As a whole, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is a strange confluence of three discrete and disparate ideas. There’s the traditional story element which seems to be losing both relevance and priority as the years and the sequels go on, an idea reinforced by this year’s release. Grasping at the zeitgeist, it offers branching decisions within the main story, a well-executed if slightly meandering narrative punctuated with horrible messes and spots of genius.
The zombie partition seems to be cloying at some notion of undead sentimentality. Though offered with commensurate aplomb when strung up alongside previous iterations, this one seems to offer minimal changes that add up to neither a revolution nor an evolution. Grief, while an interesting aside, isn’t really all that fun or different to play and the Tranzit sequences tend to gut the usual vittles in exchange for bus play. The bus play is, however, fairly neat, but there really just isn’t enough of it.
Perhaps strangest of all is that the multiplayer of all things is the one to cement the notion of the three-in-one Call of Duty package. Quality alone would be enough to warrant individual sales of the single player and the zombie modes (which is to say there are much worse that succeed with much less, not that either of the two in Black Ops 2 are especially worthwhile), but revenue and server stats point to the online component of every Call of Duty since Modern Warfare necessitating an emancipated release.
For the most part, you know what you’ll be getting into. The gameplay of the series has been mostly static since Modern Warfare and doesn’t look to be changing anytime soon. After all, why bother when you are the reigning king? When you are the standard and the bar setting it? Not mention that it is a tool honed to a fine point. Fast-paced console shooting is unlikely to find anything much better than it has in Call of Duty.
But unlike the other two parts of the game, Black Ops 2‘s multiplayer is rife with innovation (or at least innovation-ish things). Most apparent is the dropped 3-2-2 perk/weapon/equipment loadout system of games past in favor of something called the Pick 10, something at least partially inspired by German board game Carcassonne.
This, along with the Score Streak system replacing the barbarous Kill Streaks, has drastically overhauled and refined the Call of Duty multiplayer experience. It may not be enough to warrant a jaded shooter fan to come back to do more of the same (like, waaaayyy more of exactly the same), but it does manage to build on and improve something that was quite impeccable, gaming tastes notwithstanding.
That Pick 10, though, solves a fundamental problem within the military online shooter space: how to allow more customization without removing the balance. How do you Burger King it and allow people to have it their way without fundamentally breaking everything it is that fans have come to love and expect from a multiplayer Call of Duty experience?
Pick 10 has you spending 10 points across your entire loadout with everything costing a single point. So instead of a secondary weapon, you can put another attachment on your primary weapon. The exception is Wild Cards which allow you to equip multiple perks of the same tier at the cost of an additional point. You can also flip the bird to points altogether and just roll with a knife. You can, as promised, build a class of your own.
And that is exactly what I want. I am not usually one for secondary weapons as I’m not usually alive long enough to burn through an entire mag and force my hand at either reloading or switching guns to finish the job. It’s either I got the headshot or I’m in for a nice little respawn. But now that vestigial armament can be cut loose and I’m better for it. I can equip another flashbang, an item crucial to my tactics (that is, kill people that stumble around as they clutch their burning eye sockets).
Now the game is not necessarily a more level battlefield but definitely a more competitive one, if that makes sense. The game was always fairly balanced given that everyone had the same options—or at least chance for availability for equipment and perks—but now that you can mold the system into a custom grip, players across the board will become much more potent. Everyone gets the same gumdrops and toothpicks but not every bridge is going to be the same because not everyone needs the same bridge. You need all those Tier 1 perks because you use them to facilitate your Score Streaks. I need my swath of arms to even get a chance to kill. Our loadouts should look nothing alike, and now they don’t.
This is how Treyarch manages to answer the Burger King question. This is how they’ve made an online shooter feel as personal as a Bioware RPG (albeit in shooter parlance, but it’s still quite admirable). The Pick 10 system is something I could see making its way into other shooters, just as many other things of Call of Duty have: persistent progression, kill streaks, and now a true build-a-class system. Amidst the rote zombies and the trite campaign, an idea has grown, discrete and quarantined from the rest of its host. But is it done blossoming?