It's quite amazing how swiftly we gamers adapt to new surroundings. It's been only a week since Black Ops released, yet already I find myself galloping to the strong vantage points I've earmarked on each map, hefting a Galil rifle sporting a tiger stripe paint-job, a custom emblem and red-dot scope sporting the Predator reticule. I've formulated tactics specific to each mode, be it the run and gun bravado of a Free-for-All game or the patient opportunism of a Search and Destroy plot. I'm no Call of Duty virgin, not by a long sniper shot, past exploits with Modern Warfare 1 & 2 no doubt helping matters, but I continue to be surprised by how well the community has adapted to Treyarch's own online war.
Black Ops has enjoyed a less controversial opening week than MW2, its own release week plagued by glitches and exploits that threatened to derail the entire online experience. But Black Ops isn't perfect, it's certainly not without its faults. But can it expect the same fierce presence the Modern Warfare games continue to enjoy, or like World at War, is Black Ops doomed to be a one year wonder?
Treyarch has made some choice revisions to the Call of Duty formula to help ease the problems MW2 endured. It wasn't uncommon in MW2 for up to five kill-streaks to be active, with multiple 'choppers and jets prowling the airspace, sentry guns casting their indifferent gaze left and right, and care-packages dropping from the sky like rain. It was fun, true, but it was also achingly chaotic, and detracted from Call of Duty's more balanced, measured strengths.
In order to avoid such 'congestion', Treyarch has implemented a system where only your own kills add to your kill-streak. It must be your gun, grenade or knife, not your helicopter or slavering mutts. It's a wise choice, as it is less likely to see a player rack up three or more kills, release an RC-XD or napalm strike, and then suddenly drop a gunship on the map and lap up the rewards.
However, it's a little odd to note how overpowered some of the kill-streaks are. The RC-XD, for example, is a toy car with an explosive strapped to the back. It requires a mere three kills to unlock, two if you're rocking the Hardline perk. Simply put, it should be a five kill-streak, not three. It's not as if we expect Black Ops to be perfect, however. I love controlling the RC-XD when I unlock it, but can't stand it when I'm on the opposite end of its explosive welcome, so perhaps I'm simply being biased!
While at surface level, Black Ops and MW2 might appear almost identical, separated only by era, aesthetic and gun roster, how you progress and advance online is quite different. Whereas in MW2, you'd earn XP which adds to your leveling meter, which itself allows you to unlock new guns and perks with each rank, Black Ops awards you with both XP and the brand new COD Points.
From the off, all the perks, even all the attachments for the available guns can be purchased, if you can afford it. Whereas MW2's leveling up was a mostly passive affair, rewarding you for each ranks or challenge completed, Black Ops tasks you with making the important decision. 2000 COD Points left, and can't decide between an ACOG Scope for your M16, or that Marathon perk you're desperate to unlock? Black Ops forces you to be proactive, and as a result transforms COD Points from an arbitrary currency to a coveted reward.
You earn COD Points following each match. Play well, expect a fortune. Play not so well, and expect pennies. To bolster your finances, Black Ops also features 'Contracts', unique, timed challenges you purchase for COD Points which, once completed, reward you with ten to twenty times your bet. It's a terrific inclusion, and quite terrifying, too. I purchased the 'Sharp Shooter' contract, which tasked me with racking up just two long shots. Simple, I thought, until the timer on my contract read 9 minutes, 37 seconds, and my counter was at zero.
Sniper! Oh Wait, False Alarm
Where Treyarch has made its most drastic and potentially divisive of changes is how sniper rifles function. In past CoD games, mastering the sniper rifles often meant you could dominate games, racking up long-distance kills from a safe place. You could even drop an enemy from a few feet away with 'no-scope' tactics, a swift pull on both triggers tricking the game into thinking you're sighting down the scope, and thus upgrading your accuracy to nigh-faultless precision.
Black Ops, however, has eradicated this much-maligned exploit. The Sleight of Hand perk, even in its Pro form, isn't compatible with sniper rifles. You simply can't perform a 'no-scope'. You can kill someone, from point-blank range, with the right skill and a fair amount of luck, but the days of rocking a sniper rifle with the close-range effectiveness of a SPAS 12 are long gone.
Sniping, in general, is a lot less widespread in Black Ops. Unlike the vast, open sprawl of Wasteland in MW2, Black Ops packs its map with buildings, structures and arbitrary debris, crowding areas with cover. It's simply harder to snipe with less exposed regions to exploit. The sniper rifles themselves feel different, too, with a slight delay between aiming down the scope compared to MW2's swift spot and shot tactics. The game is tailored for close to mid-range weaponry, with the majority of encounters taking place at such distances. The golden age of the sniper is over.
In the end, I expect Black Ops to be as successful, if not more so, than the Modern Warfare titles. Inclusions like COD Points, Contracts and little tweaks, like kill-streaks, sniping and the wonderful 'dive to prone' mechanic, prove Treyarch isn't afraid of tinkering with an established formula. It has its quirks, and a few crinkles need ironing, but overall its a polished, refined experience, and perhaps the last Call of Duty title with free multiplayer.