I'm advancing through a tunnel system beneath a Soviet missile complex around the time of escalating nuclear hostilities between the United States and the Eastern Bloc. I've just destroyed an in-flight ICBM missile during a test with a stolen rocket launcher, and they're on to me. There's precious little between me, my small team of fellow covert operatives, and a neverending supply of enemy soldiers armed to the teeth. If I don't get some shelter soon, I'm going to fade away forever. The next thing I know, I've made it, but now I'm rolling out of a forward firebase during the Vietnam War, and I'm listening to radio chatter from people who sound a lot like modern-day movie actors.
This isn't one of those disturbing dreams I have after too much Red Bull and pistachio ice cream. This is Call of Duty: Black Ops, the latest in the series of squad-based military games from Activision. It's been an interesting time of life for the publisher, developer and the franchise, all of it covered in depth elsewhere; there's little of value I can add to that story. This review is about a big, big game and a developer, Treyarch, finally come into its own on all fronts.
Treyarch has previously struggled to find solid footing with this material. Not so long ago, the developer was responsible for the nadir in a series first created and established by Infinity Ward. Perhaps you'll remember Treyarch's Call of Duty 3: Just Going Through the Motions. Then they gave us Call of Duty: World at War, a WWII-era game with a single-player campaign demonstrating that Treyarch showed real promise in shooter design and game narrative. With Black Ops, Treyarch has arguably surpassed Infinity Ward's talent in relating a unique, compelling story through campaign, and it's also brought the online multiplayer features, which are so essential to the series, on par with Modern Warfare 2.
Although this is a Call of Duty game, Treyarch has refined and expanded upon the divergent path it followed in World at War. The art direction in the title is quite different from the Modern Combat entries in the series; it's a much darker and more cinematic style compared with near-clinical, photorealistic art and models in the Infinity Ward games. In order to tell a story that spans decades, Treyarch has cast the player in several different roles, although they are all interrelated, and, thanks to the game's consistent pacing and engaging single-player combat, players won't feel jolted or disoriented when moving from mission to mission. The narrative thread doesn't snap, and players are still compelled by plot development and unfolding events, though they are focused far more on the mandates of U.S. Cold War foreign policy than the life of a single character in the game.
Black Ops also deepens the often sinister, even horrific, tone set in parts of World at War with missions that take place in the traditional environment of fictionalized espionage operations but convey a distinct creepiness. Even familiar stateside federal government buildings are steeped in gloom and subtle menace. Whereas Modern Warfare fares well with its near-future, Clancy-esque techno-thriller plots, Black Ops excels at painting a grim, sometimes cryptic past.
Like other recent entries in the Call of Duty series, Black Ops doesn't shirk in bringing together the resources necessary to deliver on the promise of an immersive campaign. In voice roles, the game showcases such popular, celebrated names as Ed Harris and, reprising his notable role from World at War, Gary Oldman. Character models and animations are accomplished work, particularly in facial representation and expressions — important elements in telling this story. Without giving away anything, there are several real-world historical figures represented in the game that are so lifelike that it's eerie.
Black Ops is squad-based, as fans are accustomed, and this title is especially so. Players move with the unit, keeping at most a few steps ahead or behind of a team. Exceed that limit, and you die quickly. At higher difficulty settings, you die very quickly. These sudden deaths are abrupt and punishing, often without apparent logic. For example, hang back and get shot from behind when there are positively no enemies there. Some may find this frustrating, but it's how the game teaches adherence to the strict rules of this campaign. Most players will adjust rapidly and naturally, though if you tend to play squad shooters way out in front, always waiting around for your friendly non-player character teammates to catch up, you'll have to consciously rein yourself in. Although initially stymieing, the unforgiving penalty for choosing a path never traveled is a necessary evil for Black Ops' narrative flow. Don't rush it at any difficulty level, and you'll save yourself some head-thumping repetition between save checkpoints.
