Game Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops
At this point there's no denying that the Call of Duty franchise is the 800-pound gorilla of the video game industry. Taking a huge chunk of the pie year in and year out, it's loathed by competing publishers but embraced by players for supplying near limitless replay value. The series typically alternates between developers from one year to the next, and it's Treyarch's turn to deliver the goods with Call of Duty: Black Ops. Is it a full-out assault or should it be classified as a secret mission?
Set in the '60s during the Viet Nam war, Black Ops begins in an interrogation room. You're Captain Mason Alex and for reasons unknown you've been brought to this place to try and explain a set of numbers to your captors. The problem is that you have no idea what the numbers mean. What follows is a trip down memory lane where each remembrance is played out on the battlefield. Clues are divulged, and as the game wears on it becomes less of an interrogation and more of a collaboration. You'll travel to Russia, Cuba, Viet Nam, and just about every territory in between.
Eventually the story veers towards a struggle over a deadly bio-chemical weapon called Nova 6. It may sound like a club drug, but it's a one-way ticket to the death disco. By then you've played as so many different soldiers that following the plot requires some serious mental yoga. Probably formidable on paper, in practice it leaves you not liking the protagonists enough and not hating the antagonists enough. Though bolstered by its fairly clever premise, by its conclusion the story loses a lot of steam.
The general design of Black Ops maintains the blueprint. Follow the linear path laid out by comrades and enemies and lay waste to everything in your path. The devil is in the details. With dozens of these types of games on the market we'd thought we'd seen it all, but there are some wrinkles.
One mission has you commanding your team from the air and then heading down to the ground to help execute. Another has you in a hazmat suit-effectively replacing the rebounding health meter with a cracking face shield. There's also a section where you must attack from beneath the water's surface. Piloting an attack helicopter down a river or a boat in dangerous waters-it all adds up to campaign that will keep you on your toes. Though, not for long. You can easily polish it off in six to eight hours, and the lack of a coop campaign is surprising since Treyarch's last game included it.
Of course, that's when the robust and diverse multiplayer comes calling. Leveling up has completely changed. You gain levels much more quickly, but that's because most of the unlocks are not tied to it. While you still collect points for just about everything you do, you then spend these points to unlock what you choose. Essentially, you can use your desired loadout almost immediately. The same goes for the killstreak rewards. Adding another layer of depth, you can challenge yourself by purchasing contracts that ask you to satisfy specific conditions in a match.
Just to get the obvious out of the way, you can play all your favorites like domination, capture the flag, demolition, deathmatch, etc. in 14 brand new maps. Most of the arenas are claustrophobic and manifest plenty of close quarters confrontations. Nuketown stands out the most with its manequin decoys, but there isn't a single map we didn't enjoy. If you find some you don't like you can always vote against them in the pre-game lobby. Up to 18 players can throw down in ground war while four players can stand together and hold the fort in the nazi zombie mode. While these staples remain well-executed, the additions really stand out the most.
Wager mode is the crown jewel. These free-for-all options for up to six players allow you to place a bet that you'll finish in the top three when the dust settles. Finish in the bottom three and you forfeit your bet. There are just four match types, but they're all great in their own way. Sticks and stones arms players with a knife, a tomahawk, and a cross bow with exploding arrows. The catch is that if someone kills you with a tomahawk you immediately lose all your kills. Gun game has a predetermined ladder of weapons. Get a kill with a gun and you move onto a newer, more powerful one. Get killed by a melee and you drop down to the prior gun. It's easy to end up with a weaker gun than your foes, but overcoming the odds can provide a nice sense of accomplishment. Sharpshooter randomly cycles through weapons at specific time intervals, and one in the chamber-the weakest of the lot--gives you three lives, one bullet in a handgun, and a knife. With each kill you're given another bullet, but you must be prudent with squeezing them off. What's great about wager mode is that it forces you to use and master the entire arsenal. Don't be surprised if it convinces you to alter your loadout in the more standard options.
