November is with us once again, and with it comes the one franchise we review each year that creates as much discussion behind the scenes as it likely will in our comments section. The lines are drawn, the sides are taken, and the division runs deep on just about every facet of the Call of Duty series—is Modern Warfare 2 too much to top, is Infinity Ward better than Treyarch, does Activision deserve the mammoth early sale indicators for the latest version in the seven-year-old series? How will fans react to yearly Call of Duty installments; will we get more than just an exaggerated patch, or will each new game push the limits of its predecessor? To make matters worse, we can only assume that out of every review we publish during the year, our review of any Call of Duty game will probably not convince the disenfranchised or the devout follower.
With that seemingly daunting task, we delve headfirst into Activision’s latest entry in the multi-million selling franchise, with Treyarch taking the reins at creating a worthy successor to last year’s mega-blockbuster Modern Warfare 2. While we cannot ignore the clear bias some have for the series, we advise everyone to look beyond the hype, the sales figures, the controversy, and enjoy the game for what it is: a terrific first-person shooter with a well-told, impressive campaign and an enormous multiplayer component that is, despite some minor problems, easily one of the best offerings in recent memory.
The story in Black Ops is surprisingly interesting and captivating. It is one of the few games we reviewed this year that made us truck forward another level or two just to see what happened next. Black Ops’ narrative hits the ground running, as we see protagonist Alex Mason wake up, tied to a chair, and interrogated by a group of mysterious men. Throughout the campaign they torture Mason to get information about numbers – that is, numbers Mason apparently has information of, but has little recollection as to why.
You essentially play out Mason’s memories of when he was a soldier during the Cold War. The story has you visiting a plethora of locations throughout the world, taking you to the likes of Cuba, Russia and Vietnam in search of communists who have access to biological weapons. While we’d love to give more details about those aforementioned numbers, the real political figures you’ll encounter, and how it all ends, we believe everyone should experience the campaign for themselves — meaning no spoilers here. We will say that Black Ops does a great job of putting all the pieces together at the end, even after a portion in the middle when the plot seemed to get a little disjointed in places.
The story is told in often overwhelming action sequences that feel more like a summer blockbuster flick than a fall videogame. Within the first few moments of the start of the game, you are whisked away to a foreign country, driving through city streets as cars and buildings explode all around you. Black Ops mixes up the action with a heap of varied gameplay segments, ranging from standard run ‘n gun, to piloting a stealth bomber. Unfortunately, the latter is a fine example of Treyarch missing ample opportunity to provide a unique gameplay experience, as all you do is simply press a button to take off and that’s about all there is too it. Needless to say, it rendered the whole sequence decidedly underwhelming.
Although the story is different, and the action seems a bit more intense than in previous games, Black Ops follows the same ideas from previous iterations. As such, you’ll still encounter the same ubiquitous, irritating invisible lines required to activate the next cinematic or signal the next wave of enemies; heck, there’s even the same slow-motion technique thrown in at the climax of a couple of the game’s stages.
Despite these niggles, it’s where the story is told, and how it is told that’ll keep you hooked. There are a couple of terrific spots in the game, certainly not tucked away, where the era, soundtrack, and action all intermix to make for an utterly brilliant 20 minutes or so of gaming goodness. Then again, there are moments that are overly generic, and, to be quite frank, excessively violent. It may sound odd for us to point out that Black Ops is extremely violent, but it’s violent to the point that as a gamer, you start to feel desensitised to the smaller nuances. For instance, there’s a portion of the game where you and your comrades play Russian roulette, and, without spoiling anything, the outcome really loses its flair after you make an enemy chew on a piece of glass earlier in the game. Of course, we are not complaining that the game is violent (please don’t interpret our comments in this manner) — rather, we simply found the enormity of violence underwhelming by the time we finished the game.
Before we move on to Black Ops’ multiplayer portion, we feel it’s important to point out that the enemy and friendly AI is less than competent. Your teammates rarely come to your aid in times of need, while enemy behaviour is equally as poor, with foes standing still directly next to us, yet somehow managing to miss their shots time and time again. Overall it’s a mediocre effort made even worse by the fact you need to cross those invisible lines to keep the action progressing. Visually the game is fairly impressive, though overall the graphics are marred by some noticeable glitches and shading issues. It doesn’t break the experience by any means, though some offenders – such as soldiers randomly clipping through a solid wall – are among the most conspicuous examples of the game’s overall lack of polish in this area.
What would a Call of Duty game today be without multiplayer? Indeed, this is where Black Ops makes its biggest changes compared to Modern Warfare 2. Still, it’s worth noting that while there is some changes here that veterans will either praise or criticize, the overall experience is still quite similar to Infinity Ward’s 2009 outing. As such, the game offers arguably one of the best online FPS experiences out there, and while the addition of Wagers will likely be welcomed by all, the tweaks to CoD Points may ruffle a few feathers. As you earn experience points, you are given the ability to create-a-class, unlock custom class slots, and the different weapons and bonuses to buy. All the other goodies you’ve grown to enjoy in multiplayer are acquired by CoD Points—this includes weapons, perks, emblems, killstreak, etc. There are no buy-backs. Once you spend your CoD Points they are gone, and you’ll have to wait until you level up to earn more.
Multiplayer is extremely deep. There are 14 maps mostly taken from the single-player mission, and despite our favorite map being called “newb zone,” we can’t get enough of NukeTown—essentially a mock town used for testing weapons and bombs. Since we’ve been playing the game at launch, we feel the maps do a great job of keeping everything relatively balanced. There will always be exceptions, and snipers will certainly have an advantage if they find that perfect hiding place, but in general each map has plenty of short and long-range viewing areas. Black Ops also introduces the new Theater system, which allows you to record and share clips of your action on CallofDuty.com. This new feature could provide some hilarious moments, and we’ve no doubt many of the hardcore players will utilize it in order to showcase their soul-crushing kill streaks.
Oh, and then there’s the Zombies. Yep, Black Ops signals the return of World at War’s highly lauded Zombie mini-game and it’s just as much of a blast as before. Here, you can play as historical giants such as Fidel Castro, Nixon, JFK, and Robert McNamara in a side gig that offers a compelling mix of humorous dialogue, shambling Nazi’s and meaty firearms. The mode is terrific fun and there are a host of goodies to find that we’ll let you discover for yourself. Needless to say, you won’t be disappointed. In conclusion, while overly familiar and not without its annoying niggles, Call of Duty: Black Ops offers a compelling package of intense multiplayer action and a gripping single-player campaign that will ensure fans have plenty to do until next year’s iteration.