Call of Duty: Black Ops Review
Another year, another Call of Duty title. Treyarch has long been regarded as the backup developer, brought in to fill the annual gap between Infinity Ward’s off-years. Black Ops has the unfortunate honor of following in Modern Warfare 2’s gargantuan footsteps. Initial sales records show that the public at large will buy anything with Call of Duty printed on the packaging, but what about the game itself?
Treyarch can’t seem to let go of the past. Black Ops is set during the Cold War, an interesting premise for single-player, but a major step back for multiplayer, especially given Black Ops’ online is essentially a reskinned and watered down version of Modern Warfare 2. A handful of perks, killstreaks, and weaponry/equipment has been outright gutted from the multiplayer, while a number of guns that post-date the game’s 1960s setting are still inexplicably present.
The largest change to multiplayer is the addition of Call of Duty points, which is in-game currency earned by playing matches and completing challenges and contracts. Weapons and game modes still unlock according to your level, but most everything can be bought with points, so no grinding through 40 levels to get the best perks. The points system is mostly a good thing, but buying your display emblems and backgrounds instead of earning them defeats the purpose. Modern Warfare 2 was all about discovering cool new emblems for random milestones or accomplishments, and that is gone now.
In addition to the usual suspects of modes, the new Wager Match is by far the best thing Treyarch has contributed to the franchise. Wager Matches require players to “bet” their points to play, making the matches far more meaningful than just any old team deathmatch. The game types themselves are brilliant fun, including: Gun Game, where every kill upgrades your weapon; Sharpshooter, where weapons randomly change every 45 seconds and kills grant bonus perks; One in the Chamber, where players only have one bullet and a knife, but each kill gives an extra bullet; and Sticks and Stones, where it’s all knives and tomahawks.
The remarkable thing about Wager Matches is that they put all players on even ground and require skill (or obnoxious amounts of camping) to finish “in the money”. It’d be nice if they did away with the cheap tier of matches though, as anyone who has played the game for more than five minutes can afford to lose 10 CP. The matchmaking system in general is not optimized; creating lopsided teams in terms of player levels, leaving pre-made parties with no competition, or dropping you into a match that is literally two seconds away from completion (with you on the losing team, of course).
Treyarch took a page out of Bungie’s playbook with the new Theater mode, which allows you to save and view all of your recent matches, and share them online. It’s an extremely robust replay system that, unfortunately for Treyarch, also shows infallible proof of the game’s flaws. I have numerous videos saved of knives connecting but not registering, and conversely, videos of drive-by knifings from a mile away. Not surprisingly, the entire CoD community is rather annoyed at the broken knife system, and you can be sure that the video rants are piling up.
The hit detection is still questionable, with headshot victims running away unscathed, but Treyarch's largest failing is the game’s terrible respawn system. There are no failsafes to prevent spawn camping, and it’s entirely likely that the dude you just killed will respawn directly behind you and knife you before his corpse hits the ground. God forbid someone get a copter gunner killstreak and racks up double-digit kills as helpless players die, respawn, and die again before taking a single step. Completely unacceptable.
As for the mascot of Black Ops - the explosive RC car - it's the first killstreak you unlock, and can be driven around until you find an enemy and then detonated for a free kill, like a predator missile on wheels. It ranges from an annoyance in regular deathmatches, to game-breaking in Hardcore Search & Destroy matches.
Playing as various special forces operative, the single-player campaign revolves around an extremely deadly biological weapon. From Laos to Russia, the set pieces are often visually striking, though none stand out in comparison to seeing Washington, DC get EMPed. Likewise, the story is not nearly as compelling as Modern Warfare’s, so each time a main character or villain died, it rang somewhat hollow. This is also a side effect of Treyarch’s lack of mastery when it comes to animation and scripted events; there are some dramatic scenes that just fall flat because they look wholly unrealistic and outright ridiculous.
Despite the technical issues, however, the single-player can be exciting and enjoyable, though the overall torture room/brainwashing plot is annoying as it happens, dissatisfying when it resolves, and in retrospect, doesn’t make any damn sense. There are a number of on-rails vehicle sections as well, but each one makes the game feel less and less like Call of Duty and more like Time Crisis. It’s like Treyarch wanted to create something marvelous, had some cool ideas, but ultimately confused ambition for skill. Even the soundtrack has an identity crisis, playing Vietnam-era Rolling Stones one minute and Eminem and Pink’s latest single the next.
Veteran difficulty is nearly unattainable this time around. I have completed Call of Duty 2 and Modern Warfare 1 and 2 all on Veteran, so I know what to expect, but Black Ops has far too many sections where you’ll abruptly die without ever knowing what hit you. It also forces you into areas with virtually zero cover as waves upon waves of enemies descend upon you. I don’t need to explain how not fun that is. I hate to admit this, but it’s the Zombies modes that impressed me most. There are two stages, including the Pentagon stage where players will take control of Kennedy, Nixon, McNamara, and Castro. It's a surprisingly full experience, with points for kills that can be spent on new weapons and unlocking new areas of the map.
There’s also a Dead Ops Arcade game which can be played solo and online with friends, and is basically Nazi Zombies meets Smash TV. It’s not the best mode or minigame ever made, but considering developers have tried to charge more for less on XBLA, the fact that DOA comes included with Black Ops is a surprising move on Activision’s part, and rounds out the overall value to be had from a purchase.
Aside from Theater, Zombies and the Wager matches, Treyarch does little to differentiate Black Ops from everything Infinity Ward has done before, and better. This year’s iteration is one step forward, three steps back, and an awkward shuffle to the side, but there is still a great deal of familiar content included in Call of Duty: Black Ops that should satiate trigger-happy fans.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]