Apparently the most pre-ordered game in history, Black Ops II from Treyarch and Activision finally unlocked last night around midnight. With trembling hands I clicked install, and Steam proceeded to do its magic. Which wasn’t that magical, because the servers were somewhat overloaded. I could literally picture the millions of eager gamers sitting in front of their screens, watching that bandwidth meter fluctuate…

Black Ops II effectively downloads in three parts – the main game file (which includes the campaign), multiplayer (presumably the maps), and zombies. All told, it’s like a 15GB download, if I remember correctly. On the night between the 12th and the 13th, this took me about an hour. After which, there was no sleep.

Let’s put this upfront. Much like Windows 8 recently, this game is a very pleasant surprise. The single player I only clocked about an hour of, but did spend more time on multiplayer. On both counts, I was very impressed. I dare say this is the best Call of Duty game yet, certainly since Modern Warfare back in 2007.

However, one major issue stood out. On my setup, the settings simply refused to detect 1920 x 1080. It just did not show in the available resolution list. The community seems to think Treyarch are aware of this, but it could be many things. It could be a driver issue, something with my graphics card, even the HDMI connection I use. Or it could be a glitch that will clear up next time I start the game. The latter has happened before.

EDIT: in the meantime, I found out that going into Catalyst settings and enabling GPU scaling works. Next time I restarted Black Ops 2, 1920 x 1080 became available. 

As it stands, I decided to play on 1360 x 1024, which seemed like a higher pixel count than 1360 x 768, though it’s not compatible with my screen ratio – hence the squarish look of the screenshots. I really hope this is fixed soon, because no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find a ratio or render option in the settings. Maybe it was the late hour, so if you know anything about this, drop me a line in the comments section. This has somewhat mitigated my enjoyment of Black Ops II, but it’s not a huge issue. Other than the resolution, I had everything set to max. And let me tell you, this game looks gorgeous. If this is the same old engine people have been complaining about for years, it doesn’t show it. This looks like a proper DX11 game to me, and far better than previous entries in the series. In fact, of all Call of Duty’s since COD2, this one shows the PC-console gap the most, so that’s definitely a good thing.

It’s nearly impossible to talk about the story without SPOILERS, so stop reading if you’re really pedantic about that. The story seems to be good, and like Black Ops before it jumps around eras a little and involves multiple characters. I won’t say it’s the most sophisticated tale in the annals of storytelling, but it’s competently depicted and composed.

Now it’s time for the screenshots!

Character models and animations are top notch. This dude is one of the first we see in the game, not sure what he does later!

Sgt. Frank Woods lives! Done by James C. Burns, Woods is one of my favorite characters from recent years, and he almost single-handedly made the first Black Ops. Here he’s seen in his aged state, set in the year 2025.

Frank has a lot to say, and acts as a sort of narrator and framing character for the single player story. In this shot we get an example of mid-2020′s technology, with augmented reality HUDs and everything.

On the left we have good old CIA operative Jason Hudson, who returns to the sequel, though this time voiced by Michael Keaton rather than Ed Harris. On the right we have Col. Oliver North, continuing Black Ops’ habit of featuring real-world characters.

The two visit Alex Mason, protagonist of the first game (“the numbers, the numbers!”). Once more acted by Sam Worthington, Mason finds himself involved in the plot quite reluctantly, but for all the right reasons.

This time Mason has good cause for pause – i.e. his son. In almost every way this story is involved enough to the point of being hardly recognizable as COD fare.

Treyarch are good at adding these little touches, alas hardly anyone seems to notice. Here they’ve added a proper loadout screen before each mission, whenever appropriate. You can choose and modify equipment, almost on the same level as you’re used to in multiplayer.

Of course you have to unlock most of that stuff, but that’s part and parcel of the COD experience by now.

First mission takes you to Africa, and sets a frantic pace to proceedings. In another feat of innovation, Treyarch have actually added a fire mode selector to weapons, so it’s not all insane endless full-auto anymore.

The lighting effects and overall mood of environments are very well implemented.

The engine also has literally hundreds of people on screen at once. It’s almost like a Dynasty Wars game now. Sure, many of the character models are cut and paste, but it’s still impressive and makes you feel like you’re really part of an ongoing conflict.

The first level is quite easy even on Hardened, but trust me, the difficulty ramps up quick.

There are the obligatory stealth sequences, but they seem to be on the short side, so not a big problem if you just want the shooting parts. These sneaky parts tend to show off the newly-revamped engine’s ability to render greater detail, so I like them. Besides, it’s still Call of Duty. You’re never more than a couple minutes away from shooting someone in the neck.

Another Treyarch addition: stuff is now tucked away in all kinds of containers that you need to access. I’m not sure if these are the collectibles or not, but you get some cool stuff for taking the time to heed the “access” prompts, like bear traps!

At long last, multiplayer! Of course, the maps give away story locations, but that’s OK. Black Ops II tones down the MP madness, going back to 2007 Modern Warfare and even earlier styles with bigger maps and more tactical gameplay. Not overly tactical, but unlike Black Ops and Modern Warfare 3, you won’t get fragged every ten seconds on average. This time the multiplayer is much better paced. Also, ranking up is more subtle with less over the top fanfare.

But shooting UAVs out of the sky is still the same old barrels of fun.

Overall, a much cleaner, neater, and saner look to everything. Treyarch did well.  Ranking up seems slower than in the previous three CODs.

Oh, I had to look at a lot of these that night.

The maps are often simply gorgeous, and most are very well designed. They’re bigger than those in Black Ops and Modern Warfare 3, and do not allow for wacky Quake-style running around. Sadly, I was disappointed to find that the standard matches still feature smaller teams. But you can go to the more hardcore lists and join ground wars et al for carnage with more players. Count me in for all the inevitable map packs, Activision!

So there you have it, Black Ops II is here and better than its predecessor. I really recommend you check it out as soon as you can. Cause the future can’t wait!




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