The first thing that Call of Duty: Black Ops does right...is voice acting. In fact, production value overall is pretty staggering. Each voice in the stellar cast is distinctive, with the exception of the main character, Alex Mason. He (you) is voiced by Sam Worthington, who creates a believable tone...but he just can’t escape his generic timbre. Ed Harris, Ice Cube, and Topher Grace top the billing, as well as Gary Oldman, who returns to portray a familiar character first established in World at War. As expected, they deliver command performances and help to create interesting and memorable characters.
Roll that in with really, really original set pieces, and the groundwork is laid for not only a good experience this time - but an ongoing legacy that the studio could very well continue developing with future games. You’ll visit the swamps of Vietnam, a secret bunker underneath Washington DC, a jungle villa in Cuba, and even a grounded German cargo ship in the Arctic. It’s all loosely tied together in a way that’s difficult to follow but intriguing enough to keep you playing. Speaking of which - the campaign has a bit more length to it this time around. In all honesty I’ve only put about six hours into the campaign (which would normally put me past the end), and I estimate that I have about four hours to go. This is on Hardened difficulty; general consensus seems to point to eight hours’ length for the Recruit or Normal difficulties.
Remember the snowmobile chase in Modern Warfare 2? Take that concept, but with motorcycles. Or better yet - an attack helicopter. Remember that climb up the sheer ice cliff? Now put yourself underwater in Vietnam, coming up to slice the throats of Viet Cong in fishing boats. Black Ops is full of scripted moments that sound “meh” on paper but in playing are actually fun and immersive.
Which brings us to the second thing that Treyarch has impressed me with: lore. Whether you’re surviving a horde of Zombies or running through war-ravaged trenches - you can bet that each scenario somehow fits into a larger scope that has been hashed and re-hashed creatively. Many people will see Black Ops as an opportunity for Activision to reap a buck; many will see it as simply a conversion mod for last year’s Modern Warfare 2; Treyarch sees it as their baby, and has tried to make every edge fit into a huge puzzle. If Black Ops were a movie, they’d have succeeded in a mighty way; and where Infinity Ward has set a high standard for over-the-top action, Treyarch has injected Call of Duty with a fair amount of substance.
You'll gain appreciation for the effort put into creating characters like Frank Woods.
The vehicle sections are appropriately hectic and a good way to break up the on-foot segments.
Riding along on this train of thought, however, we find that Black Ops is the two-ton caboose that Infinity Ward’s locomotive engine is still pulling up the hill. There is a good amount of new content here, but the bulk of the game’s mechanics have been heavily inspired by - and built upon - its Modern Warfare predecessors. This comes as no surprise: the proprietary engine used for Call of Duty 4 has been re-tooled and recycled for five full retail releases now (including Treyarch’s 007: Quantum of Solace). The gameplay is solid but worn. If you see nothing wrong with that, then you’re going to really enjoy this game. Otherwise, prepare for a lot of cool set pieces and plot surprises overlaid on what amounts to be a mundane gameplay experience.
Next we come to a personal gripe (this is a really nasty AI issue that plagued the Modern Warfare 2 campaign): if you die in the single-player campaign, the enemy AI does not “rewind” as you respawn. Enemies will go from being oblivious of your location to knowing when and where you will spawn. If you die two or three times in a row, you’re in for some real frustration. It’s not game breaking, but it’s every bit as annoying as grenade spam.
Okay folks; all aboard for multiplayer! Online versus is a mix of Modern Warfare 2’s scoring system and Halo: Reach’s upgrade progression. Instead of having to grind with each weapon to collect its upgrades, you use Credits to buy everything. Most guns and advanced options - like facepaint and custom reticles - must be unlocked by reaching a certain rank before they can be bought. As usual, five Create-A-Class slots are available...with five more that can be unlocked at various Prestige levels. You can also set your desired character skin (there are eight available). As far as the gameplay itself is concerned...you pretty much know what to expect by now. The biggest draw here is Treyarch’s prowess with making incredible multiplayer maps. All the stops are pulled out once again. It never ceases to amaze me how wonderfully detailed and varied these maps can be. You can also play versus offline via splitscreen for up to four players...but in a nice touch, the game can now be started with only one player in the lobby (have fun exploring!).
If versus isn’t your bag then you can hop over to Combat Training, which pits you and your friends against AI bots. From the outset you’re asked to choose a difficulty level. Warning: the Veteran AI is brutal, especially on small maps. Progression, ranks, and unlocks are stored exactly like the online mode, but on a completely separate table.
Crawlers are the main new addition to Zombies. Pack a pump shotgun.
Finally, you have the new and improved Zombies mode. Only it’s not new anymore, and to be painfully honest: it’s not really that much improved. One map is available from the start and one more unlocks when you beat the single player campaign. That’s it. If you bought the Hardened or Prestige editions you get a code to download the original four Nazi Zombies maps (which will presumably be for sale in the near future); these have been updated to feature a small handful of new weapons, Perks-A-Cola machines, and a new zombie type. For how it was touted (“more co-op than any other Call of Duty game”) the larger maps and crawler zombies don’t do the claims justice. However, I must concede that the sheer stupidity and cheap thrills that made Nazi Zombies so much fun is still intact.
Probably the biggest addition that Black Ops brings to the Call of Duty series is the Theater mode. Treyarch apes Halo: Reach once again by allowing players to capture replays and screenshots of recent games, then goes further by providing native support for uploading videos to YouTube. Every player is given a File Share (sound familiar?) which can store screenshots and video clips. By linking your account on CallofDuty.com you can view your videos, which the game automatically uploads to YouTube when you drop it into your File Share. You can also view and save high-resolution versions of your screenshots. But as with the other modes, there’s a caveat: Theater mode only captures online versus games. It boggles the mind; surely common sense would dictate that any normal player would want their favorite Zombies kills forever archived and displayed... Alas, this bread pudding is not without its crust.
Great multiplayer moments like this can now be captured forever. STAB!
The second biggest addition would have to be splitscreen online play (also sadly limited to online versus *see the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions' pages for a breakdown of splitscreen online supported modes). The days of lugging a spare TV and the Xbox or PlayStation to a friend’s house are over - two people can play online from the same console. On the Xbox 360, the second player must have a Gold account for their stats to be saved; otherwise, they start from scratch as a guest account. It works well enough, and there didn’t seem to be an increase in online lag nor framerate slowdown. I anticipate using this feature quite a bit.
Once you consider the hidden Dead Ops Arcade mode (a decent four-player clone of overhead shooter Zombie Apocalypse), Black Ops provides an impressive amount of content...but the the bottom line for me personally is that Black Ops doesn’t have as much co-op support as it should. Or even as much as the studio claimed it would. I wouldn’t care about the migraine inducing cutscenes. I wouldn’t care about the been-there-done-that gameplay and special effects. I’d just be one happy camper if Treyarch would look past their own ambitions and say, “What the heck...let’s make it even more fun,” and give as much thought to the co-op player as they do for the details.
(Side note: I did not get to try out the 3D support, although I did see it in the Options menu. It must be activated before loading a mission.)
For all the intrigue and superficial appeal that’s been pumped into this game, a much better effort should have been made for co-op. Despite my misgivings, though, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the core value of Black Ops. In fact, there’s more here to like than many other shooter games available this year. Call of Duty: Black Ops is like Evel Knievel without his cape...something is missing, but it’s perfectly good entertainment.