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Call of Duty: Black Ops Review

by William Schwartz

Follow-up to 2009’s blockbuster Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Call of Duty: Black Ops breaks new ground in the Call of Duty series and the video game industry at large by delving into the not-so cold conflicts of the Cold War.  Inspired by the experiences of real Black Ops soldiers of the era, the missions of Call of Duty: Black Ops take the player to a wide variety of settings, ranging from snowbound mountain strongholds in historical Soviet held territories, to the jungles and urban settings of Vietnam War era SE Asia. Throughout all, care has been taken to maintain the traditional essence of Call of Duty style combat, while also introducing new types of player action that add to the gameplay experience. Additional features include co-op, versus and team-based multiplayer options, new vehicles like the SR-71 Blackbird and lethal new weapons such as explosive-tipped crossbows.  

I’ve always been a campaign first, multiplayer second kind of guy when it comes to my habits when popping in a new game.  Eventhough, the Call of Duty franchise has taken the opposite approach, I still enjoy the gameplay and stories of the Call of Duty single player component.  Treyarch really hits the nail on the head with the story and presentation in Black Ops single player.  Told through a series of flashbacks, a story unfolds that was interesting enough to keep me mashing through wave after wave of enemies.  From the start, the game gets you engaged with the characters and sparks enough interest in piecing together the information necessary to make sense of what is going on.  The game starts out with your character being tortured for information and the majority of the cutscenes are told from this same perspective.  Your character, Mason, will recollect missions leading up to the point you are at now,  tied to a chair talking to a faceless shadow and getting pumped full of electricity.

The Cold War era is front and center here, and the game has a very charming spy/espionage feel to it.  The way that the story is fleshed out is a bit of change from the traditional Call of Duty formula.  Instead of the traditional play as different soldiers in different armies in one big war, there is a central protagonist which you will control for the duration of the game.  There are still a few occasions where you will assume the role of other characters but it is less frequent than in previous games. It works well for the story they tell in Black Ops.   The locales are very creative and are some of the best in the FPS genre.  Escaping from a Russian Prison, Fighting from rooftop to rooftop through a Vietnamese skyline in the rain, among others keep the otherwise repetitive action fresh throughout.  The game takes a few twists and turns but in the end does well to fulfill your curiosity that the story builds.

Cameos by historical figures also play an important part on creating the fantasy in Black Ops.  Cameos by John F. Kennedy and Fidel Castro really give the game a sense of time and place.  Plus, make sure you don’t turn off you console directly after completing your last mission, there may or may not be an easter egg hidden in there somewhere.

For the most part Zombie mode is exactly the same.  Well it’s exactly the same as the offerings that were released on the tail end of the DLC packs for Call of Duty World at War.  This is a great thing.  Zombies added a lot of life to a game that already has long legs, and this is no different in Black Ops.  Eventhough this is not something that did not need a whole lot of retooling, the Zombies experience has been intensified exponentially.  It really shows that there was a bit more time put into Zombies initially in Black Ops.  The level design is much more intricate than we saw of the first batch of  Zombie offerings in World at War.  The gamers spoke and Treyarch obviously listened by including a wealth of new weapons, maps, enemies, and even characters.

The level of customization in Black Ops is mind blowing.  It may be the first multiplayer game on Xbox 360 or PS3 to have this level of customization options for the multiplayer component.  Everything is changeable.  Primary and Secondary Weapons, Lethal Grenades, Tactical Grenades, Equipment, and even Perks can all be unlocked as soon as you start earning credits.  Credits are earned by playing matches and completing challenges which are similar to those found in Cod 4, 5, 6 .  But if you really want to start earning more credits you can buy contracts.  Contracts are basically an option in the financial sense.  You pay up front a premium in hopes that you fulfill the contract goals. If you do you get paid a reward that is more than the premium you paid.  Depending on how hard the contract is to complete you will earn more cash.  It’s definitely a twist to the multiplayer component that gives it some much needed depth, long after the thrill of prestige for the third or fourth time wears off.

Call of Duty Black Ops Veteran campaign is not for the feint of heart.  Hell, the recruit campaign will give some gamers fits most likely.  Enemies feel smarter than in World at War and know the precise timing to run up on you and beat you with the butt of their gun if you give them the chance.  Playing the game on anything less than veteran might not provide you with as intense of an experience but if you have the wherewithal to play to perfection, Black Ops is one of the more challenging games I have played this year.

Balance has been restored to the CoD, sorta.  Killstreaks in Modern Warfare 2 were a tad unbalanced to say the least.  For the most part this has been sorted out.  In Modern Warfare 2 killstreak chains were flawed as stacking streaks would result in an unfair advantage.   The reason being is that once your killstreak started, your other killstreak perks would continue the streak.  This led to a lot of cheesy play styles in Modern Warfare 2.  Aside from the killstreaks being more balanced, they are much more interactive.  Where as in Modern Warfare 2 you could literally fire off a Harrier Strike followed by a Pavelow and it would require you to do nothing and you could easily rack up 10 kills on more in that time.    With Black Ops there is a little more skill involved, the game requires you to actually do the shooting in some instances so your big killstreaks are all what you make of them.

