Video Game Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

Call of Duty: Black Ops II
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC and Wii U)
Genre: First-person shooter
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch
Release Date: November 18, 2012

Love it or hate it, the Call of Duty franchise has been an intriguing one to watch over the years. What started as a series of World War II shooters has turned into a brand split into two territories. Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare series and Treyarch’s Black Ops have been alternating entries over the last few years, with both of them being neck-and-neck in terms of quality. With this year’s Black Ops II, Treyarch may have just taken the lead.

Building on the foundation set by its Cold War era predecessor, Black Ops II takes place in two different time periods: the 1980s and the year 2025. In the 80s, you once again take on the role of Alex Mason, the protagonist from the original game. Now retired, Mason is recruited on an unexpected mission in Angola to extract his old buddy, Frank Woods. In 2025, you play as his son, David, who has followed along in his father’s military footsteps. The common trait between the two settings is the rise of terrorist mastermind, Raul Menendez, who eventually grows to be a despicable villain seeking to create a new world war in 2025. In a nutshell, it’s the type of story you would expect from Call of Duty, but it’s so over-the-top with bombastic action set pieces and explosions that there’s never a dull moment.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

The inclusion of a futuristic setting is an exciting and much-welcomed development, as it offers a breath of fresh air from years past. The year 2025 is host to a wide variety of new military equipment, and the game isn’t afraid to throw them into the mix. One early campaign highlight has you gliding into the jungles of Myanmar using some sort of flying squirrel outfit — one of the best introductions of any level in the series. Being able to play with new gadgets is a lot of fun, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a greater emphasis placed on this in future installments.

Another compelling addition to the campaign is the Strike Force mission concept. These are optional levels that allow you to control and issue commands for an entire squad. The missions can be completed via an “Overwatch mode” from above, or by controlling individual soldiers/vehicles/etc. on your own. They are a nice change of pace from the normal linear structure of the main levels, though there is room for improvement. Sometimes AI units will remain stuck in a position, letting enemies run by them without firing. The controls can also take some getting used to, but still, it’s great to see Treyarch trying something new.

Completing any of the Strike Force missions can also alter events in the main campaign — in fact, there are several branching storyline options scattered throughout. Important characters can live or die by your actions, and these decisions will greatly affect the story’s ending. In this sense, there is a bit of additional replay value, which is a good thing since the campaign still only lasts approximately six hours (typical of the series).

Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

But regardless of the game’s largely enjoyable single player mode, nearly everyone plays Call of Duty for its multiplayer action. In this regard, Black Ops II does not disappoint. There aren’t nearly as many groundbreaking revelations online, but there are still new features sure to entice even the most seasoned veterans.

In an effort to help even out the playing field, there is a new “Pick 10” create-a-class system in which you can only keep a total of ten items (i.e. weapons, perks, grenades, etc.) on your person. This adds an element of strategy since you have to decide what pieces are most important to your style of play. Matchmaking overall has been improved to line you up with players of similar skill, and so far the results have been quite good.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

Another pleasing change is the removal of Killstreaks in favor of “Scorestreaks” — basically the same concept, but now these streaks can be built up by completing objectives (i.e. capture the flag) rather than just killing enemies. New scorestreak rewards are included as well, with several different options available to use based on your preference.

Essentially, this is the same Call of Duty multiplayer we have had for the past few years, just with a few new bells and whistles. There are some connection kinks that still need to be worked out — I have lost connection for no reason on more than a few occasions — but I suspect these will be cleaned up as usual over time.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

Since this is a Treyarch game, the popular Zombies feature is back as well. Not just restricted to the familiar Survival mode, there are two new ways to play: Tranzit (a story-based version) and Grief (two teams compete against each other while fighting off the onslaught of zombies). Fans of this feature will appreciate this new group of options, though it remains best to play with people you know. I had a difficult time getting matched up with random players despite thousands being shown available. When playing with a buddy (or three), it’s just as fun as you might remember.

With a strong combination of three entirely different main game modes — campaign, multiplayer and zombies — there’s something for everyone in Black Ops II. I had a blast playing through each of them, and multiplayer junkies will especially get their money’s worth here. While a handful of minor issues keep this from being perfect, this is still another excellent entry in a series that shows no signs of slowing down. And hey, if every Call of Duty is as good as this, why bother stopping at all?

9/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.)

Video Game Review: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD [XBLA]

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD [XBLA] Cover Art

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD
System: Xbox Live Arcade (coming soon to PSN and PC)
Genre: Extreme sports (skateboarding)
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Robomodo
Price: 1200 MSP
Release Date: July 18, 2012

Remaking the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games was going to be a tricky endeavor from the very beginning. Not only are the original Playstation titles beloved classics, they are also rather dated. The skateboarding genre has come along way since those early days, and lately EA’s Skate series has reigned supreme. Could an HD Tony Hawk game hold up today?

Activision has compiled seven levels from the first two games and given them a fresh coat of non-pixelated paint. It’s nice to finally be able to play old favorites with updated graphics, but the selection appears to be random: Warehouse, School 2, Mall, Downhill Jam, Hangar, Marseilles and Venice. Everyone has their own personal favorites, of course, but a few of these had me scratching my head (I can’t recall anyone ever going crazy over Downhill Jam, for example).

