Call of Duty: Black Ops

The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa sits in the tiny town of Ojai about two hours north of downtown Los Angeles. Built in 1923, it features a full 18-hole golf course, a luxury spa, and 308 deluxe suites situated on a 200 acre plot with picaresque views of the surrounding forest and mountains. It’s hard to top in terms of amenities and creature comforts, and it seemingly offers everything you could ever want in a vacation spot. It’s utterly fitting, then, that this is where Activision chose to hold its review event for Call of Duty: Black Ops [see sidebar Flight Plan on page 2--Ed.]; the lavish surroundings were no doubt meant to lend a measure of sex appeal and ‘wow factor’ to the proceedings, but it was also a good metaphor for Black Ops: The game is a veritable playground that, like the plush resort where I and a handful of game journos from various outlets were sequestered for three days, seems to offer everything you could ever want in a console first-person shooter.

For most gamers, any discussion about Call of Duty starts and ends with multiplayer, but Black Ops features a surprisingly competent single-player campaign that features the most cohesive CoD narrative yet. The core plot isn’t nearly as original or as inventive as it could have been, relying as it does on several well worn twists “borrowed” from various movies, and it suffers from a few issues. Certain plot points are clumsily handled; there are still moments where you have to brute force your way to a checkpoint to trigger the next area; and they beat you over the head with the final reveal, as if they didn’t trust the average gamer to understand what was going on. Still, it’s a solid effort overall whose tone and spirit adequately captures the culture of paranoia that resulted from the tense 60’s era cold war between the United States and Russia, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Vietnam War. Its cast of characters isn’t nearly as likable as Price and Soap et al, but the superior voice acting and motion capture work make it easy to enjoy the seven to eight hour story as it unfolds. It’s especially worth playing because it unlocks a neat little surprise that’s a nice bit of fan service.
The term ‘fan service’ is also a good way to describe the approach Treyarch took with Black Ops’ multiplayer modes: it’s obvious that they set out to make this installment the definitive online Call of Duty experience, and it helps that such a solid framework had been laid by the previous titles. All the expected mutliplayer modes are here--Team Deathmatch, Domination, Search and Destroy, Headquarters, etc.--and for the most part, they play exactly as you’d expect, with the new map layouts, weapons, and perks having a strong effect on strategy and game flow.

For instance, the new Nova 6 grenade saturates an area with a nerve gas that disorients players and slowly saps health, rendering it a useful item to have in modes involving set capture points. Perks have also been reordered--Marathon, for example, is now tiered with Ninja, meaning you have to pick one or the other, putting an end to one of my favorite, albeit it abused, perk combinations. Treyarch also brings back is popular Zombie mode, which will no doubt please gamers who enjoyed it in World at War. I was dismayed, however, that they chose to remove the highly underrated Spec-Ops mode, and I sincerely hope it’s offered down the line as a DLC add-on.

But the biggest tweak to the multiplayer is, of course, the currency system, which replaces XP in terms of unlocking weapons and attachments. Everything in the game, from perks to equipment, has to be purchased, and while the periodic feeling of hitting a jackpot found in previous CoD games is gone--DING DING DING, here’s another trinket!--the currency system makes it easier for established fans to customize their gear to their liking. You still have to achieve leveling milestones to unlock specific items, but you don’t have to grind levels just to get a silencer or a scope--you just dip into your bank account and purchase it outright. It’s a sensible evolution because most gamers have logged enough online hours to know what their preferences are, so empowering them to customize their loadout makes a lot of sense.

The new Wager Matches are an interesting twist as well, letting you bet credits against your own performance; rank in the top three and you earn credits, rank anywhere else and you lose credits. These matches will no doubt be dominated by high level players the way poker games are usually dominated by card sharks, but even amateur gamblers can have fun thanks to the three tiers of betting. The lowest tier, Ante Up, only requires a 10 credit buy in, which is a modest enough entry fee to entice anyone to give it a try; the modes themselves are fun, with One in the Chamber and Gun Game topping my own personal list, and even though I never felt particularly thrilled by the gambling aspect, ending a round ‘in the money’ does lend a nice element of accomplishment to the experience.

Treyarch also included a lot of extras that round out the overall experience and helps bring CoD up to date with contemporary franchises like Halo. Theater mode, for example, isn’t anything new, but it is smartly implemented, with each kill and death mapped as bookmarks on the timeline, letting you easily warp to a moment of triumph or defeat. Combat Training is also a worthwhile addition, especially for anyone who’s been afraid to jump into the snarky, chaotic online environment; it’s a closed environment where you can set up matches with your friends and bots to familiarize yourself with competitive play. I was disappointed that Team Deathmatch and Free-for-All were the only modes available, but the bots do a decent job of replicating some of the behavior you often see online—sniper camping, for instance. I also have to mention the character customization features like emblems and clan tags as well as the ability to set up private matches with custom settings that the hardcore online community will no doubt appreciate.

Then there are the unlockable extras that Treyarch hid throughout the game; I won’t discuss them in detail here because I don’t want to ruin the surprise [other sites have already reported on some of the extras, so Google around if you want--Ed.], but let’s just say that there are clever little extras that add a geniune sense of value. That, by the way, is Black Ops’ true strength: it offers up so many things to do that you can’t help feel as if you’re getting your money’s worth.

But as was the case when I reviewed Modern Warfare 2, I played the game under ideal circumstances, so it’ll be interesting to not only see how the community reacts to the game, but how I’ll feel about it after investing multiple hours into the multiplayer. There are valid questions I just can’t answer at this point, such as will gamers embrace the currency system or reject it, and what sorts of idiotic and game breaking behavior will the community come up with--snipers camping Domination maps to get nukes in MW2 ruined many a match for me, for example.

And yet, despite those misgivings, I also can’t deny the level of polish and value inherent in Black Ops. It’s an all-encompassing package that is easy to recommend to fans of the series. Besides, console shooter fans will no doubt flock to it in droves as it’s already breaking pre-order records, so you almost have to buy it if you regularly play online because it's the game most of your friends will no doubt be playing. The good news is that the game is absolutely worth the investment, and even if you find yourself disagreeing with some of the changes Treyarch instituted or you run into a bunch of morons who are hell bent on ruining a particular mode for you, you have plenty of other options to keep you engaged for a good long time.


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