Call of Duty: Black Ops

excellent
key review info
  • Game: Call of Duty: Black Ops
  • Platform: Playstation 3
  • Gamepad support: N/a
  • Reviewed on:
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It must be hard to be one of the developers working on the Call of Duty franchise these days. This is a series which brings in a huge percentage of Activision's revenue and probably contributes more than, let's say, DJ Hero 2 to the profits of the company. This is a franchise which is used to setting records on launch day. A series that generates more game related writing than any other in the industry. And one which is always in danger of coming face to face with failure.

And the launch of Black Ops has not been helped by the fact that Treyarch has been traditionally seen as the second Call of Duty team, delivering their games in the off years for the series. Fortunately Call of Duty: Black Ops is a very good package, a video game which burnishes the reputation of the developer and will give Activision Blizzard another huge hit, even though it does some terrible things to the free will expectations we bring to video gaming.

The high points of the game are a story that has a bit more coherence than the one in Modern Warfare 2 and offers a wider array of experiences and it's good to play a multiplayer that is a bit more balanced and a new zombie based mode which can keep two friends addicted for weeks.

But the series also has a couple of structural faults linked with pacing, poor levels design and shooting gallery combat, which will probably be even more present in the 2011 Call of Duty because of the success that Black Ops is currently enjoying.

Story

This is the best storytelling in the Call of Duty franchise since the series first hit the beaches of Normandy. The fact that the game is set somewhere in the past rather than in the present or the near future really helps. There's a feeling of importance to everything that you do, drawn not from the overarching threat of the game, but from the knowledge that you are revisiting moments in time and geographical spaces that are significant beyond the simple shooting of enemies that will take place there.
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Cold, cold war
Rambo style
It also helps that Black Ops has limited the number of characters the gamer is experiencing, while focusing the narrative around just one, Alex Mason, the man who endures quite a bit of torture and explores his memories in order to deliver playable levels and the new Call of Duty narrative.

The flashback narrative mechanic is also well chosen, allowing the developer to offer a justification for the non stop action nature of the game, with well placed fade to black transitions allowing the player to skip the pieces that the creators thought would be boring overall.

The story has a few predictable twists and turns and the final third moves into some pretty science fiction territory but even there the people at Treyarch keep the story on track, playing on themes like Soviet infiltration, the Red Scare, the nature of memories and how a man can be turned against himself that are not to be out of place in a thriller set during the Cold War.

It's still all delivered using the mechanics of a huge action movie and the story is not the most important thing about Black Ops but the game never generates the feeling that all cutscenes and dialog are surplus to requirements like in Modern Warfare 2. It also lacks the shock based sequence, like No Russian and the atomic detonation, which impressed a lot of people in previous titles.

Gameplay

Coming from something wide open like Fallout: New Vegas it's almost jarring that the beautiful, huge spaces that Black Ops shows to the player cannot be explored fully and, worse, cannot be influenced in any way. But after accepting the fact that this is a Call of Duty game, meaning huge amounts of scripting, linear paths for all levels and enemies that pop up and don't have the smarts to do anything else, there's a lot of fun to be had with the new Call of Duty.

The levels are overall well designed, with exceptions like a certain rooftop chase and the Vietnam Khe Sahn battle, where a lot more could have been done. The number of enemies on the screen forces the player to pay attention and be careful with his movement and aiming, despite the fact that opposing forces are as dumb as ever, failing to try and flank or advance in big numbers at the same time. There are some cheap kills, mostly based around baddies popping out of thin air or grenades, which will infuriate players but overall it's all solid action punctuated by some vehicle sections (the helicopter one being pretty weak) and some scripted actions that can feel out of place (interrogation involving broken glass?).
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Space programme
In the air
Unfortunately Call of Duty seems to be developing a problem linked to actual gun identity. I found that I could very well dispatch enemies with every model and variation, never worrying about what I am wielding and if it´s the right weapon for the situation. Shotguns should be far worse at longer range and heavy machine guns incredibly hard to aim. The developers should really work to make weapon choices (some of the most significant choices to make in shooter, in general, and Call of Duty, in particular) more meaningful and at least at times make the player worry a bit about ammunition.

