly — with some terror, but mostly with admiration — of high-tech weapons and gadgets on sites like Gizmodo. I'm talking like, things that DARPA might upload — maybe a robot learning how to move, or a gun that fires no shot but is capable of incapacitating a human being with ease.

As if Call of Duty didn't already fetishise and celebrate war! Now it appeals to the consumerist in us, the one that will appreciate a futuristic gun not just through its mechanical merits, but through its technological excellence as well. There's a gun that lets me see through walls. There's a gun that highlights, with a red diamond, where the enemy's head is at — for headshot convenience, of course. There's a gadget that allowed me to go invisible. Once I got a hold of toys like these, the segments that took place in the past with Frank Woods and Alex Mason felt like they dragged on. War wasn't cool or novel in the past, not anymore — not in comparison to this.

Realizing all of these truths troubled me. I began suspecting that if somehow we could, say, watch atomic bombs go off safely, without harming anything, we'd probably do it — despite it being a weapon, despite what it represents, despite the lives its taken. Ethic and moral quandaries fade into the background if something is entertaining enough. Games like Call of Duty and Medal of honour, along with no shortage of other similar media, are evidence here.

Though the game makes sure that we understand that there are issues revolving around drones, the primary focus is that technology renders us vulnerable to hackers. We should be afraid of those like Raul Menendez, who want to control all the [insert hackable thing here] according to the game. Not discounting that this is probably a very real issue, the game ignores the bulk of what makes up drone concerns: how remote controlling them might change our perception of war, or whether or not drones detach us too much from our actions, and so on. Despite this, I feel that Black Ops still explores the overarching questions that we have with drones, only with its futuristic guns.

If part of the worry is that we become more reckless, more ruthless, or less humane when we man drones, weapons that highlight enemies for you postulate a similar problem. Perhaps worse.

You no longer have to think about your actions or who your enemies are when they are clearly marked. You just have to worry about the next red target. Literally. To my morbid amusement, I couldn't help but think that in reality, tech that picks up on people of interest is optimised to recognise Caucasians. In the battlefield, I'm guessing weaponry would have the exact opposite optimization, eh? There are no shortage of things to consider as you play.

On the less meditative side of things, we have Zombies and multiplayer — both at first glance seemingly robust enough to warrant bafflement at how Treyarch manages to fit so much content onto one measly disc. Unfortunately, assessments on these pre-release of both these modes is of little use to anyone. For now, I will say that zombies looks deliciously insane, and multiplayer seems more viciously twitchy and cutthroat than ever before thanks to the new high tech weapons. We will make sure to update you on the multiplayer, if not give a separate verdict on Zombies, later in the week.

Black Ops II is a great shooter, but that alone doesn't make it worth playing to me. Black Ops II's triumph is found in how it assembles modern-day issues, ultimately making it impossible not to feel like I was staring into the mirror of my society. If the the constant question with games of Call of Duty's ilk is whether or not they hold some responsibility in what they depict, then Black Ops II feels like an answer. An answer that shows that the things that make us reconsider things, as "responsible" media does, do not always have that intention — and they don't have to. I think that lacking that explicit purpose actually accentuated the crisis I felt as I realised that as much as I enjoyed what I was playing, I didn't like what the game revealed.

Pre-release multiplayer isn't the best indicator of how a game will play online once a community has formed around it. I'll update my review within the week that follows the game's release with multiplayer impressions based on playing against the general public.


    I burnt out around MW2 after having been a massive fan since Call of Duty (thats right there was a COD before Modern warefare). Havnt really been back since

    Last edited 13/11/12 7:32 pm

      Yeah I'm the same. Medal of Honor got killed by COD (COD1 was unreal when it came out) but it was just kind of a treadmill franchise by MW1. I played MW1 and enjoyed it, but I never felt compelled to play any subsequent games because I see other people playing them and just feel like I've already been there.

      I realised I was done with CoD after playing MW3 at a friend's house and not realising for 3 or 4 rounds that I wasn't playing MW2. I was seriously taken aback.

