As I write this article, the fourth bout between Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao is on the horizon, which makes a lot of people excited but, at the same time, tentative. It is probably the biggest boxing match of the year after almost a decade and three previous inconclusive matches. While most boxing analysts say that not much will change and the outcome will not be too different from the previous events, it will still definitely be hugely profitable and, just by mere size, raise the profile of boxing beyond the hardcore boxing fan base. Fans know what to expect and it might get predictable but, at the same time, knowledge of the familiar is always comforting.
Sequels in video game franchises are similar. Treyarch’s Black Ops 2 is the equivalent to the Pacquiao vs. Marquez IV match in magnitude in the video game world and is expected to break sales records worldwide. Critics are quick to point out the linear and restrictive campaign formula of the Call of Duty series but Treyarch has promised improvements to both the single player storyline campaign as well as the replayability aspects of the gameplay.
Black Ops 2 is the latest chapter in the 1st person shooter spin-off from the Call of Duty franchise. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is a continuation of the shadowy cold-war storyline introduced two years ago. Set in 2025 with narrative flashbacks to the early 80s that flesh out the character origins, Black Ops 2 expands upon the Call of Duty formula by introducing new nonlinear gameplay elements and alternate outcomes based on player choice. Also new is the use of DirectX 11 API to the Call of Duty game engine, bringing improved lighting, shadows, ambient occlusion, depth of field enhancements as well as a more GPU optimal performance, unlike the first Black Ops title, which ran on DirectX 9. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is also compatible with NVIDIA’s 3D Vision stereoscopic 3D gameplay and carries a performance rating of “Good” for the campaign mode, while the zombie and multiplayer modes are rated "Excellent" with the latest GeForce 310.70 drivers.
The story opens up with the haunting track “The Night Will Always Win” by Elbow as we see a glimpse of Raul Menendez, the game’s main antagonist’s back story. The characters introduced in the first Black Ops title return, although playing the previous game is not necessary to follow the story. What transpires after the opening scenes is the trademark non-stop action formula we have come to expect from the Call of Duty franchise that takes the player all over the world across four continents and several decades. To address previous criticisms of low replayability value and strictly linear gameplay, Call of Duty Black Ops 2 introduces action dependent adventure, ensuring multiple endings and narratives that branch out. While the game itself is mostly “on-a-rail” and quick-time events are still present, the storyline is well-written and directed enough that it remains compelling and balances out the lack of gameplay mechanics inherent in the Call of Duty formula.
The ever popular Zombie mode introduced first in Call of Duty: World at War title makes a return with new added game modes. The original survival mode remains while the new “Tranzit” mode allows players to play multiple maps accessed by an automated bus transit system. The third mode is the “Grief” mode which pits a pair of four player teams against each other, as well as Zombies.
In multiplayer mode, the create-a-class system has been tweaked to be “pick 10”, giving users 10 points to distribute to the weapons and skills they wish. There are also wildcards which require additional points but allows extra perks or attachments and more. You can even choose to just rock your melee weapon which doesn’t cost a point and just invest on perks and pick up guns from dead bodies along the way. The Pick 10 system is also balanced in the fact that additional perks have no effect on weapons anymore so weapon damage is the same coming from everyone and is only affected by additional attachments.
In terms of kill streak rewards, players now gain them from the total score instead of just for killing, meaning more decisive and deliberate players can get as much chance to earn a reward as the gung-ho player who is out for blood. Kill Confirmed mode, introduced in Modern Warfare 3 makes a return, as well as the classic Deathmatch, Free-for-All, Capture-the-Flag, Domination, Search & Destroy, Headquarters, and Demolition mode. There is also one additional mode called “Hardpoint”, which is essentially Headquarters mode with respawn enabled and random placement. Multi-team gameplay is also now available for Team Deathmach, Kill Confirmed and Hardpoint modes. Party games aka Wager match mode is back as well for users who want to wager their points but now also have the added benefit of ranking up, unlike in the previous Black Ops game.
Treyarch has also worked to revamp theater mode, allowing users to bookmark, edit and create highlight reels and has an integrated “CodCasting” option so users can immediately share their gameplay videos through YouTube. Black Ops II also adds “CoD TV”, a CoD video portal built into the game allowing users to see the most popular videos, subscribe to channels and give feedback ala YouTube.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II moves to DirectX 11 API from DirectX 9, bringing about improvements in lighting, shadows, depth of field, ambient occlusion and anti-aliasing. The move to DirectX 11 also means that the game engine is less CPU dependent and is much more highly optimized to utilize video card resources compared to older Call of Duty titles.
