”Please allow me to introduce myself…”
The United States and Russia are on the brink of war.
John F. Kennedy is in the White House, but instead of some measly missile crisis, there is the threat of a deadly neurotoxin that has fallen into the wrong hands. Created by Nazi scientists near the end of World War II, this terrible gas was poised to tip the balance of the struggle in Germany’s favor. Now, a rogue Russian general has acquired the chemical and plans to weaponize it against the US. That is, unless you can stop them.
Though you control a few different Special Forces operatives throughout the game, the main character is Alex Mason, an elite soldier known to take orders directly from the President. The campaign opens with you being interrogated by shady figures watching you from an observation deck. A distorted voice drills you for information that you struggle to recall in a drug-induced stupor. Slowly, you remember, and re-enact the events for the benefit of yourself as much as your captors.
Conflicts span from Cuba to Russia to Vietnam to Kazakhstan and some places in between. Like Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops is very heavy on the commando-style missions, where you and a partner or small squad carry out objectives with precision, using stealth when appropriate. However, there are a few parts where the roots of the franchise shine through and you find yourself in large-scale battles complete with endless streams of cannon fodder coming from both sides.
As you’re thrown into one pulse-pounding skirmish after another, you might actually welcome the reprieve that the cinematics and first-person narration bring. Scripted events sometimes interrupt the flow of gameplay, but are usually well done and add to the experience more than they take away. Some of the best moments involve vehicular combat, such as raining fire on a valley of Vietcong from a stolen attack helicopter or driving a heavily armed patrol boat during an amphibious assault with the Rolling Stones blaring over the loudspeakers. The game definitely could’ve used more of that iconic Vietnam-era music, since the only other bit they put in was CCR’s “Fortunate Son.”
The ride gets a bit bumpy in spots, where the level design and enemy behavior don’t mesh well or objectives aren’t quite clear. In particular, there’s a section during one of the Vietnam missions where you must climb down a fortified hill and push back the invaders... You aren’t explicitly told what to do, so until you figure it out, you’re stuck in an endless battle against infinitely respawning enemies. With little cover and bullets coming at you from a half-dozen directions at once, all you can do is keep your head down and inch your way forward. Even after you know what it is you need to do, there’s the perilous act of making your way down to the objects you need to interact with to trigger the end of the scene, which is much easier said than done. The checkpoint-only save system really gets on your nerves at times like those.
Black Ops’ graphics are lacking in several aspects, but still manage to adequately convey appealing visuals. This has more to do with Treyarch’s artistic ability than the game’s technical prowess, seeing as how they’re still using the COD 4 engine. Higher resolutions and levels of anti-aliasing on the PC definitely help, but they can’t do anything for the generally low-quality textures and sloppy effects. Perhaps it’s less noticeable on the 5-year-old consoles, but on the PC it just looks dated.