For the past few years, the big question that's come up with the new Call of Duty game has been, "Who's making it?" Infinity Ward, the original creators of the series, have been known to revolutionize the series, and make it the top-dollar franchise it is today. Treyarch is more known for making pale imitation of those great games, which were good, but could never reach the same level of quality and respect from the gaming community. Now with the Infinity Ward lawsuits, and the general uncertainty of the Modern Warfare series' future, Treyarch is making a huge comeback with Call of Duty: Black Ops. In many ways, it's the most ambitious game in the series, but in many other ways, it's one of the most safe sequels from Activision yet. To be short, if you like Call of Duty, you'll like Black Ops. A more detailed explanation will take longer, though.
First off, the story, or what could be called the "story" as long as you had quotes around it. It revolves around the special operative Alex Mason, who formerly committed black ops across the globe, but now finds himself in an interrogation room being asked about "the numbers". Most of the story and plot twists are revealed through flashbacks, which occur after the interrogators ask Mason about what he has done. The interrogators' purpose is unclear at first, but over time, it will become clear exactly what they are after. You'll travel to Vietnam, Russia, and Cuba to name a few locations, and the set piece moments are great. What's also great is how the story mostly follows one protagonist this time around, and this heightens the player's connection to Alex Mason. The story would seem to have it all, with good voice acting (Besides Sam Worthington as Alex Mason), a variety of locations, one character to care about, and an overall deeper plot. The story is derailed, however, by the actual plot. The plot is deeper than past Call of Duty games, but it comes at the cost of cohesion and clarity. It is very hard to tell what is going on, how one mission affects the overall story, and why characters are acting the way they are, at least until the end. There are some unbelievable and stupid plot turns that made me view the story through a negative perspective as well. This is a shame, as the story is told from an interesting perspective, and it's very obvious that Treyarch put a lot of effort into the story this time around, which is something I can appreciate.
This doesn't affect the quality of gameplay in the singleplayer missions though. The singleplayer, from a gameplay perspective, is one of the best in the series. Missions have a ton of variety, both in location and gameplay. One mission, you'll be riding a motorcycle with a lever-action shotgun, and the next mission, you'll be shooting guided missiles towards a flying rocket. This variety, and a constant sense of intensity greatly benefit the campaign. The pacing is a bit off, though, with very little downtime in between Michael Bay action scenes, and a lot less player interactivity. There's a lot more of those "press a button and watch this animation" moments, and the lack of co-op, which was present in Treyarch's last game, is noticeable. These things combine to make Black Ops an enjoyable game to play alone, but one that is not that valuable for it's singleplayer alone.
Luckily, there's the zombie mode, which has one World War II map playable from the get-go, and a Cold-War era map that unlocks after you beat the campaign. I won't spoil what it is if you don't know, but it's funny and memorable to say the least. In zombie mode, you defend an enclosed space from a horde of zombies, receiving points for hits, kills, and rebuilding barriers to block zombies. You can spend these points to open new areas of the map, get new weapons, and buy revives from specific areas. Make no mistake, you will die, but you can last quite a while, as long as you have a few friends with you. The zombie mode is kind of fun to play on your own, but the main draw here is cooperative play with up to 3 other players, which can turn otherwise boring grinds into desperate last stands. The zombie mode is a lot of fun, and a great holdover from World at War, but it isn't enough to replace the Spec Ops mode found in Modern Warfare 2. With only three maps, one of them you may never unlock, the longevity is shorter, and without the stars scoring and unlock system found in Spec Ops, there isn't much to compel the player compared to last year's offering.
