When it comes to the FPS genre, Bungie's Halo: Reach is the benchmark to beat this year, but for the team at Treyarch, it's not the only competition. They're also looking to best Infinity Ward's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which shipped to massive acclaim (and sales) when it hit stores last fall. Given that multiplayer is a strong suit for two of its biggest competitors, it is no wonder that a large amount of Treyarch's development effort went into the multiplayer component of Call of Duty: Black Ops.
Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the game is the new wager match mode. Mixing the lure of Vegas with the thrill of the kill, wager match allows players to do exactly what got baseball great Pete Rose banned from the game he loved so much: bet on the game you're about to play. Setup as a free-for-all (there didn't seem to be an option for team play), the wager match requires every player to ante up before joining. At the end of the match, the top three players split the pot proportionally, while everyone else goes home empty-handed.
In order to keep things interesting, wager match features four, preset game types. Each one offers a challenge that is a step away from a standard free-for-all deathmatch, ensuring that standard tactics don't guarantee victory. Gun Game starts everyone off with a basic gun. Make a kill, and you get an automatic upgrade. Keep killing, and you get better and better weapons. The first player to make a kill with every weapon wins the match. Getting eliminated knocks you back a weapon, though, so there is a strong incentive to play defensively. One in the Chamber sounds like something more appropriate for GoldenEye than Call of Duty, but it promises to be one of the more addicting wager match modes. Here everyone is given a knife, a pistol and a single round. Kill an enemy, and you get another bullet. Miss, and all you have left is the knife.
Sticks and Stones has shades of cowboys and Indians, with players receiving crossbows and tomahawks as default weapons. Crossbows are naturally the favored toy, given their range and accuracy, but the tomahawk has a distinct advantage. If you manage to land a kill with the throwing ax, you immediately bankrupt your hapless opponent. Finally, there is Sharpshooter. You get to play with all the weapons here, but the catch is that it's done on the game's schedule, not yours. Rather than having standard weapon pick-ups, Sharpshooter randomly switches up your instrument of death. If you want to win, you have to be handy with every type of gun in the game.
Of course, wagering isn't any fun if you don't have any currency. Unfortunately, those pesky gambling laws prevented Activision from running a full-on betting site through Black Ops (though chances are high Bobby Kotick would love to get his hands on the kind of profits that offshore poker sites generate, but we digress), so instead, Treyarch invented its own set of currency, Call of Duty Points, or CP for short. Awarded alongside the more traditional XP, CP serves as a form of in-game currency that can be used to purchase items, gamble or even purchase contracts, mercenary-style.
Contracts within Black Ops are another method of betting against your own abilities. Rather than dumping you into a specific wager match, contracts are executed in standard multiplayer modes. The idea is that each contract sets forth a specific requirement, such as killing a certain number of players, using a specific kill streak, etc. If you complete the requirement, you earn the payout, which is always more than the cost of the contract. Progressively more difficult objectives feature better payouts, but the risk is also higher. If you don't fulfill a contract, you don't get a refund. The initial CP layout is forfeit.
For those who don't like to gamble, you always have the option of playing it straight. Just hop into multiplayer and play normally. You'll still earn CP and XP side by side, though your CP will only grow at a rate that corresponds to your amount of play.
Going at it in a full multiplayer matchup really highlights the care and design that went into each level layout. We only had a chance to experience a limited number of maps, but the sheer number of possible routes was impressive. Rather than feeling like a somewhat predictable, boxy layout, each of the maps that we played was best described as a virtual rat's nest — and we mean that in the best possible terms.
When you start exploring any of the maps, there is a natural inclination to play it just like any other FPS ... until you realize the fluidity of the map layout. No matter where you are, it seems as though there are multiple exit points. It's difficult to find a natural dead-end, as every route has side paths to complement the obvious choice. Maps also move vertically, so if you can't flank, you can often go up or down. Best of all, however, are the various ways in which the environment changes.
For example, in one area, there is a room that can be closed off via a control switch in a booth overlooking the main room. This can be exploited quite nicely for defensive means, especially if you're trying to keep out an opponent. The most memorable moment of the night was playing on the rocket map. The firefight may be going on, but the countdown isn't going to stop. As the rocket prepares to launch, you'd best get out of the way if you're fighting near the pad because the exhaust blast is very real. Once the rocket is gone, there is a whole new section to battle over.
It is this seemingly constant ability to change up the map that permeated our entire time with the game. Assuming that sort of forethought and flexibility carries over into the single-player game (and any additional multiplayer maps), then Black Ops already has one big positive banked in its corner.
Speaking of single-player, Treyarch is well aware that a good portion of buyers never experience the multiplayer aspect of the game. Perhaps they don't think they have the skill required. Perhaps they don't want to pay for online access. Perhaps they simply don't want to hear a 12-year-old constantly screaming obscenities. Whatever the reason, Treyarch has it covered with the new combat training mode.
The combat training mode was borne out of the developer's experiences with a tool they affectionately name Larry. He started as a dumb bot who just stood there and took damage. Then the team at Treyarch wanted to test more things, so they made Larry smarter. The cycle continued until they realized that Larry could make a decent opponent. They made lots of Larrys and assigned them random names, and combat training was born. It looks like online and plays like online, but it doesn't have any of the things you probably don't like about online. You can level up and move through the ranks in combat training, but your rank here and in actual online play are two separate tracks, so you can't game the system by constantly whooping up on the bots.
Visually, Black Ops looks just as sharp as its predecessor, if not more so. We played on the Xbox 360, but there's no reason to doubt that the PC or PlayStation 3 versions will be any different. What's nice about this outing is that the visual fidelity actually has a practical use (besides simply looking good): Your perks are now reflected in your outfit. This means that savvy players can tell which perks their opponents have selected simply by looking at their outfits. Customization also carries over into guns and emblems. Black Ops features a fairly detailed emblem editor, allowing you to leave your own unique mark.
Kill streaks are back and just as varied as ever. You can bring your three favorites into a game, so it's a matter of matching play style. Our favorite would have to be the one that puts you behind a machine gun mounted on the side of a chopper as it flies over the battlefield. Not only can you cause some massive damage, but it's pretty difficult for the folks on the ground to snipe you out of the air since you're a moving target.
Creating all this death and carnage may be fun, but Treyarch knows that showing it off can be even better. Taking a page from Bungie's playbook, Black Ops includes what appears to be a pretty flexible theater mode. The game records every match you play by default and gives you the option of going back and replaying the video or editing parts of it. You also have the option of using the default camera or swapping into free cam mode for a more cinematic effect.
After last year's debut of Modern Warfare 2, many wondered if Treyarch could match the quality of Infinity Ward's best-selling title. While we still don't have the full picture (Activision has been curiously silent on the game's single-player aspect), the multiplayer component of Call of Duty: Black Ops certainly seems to be up to snuff. Assuming that Black Ops holds up under extended play and that the single-player is just as good, Activision may very well have another moneymaker on its hands.
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