Reviewed: November 12, 2010
Released: November 9, 2010
Reviewing Call of Duty: Black Ops is akin to being a missionary and trying to peddle my religion of choice. With anticipated global sales of more than 12 million copies I feel like I am preaching to the choir here, but for those of you who may be doubting Treyarch’s ability to follow in Infinity Ward’s footsteps I’m here to spread the “Good News”.|
Black Ops is, without a doubt, the most ambitious, original, and thought-provoking game in the franchise’s glorious history. You’ll notice the difference from the very first screen of the cryptic opening movie that ends with you, Alex Mason, strapped in a chair powered by jumper cables as you are being…ahem…asked a few questions. When name, rank, and serial number no longer satisfy your inquisitors you finally start to recount various missions from your past, mostly black ops that begin as far back as April 17, 1961 when you were sent into Cuba to assassinate Castro.
From that moment forward you are thrust into a non-stop rollercoaster ride that will take you all over the world in various period-specific missions. You’ll bust out of a USSR labor camp, have a meet and greet with JFK in the Pentagon, tramp through the jungles of Vietnam, scramble across the rooftops of Hong Kong, and even do some aerial recon from the stratosphere in an SR-71 Blackbird. No two missions are the same, and with a gripping narrative compelling you to see what comes next, it’s going to be hard to spread this game out across multiple sittings.
You don’t always plays as Mason. There are a few supporting characters who share the spotlight, so while Mason is crawling through the rat tunnels below the Vietnam DMZ, you’ll be playing Agent Harris in Kowloon City, Hong Kong directing air strikes on mobile armor. With a slick multi-view presentation and parallel events that occur in a non-linear timeline, Black Ops looks like “24” and plays like “Lost” with all the action of “Mission Impossible”.
Black Ops brings some major talent to the mix with voice casting that includes Gary Oldman, Topher Grace, and Ed Harris just to name a few. Sean Murray has created a stirring score that totally accents the game, keeping players in the perfect mood and at the top of their game. Some of my favorite moments were in Vietnam where we get all sorts of iconic period tracks from C.C.R. and the Stones that make this more of an interactive movie than a video game. There is a riverboat scene that is staged and shot in such a cinematically precise way I’m surprised Francis Ford Coppola isn’t asking for a piece of the box office.
Sound effects rise to the occasion with realistic weapons’ fire, explosions, vehicles, environmental effects and plenty of regionally correct speech. Even JFK and Nixon got some good impersonators. The 3D Dolby Digital mix puts you in the battlefield with such clarity that a twig snapping in your right rear channel or a zombie groaning in your left might be your only clue you are about to get ambushed.
Treyarch puts its own signature flavor on the visuals. There has always been two sides to the Call of Duty video coin – the realism of Infinity Ward and the more colorful and not-so-realistic Treyarch, and yes, while Black Ops is definitely more colorful and not as realistic looking as Modern Warfare II or the recently released Medal of Honor, the visuals still achieve perfection within their own unique style. For every moment where I thought something looked “too colorful” there were ten moments where I was blown away.
The jungle levels in Vietnam were breathtaking and I’m pretty sure this is the first time somebody has rendered “brown” water, and it looks so real, both from above and swimming under the surface with all sorts of fish and slithering eels. Swimming with a Rambo knife in my mouth to stealth-kill some guys in a canoe had me feeling…well, like Rambo. The dense foliage, the sunlight streaming through the jungle canopy, the mud, and even that foamy stuff you see in river rapids is all there.
But enough about Nam…you get to go to so many cool places like a frosty excursion to the top of the world to investigate a shipwrecked freighter, the seedy side of Hong Kong, the jungles of Cuba, and even some helicopter excursions, one in Nam and another in the Gulf of Mexico. The textures, the level of detail, the effects, the lighting and shadows all combine to create a completely immersive experience that will dazzle the senses.
The campaign delivers 15 exciting missions and just as many hours of gameplay. It’s worth noting that the difficulty factor has been ramped up significantly so what used to be Hard is now Normal, Hard is Veteran, and Veteran is…well, impossible, but those Achievements are going to keep me coming back again and again until I do it.
Even more compelling than gamer score points is the mind-boggling multiplayer that was created for Black Ops, somehow even managing to best the previous design, perks, and reward system of Modern Warfare 2. Let’s break it down starting with the new Combat Training mode that allows you to play any of the online modes offline, and even cooperatively. This is a great way to practice and learn the levels, and don’t be shocked if you witness some of the best human-like A.I. in Call of Duty history. I was speechless when computerized soldiers were flanking me and setting up elaborate crossfire situations, tossing grenades through windows, and making some extremely savvy use of the Killstreak perks.
Now would be a good time to elaborate on that co-op gameplay that not only allows you to split the screen for a little local gameplay but, for the first time every, now allows two gamers to split the screen and go online to play in normal matches. That’s right – two players, one Xbox, good times. You don’t even have to have a Gold membership to play online, but any “Guest” players will lose their rewards when they eventually log out.
There are 14 multiplayer maps shipping with the game and you can be sure more will be forthcoming. These maps range in size and complexity, perfect for matches up to 18 players with a variety of weapons and perks like the new explosive Remote Control Car – BOOM goes the dynamite! In addition to all the standard multiplayer game modes like Free-For-All, Domination, Headquarters, Demolition, CTF, and Sabotage, Treyarch has introduced something a bit different that is going to appeal to a whole new type of soldier.
Wager Matches are going to change the way we all play Black Ops. Buried within all the multiplayer modes are CoD Points that you can earn by performing well in combat, completing various Mercenary Contracts, as well as wagering those points in a series of custom events that allow you to wager, double-down, and hopefully, win big. You’re going to need a lot of CoD currency to purchase those fancy new clothes or buy that high-power scope for your sniper rifle. When asked how long it would take to purchase every item in the game the developers replied that it was “highly unlikely that anybody ever would”, so consider yourselves challenged.