If that isn't enough, there's also multiplayer, which is easily the largest part of Black Ops. It has most of the game modes from Modern Warfare 2, and it's greatest strengths are definitely it's refinements, which will be recognized immediately by fans. Shotguns are primary weapons once more, some perks have been removed, existing perks have been reallocated to new categories for balance, death streaks have been removed, new perks have been added, pro versions of perks are harder to get, care packages can now be more easily shot down, and perks in the Perk 1 slot change your character's appearance. These are all changes that the hardcore Call of Duty players will appreciate, but nobody else will. What will be appreciated by everybody are the customization options and the new unlock system. Every time you play a match, you get a sum of experience points, just like any other recent Call of Duty game. However, you now receive "COD" points for every match, with the amount of COD points being about the experience you receive divided by 10 per match. You also get a large sum of COD points per level up. These COD points are actually used for unlocking guns, attachments, perks, emblems, killstreaks, and pretty much anything else in the game. New features for you to customize are unlocked every few levels, so that there's still something to work for. Once you get a feature, though, you can buy anything in it. Individual guns are unlocked every few levels as well, and you can buy any attachment for that gun once you've bought it. This allows you to make the character you want quickly, without having to get sniper rifles or pistols that you'll never lose. This is good, but it isn't really adding to the series' feature list. What does add to it is the new customization features, some of which feel like they were ripped out of Halo. You can now customize your emblem with several layers, you can buy custom reticles for your Red Dot and Reflex Sights, as well as the color of the reticle itself and the lens color. You can buy several camouflages for your gun, and you can give your character face paint. There's a new theater mode which records recent multiplayer games, and allows you to edit them with some decent tools. When you're done editing the video, you can put it on your fileshare for the community to see, just like Halo. All of this customization makes Black Ops a lot more fun, and gives you the tools to make an identity for yourself online. Overall, these changes make Black Ops the most fully featured online Call of Duty game yet.
Singleplayer, zombie, and multiplayer modes are all in Black Ops, but there's a lot of bonus features in this game, too, mostly accessible from a hidden menu. On the main menu, you can access a computer by repeatedly tapping space, and then walking over to the computer behind you and pressing F. There's a lot of cool stuff on this computer, like emails for main characters in the game, and a hidden top down shooter. The game offers no hints as to how to access these features on the computer, but the joy of discovery is half the fun here. There's still the standard intel files you can find in singleplayer, but now they are presented as inked-out mission reports that become visible once you pick up the intel, and these give backstory for the main game's plot. These bonus features are great, and add to the value of the game.
These are all words of high praise for Black Ops, but all of these are sort of marred by the poor port to the PC. Treyarch talked up the PC version of the game before release, but it's not a good comparison to the console versions. It does have better graphics and a smooth framerate - as long as you have the computer to run it. Black Ops doesn't optimize very well with older computers, and the game's cutscenes were nearly unwatchable for me due to a weird stop/start effect that stuttered the audio and video every second or so. Online, it seems that Treyarch didn't anticipate how popular the game would be on the PC, as the game was unplayable on Steam for a while. There's been major lag issues online, and due to these issues the community has gone down to around 100,000 people, even though the game sold way more than that. These issues could be resolved with a patch, but knowing Activision's track record with post-release PC support, that could be an improbability. With all of these problems with the PC version, I definitely enjoyed the game a bit less than I could have, but the rest of the game's quality still stands out.
At this point in the Call of Duty series, it almost goes without saying that the game will look great, but yeah, Black Ops looks great. Explosions have a much more visceral impact than they did in Modern Warfare 2, lighting is fantastic, textures look naturalistic, and animations are detailed and smooth. There are great camera transitions and perspectives when the story feels the need to take a third person perspective, and character models are realistic. The NPC count is great too, with there being some points with 40 enemies on screen at once with explosions and tanks. The framerate will definitely vary depending on your computer, but the game is a visual tour de force on the higher settings to say the least. The rest of the presentation is good, but not great. The music Treyarch made for the game is well done, but the licensed music they stick in the singleplayer feels out of place. The acting is good, too, except that Sam Worthington turns in the only bad performance in the game, and it's really, really bad. Most of the time, though, you'll be admiring how good the game looks, and that is a feat any game should be proud of.
The bottom line is this: if you like Call of Duty, you'll like Black Ops. If you're a hardcore fan of the multiplayer in Call of Duty, you'll love Black Ops. If you think the series is bad, then Black Ops will reinforce your hate of it even further. This is a Call of Duty game that makes a lot of changes that people who like Call of Duty will appreciate, but it still plays it pretty safe in terms of core content. Black Ops is the 4th game using the Call of Duty 4 engine, and maybe it's time that there's another huge change for the series. This is not to say that Black Ops is a bad entry in the Call of Duty franchise, it's not. It's a wonderful game that tries to break out of the mold with it's multiplayer changes, ambitious (if not good) story, and bonus features, but falls just short of the mark of "game changing", something that I blame on Treyarch's inability to make huge advancements forward in the Call of Duty series. I'll probably be playing Black Ops' multiplayer for the next year, but I'm more curious than ever now to see what new things Infinity Ward can bring to the franchise with Modern Warfare 3, if Call of Duty wishes to stay a successful franchise. Call of Duty: Black Ops is an enhancement, an evolution of the series, not a big change. If you can accept that, then you'll have a great time.
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