Call of Duty: Black Ops slips players into the subterfuge, counter-espionage and abiding fear of the Cold War's international turmoil. It also serves as a polished, powerful link between the countless World War II games that came before it and the likely countless modern shooters that will come in its wake.
Developer Treyarch's first Call of Duty set outside World War II is a gripping experience that uses the story of one special forces operative and his forays into Cuba, Russia and Vietnam to examine the nature of a world living in the shadow of a constant threat of global genocide. More than any Call of Duty before it, Black Ops manages to provide both an intense game playing experience and a provocative story without watering down either. Black Ops reminds us that games should be an exploration of the unusual, a chance to do what hasn't been done before, either in real life or other video games.
Adult shooter fans looking for a carefully paced story threaded with an intriguing plot and backed up by surprisingly robust multiplayer offerings.
Why You Should Care
Since Infinity Ward's wildly popular Call of Duty: Modern Warfare hit in 2007, Treyarch has become the "other" Call of Duty developer. They're the studio that makes the Call of Duty games that hit between Modern Warfare releases; the studio that has never pushed the franchise beyond the well-tread battles of World War II. Black Ops is a chance for Treyarch to remind gamers that they're not here to just fill the gaps between Infinity Ward's games, and to prove that the Cold War is fertile ground for gamers to explore.
So this isn't a Call of Duty from the people who made Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2? What kind of shooter is it? A superb one. Infinity Ward makes great shooters, but so does Treyarch, they proved that with their last game: Call of Duty: World at War. This time Treyarch manages to do what even the original Modern Warfare fell short of, deliver a game that is as engaging as a movie without making it feel like you're not in control of what happens. From the scene that opens with you strapped to an interrogation table through to the end, the game plucks at your attention with the twin desires to learn what happens and survive what's thrown at you next. This is as good as, perhaps better than, anything Infinity Ward has made.
Does stepping away from a modern shooter to return to historic engagements take away from the experience? Had Black Ops focused on the regular battles and wars that occurred in the 60s I'm sure it would have, but instead this latest Call of Duty has you playing through covert operations using weapons you've likely never seen before. While you don't have modern guns to shoot in the campaign, you do get to take out enemies with fire-spewing shotguns, crossbows armed with explosive bolts and a pump-action grenade launcher.
How is that any different from every other shooter out there? Black Ops strips away most of the padding and endless gun battles found in many shooters, opting instead to dramatically cut in and out of the game's 15 or so missions. Instead of forcing you to walk through the set up that explains an engagement, or deal with the dull moments between battles, Black Ops throws you face first into brutal battle after brutal battle. There's no time to breathe.
That sounds intense. It is the most adult game I've ever played and not just because it has you killing and avoiding being killed. The intensity of the game is only matched by how vicious those moments between battles can be. The action, the torment, the kills are so brutal at times that you'll want to look away from the screen. If you're worried that it's too much for you, you can go into settings and tone down the game's brutality. Doing so doesn't just turn red blood to green or remove curse words, it changes the cut scenes, removing the overt torture and gore without changing the story.
This sounds amazing. Is there anything you didn't like about the game? There was a moment, a particular mission, about a third of the way through the five hour or so game when I felt like I was playing an old World War II game from Treyarch. Suddenly I was throwing myself headfirst into what seemed to be a never-ending stream of bad guys. Tactics and timing went out the window and instead I had to inch down the map, one life, one foot, at a time. It was an annoying, albeit relatively short, reminder of what Treyarch left behind with their World War II games.
How does the multiplayer hold up? Multiplayer in Black Ops is largely the same as the core experience found in Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer. You still rank up, unlocking new abilities, weapons and looks. Instead of starting from scratch, Treyarch built on top of what came before it, giving you some new tweaks, modes and maps. The biggest change, though, is the addition of Wager Match, which allows you to bet the COD points you've earned. These points are what you use to unlock things in the game. Losing or winning them can be a pretty big deal and the added level of intensity is a welcome addition to multiplayer. There's enough here to render Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer obsolete.
What about zombies, are they back? This time around you can drop right into zombie survival matches from the main menu without having the beat the game. The zombie mode of Black Ops comes with new maps, weapons and zombie types as well as a neat new cast of playable, political characters. It's a beefy enough game to feel close to something that could have been sold on its own. There's also a surprise top-down retro shooter hidden the game that plays like Smash TV, but with zombies.
Anything else? There's a ton of neat additions to the franchise stuffed into Black Ops. The game now includes Combat Training which lets you practice against AI in free-for-all and deathmatch modes on any of the maps. You can also play online split-screen again, and you can even use two Xbox Live Gold accounts on one Xbox 360 at the same time. Finally, the game has a theatre mode that lets you create your own clips from gameplay and upload them to the web. These may sound like a bunch of small additions, but they fill a lot of gaps historically missing from the Call of Duty games.
Call of Duty: Black Ops In Action
These videos contain scenes from the game that you may not want to see until you play it.
You can play Black Ops Zombie mode without having to beat the game this time around.
Dead Ops is an arcade game hidden away in Call of Duty: Black Ops.
Call of Duty: Black Ops is packed with modes, maps and weapons.
The Bottom Line
Call of Duty: Black Ops is a powerful story. The game's missions explore a fascinating time in history, take us to places we've likely never been and put us in situations unusual and captivating, even for a video game. But what it does best, through both narrative and gameplay, is tell a story. As the game progressed I found myself anticipating the cut-scenes as much as I did the tightly crafted levels. Thinking back, I can easily forget whether the last absorbing moments of the game were played by me or for me. This is what video games should be, a confusion of interaction and story-telling, of graphics and camera movement, of play and parable.
Call of Duty: Black Ops was developed by Treyarch and published by Activision for the PC, PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii, released on November 9. Retails for $119.95. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the entire singleplayer campaign on the Xbox 360, spent hours playing Zombie mode on multiple maps and played online and offline, split-screen multiplayer. Played hidden game DOA.