When a gamer thinks of iteration, they think of Call of Duty. These days, the two have become inseparable, as the once-innovative and fresh cinematic franchise has fallen into a popular yet unchanging section of the market. The games still manage to outsell one another by millions, but the formula is beginning to get stale…until Black Ops.
Hardcore fans will debate over its multiplayer and whether or not it ranks among the best online offerings to-date. However, what is more impressive than its changes to the online interface and experience is the intriguing development of the intense single-player campaign and the other oh-so-satisfyingly campier modes, which put this installment in a league of its own (content-wise, at the least) and easily make it one of 2010’s better releases.
Storytelling and first-person shooters (what Call of Duty continues to be, despite Modern Warfare 2‘s influence) have had an interesting relationship, as the perspective allows for a more intense, player-driven experience, yet many modern developers choose to focus on putting players into linear action sequences that ironically feel lacking in cinematic value (a shame, as the first-person view has shown potential here). This is Call of Duty‘s continuing circumstance of having little depth to justify constant set-pieces and strict “Point-to-Point” gameplay.
However, Black Ops’ story manages to start strong and flows well to the very end. It begins in an interrogation room, circa 1968, with protagonist Alex Mason, CIA and SOG operative, being tortured for information on mysterious numbers. This interrogation, as it turns out, is a framing device for the rest of Mason’s story, which explains the character’s predicament through flashbacks across the ’60s. Players will experience a tale of conspiracy, betrayal and psychological trauma across 15 missions that mainly focus on Mason’s experience, but occasionally switches perspectives a few times (usually when Mason is considered MIA or when events need to be explained in detail).
The themes of brainwashing and treachery are definitely exploited for their full spy-movie/Cold War drama potential, giving a sense of tension with every moment, but there are other more subtle aspects of the story that have been understated when they deserve the spotlight. Take, for instance, the return of Russian soldier Viktor Reznov from World at War, who acts as Mason’s mentor and comrade-in-arms for several missions. Mason and Reznov, throughout the game, build up a rapport that inspires the actions of the former based on his sheer admiration and respect for his older Russian counterpart, acting as the emotional base of the story (which is important in its final hours).
Besides the wealth of settings (Cuba, Washington D.C, Russia, various locations in Vietnam, etc.), the heavy espionage storyline (featuring malevolent Soviet generals, bioweapons, and the JFK conspiracy) and the element of friendship, this story also gives us one of the most interesting speaking protagonists in a first-person shooter, possibly even in video games. Alex Mason is a strong-willed and intriguing American who is portrayed as being extremely patriotic, but this story is more content to break down the elements of his psyche and ask the question, “What happens when a person driven by patriotism is ordered to do the unthinkable?” Mason’s conflict with this question, and his developing psychological issues, make for one of the most thought-provoking experiences this side of Heavy Rain.
However, even with so much great narrative content, there are a couple of small flaws. The shifting perspectives from Mason to CIA handler Hudson, amongst others, does cause the story to become slightly disjointed around the midpoint, though the plot is eventually clarified and focused enough to succeed in its conclusion. Also, the supporting cast of characters, save for Reznov, generally lack depth and character development, making their various struggles and exits fail to draw much remorse (though the brutality of certain scenes does work wonders for gaining sympathy).
In terms of gameplay, nothing truly ground-breaking has been introduced. This game was built around the skeletal frame that is Modern Warfare: intense action set-pieces, adrenaline-filled “shooting gallery” levels, linear mission progression. Most of the 15 levels fall into this refined, but overly familiar formula, providing about 8 to 10 hours of mind-numbing shooting fun.
One may notice, however, that the statement was “most of the 15 levels”. Treyarch, the developer in charge of this particular release in Activision’s year-after-year production cycle, has taken the time to add to the mission roster in ways Infinity Ward never has. One mission involves driving an armed riverboat into the heart of Vietnam, destroying enemy encampments to the tune of “Sympathy for the Devil”. Another mission puts Mason and his comrade Woods aboard a Mi-24 Hind, cutting through the skies of Laos to hunt down a Soviet officer. The narrative also has a role in certain more linear cutscene-like missions, though to go into further details would be to spoil the fun.