A handful of familiar skaters have returned, including Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen and Andrew Reynolds, as well as a batch of new characters. Create-a-skater is absent; in its place is the ability to use your Xbox avatar. It’s a bit odd at first to see an avatar skating around, but it’s as close as we can get to creating our own player.

The same control scheme is in place, and it only offers the bag of tricks found in the first two games (meaning no “revert” option, though that is to come in future DLC). Each level has the same goals as before — collect S-K-A-T-E, ollie the magic bum, find the secret tape, etc. — and the pieces are exactly where they have always been.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD [XBLA]

A huge wave of nostalgia came over me as I entered the Warehouse for the first time in years. It was like I was a teenager again, getting ready for my favorite two-minute fix. The familiar sounds of Powerman 5000’s “When Worlds Collide” filled the speakers. I was ready.

But then something happened. My skater didn’t move the way I remembered. I botched a simple kickflip, and instead of falling over I went flying into a ramp at the other side of the screen. Blood splattered on the ground, which was a familiar sight, but were the controls always this touchy? I got up and skated over to the half pipe. A few simple grab tricks had me feeling better about my skills, but then I wiped out again after a slightly sloppy landing. I didn’t fly as far this time, but I started to gain the perception that I needed to be a little more careful.

After a few more playthroughs, I began to adjust to the tweaked game mechanics. At first I thought I was just rusty, but it was pretty clear that the physics were completely different. Developer Robomodo remade the game using Unreal Engine 3, and in doing so lost some of the playability from before. The similarities are there, but it’s as if the physics were run through a filter before reaching their destination.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD [XBLA]

I fired up my original Tony Hawk 2 disc to see if nostalgia was tilting my perception. I ran through the Hangar without missing a beat. The couple times I did fall felt realistic, and I did not go flying off the hinges when getting big air off a half pipe. There was a pretty big difference between the two in terms of gameplay, and former THPS junkies will surely notice the changes as well.

Having said that, the new controls do improve a bit once a skater is upgraded with better stats. They’re still not perfect, but pulling off combos is a bit more manageable. It just takes a bit of work to get to that point.

With just seven levels, the single player campaign is relatively brief. It doesn’t take long to unlock each area, but some of the trickier goals are just as difficult as before. Good luck finding and hitting all of the secret tapes — it took me a while to remember where a few of them even were.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD [XBLA]

Playing with friends was always one of the highlights of the Tony Hawk series, but multiplayer this time around is online only. There is no split-screen gameplay whatsoever. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, the online matchmaking system leaves a lot to be desired. On average, I am able to connect to a quick match once out of every five attempts. This happens regardless of what mode/level I select, even if I opt for the “any” option.

When a connection actually does come through, it is still a lot of fun competing against others. There are occasional moments of random graphical glitches, but they don’t hinder gameplay. Old favorites such as Trick Attack and Graffiti are back, but H-O-R-S-E is strangely missing. In its place is a new Big Head mode, which is enjoyable even if it is peculiar to have replaced an original. I imagine the multiplayer aspect was scaled back due to cost and/or time issues, but the omissions, particularly split-screen, are glaring.

I wanted to love Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, I really did. To be able to play some of my all-time favorite games again with updated graphics is, in some ways, a dream come true. It’s a shame that the original in-game physics could not be replicated, because otherwise it would be easier to ignore the game’s other faults. It’s not that this is a *bad* game per se, it’s just that it could not live up to its lofty expectations. Messing with nostalgia is a dangerous thing, and this feels like a Tony Hawk game, but one that is stripped of its soul.

6/10

 
Side note: if you really want to play this and have the option to play on a different system, I recommend waiting for the PS3 version, at least if you are a d-pad user. The 360’s d-pad does not do this game any favors.

(A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.)

Video Game Review: Singularity [Xbox 360, 2010]

Singularity [Xbox 360, 2010]

Singularity
System: Xbox 360
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Raven Software
Release Date: June 29, 2010

Take a large heaping of Bioshock and sprinkle in elements of Half-Life and F.E.A.R. and you have a pretty good idea of what Singularity is all about. A much overlooked first person shooter, Raven Software’s Singularity is something that I would have known nothing about if a friend of mine had not brought up his love for the game. While its influences are readily noticeable, Singularity is able to mold them all together into its own unique adventure.

The game takes place on Katorga-12, a fictional Russian island that served as the breeding grounds for a bizarre experimentation during the Cold War. You play as Nathan Renko, a soldier sent to the island to investigate a recent mysterious blast that damaged an American spy satellite. After a rude helicopter landing, Renko discovers that things are very, very wrong there, and he begins slipping through time between the years 1955 and 2010. It turns out that the Russians were messing around with the powerful Element 99, with their master plan being world domination. As is expected with any good-natured protagonist, Renko sets out to end all of this madness.

