Tuesday, November 27, 2012

IN-DEPTH: Black Ops 2 Multiplayer

Whenever the new Call of Duty comes out, pretty much all other gaming ends for a while. And I don't pussyfoot around with no campaign mode either. That's the salad, and I want the steak. So now that I've been eating red meat for for a couple weeks, I feel like I can share some preliminary impressions, with an emphasis on how the game stacks up to previous iterations of the series.


The first thing you'll notice about Black Ops 2 are the changes to the loadout screen. The overall presentation is a big improvement over Modern 3, as well as the original Black Ops--everything on one page, clearly and concisely presented.

Most of the classic perks, equipment and weapon attachments are back, as are the weapons themselves. One of the idiosyncrasies of the series, of course, is that the weapons you remember keep getting renamed, so that a Type-25 in one installment isn't the same as a Type-25 in the next. But if you've been playing COD for a while, you're used to the options by now--for assault rifles, a choice between weaker automatic spray, a stronger and more accurate 3-round burst and an even stronger and more accurate single-fire round. Each has its advantages, as do the various weapon classes, but there seems to be more balance this time around. I've used assault rifles, submachine guns (SMG), light machine guns (LMG), shotguns and sniper rifles so far, and found all of them to be deadly if used correctly.

Source: http://d1vr6n66ssr06c.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Class-SwiftSilent-630x414.png

Some of the new weapon attachments are really cool as well. The Target Sensor is essentially a reflex sight that puts a little red arrow over enemies who don't have the Cold Blooded perk activated. I started using this on the SWAT-556 as soon as I could, and pretty much never use anything else on a given weapon once I've got it unlocked. The Laser Sight is another good one, especially if you like to run-and-gun without aiming down the sight. Most people seem to be using this with shotguns, though in my experience it works well with SMGs too. Then there's the MMS, a millimeter scanner that allows you to detect enemies through walls (again, without Cold Blooded active). I haven't messed with it too much, to be honest, but it seems well-suited to an LMG with the Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) attachment activated.

There's a new twist to picking and choosing all these various items: instead of being boxed in to 2 weapon classes, 1 weapon attachment each, 3 perks (1 per category) and 2 sets of equipment, you can now pick any 10 items you want. Sure, if you want 2 perks from the same category, you'll need to use up one of your slots on a "wildcard" just to get the option, but the customizability of loadouts has increased exponentially. Here's one loadout that's worked pretty well well for me:

Primary: SWAT-556 (3-round burst assault rifle)
Attachments: Target Sensor (see above), Quickdraw Handle (for faster aiming)
Secondary: MP7 (rapid-fire SMG)
Attachments: Reflex Sight (improves accuracy)
Equiment 1: Bouncing Betty (a type of landmine, for guarding the entrance to an area or booby-trapping a flag)
Equipment 2: Flashbang grenade (stuns enemies)
Perk 1: Blind Eye (makes you blind to NPC aircraft)
Perk 2: Cold Blooded (makes you blind to targeting mechanisms and radar)
Perk 3: N/A
Wildcard: Primary Gunfighter (allows 2 primary weapons)

This loadout that gives you a lot of flexibility. If you want to hunker down and defend an area, the SWAT-556 provides a good distance game, and a lot of accuracy at medium range. Add the bouncing betty, and you can hole up for a nice long while. But if find yourself in the kind of twitchy, tight quarters gunfight that made up a good 90% of interactions in Modern 3, you can just switch to the MP7 and saturate the area with gunfire. The two stealth perks also give you a modicum of protection from enemy aircraft and targeting sights like the Target Sensor and MMS. The main disadvantage of this loadout is exposure to explosives. If you find yourself in one of those games where the grenades are flying and every building is mined, but there are relatively few aircraft, you might consider modifying the loadout by replacing the perks with Flak Jacket (less explosive damage from frag grenades, semtex, C4, claymores and bouncing betties) and Tactical Mask (less disorientation from flash and concussion grenades, as well as shock charges).

There are literally hundreds of other combinations that are just as effective as these, and some that are more specialized to specific map types. I generally like to do variations on a single loadout, but I know people--some much better at the game than me--who regularly switch between vastly different loadouts. And that's what's so brilliant about the new schema: you can approach the game in many more ways than you ever could before.