Strictly speaking, only some of the locales that Mason and Co. travel to and the circumstances they face are unique to this game. The aiming and shooting mechanics work well, though the lack of recoil for most weapons is notable. A.I is serviceable but not exceptional, as teammates are not very helpful in combat and enemies stick to the predictable pop-out-of-cover-to-shoot-then-duck-down tactic. Picking up the plentiful range of guns off of downed foes is still possible and there will be plenty of ammo and explosives to fulfil your objectives.
Talking about Black Ops requires speaking of Zombies Mode, a returning feature from World at War. For those uninitiated, the mode involves up to 4 players online or offline (depending on your preference of console and experience) fighting off wave after wave of, you guessed it, zombies, in a Horde Mode-esque environment, complete with in-game currency that can be used to open up new areas, buy new weapons and even unlock special powers (like Revivals). Three maps are included in the main game, each with a different set of characters and ‘backstory’ of sorts. One brings back the characters from the original mode in WoW, the second ties into the Cold War setting with some classic icons and the third pays homage to top-down arcade classics. All of these selections also contain a sense of humor, be it in the appearance of unusual enemies or in the dialogue spoken by characters.
Finally, we come to multiplayer, likely the entire reason that many people buy this game. The multiplayer has received an overhaul in the form of several new mechanics. First, to allow instant gratification and more personalization of classes, the unlock system has been mostly replaced with “COD Points”, which are earned during matches for taking any action and can be spent on any weapon or attachment. Second, certain controversial Killstreaks (i.e. Tactical Nuke) from previous instalments have been replaced with more balanced era-appropriate additions (though some may complain about the Explosive RCs). Third, several new modes, such as One in The Chamber (players fight using a gun with one bullet and a knife, killing enemies to earn more bullets), coupled with the Contract system which allows players to bet on certain conditions being met (killing said number of enemies with a certain weapon, for instance), allow inexperienced players to build up experience and gather COD Points, while being genuinely entertaining additions.
Aside from that, nothing major has changed in regards to this section of the Call of Duty experience. Familiar modes, such as Deathmatch, Headquarters and Capture the Flag, return, with all of the modifiers in place to truly individualize a match. People can set up clans, personalize their appearances and their loadouts. There is now the option to save footage from certain matches and upload it to the Internet, but most of what is here is definitely going to be same-old, same-old for long time fans.
The presentation of this game is high-quality overall, truly worthy of a cinematic experience. While the modified IW Engine used in this game has begun to show its age, and does occasionally suffer from minor bugs and glitches, the graphics are quite detailed and outstanding. Each and every environment feels immersive and colourful, also due in part to the phenomenal art design.
Sound work on this game matches the action-packed feel of the experience, with plenty of orchestral themes and rock music taking the stage in many key moments (see the aforementioned “Symphony for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones for evidence of this). The voice work on this game is definitely more satisfying and gives the characters a greater sense of personality, particularly Gary Oldman’s outstanding performance as the gruff veteran Viktor Reznov and Sam Worthington’s take on the conflicted Alex Mason.
Some will call Call of Duty shallow, formulaic and unimpressive, and in very small ways this latest installment does suffer from aspects of these claims. Does that mean this game is not an outstanding release in a time of derivative shooters? Hell no! Black Ops sets the bar higher for the series than ever before with its greater focus on storytelling, emotional value and cinematic presentation. This is a trip to the past worth taking.
Overall Score: 9/10
Author’s Opinion: Hear me out on this – I felt a greater connection to this game’s narrative, characters and action sequences than even Modern Warfare, which I herald as the highest point of the series due to its impact on the genre. Black Ops, however, is still a worthy heir to that legacy, and while not perfect, it manages to meet, nay, exceed many of my expectations and I enjoyed my time with it.
Even if you only have a passing interest in first-person shooters, you would be doing yourself a disservice by not trying it. I support Treyarch’s efforts and I fully believe this is a game worth spending money on.