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Call of Duty: Black Ops II Hardened Edition
Score: 90%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 4; 2 - 16 (Online)
Genre: Action/ First Person Shooter/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
Another year, another Call of Duty. Activision's crown jewel is still going strong, despite the countless feelings of déjà vu each one tends to inspire. Don't get me wrong: I've stuck with the series since the very beginning. But there's only so many times I'll go through the same experience before calling it quits. Though Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was a great game, it brought me closer to that point than any other installment. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is my favorite installment since World at War for one simple reason: it tries new things.

Activision sure has gotten a lot of mileage out of this engine. And why not? It's silky-smooth and lightning-fast. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is the best-looking CoD to date, and the artistic style has an awful lot to do with that. The near-future setting is exploited to the fullest: there are lots of machines, haptic screens, holograms, and fascinating weapons technology at play. I particularly like the wrist-mounted grenade launchers and the GalvaKnuckles. This is easily the most violent Call of Duty game ever made: the very first scene has you watching a comrade writhing in agony inside the inferno of an overturned vehicle. Oh, and did I mention you get a closeup view of the poor guy's skin melting off his face? Limbs fly, blood sprays, and bodies drop.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II might polarize as far as the sound goes. There's a lot of bass and drum in the soundtrack (at least in the near-future levels), so if you're not a fan of dubstep, some parts might annoy you. The voice acting is better this time around, mostly because Sam Worthington's character has a much smaller presence. I thought his performance as Alex Mason was (and still is) absolutely wretched, thanks to his inability to conceal his Australian accent. James C. Burns continues to tear it up as the bitter, misanthropic Frank Woods, and Michael Keaton takes over Ed Harris' role as Hudson. However, there's less Gary Oldman this time around, and while the circumstances surrounding his character make that unsurprising, it's still a bummer. Sound effects are terrific. The Warthog in particular sounds absolutely terrifying.


Gameplay:
Call of Duty: Black Ops II probably has the best story of any Call of Duty game yet. Don't get me wrong: it's still absolute nonsense, but unbelievable stories can still engage the imagination. It features parallel storylines, each of which deals with a Nicaraguan narco-terrorist named Raul Menendez. The main guys from the original Black Ops pursue him in the past, while the new blood (led by Alex Mason's son David, codename "Section") does their best to take out his operation before it irrevocably leads the world into a new dark age. Menendez is easily the most fascinating villain in the entire Call of Duty universe; he's the kind of charismatic psychopath you love to hate.

The most interesting thing about the storytelling in Call of Duty: Black Ops II is the fact that your personal approach to a handful of key situations dictates what happens in the endgame. Even better, the game doesn't always make it clear when you're directly shaping the outcome. It's the polar opposite of something like inFAMOUS, which tells you exactly what your choices are and what you must do to make them. The endings aren't that numerous, but they will probably inspire replays.

Another fascinating diversion in the Campaign is the inclusion of Strike Force Missions. These are pseudo-real-time-strategy excursions that have you dispatching combat troops and ordering them to complete specific objectives. The actual strategy gameplay is horribly-implemented, as the artificial intelligence is practically broken. However, you can assume direct command of each unit at will, which makes for an interesting experience. I can't wait to see where they go with this.

Online multiplayer is Call of Duty's raison d'être; without it, the series simply wouldn't survive. The offerings included in Call of Duty: Black Ops II won't surprise anyone who's stuck with this franchise for the last five years, but they are reliably strong. Lots of classics make their comebacks: Kill Confirmed, Gun Game, Domination, Search and Destroy. If you want it in your Call of Duty experience, chances are, it's here for you.

This is a Treyarch Call of Duty, so you can bet your bottom dollar that Zombies is back. I won't lie: this mode acted as a sleep-aid for me. I'm so unbelievably tired of the zombie craze that anything even remotely related to the undead (with the notable exception of a certain AMC series) is just an instant turnoff. There are some interesting changes to the formula, though: Grief Mode puts you on one of two teams. The last team standing wins, so when a member of another team goes down, you'll probably do whatever you can to keep that person from being revived. It's a nice change of pace, but it's not enough to save this mode from feeling stale.


Difficulty:
Call of Duty: Black Ops II doesn't fix what isn't broken. Each of its advertised difficulty settings is right on the money -- well, with the exception of Veteran, which again tells you that you won't survive. Enemies do not pour on in endless waves, but the ones that show up don't go down without a fight.

If you're taking your game online, good luck. This series is mainly populated by hardcore fans who have been playing these games (and probably only these games) since 2007. They are skilled, they are merciless, and they are wildly diverse with regards to maturity level. I've dealt with my share of screaming children over the years, and hear you me, this is not a game you want to play with a headset on if you've had a bad day at work or school.


Game Mechanics:
No surprises, for the most part. Call of Duty: Black Ops II doesn't mess with the franchise's characteristically sharp and precise controls. Moving, aiming, shooting, and stabbing/punching is as fluid and satisfying as it's ever been, and the only real differences are in the instruments of destruction you choose to wage war with.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II features a Scorestreak system, which works exactly as you'd expect it to. Each ability has a certain score prerequisite to it: the higher the score requirement, the better it invariably is. So naturally, you won't need as many points in a single life to earn a UAV as you would to call in a swarm of drones. Then again, the UAV wouldn't likely kill off the entire team.

I was fortunate enough to receive the Hardened Edition of Call of Duty: Black Ops II. But what are they? Of course, you get a nice big box containing the game (in steelbook), the soundtrack, some challenge coins, an extra weapon camouflage, and some player card backgrounds. In my opinion, this isn't nearly worth the twenty extra dollars, and the super hardcore will probably go for the Care Package anyway.

If you're a fan of this franchise, you probably already own Call of Duty: Black Ops II. If you're sick to death of the series, try it out: you might be surprised. Personally, I'm just glad that the folks at Treyarch aren't content to simply sit on their laurels. If you choose to pick this one up, good on you -- this is the best the franchise has been in years.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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