Wager Matches come in four flavors, “Gun Game” where everyone starts with a pistol and slowly makes their way through 20 types of weapons, one with each new kill, and if you get knifed you drop down a rank. “Sharpshooter” starts all players with the same weapons then cycles those weapons every 45 seconds making this mode all about skill and not about firepower. Consecutive kills earn perks and if you die you lose it all. “One in the Chamber” gives everyone one bullet and three lives and it’s one-hit kill with each kill giving you an extra bullet. And finally, we have “Sticks & Stones”. Time to go caveman with only a Crossbow, Knife, and Tomahawk. If you die by Tomahawk you lose all your points and have to start scoring from zero.
Multiplayer is made even better with In-Game Friends lists and a totally revamped Matchmaking system that supports regional preferences as well as a host of new data and stat tracking features. Every possible bit of game data is tracked from the day you start playing until the day you stop. There are dozens upon dozens of screens with numbers and graphs and area charts, so many you’ll think you’ve logged into the NASDAQ. You can find out detailed info by game type, weapons type, challenges, perks, and even a body map indicator that shows where every shot you have ever fired has landed. It’s total overkill and more than any of us will ever use or need, but it is cool that Treyarch has given us a way to brag about the game and back it up with a PowerPoint presentation.
Keeping with the theme of “excess”, the new Create-A-Class 2.0 turns character creation and continued upkeep into something of an art form. Not only will you unlock countless combinations of gear and attachments, the level of customization borders on insanity. There are 1,600 possible combinations of colors and symbols just for your gun sight alone. You can even slap your custom multi-layer Clan Tag graphic on your weapons and make things personal, and yes, extra levels of graphics cost CoD points.
Playercard banners are now purchased rather than earned; another place to spend those CoD points, and yes, you can prestige at level 50 (up to 15 times) but if you want to get on the Prestige Leaderboards you’re going to have to pay the 50,000 CoD point initiation fee. Now you have to be rich to be famous.
Treyarch is staffing their servers fulltime so you can expect continuous tweaks and upgrades to the online component of the game as well as daily updates to the Contracts. New contracts are added as indicated with the real-time countdown, and current contracts have expiration times, so don’t accept a contract unless you have the time commitment to finish it. Contracts are some of the fastest ways to earn CoD points, but only if you complete them.
What else…oh yeah, Killstreaks – some are back, some are gone, many are improved, and several are new. Everyone will be quick to jump on the RC-XD explosive car awarded after 3 kills but watching the enemy burst into flames after a Napalm Strike is a good reason to make it to 5 kills. Sentry Guns are great defense for CTF and Demolition modes or 8 kills will get you your own private Blackbird. Attack Dogs and a Gunship top the list at 11 kills and offer the ultimate in offensive assistance.
Not to be outdone by Halo, Black Ops comes with a new Theater mode that will have a lot of John Rambo’s turning into Steven Spielberg. Every online game you have played in the past seven days is recorded and saved. You can go back at anytime and generate full video replays of those entire matches then view them from any player perspective or a free-floating camera. You can pick and choose which part of the replay to record and film it from any angle. The recording and editing tools aren’t terribly difficult and there are clever assists like red and green hash marks on the timeline to indicate kills and deaths. Create clips, stitch together montages, and generate entire movies then post them to the Call of Duty website where you can share them with others or watch other user-generated video content.
Horror fans will certainly flock to the Zombie Co-Op modes for both online and local undead action. These alternative modes are better than ever, especially when you get to play as JFK, Richard Nixon, Fidel Castro, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, as you repel wave after wave of undead within the Pentagon and other zombie-specific maps. Thankfully, JFK has a secret weapons cache for just such an occasion.
There is also a very special and hidden game mode called Dead Ops Arcade. This twin-stick arcade shooter may seem totally out of place in a game like Black Ops, but you are going to be surprised at just how addictive this 1-4 player game can be. There are 40 levels of pure insanity to get to the final boss then it starts all over again. The graphics are gorgeous and the various weapons, power-ups, and creative level designs make this I game I would have paid for on XBLA.
Speaking of hidden content, if you manage to figure out how to “navigate” all facets of the main menu, you might be able to access a certain computer terminal to unlock hidden logins, emails, and even the classic text-base adventure game, Zork. Yes, this TRS-80 classic is back in its entirety. Just make sure you have a keyboard on your console and a light…or you might get eaten by a Grue.
In summary, we have a 12-15 hour campaign that is worthy of its own primetime mini-series with actors to match, a multiplayer component that is vastly superior to anything the genre has seen so far, split-screen co-op with online support, theater mode, A.I. bots that mirror human tactics for training modes, exhaustive stat tracking, a fiendishly clever arcade game, and a 30-year old text adventure so dad has something to play when you finally pass out after 19 hours of non-stop online gameplay.
While the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions are virtually identical in gameplay and visuals, the PS3 version suffers from some system infrastructure limitations. While I hate to penalize a game because of the hardware, the simple fact is that if you choose to play Black Ops on the PS3 you will experience a variety of connection issues, random dropped players, sluggish framerate, and horrible static communication using USB or Bluetooth. Since a major part of Black Ops appeal is its multiplayer, this had to be considered when choosing your format...if you have a choice.
I admit I had my doubts about Black Ops. It seemed that Modern Warfare 2 was going to be impossible to top, but Treyarch has come in and trounced that game in every possible way. Even if you are going into this for the story alone, you are in for a real treat, but for those that stick around for the complete package, I won’t even attempt to guess how many hours you are going to be spending with Black Ops, either playing it, making your own movies, or just immersing yourself in the largest and most loyal community of gamers out there.