      And that's coming from someone who put 60 hours into MW2.

      (In my defence, I put the slight UI changes down to the fact I usually play on PC and we were playing on Xbox, and figured that the unfamiliar maps we were playing on were part of the map packs I never picked up)

      Last edited 13/11/12 10:08 pm

        Very very slight UI changes haha. MW2 and MW3 both had terrible UI design. This is evident by the fact that they couldn't figure out how to add more than a certain number of play lists. They actually had to remove other playlists to add in new ones because they couldn't add in a scrolling menu to the UI.

        IW ftl.

      I agree, the first was great, the 2nd kind of got a bit silly, never bothered with the 3rd. I steer clear of treyarch's games, WaW was horrible.

      I was exactly the same. I thought the series peaked with COD4, which is one of the best shooters of all time, alongside Golden Eye and Halo: CE. Unfortunately the success of COD4 has lead us to where we are today. As soon as MW2 came out, I knew what every future COD would look like and a small part of me died. I'll pick up another COD game when they get serious about evolving the game, giving the community something worth playing and not just taking our money.

    I haven't really cared for the games since the original MW (that said it was a beast game, but nothing after it could compare to that experience).

      They really highlighted many of the criticisms I have had for the game in that review however I am still on the fence whether I agree with them 100%.

    "I don’t think finding a shooter that feels enjoyable or entertaining to play is particularly noteworthy anymore."

    Not sure I agree with that statement. There's a lot of shooters out there and a good chunk of them just feel like shooting galleries with no real fun or impact to them.

      Enjoyment and entertainment, no longer what you're looking for in a game. WTF do you want from a game then?


          A box of one dozen starving, crazed weasels riding on a unicorn flying straight from the ex-planet Pluto on a beam of glazed donuts.

            I like donuts.

              I like trains.

                I like you...

                  Well...that got awkward pretty quickly. :P

        I meant a game that is enjoyable and entertaining should be noteworthy as I feel a chunk of shooters are not.

        Engagement, a game should not HAVE to be fun, that's just stupidly limiting.

        Could you imagine the film industry today if it was limited to only providing films that provided a "fun" experience?

        Spec Ops: The Line shows perfectly that games do not need to be fun to be engaging.

          Arma II also proves this. Can't wait for Arma III.

          In all honesty I loved the early CoD's. Loved MW and liked World at War enough that it was the last iteration I actually enjoyed. MW2 onwards was the beginning of my distaste for anything MW or CoD. I have played all campaigns and will probably attempt a shot at BLOPS2 (borrowed) but BLOPS is the only one I haven't yet seen through to its conclusion. Horrible game.

          I take absolutely zero enjoyment/ satisfaction from the multiplayer of any of the franchise so I'm not bothering. In fact, I'm on the first bandwagon heading in the opposite direction.

          I play a shit tonne of games except for MMO's and fighters like Tekken etc. Hell, I don't even like playing Halo!!! Not my cup of tea. Coming from a guy who can spend hours on CitiesXL and Arma along with almost any RTS out there. I agree totally that a game doesn't need to be "Fun" to be engaging. I can play missions and scenarios in Arma until dawn. Always looking for different ways to fulfil mission objectives (huge game). Not to mention building my own scenarios whenever I have the time and patience to do so... I can zoom around in almost any racer out there in my sim rig and have a blast for hours. A chore for some. And what about any other FPS or 3rd person action title? Well I play a lot. So there are plenty out there which make it impossible for me to feel compelled to spend the time and money required to get the most out of a game like CoD.

          Hey Bohemia, how's my new baby doin'?

      (I really should just sign up for an account again)
      The statement makes perfect sense when you understand what it meant to say, however poorly it conveyed its idea. The way I interpreted the statement was that we come to expect a certain amount of joy or entertainment whenever we make a conscious choice to play a shooter, we know what we are getting into when we hit play and the fact of the matter is, this is no longer enough to pique our interest anymore because there are just so bloody many of the damned things available.