The audio production in Black Ops is markedly different from previous Call of Duty games. It's not as in-your-face — or, rather, in-your-ears. Sound effects from weapons discharges, including air-support heavy guns, to footsteps, to most explosions are more muted than in the games that came before. This variation on Call of Duty sound applies both to campaign, multiplayer modes and the ever-popular zombie mode, which makes a return in Black Ops. Though some players may not appreciate it when things that go boom don't go boom quite so loudly, it's more of a creative decision than a shortcoming of implementation. Black Ops isn't a stealth game, but it is a covert operations and espionage game. With only a couple of exceptions, gamers are playing a small part in a relatively subdued global conflict. (They didn't call it the Cold War for nothing.) Enemy encounters in Black Ops aren't grand-scale ground wars, and the audio program has been adjusted to suit the context.
In Black Ops, Treyarch has finally pulled up alongside the Modern Warfare online multiplayer features. Indeed, they've perhaps advanced this portion of the game a couple of steps further. There's clear acknowledgement of something Activision discovered during the game's development: Only a relatively small fraction of Call of Duty gamers play the series online. Ergo, many of Black Ops refinements have to do with play-balancing, so that both new and veteran online players start off on more equal footing, and occasional players have a better chance when mixing it up with regular players. Firearms feature realistic recoil, and aiming accuracy is more heavily weighted, so it's not so easy to dual-wield machine pistols and rack up "lawn sprinkler" kills. Melee knife kills now require players to be more reasonably in range of their opponents to pull off the one-strike kills. There was nothing more frustrating for new and casual players than to aim down their guns' sights at an opponent only to have him cut their throats — seemingly from across the room and before they could fire off a single round.
Additional changes have been made to the ranking system. As expected, XP increases rank and unlocks combat equipment, combat perks, weapons, weapon attachments and other online features. Now, even they're unlocked, most of the items must be purchased with an in-game currency called COD credit. For example, if players want a particular assault weapon, they must have that weapon unlocked by rank and also must have enough COD credit to buy the rifle. It's no longer enough to merely rank up; it's required to play in order to earn COD credits to buy unlocked items, thus encouraging more gamers to play more often. Although this favors constant players to some degree, it also helps to balance things out. Ranking up in a hurry isn't the sole goal; players have to earn COD credit in matches and spend it wisely. Even player card art, emblems and the new face paints cost credits. No matter how great you are, if you spend too much on your glam online image, you won't have the COD credits for that slick sniper rifle and fancy suppressor attachment.
The addition of in-game currency for multiplayer modes allows for a couple of other new online features: contracts and wager matches. Contracts are a lot like the familiar challenges of past Call of Duty games in that you accomplish goals to fulfill them. However, players get to pick their own contracts — a small fee is charged per contract accepted — and contracts only pay out upon successfully completion under stipulated terms. Wager matches are essentially betting on multiplayer rounds with fake money. Online gamers buy into wager matches, within limits place bets on the outcome of the match, and then "the house" pays out in varying amounts according to how well they perform in the match. That's another way to drop a lot of COD credit with nothing to show for it because you could go broke in a run of poorly played wager matches.
For all its brooding campaign elements, Black Ops is clearly designed to be a lighter, more purely fun experience in the multiplayer department. Killstreak rewards feature some of the usual standbys under different names, but rewards permit players to unleash packs of attack dogs on the enemy or take the wheel of a remote-controlled model car loaded with enough explosives to blow up a couple of foes. There are some quirky game types, too. When playing Sharpshooter, everyone is armed alike, and the weapons randomly change every so often. In Gun Game, players start small, and each kill earns them a better, or at least different, weapon. Get killed, and you get knocked back down to the starter weapon; staying alive for the entire match is suddenly more than a mere statistic.
There are also a couple of secret bonus treats of substantial gaming value in Black Ops, both unlocked with relative ease. They're hardly secrets anymore, but I won't spoil them for the few Call of Duty players who haven't yet figured out how to use Google.
There's no question that Black Ops is a must-have game for both Call of Duty fans and shooter fans of any stripe. Then again, if it says "Call of Duty" on the box, it's a must-have by default for those audiences. What's more significant is the divergent art direction and Treyarch's attention to detail in the cinematic narrative campaign. It's a sign of good things to come in the Call of Duty series, even though it's getting a bit long in the tooth. Black Ops doesn't quite live up to the hype in all aspects, but that's only because it was so ridiculously overhyped. It certainly lives up to the promise of a greatly improved and enhanced sequel to World at War.
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