With the wide array of changes that were implemented in Black Ops, Treyarch also included quite a few that could have been done without.  One that stood out to me was the inability to play certain gametypes from the onset of your time with multiplayer.  Treyarch included quite a few new game modes but you will be required to reach a certain level before accessing them.  Multiplayer games are now broken into four classes:  Core, Barebones, Hardcore, and Prestige.  Core will be the only class available at the start of your time in multiplayer and within the core class not all gamemodes will be available.  Earning levels will unlock gamemodes but fans of particular modes may need to suffer from some modes that they don’t like early on.  This is a little bit counter-intuitive because the game opens up all weapons and perks early on but forces the player to playthrough 20 levels before opening up the familiar Hardcore lobbies.

As much as I enjoyed the single player campaign in Black Ops, I felt that the game did leave the player a little high and dry at the finale.  I had expected much more of an explanation to  such a complex story but the ending that Treyarch chose was a little bit confusing.  Perhaps it’s just my feeble mind not comprehending it, or maybe they just didn’t elaborate enough, but by the end of the game I was more confused than in the beginning of the game.  I thought Treyarch did a great job of introducing the characters and making me care about the outcome of the story enough so that I second guessed the ending.  I really wanted a chance to crack the code for myself.  After hearing these numbers in my head the whole game, it was kind of glazed over very quickly at the end.

Anyone that has been following the games development information since it was announced earlier this year has seen that the game is not much different than it’s predecessors.  Even with all of the new options, customizable features, and gameplay tweaks, both the gameplay and the graphics feel like you have been here and done that many many times.  In fact it gets you wondering how long gamers will tolerate the yearly reskin of the franchise and warrant it as a full price purchase.  It’s understandable why CoD is so likeable.  Their is little barrier to entry and the game is quite fun to play, but there has been little to no innovation in the franchise for 4 years now.  It’s hard not to draw the parallels between the Call of Duty series and Guitar Hero series’.  I think one of the most important areas that Treyarch or Sledgehammer or whomever is working on the next Call of Duty game needs to consider is graphics.  The formula, mechanics, controls, have proven to be a winner.  But the graphics are starting to wane, not looking nearly as fresh faced as the competition, it doesn’t have that blockbuster feeling that Modern Warfare 2 had.

One of the major complaints about Call of Duty World at War was that it was basically a re-skin of Modern Warfare in a different era.  This time around you have got pretty much the same situation.  Treyarch was able to differentiate themselves last time around with a killer Zombie mode, some great level design, and art that rivaled Modern Warfare.  But this time around there’s not as much of a stark contrast between Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops, so is it more of what we know and love?  Or is it overdone?  At this point it’s a matter of preference.  For me multiplayer felt flat and even with all of the upgrades to the game, it feels somewhat dated.  This is a sure sign to me at least, that the game did not make enough changes to really warrant the sequel other than raising a few billion dollars.  The campaign is definitely worth playing, zombies is a fun game as well, but in my opinion the multiplayer falls short of the lofty bar that Modern Warfare 2 sets.  Maybe this was because of the pressure that was recently put on Treyarch with the Infinity Ward drama that unfolded earlier in the year.   Or maybe it’s just that Infinity Ward is a better multiplayer developer than Treyarch, or was.  There’s nothing wrong with the Black Ops multiplayer, it just has the distinct sense of trying to be something that it is clearly not.  Modern Warfare 2.

At the end of the day Call of  Duty Black Ops is more of what we have become all too familiar with, then add some really commendable additions to the customization end of the multiplayer component.  The single player experience is easily one of the outstanding story lines of the franchise and Treyarch pulls off the deviation from the norm surprisingly well.  Call of Duty is still the go to game when you want to have some quick and dirty multiplayer fun and the hardcore will love it if only for its Modern Warfare 3 feel.  It doesn’t have that same blockbuster feeling that Modern Warfare 2 had but Treyarch’s games never really have.  If you are a shooter fan it’s a can’t miss winner for the holiday, but big fans of the Modern Warfare 2 might feel the same as me in saying that Treyarch missed, even if by just a little.

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Call of Duty: Black Ops

  • Available On: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
  • Published By: Activision
  • Developed By: Treyarch
  • Genre: Shooter
  • US Release Date: November 2010
  • Reviewed On: Xbox 360
  • Quote: "The single player experience is easily one of the outstanding story lines of the franchise and Treyarch pulls off the deviation from the norm surprisingly well.  Call of Duty is still the go to game when you want to have some quick and dirty multiplayer fun and the hardcore will love it if only for its Modern Warfare 3 feel."
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