One of the least surprising launch titles may also be one of the best.
Black Ops II on the Wii U aims for a bigger and better experience, but also attempts to give its freshman outing on the new system an edge over other console versions. After playing through the campaign and spending some quality time with multiplayer and Zombies mode, the game is easily one of my favorites in the Wii U launch library.
Following the first Black Ops’ Cold War fascination, Black Ops II mainly takes place in 2025, a near-future setting previously seen in the Modern Warfare series. While maintaining most of its mannerisms, the new backdrop allows Treyarch more room for creativity. Despite its modern-day hooks, the game likes to play with the concepts of near-future gadgetry (Fun fact: NSMBU isn’t the only game in which the protagonist dons a flying squirrel suit!) as well as the power of social media.
The plot follows the efforts of David Mason (son of Alex Mason, protagonist of Black Ops) to track down the nefarious Raul Menendez. A charismatic villain out for revenge, it’s difficult to dislike him even in spite of his crimes. Meanwhile, the game often flashes back to the 1980s, where Alex Mason tries to do something similar, though under different circumstances. With these particular plotlines, one uncovering Menendez’s motives, and the other exploring what those motives have become, Black Ops II’s plot is by far the most interesting in the series. Though it tests the limits of believability at times (one mission tasks you with destroying helicopters with a bazooka while riding horseback), the game’s set pieces are well constructed and the story is engaging.
In an interesting campaign tweak, certain player choices can determine the outcome of the story. An early sequence has you interrogating an enemy; choosing not to simply kill the character means you get valuable information about the enemy, while acting otherwise has complications of its own. Black Ops II has a surprising number of these choices, and although their implications are fairly transparent, there’s often a thrill in not knowing what kind of choice you’re making.
The story also incorporates the new Strike Force missions, optional strategic affairs that have you maneuvering units around a map to defend positions and attack enemies. These missions are well designed and add a twist of real-time strategy to the experience, though they often didn’t strike my fancy. If you neglect to do them (or fail them), your campaign-based relations with China shift (the story reflects as such), though the implications are less life-and-death than story decisions.
Zombies mode returns in Black Ops II, though with a new main mode. Called Tranzit, it takes players to different locations to complete objectives and kill zombies. Though the mode is appreciated for its attempt at novelty, it lacks a meaningful narrative reason to keep going, and I didn’t see much reason to play it instead of the traditional horde-style modes or the competitive Grief mode that tasks you with trying to survive waves of zombies longer than an opponent.
Multiplayer, while as mechanically addictive as ever, shows its age in Black Ops II. Apart from new weapons, maps, and general expected content with a new game, the multiplayer component doesn’t share the freshness of the excellent single-player campaign. Its biggest changes come with the new Score Streaks (like attack drones) and futuristic weaponry that give multiplayer gameplay a feel different from Modern Warfare or the original Black Ops. Smaller changes come in new methods of class customization, such as new perks, weapon attachments (including the “Pick 10” system that allows greater customization of weapons and loadouts), and gadgets. I appreciate all of the tweaks Treyarch has made, but I think this may be the last game that can succeed without sweeping changes to the multiplayer.
GamePad support is rather minimal, allowing you to play from the screen and manipulate basic settings on the fly. The game’s local multiplayer allows one player to play on the GamePad and the other to take the full TV screen, which works well and adds tension to matches. The GamePad as a controller is serviceable, but I highly recommend playing with the Wii U Pro Controller if you have one, because the game benefits from its higher level of comfort and more focused rumble.
Graphically, the game’s engine shows some wear, but its decent graphics are complemented by a tremendous art design. Featuring minimal brown and bloom, Black Ops II is a surprisingly colorful game, moving from lush jungles to bright deserts and futuristic compounds. It’s a wonderful change for the series, and I hope it sticks in future installment. The game runs fine on Wii U, though I experienced some occasional slowdown during cut scenes.
Black Ops II on Wii U may amount to the same experience as on other systems, but it remains an impressive game. The aging multiplayer could use more of a twist, but the campaign is top-notch, and even Zombies mode manages a few new things. In the first of what will likely be many appearances on Nintendo’s new system, the franchise delivers.