Treyarch must often feel like the younger sibling in the Call of Duty family. When your older brother is Infinity Ward, the studio credited with placing Call of Duty on the map, being the underdog just comes with the territory.
Sometimes being the underdog has its perks, it allows you to experiment a bit more. While the game wasn’t as popular as European theater WWII titles and the Modern Warfare series, I found that Treyarch’s World at War to be a different take on the Pacific theater. Japanese ambushes, a different style of combat, and the hordes of enemies in the game’s finale all showed massive potential for a deeper look at the more misunderstood front of WWII. When Treyarch made Black Ops two years later, exploring the Cold War and the concept of sleeper agents, it was a bold move that showed the series still had the stones to try something a little different. In hindsight, Black Ops looks much stronger after the disappointing ending to Modern Warfare 3.
So when Black Ops II came out at the end of last year I found myself struggling with the balance of Treyarch’s reputation versus their attempts at trying something different. On the one hand I saw them as the Call of Duty studio that clung to Infinity Ward’s coattails for dear life because while World at War and Black Ops were both good games, they lacked the storytelling at tight gameplay that Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare had become synonymous with. But I also recognized Treyarch’s knack for straying from the path. While Infinity Ward had become formulaic with their game design and predictable “shock” levels (walking through a nuclear radiation cloud and the infamous “No Russian” mission), Treyarch kept you on your toes storywise with the ideas of illusions and sleeper agents and through gameplay changes like custom building weapons to the popular zombie mode.
Black Ops II was Treyarch’s coming out party. Set in the near future, Black Ops II uses the events of the original game as a catalyst for events that occur in the future. While predominantly focusing on future weapons, technology and strategies, Black Ops II also ventures into the years following the Cold War and what CIA work Alex Mason and Frank Woods have got their hands on. It is a story of cause and effect, with the results of decisions and performance echoing towards the future and impacting the events that Mason’s son David has to face. It is the first Call of Duty to explore player decision making by creating consequences that aren’t felt in the moment, but make a difference later on in the game. The survival of certain characters mean the deaths of others at later points in the game. Treyarch put effort into fleshing out multiple scenarios with different characters present, and the impact was something that made the story mode stand out.
Another addition to the game was Strike Force Missions which is Call of Duty’s take on a real time strategy title. In Strike Force you jump into the body of a deployed soldier, tasked with anything ranging from detonation of bombs to defending a server room. You are joined by multiple soldiers and even some of the future tech like armored rolling minigun robots, CLAW walkers and mini helicopters with attached assault rifles. You can switch between units on the fly and tell groups to patrol or move forward. It is a good idea on paper, and I commend Treyarch for trying something different, but ultimately Strike Force suffers from spotty AI support and the fact that you are often vastly outnumbered and have no choice of your random soldier’s loadout. It is a frantic experience that has a ton of potential, it just wasn’t ready yet (it works better in multiplayer). The inclusion in the game isn’t bad, but having it required for campaign makes the mode more of a chore and less of a side distraction.
While I often commend the main characters in Call of Duty games (Soap McTavish is one of my all time favorites), I found the characters in Black Ops II to be lacking. The main cast of the Alex Mason & Frank Woods and David Mason & Mike Harper were a solid bunch when in mission, but cutscenes has characters regress to a one-note version of themselves. Even worse is that the commanding officer of David Mason’s operations, Admiral Tommy Briggs, is the most annoying, shallow, foul mouthed character ever written in a franchise that is not known to have a ton of depth. Briggs penchant for overusing expletives to describe everything is childish and provides a glimpse as to why Call of Duty doesn’t get a ton of respect beyond its solid gameplay.
The loadout options between Cold War weaponry and future-tech is interesting. While throughout the story mode you only have access to era appropriate loadouts, seeing a selection of post-Vietnam M16s alongside fictitious future weapons is fun. Black Ops II profusely enjoys mixing things up by combining eras of weaponry, creating new technology that would feel at home in a Tom Clancy book (or game) and then throwing hordes of zombies after you.
It’s a weird balance, and something that I think Treyarch might want to move away from. I understand the appeal of having a little tongue in cheek humor at times, and their zombie mode is always a nice challenge to deviate to, but when I think about staving off hordes of enemies I often choose to play Modern Warfare 3’s Spec Ops survival over Black Ops II’s Zombies. Zombies, dream weapons and an after credits ending featuring Avenged Sevenfold that had me mouth agape are all signs that Treyarch is clearly content being the younger, slightly more immature, sibling.
Black Ops II gets a big A for effort and originality, but never quite reaches its lofty goals. An otherwise solid campaign that manages to be interesting and toys with the idea of consequence is hampered by the out of place inclusion of Strike Force missions. Black Ops II is Treyarch’s best work to date, but they still have a bit of growing up to do.