Before the Escalation map pack can become just a little too familiar, Activision Blizzard has released the brand-new Annihilation map pack for Call of Duty: Black Ops. It's good timing; constant players won't quite get to the point that they feel like picking up a new game or putting down the controller and going outside.
As usual, the downloadable content pack, priced at 1,200 Microsoft points ($14.99) features four new multiplayer maps for the publisher's record-breaking and rather popular military shooter, Call of Duty: Black Ops. Also per the norm, there's a new zombie mode map featuring a new environment and upgraded weapons, which change gameplay strategy a bit, and new zombie character models, which don't. Up until about a year ago, people couldn't get enough of zombies, so we'll start there.
I like zombies as much as the next guy, and I've really enjoyed the last decade (or so) of zombie-infused pop media. But it's difficult to get jazzed up about more zombie anything in games, games being a segment of pop culture particularly hard hit by the, ah, undead nightmare. There is a seemingly inexhaustible parade of reanimated-laden titles shuffling along into the future. The new Shangri-La Black Ops environment is a valiant design effort, but the mere mention of it doesn't do anything to dispel my sentiment of, "Oh, yawn, more zombies." Interestingly, starting with the original zombie mode in World at War, it's taken the Call of Duty franchise up till now to come around to a traditional old-world zombie theme. It's not a 19th century Jamaican sugar plantation, but Shangri-La has the same sort of tropical zombie nightmare feeling. Why it's called Shangri-La, I have no idea. (It's probably because a lot of level designers haven't read Lost Horizon.) It's not arid mountain range; it's lush jungle. It's not Himalayan; it's tropical. The architecture is not mystically Asian, but creepily inspired by South American Indians and Pacific islanders. The setting is a temple and grounds, and the zombies pretty much come from everywhere. The large map is just loaded with secrets to discover. It's tough to find a safe place in zombie mode, but I think it's especially hard in Shangri-La. Despite my zombie ennui, I like this map, though I don't like the mouthy monkeys. "Shot The Monkey" has to be an Achievement in some game, somewhere.
The four maps devoid of enchanted corpses are Drive-In, Hangar 18, Hazard and Silo. I like Hazard a lot. Maybe you will, too, and actually vote for it in game lobbies. Hazard is a golf club and course with lots of wide-open sight lines and great, flat stretches through which to sprint. Like the other three maps, Hazard is very sniper-friendly compared to previous DLC maps. Also like the other three maps, you have to be a fairly keen sniper who's willing to switch camps between kills in order to reign supreme as a sharpshooter. "Sniper-friendly" does not mean frustratingly unbalanced in Annihilation. The only problem with Hazard is that it's essentially a reworking of a World at War map, meaning map pack early adopters have played the hell out of it in the other, older game and, in my experience, don't much vote for it in Black Ops matches. Hopefully, that will change as superfans become accustomed to the other new maps and more casual players buy the Annihilation DLC.
My next favorite is Drive-In. As the name implies, it's set in a mid-20th century American drive-in movie theater that's been taken over, as there's a bunch of Soviet surveillance gear installed. If you're fond of whimsical maps, Drive-In will please you and may be your top pick of the bunch. It's a comparatively smaller map, though still stocked with enough sniping position for snipers who felt shorted by previously released maps. I laughed at the sign advertising a hamburger combo meal for $2.25. The price is still high for the era, and it comes with tea. It's not pop, soda or even iced tea — just "tea." The graphical details, however, make up for any minor cultural gaffes. There's a black-and-white ad reel playing on the giant falling-down movie screen. I was in a match, and someone threw a smoke grenade into the projection booth while I was hiding up there. The interaction of the projector's lamp and the smoke was both authentic and eerie.
Keep this under your hats because if Activision figures it out, it may start packaging its DLC this way, but Drive-In, Hazard and Shangri-La alone are worth the price of the map pack. Hangar 18 and Silo are both fine multiplayer maps, but they're good like any of the numerous other Black Ops maps we've already seen. Hangar 18 is set in the infamous hangar at the equally infamous American military installation known as Area 51. It plays like any one of several large Call of Duty maps. Silo is also large; its theme is a rundown missile silo complex, and missiles launch out of the silo every so often. Like the functional rocket on the Launch map packed in with the game, it's an impressive sight, trailing smoke and fire into the sky, but unfortunately, hanging out to watch will probably get you shot. Silo is refined over the stock maps on one especially notable point: There's a beltway around the whole map, allowing players to spawn on one side of the map and easily get to the far side of the map, or points between, without charging right through the hotly contested middle. You can get flanked by one or several opponents no matter how safe and well-defended you believe your position to be. Keep moving.
In my opinion, Annihilation is easily the best of the DLC, and much of the original multiplayer content, for Call of Duty: Black Ops. Unlike the previous map packs, this one has the potential to bring back some worn-thin players to the franchise fold for a while. While Shangri-La doesn't change much of the basic zombie mode experience, it feels fresh and new, and in the end, that's what counts. Likewise, the maps run from the top tier of competence to superb. Hazard is such a nice, detailed and entertaining map that the level designers can be forgiven for more or less recycling an old World at War map.
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