Call of Duty! A different Call of Duty! Need for Speed (again)! Halo 4 (again)!

Last week was a good week for games. I mean, a really good week, and I didn't fully appreciate that until this week, which had some spectacular low points along with a couple of highs.

Herein lies the tale of the week, starting Monday the 12th of November 2012.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

This was an inevitability. A new Call of Duty is released and much of the internet sneers, and the rest of it is unusually quiet because, well, it's busy playing Call of Duty. I buy Call of Duty every year, and you can stop rolling your eyes right now mister/ma'am because no matter how you may decry it, the package offered on a yearly basis is always one of very good value. It's problem is one of increasingly being stale upon delivery.

Except not this year. Black Ops II tries, in its campaign at least, to make things a little more interesting, and to smarten itself up and come up with some new tricks. At one point during the game it takes ten minutes to run you through an honest-to-goodness tutorial. Not a "look here, crawl under this, jump over that" refresher, but time spent explaining new systems and having you experiment with them, then asking if you'd like to replay the tutorial before this shit gets real. The campaign is not entirely linear either. Sure, the levels are, but there is actual choice here, and, more commendably, actual choice that is not thrust in your face, and the extent and implication of which is not made clear at all and can often have unforeseen (yet perfectly legitimate) consequences. I was never aware of the old infinitely respawning enemies trick during any point, and according to the Guardian's reviewer they're gone entirely (though I will see if that is indeed the case when I replay on Veteran).

So far, so correcting a list of faults. Too linear? Gone. Too many respawning enemies? Finito. Too few pseudo-real time strategy sections? Say bwuh? Strike Missions, man. There's four or five optional levels in the game that have you confronting objectives peripheral to the game's story missions in some of the multiplayer maps. You're given a set number of units (some infantry, a few ground and airborne drones), a set time limit and pointed in the direction of the other end of the map where lies your target. Here the enemies do respawn, in huge numbers. You can direct the battle from above, issuing simple move and attack orders to your units, or you can assume control ("assuming control") of any bot or squaddie to get the job done. Strike Force shows promise, but needs more work. Often, my units would simply not respond to orders given, instead choosing to stand where they'd deployed and get shot. The endless mob of enemies between you and your objective aren't vulnerable to any strategy or tactic other than 'shoot them all then make a break for your objective before they respawn.' This meant that the missions usually just devolved into assuming control of a unit and playing it like any other level, occasionally tapping the button to make your other units move in the hope they'll obey. The levels are not hard on Normal, though I dread to think what they'll be like on harder difficulties. I had fun, and it has promise were it suitably grown (I suppose that depends on reaction from the fans).

Unlike the campaign, multiplayer hasn't seen much innovation. Purely speculation, but perhaps, were Treyarch to actually try changing things here, they're waiting for the next generation of consoles with their increased processing power and (presumably) enhanced online infrastructures before trying anything radical. What lands with Black Ops II feels identical to all before it, although I'm unable to make direct comparisons to last year's Modern Warfare 3 because I simply can't remember the incremental differences between the two titles? Did MW3 have a credit system for unlocks? No, that was the first Black Ops. Um. Did MW3 have different tiers of killstreaks? Yes, that was it. You could choose the type of killstreaks you could be awarded and how you would accrue points towards being bestowed them. That's gone! Now it's back to choosing three from a long list, but how you're awarded them is counted by points scored rather than kills, so assists and captures and so on help your progression to the next. Of course, most of the time a kill counts for many more points than other activities so there's not all that difference, but there you go.

It's still enjoyable even if, playing on the PS3, I've experienced some difficulties online (and it's an issue Activision has acknowledged). Happily, the maps are all excellently made, a real step up from Treyarch's past efforts: they mostly look and play beautifully.

Zombies still seems like a tacked-on, thematically confused mode. I'm sick of zombies. Not just Zombies, but zombies. I want games to use them when they have a legitimate reason, not just because they're zombies. I miss Modern Warfare's Spec Ops, which is the only part of MW3 that I feel is superior to Black Ops II, and vastly so at that.

Overall, though, Black Ops II is the first Call of Duty I've played since 4 that has done more than just scratch an itch - it genuinely brings new things to the table and had me excited that there may be some aspects to this game that are new to me. I hope that Treyarch are following a path, with this as the mid-point, to an entirely new multiplayer experience for their somewhat inevitable next Call of Duty game two years from now. Till then, this is an optimistic game that doesn't couch itself in the tropes the franchise created and is refreshingly lacking in cynicism. Top effort.

Call of Duty: Black Ops: Declassified

More? More! It's Call of Duty week! Not getting enough Call of Duty on your TV? Play on the bus, like I did! Play on the toilet, like I did! Have very little enjoyment, like I did!

Black Ops: Declassified is a terrible game. It's the polar opposite of Black Ops II: Where BLOPS2 is creative, Declassified is braindead. Where BLOPS2 offers a wealth of content, Declassified is barren. Where BLOPS2 is fun, Declassified assuredly isn't.

Declassified was a beautiful pitch. Call of Duty, on your handheld. The same game, the same controls, hell, near enough the same visual quality considering the Vita's capabilities and the ageing engine the franchise utilises. Unfortunately, Nihilistic and Activision have shat out a soulless cash grab, free of any passion or, for that matter, competence in its execution.