Yes, you read that right. Killstreaks are out; scorestreaks are in. This is another change that kinda sorta makes you wonder why no one thought of it earlier. A common problem with Modern 3, Black Ops 1 and Modern 2 was the predilection of many players for farming kills over achieving objectives. I mean, what's the point of Capture the Flag if no one cares about the flag? Right? Well, there was a reason why this happened: you only earned killstreak rewards if you, well, got got enough kills in a row. Whether those kills served a purpose, like capturing or defending an objective, made no difference. Now, though, taking a flag in Domination, or nailing someone trying to take it from you, earn you more progress towards those rewards than a single kill unrelated to the objectives at hand. The result, when playing one of the objective-based modes, is a more focused game marked by better use of tactics and more memorable events.

The rewards themselves are largely familiar, though there are some cool new ones, like the 3-bomb Lightning Strike and the absurdly overpowered minigun you get with the Death Machine reward. Unlike past iterations, though, you get less in the way of points for the damage your scorestreak reward nets you. In Modern 2, for example, you could set things up so you had a Sentry Gun, a Pavelow and a Nuke. If you placed the Sentry Gun in the right spot, you'd get the Pavelow quickly, and then a game-ending Nuke was a genuine possibility. Now you'll get some points, but you have comparably more work to do if you want to get to the real biggie rewards at the end of the chain. The game loses a bit of cheap fun in the process, but it also loses a lot of aggravating cheapness, so it's a net win. Oh, and UAVs get you assist points, which makes them a lot more fun to deploy.  The one disappointment, for me, was that Treyarch got rid of the Recon Drone from Modern 3, which was probably the only thing about Modern 3 that I unambiguously loved. Oh well.

Source: http://www.xboxrepublika.com


...and now we get to a snag. The modes are, for the most part, the same ones you've been playing since 2009. Sure you get Modern 3's Kill Confirmed, but Drop Zone--Modern 3's fan-created, Care Package-laden version of King of the Hill--now lacks the Care Packages that actually made it worth playing. And it's called Hardpoint, but who cares about that. Bring back the Care Packages!

There's also League Play and some other stuff that seems sort of superfluous and unexciting to me. This is an area for either Infinity Ward or Treyarch to fix up in future installments.


If you are coming from Modern 3, the change in hit detection will be jarring at first. The pace is slower and more deliberate, which means some firefights can stretch on for what seem like miniature eternities. Not Halo-length eternities, but eternities when compared to the nanosecond-long firefights of Modern 3. You could tell me you prefer Modern 3's twitchy twitchiness, and I'd acknowledge that all opinions are valid, but then I'd ask if you need a cold compress and some chicken soup. This is just...so...much...better. Rly.

At the same time, some guns take fewer shots than others, so you will need to adjust your tactics based on the loadouts you encounter. See someone coming with a shotgun and laser sight? Keep your distance. Find yourself in a sniper's line of vision? Duck and come up on him or her close quarters. There are a lot of rock/paper/scissors moments, but you often have time to think while you're in them, and a crucial difference with Modern 3 is that, this time around, smart play can often trump quicker reflexes.

Oh, and if you're like me, you'll also be happy to know that the cheapest cheapness of Modern 3, the ubiquitous quick-scoper, has become an endangered species. You'll still encounter one from time to time, but these are like the golden gunners from Black Ops 1: individuals of great skill who are to be respected, not a new generation of n00btubers minus the absurdist sense of humor.


All that is well and good, but at the end of the day, a multiplayer FPS is only as good as the maps it provides. In Modern 3, the maps were small, claustrophobic rat mazes with lots of tight corridors and few defensive positions. Combined with the twitchy gameplay and generous hit detection, the result was a game that privileged run-and-gun to the detriment of anything else. There were few, if any, snipe spots and almost no tactical battles to speak of.

As far as design decisions go, it was kind of baffling, as the maps in both Modern 2 and Black Ops 1 had balance to them. So what happened? I don't pretend to know, but I'd guess marketing focus groups were involved, and possibly a misguided attempt to draw sharp distinctions with competitor Battlefield 3 (where maps were excessively large). Whatever the cause, the big question for me with Black Ops 2 was whether the game would continue going in that direction or pivot back to earlier iterations in the series.