The constant addition of movie like qualities to Call of Duty also bears the question: how long before the series actually becomes an interactive movie or until someone hacks the code to allow the player to just use the move keys, with the fire buttons always pressed?

Black Ops already decides to take a lot of agency from the player. He cannot choose where to hide bodies. He cannot decide how to use a binocular. He cannot choose when to detonate fire bombs. He cannot choose how to stealthily approach an enemy location. At times it feels like the human behind the controller is just there to sanction decisions made by the developer and push levels forward.

One place where the Black Ops offers agency is in the zombie modes, where purchasing decisions really matter. The modes, refined after making their debut in World at War, are engaging in a way that the cooperative play in Modern Warfare 2 never were, and shooting zombies while playing certain important historical Cold War figures is a very nice piece of fan service.

Graphics and audio

Call of Duty: Black Ops looks very good, better than Modern Warfare 2 and then Medal of Honor. There are some truly impressive vistas the gamer gets to experience and the frame rate mostly holds up. It's too bad that the action is so quick at times that the beauty of the game has little time to shine through.

It's better in cutscenes, where the level of detail Treyarch put into faces and character movements is easy to appreciate.
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Down the river with the Devil
Planning section
The audio is also pretty competent, with the main actor doing a good job of navigating his lines and putting some feeling into them. The soundtrack is interesting but a bit predictable.

Multiplayer

There's nothing extremely innovative in the multiplayer of Black Ops but the developers at Treyarch seem adept at listening to the community and managed to create a set of experiences that feel better balanced than what Modern Warfare 2 offered.

Wager matches are the big change, allowing gamers who feel adventurous to bet on specific game types, most of them based around making the game as similar as possible for all those engaged, so that only skill decides the outcome.

In terms of online leveling up the big change is that players can just buy a perk they want with COD Points, without needing to actually wait to get to a certain level. It certainly serves to level up the playing field somewhat, with those who play a lot being less overpowered than those who are more of a Sunday warrior.

The pace feels somewhat slower than in Modern Warfare 2, with weapons that deliver a bit less damage and with the killstreak rewards toned down to the level where most players will find that killing people with the weapons they are equipped with is more satisfying than waiting for deployable powers to do it.

There are some issues with the sync mechanics, which means that sometimes duels will not be resolved in favor of those who fire first, but those vary a lot based on game type, number of player and platform.

Complaints are also popping up about the new RC Car perk, with a lot of gamers saying that they cannot hear where it's coming from before they are killed by it. Expect some patches in the coming weeks to better balance the whole experience.

One of the more annoying decisions made by Treyarch is to require gamers to be online even when a quick bot match is all they want. This is not an issue on the PC and on the PlayStation 3 but those Xbox 360 gamers who want the functionality and do not have Gold level subscriptions might be a bit mad at the developers.

The Good

  • Coherent story
  • Balanced multiplayer
  • Slick presentation
  • Great production values

The Bad

  • Still a shooting gallery
  • Multiplayer requires a commitment
  • Short single player

Conclusion

It's hard to argue with the millions of people who will buy and then play Call of Duty: Black Ops and say that this is a disappointing video game. The reality is that it's not as long as the gamer is willing to accept the limitations that are associated with the franchise. The presentation is wonderful, the custscenes are engaging and informative, the story is very thriller like, the shooting is monotone but still engaging, the visuals good.

But there's so much more potential in Call of Duty: Black Ops that goes unrealized. An extra path that leads to the conclusion of each level would have made this game so much better. More difference when it comes to the weaponry a player can use would have introduced some much needed tactical thinking and variation. Longer levels, with some boring bits like working the controls of a plane or listening to banter between other soldiers, might have added to the depth of the experience.

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story 8
gameplay 8
concept 10
graphics 9
audio 8
multiplayer 10
final rating 9
Editor's review
excellent
 

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