A game of two halves. Now that’s a phrase that is more suited to sport rather than a First Person Shooter, but it’s exactly how I’d sum up my feelings about Call of Duty Black Ops single player campaign. The sit-rep of the review event sees me hunkered down in a hotel with twenty or so other reviewers, which means we had the ideal environment where we could share our opinions with each other over lunch, booze or while spooning each other into the night.
Once in my room, free to play alone in my pants, I played the initial half or so of Treyarch’s first non-World War 2 CoD on absolute auto-pilot. A slo-mo breach here, a Vietnam bunker run there and I’m back in familiar territory and still waiting to be blown away. The chance to finally show the world that they can make a compelling almost modern FPS was being pissed into the wind.
Above: "Yo, Soap, wait up! We gotta get to the ski-doos". "Wait, what? This ISN'T the same game?"
Devices found in Modern Warfare 1 and 2 weren’t only being replicated but they were being done with such frequency that any impact lost all meaning. Fuck sakes, Treyarch “THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE YOUR BIG MOMENT” I shouted into the ether. But as the preamble unsubtly suggests, the second half finds its feet and suddenly Black Ops is amaze.
I don’t want to ruin the impact of certain missions, but after being plonked into a Vietnamese river for a blast of a mission with a shit-ton of carnage I immediately rang a fellow reviewer to share in my excitement. We both agreed it was a beautiful touch and the start of a turnaround. Boo-yah!
Above: The guy with the itchy trigger finger is Woods, Alex Mason's buddy and chief hater of Vietnamese troops.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What you want to know is whether Black Ops is better than Modern Warfare 2, right? Well, unhelpfully it is and it isn’t. The story – for my money – is better told here than in either Modern Warfare. You’re Alex Mason - a Cold War operative who's been captured by some mysterious group and is being tortured/interrogated while strapped to a chair and plugged with enough volts of electricity to light up a small village. As a nice touch, this area provides the hub for the entire game.
Who are the shadowy silhouettes barking at you and what is Nova 6? What does that mysterious number sequence being repeated over and over again mean? And why can’t we discuss this over a nice cup of tea rather than syringes full of truth serum? All is revealed in time as each mission is played out in the form of flashbacks.
Although the plot is more compelling in Black Ops, if we had to pick certain key characters out of a line-up we’d struggle…
Above: OK, maybe one stands out in this line-up. But the cookie-cutter characters are disappointing
They’re not as memorable or compelling as Soap or Captain Price from Modern Warfare and their contributions just act as another sound amid the rampant gun-fire. Cameos from Fidel Castro, President Kennedy and Viktor Reznov – the vodka soaked Russian from World at War – help to add spice to the story though.
Black Ops plays out over 15 missions that take you from an assault on a stronghold in Cuba through Vietnamese towns and jungles and even a quick soiree in the Pentagon. Each level feels significantly different to the last which ensures a fresh area to conduct mass murder as you progress.
Above: Not only a campaign setting, but this epic stage is also home to a multiplayer map too.
Click over to the next page for vehicles, weapons and getting lost
Where Black Ops differs again from Modern Warfare is the amount of vehicles it throws into the mix. Motorbikes, cars, planes, boats and choppers are there for you to command – some good, some downright fiddly.
Said helicopters are an exception to the rule as they’re both good and bad. Like so…
Above: Blasting things that are stationary = good
Above: Blasting things that are moving = bad
It’s hard to write about Black Ops without ruining key elements for you, which is why I’ve avoided it thus far, so I’ll tell you about the fundamentals instead.
Treyarch can at last play with a new armoury and they’ve gone all out with crossbows, assault rifles and automatic shotguns that fire incendiary rounds aptly named Dragon’s Breath. Even if it isn’t bang up to date, Black Ops never feels like it’s dealing with old, fudgy weaponry. Well, except when there’s a flashback to the 50s but even then the PPSh-41 from WaW is as awesomely potent as ever.
One of the main things I noticed is that the accuracy of dropping a man wasn’t as consistent as before. I swear I plugged a guy square in the chest only for him to stand tall like a mighty redwood tree. This wasn’t a constant thing but it happened enough for me to get annoyed. And as discussed with other people reviewing the game at the same time, there was an unusual amount of missions having to be completed through trial and error.