Here's the deal: Declassified has read the Call of Duty docket and created something it thinks sounds faintly similar to it. There's single player. Or, rather, there's ten five-minute corridors with none of the series' trademark spectacle and, somehow, even dumber AI that shoots at walls and gets stuck on the scenery with alarming regularity. And no checkpoints. Retreading four minutes and fifty seconds of playtime is agonising when that playtime is schlock.

There's 'Hostiles'. It's a co-op wave-based survival mode, without co-op. The enemies are, as has been noted, imbecilic and the maps are the same as multiplayer, which means bad things (more on the maps in the next paragraph). I sustained two waves and got bored.

The lifeblood of contemporary Call of Duty is its multiplayer, so that must surely still be intact. No, it's not. There's a barebones selection of game modes, to begin with, that don't even include mainstays like Domination or Search and Destroy (the latter of which is what made this series a multiplayer game. Search and Destroy was CoD1). There are seven maps (BLOPS2 has fifteen, including the bonus free map with the first print), all of which are so badly designed it's almost funny. They're tiny. Yes, yes, I know, so are all Call of Duty maps, but these are minuscule. Remember Nuketown? Small, right? I hated that fucking map. Now, you lucky sods have got Nukehouse! It's half the size again. With a full 4v4 game, you'll see people spawn in front of you (as in, right in front of you) a dozen times or so a match. The rest of the time, they're spawning right behind you. The six other maps are similarly atrocious. It breaks the flow of the game in unforeseen ways. For example, Care Packages were always a risk, that's their appeal, and you had to be clever in your timing and placement so you wouldn't get stabbed in the back and your dropped sentry gun stolen. Now, they're near-impossible to claim. The maps are too damn small. It's useless.

That's bad enough, but the game is also infested with technical faults. The netcode is buggy and slow, and you'll often find yourself booted from a match as soon as it's done loading (which takes nearly a minute, so being immediately ejected is always a cheery occurrence). Other times the match will end at random halfway through, which, considering I've never seen any host migration, leads me to believe that when the host leaves, the match closes without warning. This is a game on a handheld, so you would think some clever person would have thought people dropping would be a not-unheard-of occurrence. Then there's been times that I've joined a lobby, the match started and the map is strangely empty. There's seven other names on the scoreboard but I'm running around a level without any other players in it. Absolute rubbish.

This game is a vile disgrace. Activision should be embarrassed to have created such a product with 'Call of Duty' written on it - if for no other reason than Call of Duty's reputation for reliability and abundance of content being smeared - and Sony should be furious to have their handheld play host to such a joke, especially as they marketed this game so heavily and even chose to bundle it with their system this Christmas. As for Nihilistic, it probably says a lot about this developer that they announced a change of name and shift in focus to mobile games even before this product had been kicked unceremoniously out the door. Their creation reminds me of something: You seen Firefly? That Joss Whedon sci-fi show? There's a scene in an episode where two characters come across a carved wooden swan, made by someone who's never seen a swan. One of them remarks that it looks like a duck. Nihilistic reminds me of whomever carved that swan. They've heard of how to make Call of Duty, but the best they could come up with was a duck.

The saddest part, the thing that can be seen across the faces of Vita owners and game critics as one, is that in skilful hands a Vita Call of Duty game could be incredible. We all know it, which is why there was excitement at E3 at this game's announcement. Market realities may mean it's not worth investing in such a title, but at the very least the franchise doesn't deserve this as an alternative. What a bloody awful game.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted #2

Driving at incredible speeds around Fairhaven continues to be amazing fun in Most Wanted. This week, I discovered the joys of Autolog. Seven days ago I knew nobody who played this game, so I set about an aggressive expansion of my friends list to include arcade racer aficionados. Now, every billboard I smash has the avatar of the person I know who's jumped furthest through it, every speed camera that snaps me tells me how fast my friends were going when it clocked them, and at the loading screen for every race I'm informed where I stand in the rankings for the event. 'Easydrive,' the HUD-based quick menu in the game, has a list of recommendations for things I can do to improve upon others' scores, and how many points the game will award me simply for one-upping them. Nice.

Halo 4 #2

With all the troubles I've been having getting Black Ops II and Black Ops: Declassified working smoothly for multiplayer, the calm azure sea of Halo 4's matchmaking feels like a spa day every time I boot it up. I didn't appreciate how seamless the whole thing is. I've not had one problem searching for or during a match. What happened multiple times this week: Boot up Declassified, try to get into a game. Map loads, I get booted back to the menu screen. Try to connect to another game, the menu flashes, disappears and I'm left looking at the animated smoke slowly waft over the background picture with no recourse but to restart the game and try it all again. I put the Vita to one side and start up the PS3, switch Black Ops II to multiplayer and try to find a public matchmaking game, the screen flickers and a message appears helpfully telling me an error occurred. I put down the Dualshock pad and switch on the 360, and within a minute I'm starting a round of Team Slayer. Pat on the back, 343i.

I've also had a little time spent playing Spartan Ops online. Having gone through the first two episodes (Episode 3 will be released next Tuesday), I'm enjoying it, sort of. It feels lukewarm. The intro cinematics are gorgeous and the storyline is strangely compelling, but each 'Chapter' (five per episode) is a case of following a waypoint marker, killing the Covenant or Prometheans that spawn, and, occasionally, pushing a button to Make Stuff Happen. It's a weird disconnect, and I think I'd rather just get another sixty seconds of lavish CGI talkies instead. Most of all, I wish I were playing Firefight. Maybe it'll get more interesting, and if they are thinking of charging money for a second season of ten episodes, it had better.

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