Summary: Set during the Cold War, Call of Duty: Black Ops is Treyarch's first foray outside of World War Two. Does Black Ops live up to previous CoD titles? Read Vandy's take in today's review!
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.
The online portion of the game is largely the same as Modern Warfare 2’s. You gain experience points as you play and level up to unlock weapons, equipment, perks, killstreaks, customization options, and more. You have a handful of premade classes with different configurations of weapons, equipment, and perks that you use at first, while gaining custom class slots that become available later.
New to Black Ops, however, is an in-game currency called COD Points, which are also earned while playing and are used to purchase just about everything that isn’t available when you first start out. This allows you to streamline the acquisition of your preferred load-out by being able to unlock perks, killstreaks, weapon attachments, and the like in the order you want, instead of having to follow a pre-determined course of progression. For example, all perks are unlocked at level 4, and you simply purchase whichever one(s) you want to use right away. Similarly, there is no weapon usage requirement for unlocking attachments; all of them are available for purchase as soon as you buy that particular gun.
There are some other differences between this game and the last one in the series, perhaps the most important being that killstreak rewards don’t stack. Meaning, kills you get from them don’t count toward your streak. In MW2, one of my favorite killstreak combos was Harrier airstrike, Pave Low helicopter, and AC-130 gunner. Sure it can sometimes take a while before getting to 7 kills, but once you’re there, all three streak rewards can be set off within seconds of each other. Find a hiding spot, use the Harrier to take out at least a couple of people, then activate the Pave Low, which is usually good for another handful of kills, then start the AC-130 barrage which can easily net you another dozen… That kind of thing simply cannot happen in Black Ops unless you’re good enough to rack up the required number of enemy casualties the old-fashioned way.
On the topic of killstreaks, some old ones such as spy plane, care package, and attack helicopter make a return, though several new ones are also in the mix. The most widely publicized one is probably the explosive RC car, but the deployable SAM turret and pack of attack dogs are also really cool. It’s also worth noting that there is no more tactical nuke that instantly wins the game for your team.
Similarly, the majority of perks remain the same, even if they’ve been renamed or slightly tweaked. As well, each one can be upgraded to the Pro version by completing challenges while using them. Infamously overpowered MW2 perks Stopping Power and Commando have been removed, much to the chagrin of some players. The only completely new perk is one that protects you from the poisonous gas featured in the single-player story (it’s available in a grenade in MP) and reduces the effects of flashbangs and stun grenades.
All of the gameplay modes from Modern Warfare 2 return (TDM, FFA, Domination, S&D, HQ, CTF) and are joined by what are called Wager Matches. These involve a variety of unique challenges such as having only a single bullet in your gun, using random weapons that change every 45 seconds, or having to use every single weapon in sequence after each kill. These game types require each player ante up, or bet some COD points, before the match, and the top three players at the end walk away with the winnings. Unfortunately, the player limit remains capped at 18 for all game modes.
If you’ve been following the development of the PC version of this game in any capacity, you’re likely already happy to know that Treyarch built the multiplayer component around dedicated servers, as is Call of Duty tradition. No more fumbling with or being frustrated by asinine matchmaking on a peer-to-peer hosting basis, which was by far the biggest flaw with Modern Warfare 2. It’s true that Black Ops servers are exclusive to a single service provider, but there is no shortage of places to play. In addition, it is possible to lean this time around, even if most people don’t bother to use it.
Intense and immersive single-player story line. It’s engrossing enough that you won’t want to stop playing until you see those credits roll.
Graphics are sub-par. They’re still using a graphics engine from 2007 that wasn’t at all impressive back then… Hopefully, it’s on its last legs.
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