Call of Duty: Black Ops needs no introduction. After Modern Warfare 2 set world-records in sales last year around this time, the world has been well aware of the franchise’s existence. Call of Duty is one of those games that even your non-gaming buddies know about, and even play from time to time.
However, Black Ops is not a game made by Infinity Ward, the people who brought us Modern Warfare. Rather, it’s from Treyarch – the World at War people. Y’know, the game that bridged the gap between Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2.
Let it be known straight away that Black Ops is a much better game than World at War. For that matter, it’s a better game than either of the Modern Warfares. Or, to put it simply, it’s the best Call of Duty yet. Yes, it’s built on the same foundations that made the previous CODs so good, and it largely shares the same mechanics and conventions. But even still, Black Ops features the most polished, robust multiplayer experience yet, as well as the most tightly-written and coherent campaign.
Like every Call of Duty, Black Ops’ campaign mode is intense. Set during the Cold War of the 60s, (territory largely untouched by videogames until now) you’re whisked from one intense, world-changing combat scenario to the next with breakneck speed. However, unlike previous games in the franchise, Black Ops actually knows how to pause – however briefly – to develop the events and characters that these bombastic battles and setpieces are based around. It’s for this reason alone that Black Ops has the most satisfying campaign mode ever seen in a Call of Duty game.
In Black Ops, you’re given a tangible protagonist to work with – Alex Mason, a SOG Operative. At the outset of the game, Mason finds himself strapped in a chair, in a creepy room with a bunch of TV screens flashing numbers. Two mysterious men with muffled voices are interrogating him, attempting to extract information that, supposedly, has the power to stop a war before it starts. From there, the story is pieced together by a series of flashbacks, as Alex is questioned about his history of clandestine operations during the Cold War. The method is effective, and character driven – rather than simply playing to see what fantastically high-energy sequence comes next, chances are that you’ll find yourself interested in knowing how the story develops.
Those who played through World at War’s campaign mode will be happy to see the continuities that Treyarch has preserved in Black Ops. A major player in the story of Black Ops is Viktor Reznov, who gamers will certainly remember as the German-hating Red Army soldier from the Soviet campaign in World At War. Dimitri Petrenko, who you actually controlled during the Soviet campaign, also makes a reappearance. Reznov is the best character in Black Ops by far – and his story is the most emotionally involving. My favorite part of the campaign is an eerie flashback to the final days of World War II, in which Reznov and his men are commissioned to take out a German military base in Russia. The sequence ends with a surprisingly gruesome and disturbing scene that I won’t spoil here – but suffice to say, it more than justifies the actions of Reznov, as well as Alex Mason throughout the game. This sort of character-involved form of narrative is precisely what was missing from games such as Modern Warfare 2.
Obviously, when it comes to Call of Duty, gameplay is king. It’s no secret that the competitive multiplayer modes are where gamers will spend the majority of their time with the game. For those interested, I wrote a decent bit about Black Ops’ insanely addicting multiplayer suite about a week ago; for more detailed impressions, hit the link and have a read.
To sum up, the competitive Call of Duty experience is at its finest in Black Ops. It’s more or less what we’ve seen before, but added tweaks and adjustments make this the most polished. Those who spent any time with World at War’s online multiplayer will be glad to hear that kills earned through killstreak rewards (dogs, napalm strikes, et cet) no longer count towards a player’s overall killstreak. Those fresh off of Modern Warfare 2 will be happy to see that shotguns are now primary weapons, and dual-wielded shotguns are no longer game-breakers.
And once again, I have to give a shout-out to the four new Wager Modes. They are both a fun diversion from the normal straightforward hecticity of normal online matches, as well as fantastic and addicting in their own right.
The campaign mode, of course, features gameplay as well – albeit increasingly short segments tied together by dialog and scripted scenes. That’s not to say that it’s an entirely passive experience, though – especially on higher difficulty levels, your combat skills will be tested. Also, Black Ops does a better job of mixing in more objectives than simply mowing down wave after wave of enemies. One particularly interesting sequence puts you in the shoes of a CIA agent directing a small ground force of troops from the air above, using radar equipment. During this level, the gameplay shifts from above to the ground with very slick transitions, allowing you to play as a ground soldier as well as the directing agent above. Vehicle segments, which have remained absent from the Modern Warfare games, are back with vengeance in Black Ops, and they provide some of the game’s more intense moments.
Like World at War before it, Black Ops features an entirely unique game mode in the form of Zombies. Once again, you and up to three other people stake out in a run-down military base and fend off wave after wave of undead scum. The mode is almost exactly the same; you use the points you earn slaying zombies to buy weapons and ammo, as well as open up doors to new rooms, making the overall arena larger and larger over time. Weak barricades can be rebuilt, but essentially all their is between you and and the hoard is your trigger finger. It’s fun, intense, and undeniably addicting. And this time around, it features 100% more cheesy one-liners from the faceless soldiers you play as.
But oh, wait! There’s more still. Many reviewers across the interwebs have refused to “spoil” it, but I’d feel downright remiss if I didn’t mention Black Ops’ wonderful little easter egg: Dead Ops Arcade. It’s a top-down arcade rendition of Zombies, complete with charmingly MIDI arcade music, tons of power-ups, high scores to rank up, and a random gorilla who steals your shit at the end of every game. That is to say, it’s entirely and completely awesome. You’ll have to reference the internet to find out how to access it, but hey, we don’t have any problems with that in this day and age, now do we?
If you haven’t gathered, Black Ops packs in a ton of gameplay value for your buck. And it’s all quality.
Like every other aspect of the game, Treyarch has found a way to push the envelope a little further in the aesthetics department. Character models, for example, are notably more detailed and expressive. Textures are rich, water effects are fantastic, and the game never slows for a second, no matter how much is going on at one time. (During the campaign, at least.)
Also, like no Call of Duty before it, Treyarch has managed to put together some impressively atmospheric sequences in Black Ops. A particular sequence that comes to mind is when Alex Mason and his crew explore a downed ship carrying a chemical weapon – superb lighting effects, eerie music, and a copious amount of dead bodies make this one of the more memorable levels.
The sound of war is hot and heavy in Black Ops. Once again, the sound design is quite superb, and only enhances the bombastic action of the setpieces. Aside from sound design, Black Ops features very strong voice acting that keeps the action believable. There are plenty of voices you’ll recognize, even – Sam Worthington (the Avatar guy) voices Alex Mason, and does a fantastic job of it. Ed Harris is slightly less impressive as Mason’s CIA handler Jason Hudson. Other notable voices include Gary Oldman as Viktor Reznov (probably the best performance in the game) Topher Grace, and Ice Cube. (Not as obnoxious as you’d assume.)
You won’t find a much more complete entertainment package than Call of Duty: Black Ops. From the intensely engaging campaign mode to the insanely addictive multiplayer, from the cooperative mayhem of Zombies to the charmingly unexpected Dead Ops Arcade, this is a hell of a bang for your buck. Treyarch as outdone both themselves and a certain Infinity Ward with this one. If you’re a fan, don’t miss out. If you’re not a fan, this won’t change your mind. If you’ve never played, this is the best place to start.