There once was a day, not so long ago, when war was a black-and-white affair when it came to entertainment (both literally and figuratively). You had good guys and bad guys and a hard-folded crease in between. Even when color came to the big screen and then flooded across TVs and game consoles years later, the concept still held.
Vivid hues mix with all sorts of shades of gray in today's version of armed conflict. So it's not completely surprising that in the biggest and edgiest of all the war games, Call of Duty, good and bad is a twisting, hard-to-pin-down thing. It's an unpredictable event filled with baddies who long to protect loved ones, and heroes who are scarred and dark at their core.
Black Ops II's single-player campaign story jumps back and forth between a time of world conflict in 2025 and a variety of related Cold War battles that take place back in the 1970s and '80s. Raul Menendez is a Nicaraguan terrorist at the heart of things. With the help of some newfound technology, he's seizing control of a big chunk of U.S. military might—in the form of powerful, heavily armed drones and robots—and using it in his devious schemes around the world. But is he really a maniac on the verge of starting a global war, or just an emotionally anguished fellow seeking a long-in-coming revenge for his sister's death at the hands of American forces?
On the other side of the crease (that's getting harder and harder to see) is a couple generations of Special Forces guys who've been fighting sacrificially to keep Armageddon at bay. (Some of these rough-and-tumble fighters are recognizable lead characters from the first Black Ops.) But even as their stories unfold, we find torturous, deeply scarring moments that they, and we, must grapple with. Where does justice end and vengeance begin? Who's really good? Who's really bad?
Let There Be Black
There may be a lot of complicated threads to untangle in the storyline here, but the duties set forth for gamers are as straightforward as ever: Get your mission assignment and start pulling that trigger. Then, in locales that range from Angola to India to Los Angeles, digital fury is unleashed in a variety of explosive, gun-blazing ways.
In some cases you play as a futuristic Black Ops battler—using high-tech gadgets such as winged jet suits and mountainside-adhering super-gloves to swoop you down into the bloodletting task at hand. But most of the time it's just sneak, drive, run and gun. You look down your virtual sights to blow out a charging foe's brains or slash with a blade to gore-spurting effect. In one instance, you even play as the blood-enraged Menendez himself as he runs screaming into a group of soldiers, blasting them in the face with a shotgun and stabbing into their jugulars with a ragged machete.
Civilians and soldiers alike die in painful, messy ways, and we tend to get lengthy, full-on views of the carnage—from brutal bullet blasts to bloody torture sessions to the drawn-out skin-searing torment of someone burning to death in a fire-engulfed vehicle. In one nasty sequence we see an emaciated soldier getting pulled out of a sun-baked, fly-strewn shipping container where he had been left for over a week with nothing but the rotting corpses of his murdered friends to sustain him.
Popping the Popularity Bubble
All of that messiness carries over, of course, into the online multiplayer action—where most gamers will be spending a lot of their time in head-to-head competition. (One bleary-eyed Australian gamer just made headlines after spending 135 hours in one marathon stretch.) And, yep, there's a goopy zombie-splatting multiplayer mode in this newest mix as well.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II does have a graphic-content filter available in its options menu. And it's application will tamp down a lot of the excessive camera lens-splashing gore and the game's otherwise profuse use of heat-of-battle f- and s-words. But don't start thinking that means things will suddenly become calm and spotless. The graphically well-defined chaos of first-person shooting and machete-waving mayhem, and the grit of rotting corpses are all inextricably woven into this game's fabric. No filter can change that. And massive popularity can't either.