Call of Duty: Black Ops Review

Lee Abrahams

Back when Call of Duty first launched, it would probably have come as something of a surprise to its developers and gamers alike to see what the future would have brought. With the game quickly turned into a yearly franchise, with two different developers on hand, it was only a matter of time before the controversy in the games was dwarfed by that going on behind-the-scenes. After the recent Infinity Ward shenanigans, the series is back firmly in the hands of Treyarach for another yearly outing; a company that has never quite got the same backing of the general public as they connected brother. With the latest title now in the firing line, we will find out once and for all whether or not they are firing blanks… again.

"It’s Woods in the… well, woods."

Call of Duty has always been made up of two key elements: a blockbuster single-player offering and a balanced, entertaining multiplayer; and Black Ops is no different. In years gone by though, a third element has reared its head, and that’s co-op play: in Infinity Ward’s case, Spec Ops, and in Treyarch’s case, Zombie horde. So then, it’s no surprise that Treyarch tried to kick things off with a bang in terms of story and spectacle then. Taking in the length and breadth of the Cold War, including key moments in Cuba, Vietnam and Russia, the story weaves around the interrogation of protagonist, Alex Mason, as he talks about his career in special operations.

The set up is a clever one, but it also feels a bit forced, as if Treyarch had a bunch of cool ideas and locations, and needed a story element to bind them all together. Things also unravel slightly once you arrive in the latter third of the game, with the inevitable plot twist proving to be kind of lame, rather than the almighty revelation you were expecting. After that it seems like things are rather going through the motions right up until the supposedly shocking ending. The story is by no means terrible, but it feels mightily contrived all the same. At least the fine voice-cast and much improved character models do a good job of conveying the necessary emotional impact, even if it doesn’t quite always hit home when it should.

Having said that, the individual missions - when taken at face value - are a lot of fun. You’ll find yourself battling through bustling Cuban streets, Vietcong infested jungles, a Russian launch base and a forbidden Gulag for instance, with nothing but your own wits to call upon and maybe a bunch of allies to watch your back. There are a few neat touches along the way as Treyarch try to shake up the gameplay, and guiding a team to safety from above is certainly a highlight, not to mention piloting a Hind and using TOW missiles to bust up some tanks. The action is thick and fast as you would expect, although at times, it seems that the combat is more about making it to the next big set-piece than anything else.

"That satellite dish is in for a world of hurt."

The game unfortunately is fairly short and the levels are surprisingly linear too. If you play on the easiest difficulty, then you’ll probably breeze through the game in a few hours at most, but by cranking up the difficulty to Veteran, you’re likely to bring out the worst aspects of the game. The main issue is the unwelcome return of the infinite respawning enemy closets, which most often appear in areas with narrow chokepoints and a lack of cover. These sections become increasingly frustrating and you’ll eventually rely on sheer luck to get through them, rather than placing the emphasis on skill. More often than not, it’s about luckily snaking from one point to the next and hoping that a stray grenade doesn’t flush you out of cover along the way. Enemies also have a remarkable ability to totally ignore your allies and focus their fire entirely on you; even scoring freak headshots while blind firing from half the map away. When you’re often being killed without even knowing the root cause, it’s only a matter of time before your controller starts to fear for its life. It doesn’t help the realism either when enemy forces run straight past your fellow soldiers to stand right next to you before filling you full of bullets, nor the fact that your AI buddies are so oblivious to them doing so.

With the campaign being so short and uninspiring, not to mention suffering from the same AI flaws that have dogged the Treyarch arch of series for a while, it’s a blessed relief that the rest of the game offers so much more. The multiplayer arena is probably where most series regulars will spend a vast majority of their time anyway, and the number of tweaks and modes on offer will satisfy even the most ardent fan. As ever, you can expect the usual suspects in terms of game modes, with the typical array of team and free-for-all death matches, etc making a return. Plus, there are a whole host of fun killstreak bonuses in Black Ops, like exploding remote control cars, attack dogs, spy planes and strike choppers, all of which are a barrel of laughs to use – even if slightly overpowered at times. While some of the maps seem fresh, well laid out and original, others seem a bit more placid and offer a lot less options in terms of tactics. Having said that, some of the best times will come when you hit up the newer game types.