Luckily the maps in Black Ops 2 are a huge improvement over Modern 3. It starts with the return of Nuketown, arguably the best small-scale map the series has ever produced--despite its small size, there are numerous points of interest and a good balance between corridors, open spaces and defensible positions. Hijacked is similar: small in size but still amenable to a range of play styles. Express is a small, weirdly-designed map located on a bullet train platform. It can be disorienting at first, but really works when you get used to it.

The best maps, though, are bigger. I fell in love with Cargo, a complex arrangement of containers in a shipyard that lends itself well to sniping and defensive play, but always gives offensive-minded players multiple ways to outflank defenders at any point in the map, and generally rewards smart play. Standoff is another exquisitely balanced map, and full of possibilities. Yemen has numerous vantage points from which you can guard points of interest or corridors, making it the ultimate anti-Modern 3 map. And finally, there's Turbine, a long and narrow map that recalls the look and feel of Afghan from Modern 2.

Standoff is full of interesting landmarks, as you can see
A few of the maps do follow the Modern 3 model: Aftermath (which takes place in a post-nuclear Los Angeles), Carrier (on an aircraft carrier), Slums (in Panama) and Raid (in a Hollywood Hills mansion) are all twitchy, run-and-gun affairs. I don't love these, but I can tolerate them as long as they're a change of pace, rather than the entire game experience. Actually, Slums is pretty fun. The rest of the maps--Drone, Overflow, Plaza and Meltdown--are solid, if unspectacular. Nothing wrong with them, per se, it's just that they don't stand out as especially good or bad.

While I would have preferred it if all the maps were like Cargo and Nuketown, that probably would have alienated the run-and-gun crowd. One lesson I learned with both Modern 3 and Battlefield 3 was that overspecialization when it comes to maps can be a real drag on long-term enjoyment--variety being the spice of life and so on. That's why, when taken together, I'd argue the variety of map types in Black Ops 2--and variety of terrain within the maps--means that you're getting the best, most complete set of out-of-the-box maps since Modern 2.


There are still areas for improvement. As mentioned above, I'm not sure why they took the Care Packages away from Drop Zone. And despite the overall quality of the maps, the game could have used a couple really big ones--Array and Discovery from the first Black Ops spring to mind.

Then here are unwanted changed--from my perspective, at least--to the prestige system. Whereas in previous installments, entering Prestige Mode meant giving up everything you'd unlocked, now you can keep all your tokens but just choose to reassign them. Sounds fine on paper, but here's why it's a bad idea. As in all competitive multiplayer games, some individuals are just much better than others. Prestige mode was a leveler of sorts, periodically enticing skilled players to forego their preferred loadouts and start fresh. Sure they'd quickly unlock all that stuff again, but along the way they would have to play against less skilled players who nevertheless had an advantage in gear and perks. I think you can still do it this way, but now you have a "choice." Not all choices lead to better outcomes.

One last thing. Black Ops 2 represents a return to form for the series, and pushes it forward in some significant, if incremental ways. Of that there can be no doubt. But as one friend said to me: "we've basically been playing the same game since 2007." At some point, new maps, better textures and incremental changes to gameplay aren't going to justify plopping down yet another $60 come November-time. I fear we've come to that impasse. With the improvements on display here, and the poor quality of the last version of Modern, I may skip next year's release unless it does something really new and really cool. (That, of course, would come with big risks--namely, that the "really new" might really turn off the core audience, so don't expect that to happen).

The series would probably be better served by a 2-year development cycle at this point, with developers Treyarch and Infinity Ward releasing additional map packs over a 24-month, rather than 12-month, period. The economics of the industry probably won't allow it, granted, but if it doesn't happen, more and more fans, like me, may just go this route unilaterally.


For your viewing enjoyment, here are some video guides to my favorite maps:



Nuketown 2025


Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for a variety of map types marked by varied terrain; +1 for the new "pick 10 system" and the opportunities it creates; +1 for turning killstreaks into scorestreaks and instantly making objective modes more fun

Penalties: -1 for the fact that "a variety of map types marked by varied terrain" should be an expectation, not a bonus; -1 for unwanted changes to Drop Zone/Hardpoint and the prestige system.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. "Very high quality/standout in its category."

Explanation of our non-inflated scoring system here.