The number of copies Black Ops will shift in its first 24 hours of sale. The number of players slaying and respawning online at the same time. The number that will be emblazoned, like the ultimate proclamation of quality, on Metacritic’s homepage. Like it or not, these are the kind of numbers that have come to define the Call of Duty series and its continued existence.
Back at the start of 2010, when the cold war between Activision and then Infinity Ward heads Jason West and Vince Zampella went thermo-nuclear, the future of those numbers, and even the CoD brand itself, were called into serious doubt. In the legally enforced ceasefire that followed the initial salvo of accusations, denials and unsubstantiated reports of clandestine acts, the opportunity and responsibility fell to Treyarch – Infinity Ward’s bi-annual body double – to try and allay any lingering fears and, as expected based on the quality of their previous contributions to the series, they’ve predictably delivered.
After Modern Warfare 2 had long since bid farewell to plausibility by the time its final credits rolled, it’s relieving to report that that Black Ops includes a coherent and entertaining single player campaign – albeit one that’s unsurprisingly fond of using cheap clichés to mask complex truths.
Set in the 1960’s, and playing directly to the fears and paranoia that fuelled the heat of the super-chilled standoff between the superpowers, Black Ops’ story is that of the desperate and punishing interrogation of covert CIA operative Alex Mason. Already a broken man who’s seen the greatest chapters of his life lost in the blackness of redacted text, Mason maintains only the weakest of grips on reality, and as his distorted and shadowy captors sift through the shrapnel of his shattered memories they trigger a succession of flashbacks that form the game’s levels.
The use of these remembrances as a narrative device allows you, in true Call of Duty style, to take on the roles of multiple characters and be present at many of the major tipping points that decided the final balance of power. The campaign plays out like a Cold War greatest hits with Cuba, Russia, America, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Laos all on the itinerary as the story dots and dashes around the globe with more urgency than a Morse code message; adding weight to its fictional events by inserting them into iconic historical locations.
While Black Ops’ setting may be new, its action and visual quality remain extremely familiar; although Treyarch have succeeded in creating the most highly evolved game in the Call of Duty mould so far. Black Ops strips away every last thing that isn’t the most intense action moment, launching itself beautifully and unrelentingly from one swaggering set-piece into the next. On the occasions it lingers, it does so only to indulge in slow motion sequences that further accentuate the tension, before returning to throwing bullets and explosions around so freely you know someone must be making a killing off of them.
As a result of being designed and executed with the precision of a Blockbuster movie however, Black Ops is unrepentantly linear, with nothing more demanded of the AI than to pop up, shoot and fall down at the required moments. The game holds your hand so tightly for so long that it cuts of the circulation to your brain, to the point where, on the one occasion you’re not explicitly instructed what to do next, you end up wandering around into hoards of onrushing enemies like a confused shellshock victim.
Treyarch definitely appreciate where the series’ strengths and weaknesses lie and Black Ops’ constant pyrotechnics displays and varying action do a fine job of hiding the game’s core simplicities. One minute you’re leading a brutal escape from the shackles and pre-Glasnost gruel of a Russian internment camp (think Butlins on the Baltic), the next you’re taking the alternative sightseeing tour of a space base, stealthily planting explosives around an enemy village, or dashing through the bedlam of a huge battle in a recently napalmed piece of jungle.
All the while you’re constantly jumping in and out of a range of vehicles including, boats, helicopters and, in the game’s most diverse mission, a Blackbird SR-71; as well as switching between an eclectic arsenal of weapons. Many of these accurately fill the gap between WWII and the instruments of modern warfare, but a few, such as camera-guided missiles and a silent crossbow that fires explosive bolts, come straight out of the super-spy attaché case for pure entertainment value.
The inherent problem with such a merciless pace and ferocity to proceedings is that it does diminish the impact of some of the game’s later events and makes the campaign’s 6 to 8 hours seem to fly by with hardly a chance to catch your breath. Although, after it’s done, there is the small matter of Black Ops multiplayer to lose more than enough of your time to.
To anyone who played Modern Warfare 2 online, Black Ops’ standard multiplayer will feel very comfortable indeed. While maps are obviously fresh and range from the expansive frozen tundra of a radar base to a small piece of U.S., suburban utopia that gets nuked at the end of every contest, all the beloved levelling and perks systems, killstreaks – minus the nuke, but plus an RC car and attack dogs – and classic match types, such as Team Deathmatch and Headquarters, make their anticipated returns.
It’s around these solid, simple and immensely popular foundations though that Treyarch have done all of their hard work. A new Combat Training option allowing you to play in practice matches filled with friends and computer-controlled opponents is especially helpful to greenhorns scared of running straight into the sights of veteran Call of Duty frag hunters. Achievements in combat now earn you not only standard XP but also COD points that have taken over as the in-game currency for purchasing weapons and attachments. And it’s these COD points that can also be gambled in the biggest multiplayer addition: Wager Matches.
Each of the four different types of Wager Matches are designed as six player free-for-alls, and while One in the Chamber, where every player begins with a pistol holding a single bullet, a knife and three lives, is perhaps the most immediately appealing match type, Gun Game is the most tactical engaging. In rewarding you with a different, more powerful, but not necessarily more useful, weapon after every kill it really pushes you across the entire strategic spectrum as you fight to be placed amongst the top three players and leave with a COD point profit.
Finally, while there’s sadly still no room for Spec Ops in a Treyarch produced CoD title, the immensely popular Zombies mode that debuted in World at War makes a triumphant return, with even more camp, survival fun than before for up to four players across three different maps.
In the current climate and development cycle Treyarch were never going to play Russian roulette with such a valuable franchise and, as such, Black Ops isn’t so much a statement of intent as a message of reassurance. Perhaps the best and worst thing that can be said for it is that you’d never know Black Ops wasn’t an Infinity Ward game, but even statements like this are basically an irrelevance because the only thing that matters here is the final score.
If you’re buying Black Ops with no intention of dipping into its online offerings, the short duration of its undeniably entertaining campaign means you should probably knock a point off the number stationed at the end of this review, while if you adore Call of Duty’s multiplayer you can definitely add one…
…Numbers. It’s all about the numbers.
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