‘One in the Chamber’ sees each player have one bullet with every shot being a one hit kill. If you do manage to cap someone then you’ll get another bullet, or you can use your knife and stockpile ammo. Once every player uses up their three lives then the winner is determined. As you can imagine, this leads to some great stealth tactics and wonderfully ridiculous moments as players try and stab one another in the back to conserve ammo. Other variants include ‘Sticks and Stones’, with players using crossbows and tomahawks to get kills, with the rider being that a tomahawk kill resets the dead players score. Then there’s ‘Gun Game’ that sees weapons being randomly cycled for maximum carnage and variety - good times indeed. You can also take on bots in Combat Training and even drag your party online for some like minded fun – or have a split-screen buddy along for the ride. The variety here is top notch, even though some of the ideas may well be borrowed from other games, but overall it offers pretty much something for everyone.

"Here come the cavalry."

There is also a wonderful progression system, which sees you using points you earn in matches to buy new perks, weapons and killstreak bonuses. It means you can fully personalise your online appearance and loadout, right down to funky face paint if you so desire. You can also barter your points in ‘Wager’ matches for big rewards - assuming you place in the top three - and then go and blow them all on an extended magazine for your sub-machine gun. As you rank up you will also unlock weapon and perk specific challenges which you can complete in matches for bonus XP. The whole thing fits together rather well, and it’s hard not to go and check out your stats after every game to see how you are getting along. Plus, Black Ops even allows you to save and share videos of your greatest moments, which is a mighty fine addition. If there was a minor niggle though, it would be in the fact that more advanced players seem to get paired up with newcomers on a regular basis, and they can use their improved skills and weaponry to devastating effect.

Black Ops also marks the return of the Zombie co-op modes, which is still as fun as ever, although surprisingly lacking in maps, that will no doubt be rectified when the DLC starts to drop. As ever you gain points from killing off your undead foes, which you can then use to unlock new areas, buy weapons and perks, and open up shortcuts around the level. The whole thing is best played in a party for maximum effect. There are also some neat easter eggs hidden away in the form of the DOA game, which is an impressive twin stick shooter that can easily suck away hours of your time on its own. Then there’s the fun text adventure called Zork, if you are down for that kind of thing. The presentation and little features really help to make the game stand out.

Achievements wise, the list is actually pretty great, with points on offer for sampling every mode, although the majority are for accomplishing tasks in the main campaign and doing so on Veteran difficulty. The full 1,000 gamerscore should not be beyond most players, and probably doable in a relatively short amount of time, assuming you can get lucky in terms of the weapon tasks in the Zombie mode. However, with Activision promising that DLC is on the horizon already, then you can probably expect that neat completion rate to be ruined in double quick time.

As a package, Black Ops offers a lot of content and an impressive bang for your buck, but it’s still frustrating to see the single-player campaign artificially stretched out by poor checkpoint placements, infinite respawns closets for opposing forces and shocking AI - problems that should have been tidied up years ago. The real strength lies in its multiplayer and the co-op side of things, which is perfect if you have a bunch of clans ready to come along for the ride. Party chat, a few lag issues and the fact that newbies can get stacked against veterans may mean it’s less fun for a lone player, but on the whole, there’s little to fault the game on when it comes to multiplayer. If Treyarch can get rid of those same tiresome issues from the campaign, then the next offering could be something pretty damn amazing. As it is though, Black Ops is more than good enough to be a worthy successor to the best selling title of 2009 and is undoubtedly Treyarch‘s best Call of Duty yet.

The sound effects, voice work and tempo is spot on throughout and helps to give the game the atmosphere it was striving for. A pretty impressive effort really, although hearing the same lines said over and over again soon gets old. “BY THE TRENCHES!” - quite.

Black Ops delivers much better character models and some wonderfully varied battlefields. There are, however, the odd issues around some of the levels, with some rough textures and occasional pop-up, plus, the occasional bit of lag when things get a touch hectic.

The single-player suffers from infinite re-spawning enemy closets, ridiculously accurate blind fire from enemy troops, poor A.I and frustrating checkpoints. However, =head online and the issues disappear under a wealth of modes, challenges and pure non-stop fun. You might come for single-player, but the multiplayer is what will get you hooked.

A wonderful multiplayer dynamic, the return of co-op Zombies and some fun mini-games are all slightly let down by a rather by-the-numbers single-player component.

A surprisingly good list that rewards players for trying out all that the game has to offer, with it never going too crazy in terms of multiplayer demands. It’s so straightforward that you can pretty much expect the inevitable DLC to be a nightmare by comparison.

The weak and twitchy single-player - with many of the same old flaws - almost undermines all of the superb extra features and pretty much flawless multiplayer offering. Veterans and regular players still have the advantage over newcomers, but with Combat Training and the Zombie mode, there is plenty of fun to be had for even the most inexperienced players. Black Ops isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly getting there.

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