Review: "Call of Duty: Black Ops"

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"Call of Duty: Black Ops" puts you in control of Mason, as he recounts his covert exploits during an interrogation. Mason is voiced by Sam Worthington.

Ever since “Call of Duty 2” two companies have developed games under the Call of Duty franchise: Infinity Ward and Treyarch. Infinity Ward is responsible for all the milestone titles, including the original and both Modern Warfare titles, while Treyarch has handled the lackluster “Call of Duty 3” and “World at War”.

“Black Ops” is set in near modern times, mostly during the Cold War and Vietnam, and is intended to prove that Treyarch can create an experience that rivals its peers and remove the stigma that the developers are the B Team. While I can’t say Treyarch has yet reached Infinity Ward status, I have to commend “Black Ops” on being a rock solid Call of Duty title with the best campaign story to date.

In this installment you take control of special operative Mason and embark on various missions from the assassination attempt on Fidel Castro in Cuba to fighting in the Vietnam War. The story is told via flashbacks, as Mason awakens in the beginning to find himself strapped to a chair and being interrogated, so the plot is allowed to jump forward and backward in time. While this setup may seem overcomplicated and difficult to follow, the story flows naturally and I found it much more entertaining and less confusing than previous Call of Duty titles. Mason is a likeable character as are the various soldiers he meets along the way, especially Viktor Reznov, who plays a critical part in the outline of the plot. It was also refreshing to return to a plot that included historical events, especially as they relate to some of America’s deepest black op missions. As previously stated, this is hands down the best told story in the Call of Duty franchise and worth a single play for anyone who picks this up, even if you’re really only interested in the multiplayer.

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"Black Ops" is one of the most violent entries in the Call of Duty series yet. It also features the best single-player story in the series.

Gameplay in single-player is about what you’ve come to expect from a Call of Duty title, with decent variations to missions. As can be expected, the nature of the missions in “Black Ops” will feature plenty of tight corners and door breaches that will keep even the best of twitch gamers on edge. Vehicles have been toned down since “World at War,” but the opportunity to pilot an attack chopper more than made up for the sparse use otherwise. Call of Duty is known for its difficulty, especially on the hardest setting (Veteran), and while World at War was plagued with an onslaught of enemies tossing endless grenades, Black Ops balances the grenade barrage with infinitely respawning enemies. I have always been frustrated by the concept of endless enemies holding you back, but the way it is integrated is forgivable and makes for a relatively manageable challenge.

“Black Ops” features an array of weapons ranging from the tactical to the utterly ridiculous – but I must admit that it is handled with such gusto that I hardly notice the fact that I’m shooting an explosive crossbow or incendiary shotgun rounds. Weapon placement and damage, on the other hand, could use some work. Every time I was about to enter a new area there always seemed to be the ideal weapon for the situation perched on a gun rack or by some dead soldiers, which seemed to foreshadow the attack to come. In addition, it was infuriating to see high end assault rifles pumping round after round into guys that don’t die, but a shotgun blast from half a screen away could take out two, even three guys at once.

In fact, the AI as a whole could also use a strong overhaul. I found myself in small rooms with both friends and enemies that completely ignored each other and continued to focus on me. In dark rushed firefights it’s difficult to spot exactly who’s on your side and making this designation is even more difficult when an enemy will stand right next to you and not shoot, only to tag you in the back after you pass. Canned animations also made some enemies temporarily bulletproof and your friendly AI had no problems blocking you into corners or pushing you out of cover to complete a scripted animation. That said, these complaints are pretty scant compared to the overall experience: a very polished and solid shooter.

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New weapons like the crossbow and ballistic knife join a revamped multiplayer experience that includes Wager Matches, Gun Game, and more customization than any other game in the series. And yes, Zombies returns, putting you in control of some slightly more recognizable faces.

Multiplayer has received an overhaul and while some of the more exploitative players from “Modern Warfare 2” will have complaints, all is well for the rest of us. The leveling system returns only this time you also receive credits for various goals that can be used to customize just about anything. Whereas “Modern Warfare 2” depended on getting to a certain level of experience or a certain number of kills with a weapon to upgrade, “Black Ops” allows you to buy your way into these perks with the in-game currency – although weapons are still, for the most part, unlocked by leveling up.

