It's crazy to think that not too long ago, Call of Duty was just another WWII shooter franchise on the cusp of becoming irrelevant. Then Modern Warfare appeared, and the series has turned into the hottest thing in gaming. Call of Duty: Black Ops, the latest entry into the franchise, continues following the trail blazed by Infinity Ward, with mostly positive results. The established formula is starting to show its age, and there are definitely some areas that could use improvement before the franchise's next installment.
Black Ops actually explores new narrative territory for the franchise, forgoing both WWII and modern conflicts in favor of as-yet unexplored territory, the Cold War. The title centers on Alec Mason, an American soldier who may have been implanted with secret information by the Russians, and is thus the only key to preventing mass casualties from a biological attack. Mason's story is told through flashbacks, taking players from the Bay of Pigs in Cuba to the jungles of Vietnam and everywhere in between. It's a cool departure from the standard CoD plot by really zeroing in the action on one character, and the whole thing has a very Manchurian Candidate vibe.
Unfortunately, the excellent story is almost entirely squandered by one of the few things the CoD franchise does poorly: pacing. Nearly every level consists of running and gunning through waves of foes while orders are barked at you from all directions. The basic mechanics of "shoot enough guys to make a hole so you can press forward" are back once more, ruining almost any sense of tactical combat or thoughtful attack. Black Ops is littered with moments where enemies will spawn eternally until you cross a magic threshold, which is never fun. Even worse, since the game absolutely trains you to push, push, push the moments, it's never clear when you're supposed to hold ground and clear a room before advancing. Thus it's nearly impossible to discern when to run in with guns blazing and when to dig in eliminate the threat.
It's funny, then, that the few moments when Treyarch slows things are among the game's most interesting. A level that finds you crawling through "rat tunnels" used by VC forces is tense and harrowing, and it plays a lot like a survival horror game. One mission creates an amazing experience by jumping you back and forth from a command spy plane to troops on the ground. While in the plane, you issue commands to move your squad into position without raising an alarm, and when taking control of the soldiers, you must put down sentries quietly and with no witnesses. The downside to all this is that both stages once again end with the signature CoD firefight, which totally kills the mood and pacing set by the early moments. It seems like the developers are so afraid of doing something different that even when they have a good idea, they refuse to completely follow through with it.
Then again, most people who play the CoD games really buy them for the multiplayer, treating the campaign as little more than training with the new guns and gizmos that they'll use to blast their friends. Treyarch knows this, so the majority of improvements and new features come in the form of multiplayer, which is the most polished edition yet. There are tons of new game modes, perks, tweaks, guns and maps to make the experience very enjoyable.
Perhaps the starkest departure in Black Ops from other recent franchise titles is the inclusion of CoD Points, which are used as in-game currency. Players earn e-cash by slaying foes and leveling up, and they can use the fake money to buy upgrades and attachments for weapons or new perks for their character. While players still have to unlock most of the content the old-fashioned way — leveling up through playing — the new points system allows less-experienced players some degree of competitiveness by giving them access to better gear earlier in the game.
The points also come to the forefront in multiplayer's most exciting new mode, Wager Matches. This new subset of games pits players in a free-for-all, where they can bet a portion of their earned points in the hopes of scoring a big payday. Of course, there is risk involved, as only the top three players get any sort of payout, but that's a big part of the excitement. Watching the bottom few players absolutely go crazy in the closing minutes of a match while leaders try desperately to cling to their spot at the top is awesome, and there are quite a few exhilarating finishes to these bouts.
Making the Wager Matches even more fun is the fact that they aren't straight up Deathmatch or Capture the Flag games, where the guy with the best gear wins. Instead, there are quirky rules like Gun Game, where all players start with the same revolver, and kills allow you to level up to better weaponry or "Sticks and Stones," which gives players a crossbow with some explosive rounds and a knife. Wager Matches strip away the fancy gear and kill streak bonuses and get down to a test of skill.
There are other, general improvements that multiplayer gamers will enjoy, such as separating regular kills from kill streak triumphs so one player can't just ride a chain of kill streaks to victory, as well as new gear, like flak jackets to mitigate explosive damage and offer a respite from grenade spammers. The only real issue with the multiplayer is some major spawn troubles, which often drop players practically in the line of sight of their enemy. Beware the spawn campers; they are back in this game with a vengeance.
Black Ops is another game that shows why the Call of Duty franchise continues its stranglehold over the shooter genre. An interesting but uneven story coupled with great multiplayer continues to keep the series at the forefront of relevance. There are some cracks in the armor, though, and it will be interesting to see what direction the series takes moving forward, especially since Infinity Ward would typically be taking the reins for the next game, but that's a much different studio than it was even a year ago. While we don't expect CoD to suffer the same collapse as Tony Hawk, we're interested to see where the franchise goes from here.
More articles about Call of Duty: Black Ops