The biggest surprise is the hidden Black Ops arcade. While you can play the full version of Zork, the real winner is a four-player, cooperative, top-down shooter called DOA. A distant cousin of Smash TV, you must survive wave after wave of zombie attacks while collecting cash and powering up your weapons. It's a full-fledged game that you'd normally pay at least $10 to download, but in Black Ops it's just a fun extra.
There's so much content to explore in Black Ops that we can't even go into detail on the theatre mode or combat training, which prepares you for the rigors of online play. The disc is literally burned to the hilt with content.
Out on the battlefield, attention spans need not apply. The campaign jumps you from from gunner, to foot soldier, to pilot and back again every 15 minutes or so. It's like whiplash in video game form. Piloting vehicles is user friendly no matter the mode of transportation, and cheap quick time events are kept mostly at bay.
The shooting controls haven't changed much. The over 40 weapons look, sound, and fire realistically. Some must be used in bursts and others fire much better from the hip or in sustained bullet storms. The recoil is subdued and wind and distance have little effect, but you'll find plenty of armaments to snuggle up next to. It's business as usual with the auto aim, but you do have the option to turn it off.
Even though this game is set in the '60s, Treyarch has done a great job of making sure the technology doesn't feel dated. Weapons like flame throwers and first-person rockets keep it up to speed while upgrades like dragon shells for the shotgun give it a kick.
Killstreaks and perks used to set this series apart. Often duplicated, they almost seem like a requisite at this point. Killstreak rewards are a little toned-down, and now the kills you get with them do not add to your streak. Get ready to see a lot of napalm strikes and exploding RC cars, but otherwise they feel a little bit like government issue. Deathstreaks have been removed completely, but no one's going to complain about not rewarding poor play.
Perks have received the most massaging-taking note of a lot of exploits from Modern Warfare 2 and making needed adjustments. You can no longer quick scope with a sniper rifle using sleight of hand and balance-squashers like stopping power and one man army have been completely excised.
The campaign does a great job of preparing you for online battle as you get to use most of the features. The immortal team AI gets the job done from both a scripting and combat perspective, though once again you have no control over what they do or where they go. And while vehicles are a huge part of the campaign, they're still MIA in the multiplayer.
The gameplay in Black Ops is unquestionably tight, user-friendly, and varied, though it can feel like you're just running from one slightly interactive event to the next at times. Online it addresses most of the balancing complaints, culminating in a game that's more about skill and less about gaming the system. With no radical changes to the formula, it plays it safe, and most of the adjustments will be felt more by fans than armchair generals.
A lot of graphics engines start to show their age after a few years, but Call of Duty: Black Ops is still a stunner. Sure, the texturing and effects are high class, but it's the little details that you discover as you play that will have you cracking a smile. Some scenes feature so many enemies on-screen that you can't help but be taken aback. While it's an absolutely brutal game full of extremely graphic gore, there's nothing that pushes the envelope quite like the airport scene from Modern Warfare 2. Instead, you get shocking in-game appearances from historical icons. The game is bolstered by prerendered FMV sequences that are essentially the video equivalent of a seizure.
The soundtrack is comprised of a combination of full-blown orchestral compositions and licensed songs that were right at home during the summer of love. The voice acting and writing are strong and include some celebrity spot duty from icons like Ice Cube. When it's all taken as a whole, Black Ops is one great looking and sounding game.
Call of Duty: Black Ops spends a little too much time in the bunker playing it safe, but it's a robust, quality product from top to bottom. The campaign is brief but memorable, and the multiplayer has taken millions of hours of real world testing to heart. The total amount of worthwhile content makes paying full price for most other games feel like a crime. Treyarch has closed the gap between its games and the Modern Warfare franchise with boundless customization, a keen sense of what makes the formula a success, and listening to fans. You won't regret answering the call once again.
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.