Shotguns have been removed as a secondary weapon, so those that loved pulling out a boomstick when the primary was out of ammo will have to look elsewhere. Killstreak rewards have also been toned down. When you use a killstreak reward – for example a napalm strike or turret – the kills that said reward racks up no longer apply to your killstreak so chaining together large killstreaks is limited to skill. This in turn means you need to focus more on the battle at hand instead of tucking away in some corner and letting your items do the killing for you. New items like the ballistic knife, crossbow and RC bomb car are amusing additions and they don’t seem to upset the balance of gameplay in any way.

Contracts have also been added to give the player optional ways of leveling up or getting more currency, but don’t get too cocky because they have to be purchased with credits and you only have a limited time to complete them.

All of the previous gameplay types are intact and each map provides ample flexibility for all play styles and weapons. From what I’ve played so far it seems camping and hiding in a prone position are a popular strategy but a good organized team can mop the floor with this style. The training mode, which replaces real life players with bots, offers an excellent way to get to know the maps as well as getting you tuned up to take on the real players. When the difficulty is raised to Veteran (hardest) you get a relatively similar experience to online play and the fact that all bots are given names based on your friends list is a nice touch.

Wager matches allow you to gamble your currency against other players in a match and when used among friends can get addicting quick. Theater mode has also been added, a first for the franchise, and operates almost identical to Halo’s version. This mode allows you to watch previous matches from the first or third person view of any player or even a float camera to take in the tactics of the battlefield. This means that a team using a killer tactic can be observed, copied and used against them. Also, if you jump in near the end of a battle, the entire match is captured for you so it isn’t just limited to one player’s game time.

As with most online games, there are still some major bugs to work out - namely the way servers are handled and integrated. Every so often (I’m guessing 10-15 minutes) the server or game ID changes to a newer version and if you and your friends are in different versions this can result in you being unable to join their squad.

To fix this you have to back out to the main menu of the game and re-enter multiplayer, a simple but annoying fix. It can be difficult to get odd numbered groups into games, especially for those who try to get in with 5-7 players in team deathmatch, and for some reason the game will frequently drop all members of a party and throw a lone party leader into a game. If for any reason that game has open spots for your other party members to join, you won’t always be on the same team (even if all members are in a party together) unless you all joined at the same time. Whether it’s server issues or glitchers, connection issues are frequent and can be as simple as a little lag for the end of a game and as aggravating as a closed game lobby. All of the host migration features and functions from previous games are intact so I’m not quite sure why it’s such an issue but I do know that Treyarch is working to address them. As a result, it can take a significant amount of time, sometimes more than half an hour, to get a game started with a group of friends. Here’s hoping they patch it soon because in its current state, this is unacceptable. At the same time, I can’t help but admit that the multiplayer in “Black Ops” is so addicting that I endure the frustrating startup just for another chance to play.

“World at War” introduced the exceedingly popular zombie mode, a co-op mode that allows up to four players to take on the undead in elaborate maps. Zombie mode has returned for “Black Ops” with a twist.

One map is provided right away (five if you count the original four maps provided as a bonus in the hardened or prestige editions of the game), and an additional and hilarious map is unlocked upon completion of the campaign.

Zombie mode provides a difficult and overwhelming way to build team skills and board control. If you don’t know how to properly secure an area with one or two guys, you will have to learn quickly to last some of the attacks in zombie mode. Just as addicting as it was the first time around, zombie mode is just as appreciated bonus to “Black Ops.” For those that are looking to play a few easter eggs hidden in the game, try tapping the left and right triggers back and forth on the main menu until you get up and accessing the computer behind the chair. On the prompt, type either “zork” to play the original 80s text adventure or “doa” to play a new twin stick shooter, Dead Ops, which controls in the vein of Smash TV and Geometry Wars. These two add-ons are just like every other feature in this game, fun and addicting, and I have to admit that Treyarch is pulling out all the stops to give you the biggest bang for your buck.

Black Ops is not a series or genre changing achievement like Modern Warfare was, but it has made major headroom for the series and proves Treyarch belongs alongside Infinity Ward as a Call of Duty developer. Offering the best and most concise storyline to date, those that have enjoyed campaigns in Call of Duty will be pleased with the plot and the difficulty will make your Veteran playthrough a taxing, but possible challenge. Multiplayer has undergone some tweaks that may be attacked by some but clearly benefit the majority. Zombie mode seems to be one of the bigger draws of the Treyarch family of games and this iteration is no exception. It may not be the greatest Call of Duty to date, but Treyarch has proven that they shouldn’t be regarded as the B Team anymore.

Graphics: 9.5

Sound: 9.5

First Play: 8.5

Multiplayer: 8.0

Replay Value: 9.0

Overall: 9.0

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