Version tested: Xbox 360
While Battlefield 3 has exhausted its DLC arsenal, signing off with the excellent End Game back in March, its more recent rival in the Call of Duty stable still has another map pack to go before handing over to Ghosts in November.
Before then, when the attention of FPS fans will surely be drawn by the shiny possibilities of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, we have Vengeance, another seemingly randomly titled selection of multiplayer maps and Zombies add-ons. Despite the generic tough guy title, Vengeance proves to be yet another solid addition to a game that has already had some truly great bonus maps.
The weakest effort this time around is Detour, a cramped map set on a battle-damaged bridge on America's east coast. This setting defines the design; a long and narrow gauntlet of death where cover comes from mangled cars and emergency barricades. There's limited verticality, with a small underside area accessible through the smashed tarmac, and a couple of trucks topside that offer a minor height advantage. Despite the length of the map, sightlines are mostly short with only a few locations suitable for sniping.
There's also a small interior section in the middle, but the overall impression is of a map that is simply too restrictive in its space and too bland in its theme to really capture the imagination. Domination matches aren't much fun on Detour, as the straight-line layout leaves little room for interesting tactics. It fares better in Team Deathmatch, where its claustrophobic confines make for a high kill count. It's not a terrible map, but it's the least essential of the four and one that seems unlikely to garner many lobby votes when other, more inspiring, arenas are available.
Arenas such as Cove. This one immediately earns extra credit for ditching the concrete-and-mud aesthetic that too often dominates COD maps, instead planting its flag in the sand of a sun-kissed desert island. Echoes of Far Cry 3 abound, and this is another map that feels more comfortable hosting TDM than Domination, with tight, close tangles of rock and pieces of a crashed plane that provide elevated vantage points and cheeky short cuts in the map's midsection. Sneakier players can creep around the shoreline and try to get the drop on enemies by flanking. This is a fast, brutal map with a compact design that automatically raises the tempo. The layout itself isn't particularly inspiring, but in terms of flow it makes a fierce punctuation point for any hardcore playlist.
Next up is Uplink, a reskinned version of Summit from the original Black Ops. I'm all for reworking classic maps, but remaking such a recent map when there are still dozens of classic COD maps from the pre-Modern Warfare era to plunder seems pointless. Even so, Uplink's mountaintop jungle setting is visually enticing and the fact you're playing in the middle of a thunderstorm adds to the drama. Even the flukiest kill looks pretty awesome when framed by lightning strikes.
There's a reason why Rush is so good: it's based on a paintball arena. The biggest shock is that it's taken COD so long to use such an obvious location
The layout works because it allows for variety. There are treacherous pathways to the side of the map and a more obvious central line of attack for those who are feeling bullish. A multilevelled facility in the centre focuses things nicely, and for the more agile player there's a radio tower outside that offers not only a superb vantage point over a good chunk of the exterior, but a perfect view of one of the Domination capture points inside the building. You'll rack up a few good kills there, but with no cover it's not somewhere you'll want to linger.
Finally, there's Rush, which may yet prove to be my favourite Black Ops 2 map. There's a reason why it's so good: it's based on a paintball arena. The biggest shock is that it's taken COD so long to use such an obvious location.
Shrewdly, the actual paintballing area is only a fraction of what the map offers. There's a colourful interior, filled with paint-splattered soft barriers, and a more rough and ready wooden arena outside. You're also able to battle through the shop and office of the establishment, while to either side elevated walkways provide good coverage of the map's broad centre. Camping is discouraged by the fact that these spots are also ridiculously easy to flank.
This is a map that is all about lines of sight, with the closely packed wooden walls keeping players hidden but providing scant cover when bullets fly. There are windows galore, both inside and out, and even after a dozen matches I was still finding fantastic new routes and vantage points. Rush really lives up to its name, with adrenaline-pumping opportunities around every corner, and design that allows the game to ebb and flow in more interesting ways than the usual hell-for-leather COD approach.
Then there's Buried, the latest addition to the increasingly incomprehensible Zombies mode. I've sadly come to terms with the fact that, while I love the concept and thoroughly enjoyed the earlier, simpler incarnations of the spin-off horror horde mode, it's now become a bloated and obtuse snarl of potentially interesting ideas, crudely slapped together.
The setting this time is an Old West town that has sunk beneath the ground. There are stores and a bank that can be opened up by cashing in your points, but it still feels like a mode that is only understood by a minority of players. Even the map selection screen is a confusing experience. Buried starts above ground, at a mining facility, but players are quickly forced to fall back, tumbling down the pit into the gloomy subterranean streets where the bulk of the action takes place. There are glowing question marks, a mysterious voice bellowing at you and a giant mutant hillbilly locked in the jail, who can be freed and then fed candy or booze to provoke him into assisting you. That most players end up chasing him around, trying to kill him, only underlines how bad Zombies is at explaining its new features.
I'm torn on this development. Part of me likes the perversity of a mode that can only be dominated by experimentation and no small amount of trial and error. In an age of relentless hand-holding from game designers, that's quite bracing. But the muddle of Zombies has obscured the basic appeal of its concept. You're no longer simply enduring a siege through barricades, teamwork and planning, but undertaking a loosely defined survival adventure with a murky crafting system, unclear objectives and deliberately distracting map layouts. If the key elements of your game are more clearly explained on internet message boards than in the game itself, something has gone awry; Zombies remains a bizarre and not entirely explicable third wheel in the overall COD experience.
All told then, Vengeance offers one great map, two really good maps, one decent map and more Zombies stuff for the players who still understand what Zombies is about. That's enough to call it a win, but it'll be interesting to see if the formula holds once Ghosts is out.
8 / 10