Singularity [Xbox 360, 2010]

While the story isn’t going to win any awards for creativity, it is deep enough to maintain interest, and the frequent jumps from past to present day keep things fresh. In order to actually do the time traveling, Renko is equipped with the TMD (Time Manipulation Device), a badass weapon that is the game’s major selling point. Not only can the TMD propel Renko through time, but it can also turn enemies to dust — a very handy trick, no doubt. The TMD allows Nate to have objects sent to him (a la Half-Life 2’s Gravity Gun) and it can send massive pulses of energy that maim enemies. When I say “maim”, I mean it. There are some pretty gruesome deaths in this game, and shooting enemies can lead to limbs flying everywhere. Outside of the impressive TMD, there are standard weapons available, including assault rifles and rocket launchers, as well as an awesome Seeker rifle that lets you control its bullets in slow motion. Needless to say, there are a lot of cool toys available.

The sheer amount of weapon choices makes combat a blast. There’s nothing like shooting an enemy with the TMD, then quickly reverting it into a mutant which in turn starts attacking anything around it (i.e. the bad guys). There are two main types of enemies to slaughter: evil Russian soldiers from 1955 and then their disgusting mutated counterparts from 2010. A handful of exciting boss battles and some clever puzzles also keep things rolling throughout the roughly ten hour single player campaign.

Singularity [Xbox 360, 2010]

Singularity has the added bonus of a surprisingly great online multiplayer mode. Drawing heavily from Left 4 Dead (in the form of humans vs. mutants), the multiplayer allows you to choose the type of character you want to be, as well as their special abilities. I wasn’t expecting much from the online portion, but I quickly got sucked into the experience. Unfortunately, the game itself wasn’t a big seller and therefore the online community is fairly small one year later. If you can get a good game going, however, it’s a lot of fun.

The overall game isn’t without its faults. There are some annoying moments (most of which involve Phase Ticks, equivalent to Gears of War’s ticker enemies), and it can take a little while to learn all of the TMD controls. There are also some laughably Russian accents used by the handful of recurring characters. Still, these are all minor blips on what is a surprisingly engaging experience.

Singularity doesn’t really try anything new, but as a compilation of excellent aspects from various other games, it certainly succeeds. This is a bargain bin title these days, and it is a steal at $20 or less. It’s a shame that this wasn’t the big seller Activision was hoping it would be, because this is one of the most interesting first person shooters to come out in recent years.

8/10

Call of Duty: Black Ops [Xbox 360, 2010]

Call of Duty: Black Ops [Xbox 360, 2010]

Call of Duty: Black Ops
System: Xbox 360
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch
Release Date: November 19, 2010

Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.

Another year, another Call of Duty. The latest edition is from Treyarch, who also made Call of Duty: World at War and COD 3. Black Ops is their first foray into “modern” warfare, although it takes place during the 60’s and addresses both the Vietnam War and the Cold War. I must say that I am quite happy Treyarch didn’t go back to “ol’ reliable” because the last thing we need is another World War II first person shooter. Although the modern warfare FPS genre is beginning to get a little saturated as well, Black Ops keeps it fresh by going into the 60’s.

The single player campaigns are beginning to become almost an afterthought in the Call of Duty series, but they are still typically a lot of fun to play through. Black Ops is no exception, and it follows the story of a soldier who is being interrogated about information that he cannot remember. You play through various events in his life, picking up on bits and pieces of memories as you go along. There is a big plot twist at the end, but anyone who has seen a select movie or two will know exactly where the story is going. The individual levels are solid and some are particularly memorable — I loved riding in on a boat and blasting everything on screen while “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones played. I was a little annoyed that picking up guns and ammunition is basically worthless since you are given new weapons for every level, but that is a minor inconvenience. The campaign isn’t as good as the two Modern Warfare titles, but it’s still worthy of at least one play through.

The reason the majority of gamers play COD games is for the multiplayer. The same basic online play is still here, but there are some notable differences. For one, this time around you have to purchase upgrades for your weapons rather than unlock them via leveling up. The money required to do so is earned by performing well during game sessions and by gaining XP. One cool new “wager” mode provides the ability to gamble these COD points in an attempt to get even more. Most of the old favorite game modes are still here, such as Deathmatch, Headquarters and Domination, just to name a few, and most of the perks/weapons are back as well. There are also some welcome new additions that are unlocked over time. What I like most about Black Ops’ multiplayer is that you can pretty much mold your character into what you want it to be right from the beginning. It may take some time to unlock your favorite weapon, but you can gain access to all of the available perks very quickly.

Since this is a Treyarch game, it should also be noted that the Zombies mode is still available, if you’re into that sort of thing. The Spec Ops mode introduced in Modern Warfare 2 is nowhere to be found.

Overall, I cannot deny that Black Ops is an incredibly well made game, and it is easily the best COD game that Treyarch has released yet. I still prefer the previous two Modern Warfare games, but this one is right up there with them. Although the single player campaign is the usual six hours in length, the multiplayer provides countless hours of gameplay, and the new COD points system adds a whole new dynamic. I know I am going to spend a lot of time with this one…

8.5/10