Platforms: Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Always bet on black
There are times when I lament the rampant “sequelitus” that's taken hold of the videogame industry, when nearly every new release is another addition in some ongoing franchise and where original titles (like the criminally overlooked Enslaved: Odyssey to the West) are often relegated to the bargain bin. Of course, more often than not, the objective, rational part of my brain is elbowed to one side by my inner fanboy; an obnoxious and easily placated button masher who salivates at the thought of the next triple-A sequel, even going so far as to drag me out to a parking lot in the middle of the night in order to freeze my unmentionables off waiting for a midnight game launch.
Which brings us to Call of Duty: Black Ops, a much-hyped game which trigger happy shooter aficionados have been awaiting for some time now and which is undoubtedly going to be both played and reviewed through rose-colored night vision goggles. The truth is that as a gazillion-selling franchise, Call of Duty could have its brand slapped on just about anything and chances are gamers would flock to it like moths to a flamethrower. And yet like all sequels, Black Ops is also built on the backs of its predecessors, particularly the blockbuster Modern Warfare franchise, creating a kind of development ouroboros between the two primary Call of Duty studios: Treyarch and Infinity Ward.
In any event, it's easy to dismiss the game as yet another sequel capitalizing on the franchise’s rabid fanbase. And Black Ops doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel. It's not particularly groundbreaking, nor does it subvert or dramatically improve on the Call of Duty formula developed by its predecessors. That being said, there's a reason the Call of Duty franchise is so popular and Black Ops does a fantastic job of working within those familiar design elements as an incredibly polished shooter with enough single and multiplayer content to keep even the most cynical gamer sufficiently satiated. In other words, if you enjoyed shooting people in the face in Modern Warfare 2, you'll probably enjoy it just as much in Black Ops.
So let's start with the single player campaign. The plot, written by popular film scribe and director David S. Goyer, is a surprisingly well-scripted narrative. It's not exactly Apocalypse Now or even the tightly woven storylines of Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell series, but its careful blend of Cold War paranoia and Hollywood action movie tropes is a welcome reprieve from the normally hackneyed plots of most shooters. The story follows the career of Special Forces operator Alex Mason, a hard bitten soldier voiced by Hollywood's new go-to action guy Sam Worthington (who does a capable job despite his Australian accent occasionally creeping in). Players are then taken on a whirlwind tour of the shadowy underbelly of the Cold War, from the icy depths of a Soviet gulag to the tepid, snake-filled swamps of Vietnam. There are also a number of run-ins with a number of notable figures, from an attempted assassination attempt on Fidel Castro, to a cloak and dagger encounter with Robert McNamara and President Kennedy.
That being said, for all the game’s Michael Bay style shootouts and gritty storyline, the characters are under-developed. Fortunately there's more than enough going on to keep the pace moving and the variety of visually impressive levels and mission types are more than satisfying (even despite some occasionally clunky AI and a few frame rate issues). Despite the anachronistic setting of the Cold War there's also an impressive array of weapons to choose from, including incendiary “Dragon’s Breath” shotgun rounds and an explosive crossbow that looks as though it was pulled straight out of the depths of Rambo’s personal weapons cache.
Fans of Treyarch’s Nazi Zombie game mode first popularized in Call of Duty: World at War, will no doubt also enjoy the return of the living dead in Black Ops. It's a welcome addition that's as nail-bitingly tense as anything you’ll find in Left 4 Dead. One of the maps even includes a hilarious team-up of former Presidents, with Kennedy, Castro and Nixon battling shambling corpses in the Pentagon. Watching Tricky Dick blast apart a zombie’s head with a shotgun is worth the price of admission alone.
Of course most gamers are going to pick up Black Ops for the multiplayer and here the game doesn't disappoint. It's the same frenetically paced twitch-kill matches as Modern Warfare. Treyarch also wisely kept the control layout the same, meaning that Modern Warfare vets will be able to jump back in without missing a beat. Newbies to the franchise on the other hand will likely be chewed up and spit out by the countless twelve-year olds online who can drop you from six hundred yards and talk smack at the same time. The game also once again features the now familiar option to customize weaponry and gain perks. Black Ops differs from its predecessors, however, by including a new currency system, with players using “Call of Duty Points” to customize specific classes and purchase new weapons, killstreaks, perks and equipment. The option to both wager these points and earn extra points by completing specific “Contract” objectives is an interesting mechanic that also lends itself to a more detailed and personalized class customization experience. Knowing that you’re potentially risking your hard-earned points adds yet another level of tension to maps and game modes that might otherwise become a little stale.
That being said—and at the risk of being pelted with game controllers by angry Call of Duty fans—despite the impressive range of multiplayer content, the new points system and a range of well-designed maps and game modes, Black Ops—and indeed the entire Call of Duty franchise—has yet to really overtake the Battlefield franchise in terms of EA's more robust and visually dynamic Frostbite game engine, not to mention that series’ destructible environments and playable vehicles. It’s a shame really since vehicles in particular seem like a natural progression for the CoD series. And while Black Op’s new custom killstreaks include an explosive remote control car and a briefly playable attack helicopter, it’s not quite the same as taking command of a tank or chopper in Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Still, as a multiplayer experience you'll be hard pressed to find many games with as much depth or replayability as Black Ops. Not since the Orange Box have gamers gotten this much bang for their buck.
Black Ops manages to score a direct hit as a polished and entertaining shooter that lives up to the Call of Duty name. Yes, it's a big noisy sequel, but what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for with its gripping single-player campaign and carefully tuned multiplayer features. Black Ops may be yet another blockbuster sequel in a long line of blockbuster sequels, but it still manages to hold its own as one of the most satisfying shooters of the past year.