So. Black Ops, the seventh Call of Duty title, and Treyarch's chance to prove they can wear the crown. I can't help but lose myself to the hype. Despite CoD being an annualized series, allowing for very little change to the basic formula, it conjures such a maelstrom of buzz and anticipation, bewitching critics and consumers alike, that it's quite difficult to remain detached and biased. It's expected to shatter sales-records, generate billions in revenue, and, like it's predecessors, it'll gobble away hours of my life as I strive to Prestige!
But, as gravity likes to prove, what comes up, must eventually come down. How long can Call of Duty remain on top? Is Black Ops a solid foundation to prop the series up on for another year? Or is the entire structure set to collapse?
Alex Mason hasn't had the best life. A former CIA assassin, he's currently strapped to a chair being zapped with bolts of electric current. Ahead, a pile of televisions recounts moments from Mason's war-torn past, as he is interrogated by a distorted voice, Saw-style. Black Ops is being pitched as Vietnam game, but it's setting is, in fact, quite malleable, liable to hop timezones as Mason's kidnappers force him to face yet another memory.
It's a fantastic set-up, and quite unlike the linear theater of war we've come to expect from CoD. The writing is sharp, thanks to Batman scribe David Goyer, and, for once, you can invest in the characters, bolstered by strong characterization and terrific mo-cap performances. Sam Worthington, of Avatar fame, voices our hero, Mason, while the likes of Ed Harris and even Gary Oldman feature.
And Treyarch proves it's more than capable of handling CoD's penchant for spectacular set-pieces, blending scripted and free-form sequences to exhilarating effect. You'll chase trains on a 60's motorcycle, hefting a Winchester 1887 in one hand, or lead a prison uprising in a Russian gulag, and even spearing a prowling helicopter with a harpoon-gun. It's terrific stuff, only let down by CoD's insistence on waves of reloading Whack'a'Mole infantry.
Let's face it. Call of Duty is an online, not an offline, game. It lives and dies on the virtues of its multiplayer. And Treyarch has it all to prove. Treated like the step-sibling to the favored son, it must prove its a worthy successor to Infinity Ward, since the West-Zampella fiasco reduced the studio to a handful of former charges. I, myself, sunk 6 days worth of playtime into Modern Warfare 2. Suffice to say, I'm a fan, and since being burnt by World at War, I treated Black Ops like a bomb, primed to explode.
You'll be pleased to hear, then, that I'm addicted to Black Ops. I've already clocked ten hours, and I expect it won't be long before I add a second zero to the end of that number. It's what you'd expect, with your usual roster of rifles, sub-machine guns and the like, which can be fitted with red-dot scopes, suppressors, even flamethrowers. It has Free-for-All, Team Deathmatch, Search and Destroy etc. It's not revolutionary, but the formula is so refined you'll barely register a hint of deja vu as you grab your first kill or defuse your first bomb.
Where Black Ops differs from the Modern Warfare legacy is with COD Points. Instead of earning just XP, you'll be rewarded with COD Points for performing specific tasks, like Contracts, also a new feature. Now, instead of leveling up to reap the rewards, you can purchase them quite early on, depending on your earnings. You can buy guns, perks, attachments and even additional layers for your Emblem. The depth of customisation is staggering. You can even fiddle with your red-dot, flipping a standard pinpoint for a smiling face or Predator-style reticule.
Care To Make A Wager?
Black Ops multiplayer is fantastic, so addictive it should carry a warning on the box. But it's the inclusion of Wager Matches, unique, specialized game modes where you gamble hard-earned COD Points, that prove Treyarch isn't afraid of taking a new direction from the path laid out by Infinity Ward. Wager Matches come in four varieties. 'One in the Chamber', 'Gun Game', 'Sharpshooter' and 'Sticks and Stones'.
My personal favourite is 'One in the Chamber', where you begin with just a pistol, one bullet and three lives. It's a tense, knife-edged affair, forcing you to be utterly certain before taking a shot, as it might result in a loss of COD Points, that vital currency you're all striving for. 'Gun Game', on the other hand, is explosive, as, with each kill, you advance from lowly pistol to shotgun, rifle, and even the Grim Reaper, a multi-rocket launcher.
Wager Matches add a diversion from standard CoD fare, a refreshing mix of modes unburdened by the congesting-effects of kill-streaks and ten-plus player counts. It's also incredibly fun, and an indication of how malleable the CoD formula is. Say what you will of Treyarch, but like Nazi Zombies before it, Wager Matches build on the Call of Duty formula to pleasing effect.
It's Zombies, Mr President
Ah, yes, zombies. Treyarch shocked the industry with the undead's inclusion in World at War, yet what was even more shocking was its receptions. Fans loved it, and its exclusion in Modern Warfare 2, in favour of the forgettable Spec Ops mode, was sorely missed. Well, it's back in Black Ops, and in yet another bold move from Treyarch, it's not disgruntled soldiers forced to face the horde, but John F Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Robert McNamara, and none other than Fidel Castro.
Yes, Kennedy, Nixon and Castro, all toting rifles and shotguns, capping zombies in the Pentagon. Well, it's not like a Nazi Zombie mode is a particularly serious piece of entertainment, and hearing Nixon and Castro exchange quips as they fire off rounds is hilarious. If you plumped for the Prestige editions of Black Ops, you're treated to four additional maps from World at War. A terrific package.
- Thrilling, polished campaign with excellent writing and performances
- Addictive multiplayer offerings
- Castro and zombies. 'Nuff said
- Same old gameplay
- Lack of campaign co-op is a pity
- If you didn't like COD before...this won't change you're mind.
The Short Version: Black Ops packs perhaps the best Call of Duty campaign yet, with an emphasis on story and characters, not just spectacle and set-pieces. The multiplayer is brilliant, bolstered by the inclusion of COD Points and Wager Matches, not to mention the Zombie mode featuring Fidel Castro and friends. It's Treyarch's best game to date, even if they continue to overlook Call of Duty's less enjoyed quirks, like waves of reloading enemies and noob-toobs.