Call your Duty more!
Call of Duty map packs have become a symbol in this discussion of DLC in general, much like the horse armour of Oblivion or the premium membership of Battlefield 3. Each one has been expensive, and limited in scope; yet each one has been bought by a huge number of gamers and have no doubt been incredibly profitable for Activision. So should you buy them? We picked up an annual pass for Call of Duty Black Ops 2 and have been spending time with the last pack: ‘Uprising’.
In the pack you get four new multiplayer maps (playable in every mode) and a new zombies map. The multiplayer maps are each gimmicky, in a good way, with some unique hook to make them stand out. Many detractors from the DLC market that has emerged refer back to the days when you could download maps for free as .wad files for Doom and then later Duke Nukem 3D and Quake. This is true, you could get hundreds of maps, but the majority of them were incredibly bland and boring, merely examples of hobbyists learning the creation tools. This is evidenced with the maps created by players using the Forge tools in Halo. A great deal of those maps are almost identical and instantly forgettable.
The best maps, and the only ones I remember clearly, are those with some sort of exciting hook. So with Blood (an old FPS along the same lines as Duke3D but with a gothic horror twist) there was one map where players could fight up the inside of a frozen mountain, and then there was a ledge at the top you could jump off, freefalling for a good while before hopefully landing in a gap in the ice so the water could save you. It was no end of fun fighting down on that ice, with misjudged jumps being punctuated by a satisfying splat. There was another for Duke3D that recreated a supermarket. A boring setting in everyday life but a thrill at the time to be fighting in a realistic-looking environment.
So when Call of Duty releases map packs with gimmicks, such as the cable cars on Downhill or the water gates on Hydro, I get exciting as it’s something that’ll be memorable and I’ll look forward to coming up in the playlists. This surely sets me apart from the ‘hardcore’ COD crowd who care much more about sight-lines and routes through the map, and are happy to play on a drab grey map as long as it keeps the challenge pure.
The new map pack doesn’t disappoint when it comes to flair, we’ve got:
Magma: A battle through a Japanese town being ravaged by a volcano, Magma’s key feature is the lava that pervades the level. Although in early trailers the lava appeared to move and spread, it remains static and is simply something to avoid, like an edge over a bottomless drop. The real fun from this level comes from some of the unusual routes you can take. There are drops onto small walkways, where a mistake can mean death, and the risk-reward nature of picking your route makes for a much more exciting game in the objectives modes. Even in Team Deathmatch it can be satisfying to get the drop on an opponent by landing from an unexpected window or ledge. Like all of these maps, verticality is an important aspect and really brings to your attention how flat many of Black Ops 2’s original maps were.
Encore: Encore is set on the Thames, in the center of London. That in itself is enough to get me excited, living in London at the moment. It’s also slightly irritating as buildings aren’t quite where they should be, but there’s enough landmarks to have a decent sense of place. The map itself is reasonably simple, with a stage providing the central point, and then a few different routes around the edges. There is a raised section and lowered roadie-run which provides a little bit of the verticality mentioned earlier, but this is much simpler than the other maps in the pack. Search and Destroy is particularly interesting on this one thanks to the simplicity of the design. There’s only so many routes to each objective, but there’s not enough people to cover all of them, so it becomes something of a mind-game as you desperately try to scout out which way they’re going to be coming. Thanks to the confined size of the map it’s not too hard for the attackers to get behind the defenders and launch a surprise attack from the rear.
Studio: Studio is a remake of Firing Range, one of my favourite maps from the first Black Ops. It’s full of long sight lines and confined spaces within the buildings, meaning no single weapon is going to give you a huge advantage. The map itself has been decorated as a Hollywood film studio (although there’s no Hollywood sign for some reason, despite the mountains in the skybox looking eerily familiar) and each section can be referred to by the set it represents. I’ve already heard players let me know they’re hiding in the Saloon, attacking the castle or sniping on the streets of the city, and it all makes perfect sense. On some of the documentaries about the creation of a Halo game the level designers were talking about how important it is for a player to instantly get their bearings and know where they are, and this map makes that incredibly easy. This leads to a faster game, and an easy map to learn. The tower in the middle is an absolute death trap though, stay away!
Vertigo: Set atop of a high-rise skyscraper, Vertigo’s hook is that you can fall, and you probably will. This has been used before in Call of Duty games, but it does change the way you play. Positioning is considered differently when there’s only so many places you can stand without falling to your death, and it’s easy enough to limit the paths enemies can take using the various kinds of mines or a turret. There’s also a wonderful little window that you can jump to from a girder, it’s a risky strategy but in Domination it will often land you right behind whoever is defending it if they’re looking down the other two corridors. Sneaky. Other than that Vertigo is probably the least interesting map. There have been attempts to make it look a little more interesting, with models of many of the advanced weapons and vehicles from the game appearing in lobbies and display cases. Unfortunately thanks to the colour scheme and unimaginative layout of the map you’re unlikely to take the time to explore.
The other half (although it’s only one map) of the expansion is the new zombies battleground, Alcatraz. Set in the prison, you take part in what should be a breakout by a gang of mobsters, all voiced by professional actors who have starred in mobster films (I had no idea who any of them were, but your mileage may vary, I’m terrible with names). This is the first really big shake-up the zombies mode has had since World at War’s map packs, and makes some significant changes and improvements to the formula. Simply things, like having a list of collected items at the top of the screen really helps to let you know how you’re progressing. In order to reach your objective (the game still goes on forever, don’t worry) you need to gather the parts of a plane and it’s handy to have a visual indicator of how your group is faring.
The big change is a new feature called afterlife. At the start of the game, you’re in spirit form, and this form lets you kill zombies easily (although you get new points) and power switches around the prison (rather than just turning on a generator and being done with it). If you die, you can return to this form, with a chance to revive yourself, there’s even places to kill yourself as often the afterlife mode is required to advance, using spirit portals and electricity to open gates. Unfortunately it does run out, so you’ll only be able to use the spirit form occasionally, meaning communication is even more vital as you try to ration your abilities.
The dialogue in the new mode is fairly entertaining but is definitely weaker than the previous celebrity (or historical figure) entries, with a lot less laughs as the whole thing seems to be taken a little bit more seriously. The prison itself is also quite a lot darker, feeling claustrophobic and panicked compared to the more open and relaxed maps in Black Ops 2: Tranzit and Die Rise.
Overall the map pack is definitely entertaining, and if you’ve been playing Black Ops 2 since launch, you’ve probably already got it. If you’re burning out on the game, I’d say it’s worth the expense to breathe a little more life into the title, and zombies fans will enjoy the new puzzles and complexities that the game offers. If you’re not already interested in the game, this isn’t going to change your mind. It’s more of the same, with a few unique twists and a lot of polish, as we’ve come to expect from the map packs. I’m still waiting for Activision to really take a risk and do something new or exciting with the maps, as EA is prone to do with Battlefield’s expansions but this isn’t there yet. It’s just a solid extension of what you’ve already been playing and as far as I’m concerned that’s enough to be worth the £10 or so it costs.