      It is much the same in the MMO genre, most people still play WoW as opposed to any other MMO because, regardless of how any new MMO has tried to innovate the genre, they have still kept the basic paradigm the same, and for most people, while they will poke around in a new title for a bit and praise how well it executed the parts it did differently, at the end of the day, we admit that it really isn't that much different from WoW, and WoW did the basics better.

      Ultimately, it doesn't matter if something is enjoyable or entertaining to play if it is just another clone of a title that already does as well, what a new title tried to convince you it does better.

      Aion had flying, but it was still just WoW
      RIFT had an amazing class customisation, but it was still just WoW
      TERA had a cool combat system, but it was still just Aion, which was still just WoW

      What you need to ask yourself is "does the innovative selling point of a game make it worth playing over the game that it ripped off in order to exist in the first place" :P

        I think the writers comments were quite easily understandable (in this regard, not necessarily throughout the review).

        He's saying that AAA FPSs' are consistently competent in terms of being enjoyable and entertaining, and I'd agree with that.

        I enjoyed Call of Juarez, the Cartel, Bodycount, Duke Nukem Forever - and older FPSs such as Aliens vs Predator, Turok, FEAR. All have their issues and the first 3 i've mentioned were panned by the critics in general, but despite that I personally found them to be enjoyable and entertaining. By and large their physics and general gameplay work well. I can agree with some of the shooting gallery comments, but even so, being in a shooting gallery can be fun. Not AS much fun as being in a high-energised CoD game, but fun none the less. I've not played the latest MoH as yet and I'm sure I'll find it to be flawed when I do play it, but I'm also confident that in general it will play well. The guns will feel good, and to me it feels good to play with guns. Sure, it won't be as good as a CoD game, but that doesn't mean that it won't offer enjoyment, unless you're the type to refuse to accept enjoyment from anything other than the genre leaders at any given time.

        We could even extend the notion to non AAA games. Gotham City Impostors is a lot of fun, Sniper V2 looks fun to me (i've only played the PSN demo so far). Battlefield 1943. F2P offerings such as Tribes. Homefront was forgettable, but by no means awful. It was a fun little romp if you treated it as such. If you were expecting (and paid for) a ground breaking game I'm sure you'd have been disapointed, but if you just want to experience a competent shooter it would surely satisfy.

          SHE is saying.

    This is the greatest analysis of a COD game I've ever read, and the game isn't even out yet. From a gameplay standpoint it didn't really do much, but as an analysis of the themes it was fantastic. Thank you for posting this.

    That notion of a "consumerist combatant" is one that some people argue that Borderlands 2 also shows. That's a weird topic for a trend. Weaponising people's gadget lust is probably going to be an effective method to get them to play, but the ethical implications could be disturbing.

      Its not real! Much like Magic the gathering, dungeons and dragons and pokemon. Transposing your (individual & particular) ethical paradigm onto art/code is an unnecessary and a illusionary act. You are shooting illusions in the head the entire game. The "consumerist combatant" is not new - see +6 swords, -+20 chainmail etc.

    Black ops 2 is fun, fudge allthese hipsters saying 'i liked cod before itgot. Popular' waaaaa

      Well I had a ton of fun with Blops 1. May actually pick up number 2 pretty soon.

        Agreed, only reason I'm looking at getting BLOPS2 is because of how much fun I had with friends playing the first one, after MW1 I've steered clear of that arc simply because when I played a borrowed copy of MW2 I didn't get the same enjoyment out of it.

      Almost fell for it, then I saw your username. Well done.

    I'm interested in playing it. I turned MW3 off after three missions but fancy weapons and a near-future setting has swayed me.
    Plus, it's inevitable that my brother will get it, and I'm relatively sure I can put aside six hours to play the campaign.