Above: There's a fine selection of death-bringing weaponry on offer - from rifles to automatic shotguns.
Black Ops has a number of poorly sign-posted objectives to the point where I started questioning my gaming skills instead of the game. For example, there's one mission where a flood of Vietnamese soldiers can only be stemmed by piercing two barrels of napalm and then lighting them. If you don't they'll just keep coming but there's very little direction to doing this. But lo and behold, I answered a call to a friend who was stuck at exactly the same point on the same mission.
There were also more than a few moments where déjà vu struck me like a god damn bunker-buster. Picking off snipers in trees and dealing with flamethrowers? World at War. Running off a sinking ship? Modern Warfare. Sprinting across rooftops and claustrophobic streets? Modern Warfare 2. And this is the biggest disappointment with Black Ops – it plays it too safe with tried and tested mission structures of old.
The aforementioned slo-mo breaches, civilians being maimed (O Hai No Russian!) and up-close melee kills are all overused here, which is a shame because when you do see something new it almost feels like Treyarch are testing the water rather than going balls out and saying “suck on this set-piece Infinity Ward!”.
Above: A descent into the abyss. Don't worry the gun-blasting fun isn't far away.
But I’m not going to rain on Black Ops' parade because when it’s delivering action it’s up there with the most intense missions from previous CoDs.
Using the crossbow on the snowy missions is a great change of pace as you pierce patrols and their guard dogs. Whether you’re flying the chopper or piloting an attack boat the amount of stuff to blow into the atmosphere is incredible – a real thrill ride. And ‘that’ bit where you’re just setting off up a Vietnamese river – the one with the music – sent tingles down my spine. I almost spelt it 'spain' because I was so excited at the thought of it.
See next page for multiplayer, Zombies and a 2D surprise
No Call of Duty review would be complete without mentioning the online side of things, right? While I can’t testify as to how stable the servers were seeing as we were playing in a controlled environment with the other folk doing reviews, but it’s all you’d expect and then a whole load more. Everything we said previously is still valid so rather than me going over old ground check out all you need to know, plus videos, right here
Above: It's always nice to dig around in new deathmatch maps. Y'know, before everyone knows all the camp spots.
Also, Nazi zombies are back, which you can play from the off but there's a new zombie mode too where you play as one of Fidel Castro, JFK, Richard Nixon or Robert McNamara to defend against the invasion inside the Pentagon. You unlock this mode once you've completed the campaign and the one-line quips, as they dole out death, are a great touch and add a nice dose of personality to proceedings. There's also a thoroughly entertaining Smash TV inspired 2D, top-down, co-op mode featuring a space gorilla. I shit you not.
Above: Ahhh, I love the smell of Killstreak napalm attacks in the morning. And any time of day really.
So Black Ops is quite the package, and Treyarch can finally begin to create a Modern Warfare-esque franchise of their own, built on this sturdy foundation. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed that they try to stamp their own ideas on future iterations rather than depending on safe bets from the one series they should be trying to overtake.
Is it better than...
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2?: No. It may tell a story better than Infinity Ward's epic but Black Ops uses a lot of the key features from MW2 rather than delivering original ideas. As a result it feels more like a homage to Modern Warfare 2 than a full-blown sequel.
Battlefield Bad Company 2?: Yes. But only just. I really like Battlefield: BC2 as a whole but the campaign left me feeling cold. What Black Ops does well is thrust you into a believable environment throughout while constantly changing your areas of conflicts. Bad Company 2 - for me - didn't.
Call of Duty: World at War?: Yes. This is certainly Treyarch's finest moment in the Call of Duty series, not just because they can use modern weapons but because it all feels much more seamless than their previous game(s).
Just for you Metacritic
With the hype and excitement surrounding Treyarch's first Call of Duty where they aren't bound by a World War II setting, it's a shame that they went for more of the same MW2. This isn't say it's poor but personally I feel they've missed an opportunity to really stamp their authority with Black Ops. Still, as a complete package with a great story, strong FPS action and a killer multiplayer mode, Black Ops remains unmissable.