Black Ops II’s Campaign Really Could Have Been Good

After playing a few hours of Call of Duty: Black Ops II for review, I’ve come to a few conclusions: Zombies is fun, but I’m bad at it; and Multiplayer is fun, but I’m even worse at it.

But the most disturbing conclusions I’ve reached are around the game’s single-player campaign. Why? Because after spending several hours tracking down Raul Menendez, I’ve decided that the campaign is mindless and dull. The worst part of that, however, is that it doesn’t have to be.

Now, I’ve gone on the record before and written pieces defending linearity in gaming. While a lot of people like to look down on linear gameplay and treat it like it’s a negative, I like to argue that linearity paves the way to focus on storytelling and a consistency in gameplay not found in more open-ended experiences. Linear games like Uncharted allow us to take in a story and awesome set pieces in one bite, all while coupling fun gameplay that helps keep the narrative going.

But just like anything in the universe, there has to be balance to it. While the story might be linear, you still need to let me have a bit of room to mess with the controls and tailor them to suit my play style so it feels natural.

This is where the trouble begins for Black Ops II’s campaign. It’s chokingly linear, to the point where I compared it to a child leash on this weeks’ Leviacast. Everything in the campaign has been structured to make sure I am exactly where I need to be, when it wants me to be. I use weapons at a certain time, approach enemies at a particular point, and have to use only one type of weapon to destroy myriad vehicles. There are missions that could have been really challenging and fun, but instead left me following the exact patterns of an AI partner, thus stripping any and all challenge from the mission and reducing it to running from cover to cover.

An example; I played through a mission last night that saw me and my group entering a flooded city in Pakistan as we tracked down Menendez. The mission saw the introduction of military drones flying overhead with spotlights to search the city, and an entire section of the mission was dedicated to staying away from the spotlight, as it meant instant death if the drones spotted you.

Now, this could have been a really cool stealth segment, had it been done right. Give me various hiding places where I can stay out of the light, give me patterns to learn in order to time my movements, and be a little forgiving in the event I was spotted, and I would be totally all about sneaking around them in order to reach the next checkpoint.

Instead, I ended up following my super annoying AI partner, pausing at various points while the spotlight swung around in predetermined places. I had to stand in certain places, as some cover didn’t register as fully concealing me, and I had to move when my partner gave me the order to move.

This isn’t the first time the game does this. In many ways, it’s the most on-rails shooter I’ve ever played, feeling more like an interactive Michael Bay film than anything else. You’ll spend a majority of the campaign running through corridors and reaching the next checkpoint, all while encountering perfectly-timed set pieces along the way.

Now, the game tried to change up the linearity of past Call of Duty games by introducing Strikeforce Missions, campaign missions with an open map that call for you to command all battlefield units and use tactics to combat enemies as you try to secure locations and achieve objectives. On the surface, it looked interesting and promised to be the remedy to the tired gameplay of Black Ops. But in its execution, it falls short of what it sought to achieve.

The most frustrating part of Strikeforce Missions is that the AI units you’re meant to direct aren’t the most responsive of troops. They’re slow, die easily, and only work about half the time, making for a frustrating run as a commander. Waves of enemies flood in on all sides, making the mission feel more like a frustrated tower defense minigame than a tactical experience, and you’ll have to find a good balance between overwatch mode and actual ground combat time before you get anywhere with them.

They’re not completely bad; it is an interesting experiment, and one that helps vary the gameplay a little. But the systems aren’t quite up to par with other tactical squad combat games, and the AI itself doesn’t do much to help you out.

I’m a pretty positive person. And because of that, I don’t want to sound like I’m totally down on the game. As a shooter, it’s completely competent. It’s just not good; and it’s certainly not fun.

So what needs to be done to remedy this? For starters, don’t treat your players like they’ve never learned to use their brains before (although many YouTube commenters and Battlefield fans would say otherwise). Don’t hold my hand and yank me through the entire campaign without allowing me any room to experiment or breathe whatsoever. One of the game’s biggest problems is that it forces me to play it how it wants me to play it, and that really becomes bothersome when it doesn’t suit my personality.

While it might sound cliched at this point, I reference all shooters to look at Half-Life 2 as a shining example of how to structure an FPS. Yes, it’s a linear game telling a compelling narrative, but it still has elements of freedom that allow me to experiment with weapons, test my play style, and even lets me feel like I’m contributing to something bigger than just shooting enemies in the head by using puzzles and making me use the problem-solving skills I learned in public school.

I know I’m going to hear all about how pointless it is for me to criticize the single player campaign, as it traditionally takes a backseat in popularity to the Zombies and Multiplayer modes of past COD games. But I’m still left with a bad taste in my mouth after playing it. The pieces are there, and Treyarch is a talented studio. A little more TLC put into the single player campaign could have made it a much more meaningful and satisfying experience stretching beyond corridor shooting and weird tactical modes. But the unfortunate result of their labors leaves us with an painfully linear campaign leaving much to be desired.

Am I right? Wrong? Totally insane? Tell me in the comments below!