    The last "realistic shooter" (god I hate that term) that I played for any extended period of time was MW1, of those who have played BO2, would you recommend it to someone who hasn't burned out on the CoD franchise after playing rehashes year in, year out? I am after a bit of a change in pace from Borderlands 2, WoW, torchlight 2 and diablo 3.

    Brilliant review Patricia! There really is a great game just sitting there under all the usual hate that COD attracts...

    Was that even a review? It felt like an english lit piece.

    I really just want a review of the game. I'll work out the broader implications myself. No need to talk about how awesome or in depth the plot is, I just want to know if it's fun, how the gameplay works and if the graphics are sweet. None of which you mentioned.

      Yeah, I felt the review was a bit like an essay. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. In some ways I really liked the review, but in others it didn't give me what i'm looking for. Enjoyable, thought provoking, interesting, but not very informative or helpful (for me).

      I already own MW2, MW3, WaW and BLOPS. I've played the single player campaign of each only once and I've only been disapointed by BLOPS, but I was stupidly excited for that one.

      I've not played multiplayer much with any of them, but I've been thinking about it.

      I've recently started playing Spec Ops with my wife on MW2 and we've been loving it.

      What I'd like to know is:-

      Is the campaign a lot of fun? How long is it roughly? To be honest I don't think I need to be sold on the campaign, I think it looks awesome (and I hate using that word).

      Does it have a 2 player split screen campaign / mode that I can play with my wife? If so, is that Zombies? I'm not sure if we'll like Zombies - is there another way to play 2 player split screen? And if so, how good is it?

      Should I delve into BLOPS 2 multiplayer, or am I better off to first explore multiplayer on some of the other CoDs?

      For most games I would just wait for a price drop, but it seems that the CoD games are very resistant to that, and because I can be so confident that I will like a CoD single player campaign a lot, for me it's a game that I can justify purchasing at full retail price.

      Oh by the way, can I comment that I think this game will win most Game of The Year awards and I think it will be the biggest selling game ever. To me, as a fairly casual CoD fan, it just looks like it's the same as other CoDs but nitro-fied, and then given a massive dose of Zombis to ensure great value.

      Activision really do see to be nursing the CoD cash cow pretty well.

      Last edited 14/11/12 1:40 am

      A poorly written (first year) lit piece that misses out on the basics of reviewing. I still have no ficking idea about the actual gameplay.

    prob best to get this on console, it looks nice on pc, but mp is a f**ksplosion of net lag/pc lag/100% cpu usage(660ti + i5 760, it's not me). and all sorts of other bugs. any1 else pc experience this?

    Last edited 14/11/12 3:34 am

      Nope. It's just you brah! Works like a charm on both of my rigs...

      I Have it on pc and the first match played was very lagy but all matches after that have been fine even with my so called strict nat and my cpu strolls along whilst playing I have a i7 3770 and gtx 670

    "[Its] triumph is found in how it assembles modern-day issues".

    That's a fairly big statement. Tackling issues like consumerism in modern times is fair, but the question of the automation of war through technological advancement has been discussed for the past few decades at least, perhaps even as early as the forties. "Who holds the keys" has been an issue that is explored in just about every AI-invoked apocalypse story ever. Does BlOps2 bring any new ideas to the discussion, or does it just rehash the same old concerns?

    The past few years have made it difficult to put "modern military shooter" and "thought-provoking" in the same room, let alone the same sentence, so forgive me if I'm not optimistic.

    Was this a review, or a sermon? I've never read a review that did so much ranting about the state of society and so little actual reviewing of the game. What is the basic premise of the game? What was the game like? How did it play? What are the weapons like? The only time information like this is even hinted at seem to be only as ways to lead in to the reviewers comments about how this game made him think about things. We don't care how this game made you think, we care about what the game is like... and THAT is what a review is supposed to cover. If you want to write about the deep philopsophical thoughts that a game prompted in you, please keep it to blogs where such sorts of comments belong, and keep the reviews for actually REVIEWING the game.

    Where are the editors on this site that let such a review through?

    Last edited 28/11/12 5:47 pm

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