Ambient Occlusion and Depth of Field
A shading technique most modern gamers are familiar with, the image improvement brought upon by this global shading method is very noticeable, compared to previous titles lacking this technique. Screen Space Ambient Occlusion is hardly a new technique, implemented first in Crysis back in 2007. It is an efficient and dynamic implementation executed entirely from the GPU. Image performance is almost imperceptible between having Ambient Occlusion turned off vs. having it turned on with a noticeable framerate penalty, so users with a weaker graphics card can opt to disable this feature to gain framerate boost before they look to tweak anything else in their graphical setting.
As with previous Call of Duty games, there is a Depth of Field enhancement in effect in certain scenes, especially when aiming down sights. The surrounding areas lose focus while not completely blurred or imperceptible thanks to the DirectX11 improvement, which brings a more accurate depth of field calculation compared to the depth of field mask from the first Call of Duty: Black Ops title.
The merit of FXAA has been known for some time now and is present in most of the recent crop of popular games. It presents an efficient anti-aliasing solution over the traditional MSAA with nominal penalty to framerates. As we have also seen in some games, there is image quality degradation visible as blurry textures when this technique is used. Setting FXAA to Very High doesn't seem to have as much of a negative impact to the texture quality in Black Ops II, however, perhaps due to the massive texture size that the details are not lost. FXAA is especially useful for ultra-high resolution settings, such as 2560x1600, or triple-monitor surround, allowing playable framerates with maximum setting, even on just a single GeForce GTX 670.
The latest Kepler cards are capable of TXAA, which comes in 2X and 4X modes. TXAA is essentially an improved MSAA that fixes temporal aliasing artifact issues allowing for a smoother motion sequence compared to traditional anti-aliasing modes. TXAA should not be enabled when using FXAA or Ambient Occlusion, however, as it will result in blurriness.
Fraps was used to run the benchmarks while playing the first episode of the campaign mode.
Everybody by now is familiar with the Call of Duty formula and what to expect from the game, so keeping the title fresh is not always an easy task. While half the fans want the Call of Duty team to try out new things, a lot of other fans want the formula kept the same because it works, for the most part. While it is unfair to criticize a game just by virtue of it choosing to be primarily narrative driven and has minimal actual gameplay mechanics, there are points to consider about the franchise’s responsibility as the largest and biggest blockbuster video game in history. Should Treyarch change the formula for the sake of artistic merit as the critics demand? What for? Obviously, the formula works and it fails for the most part not because of the amount of interactivity but because the story and the narrative have not been well executed (at least not since Call of Duty 4, or if you are more lenient, the first Call of Duty: Black Ops game). Besides, that is what Zombie and Multiplayer modes are for. Thankfully, Treyarch feels the same and although they have introduced some tweaks to Call of Duty’s campaign mode, most of the improvement focused on the story and the storytelling aspect, while keeping the working formula intact. The only thing that almost derails the experience in the campaign are the bugs and glitches. Although the latest patch fixes a lot of these issues, some still remain and can be really annoying.
Along with the tried and tested formula, Call of Duty: Black Ops II returns with the best texture and character animation in the business. Now with the added benefit of DirectX 11 enhancement, Call of Duty Black Ops II’s graphics engine has renewed confidence. Even without tessellation, the character models look fantastic with high-res textures and DirectX11 lighting/shadows. The move to DirectX11 API also means that highly efficient GPUs, such as the Kepler series video cards from NVIDIA, can really push the framerates to the stratosphere even with maximum settings. With 8X MSAA and at 1920x1080, even the GTX 650Ti was pushing 60+ frames per second in the heat of a heavy firefight. The latest 310.70 drivers carry a 3D Vision “Good” rating, although Zombie and Multiplayer mode are already rated "Excellent". Future updates will most likely bump the Campaign mode up to the highest rating as with the previous Call of Duty game. Despite this, I didn’t see any huge stereoscopic issues and it was perfectly playable in Campaign mode.
Overall, Call of Duty Black Ops 2 stuck with formula but has managed to introduce new aspects and elements that improve the experience. The narrative is a lot tighter, even compared to the original Black Ops title, but due to some glitches experienced and the number of quick time events, it still doesn’t dethrone Call of Duty 4 in terms of overall satisfaction. A certain level of quality is always expected from blockbuster AAA titles like Call of Duty and Treyarch hits the right notes this time delivering a satisfying game all around, not just in terms of multiplayer replayability but with the main campaign mode as well.