[Review] Call of Duty: Black Ops

[Call of Duty: Black Ops is the seventh installment in the Call of Duty franchise. It was developed by Treyarch Studios, published by Activision, and was released for XB360, PS3, PC, Wii, and Nintendo DS. For the review, the Steam digital download version (PC) was used.]

PROS


  • Great overall presentation

  • Well-paced Single Player

  • Multiplayer options are unprecedented

  • Dead Ops Arcade


CONS


  • Profoundly poor performance (PC version)

  • Franchise starting to feel dated

  • Bugs galore

  • Characters feel hollow, story isn't much better






Call of Duty hasn't changed much since Modern Warfare's release in 2007, and much like an EA Sports title, the refinements between each installment are minimal to everyone except the early adopters. Do you know the difference between the bullet penetration rate of the TAR as opposed to the FAL? Me neither, and I'm safe to say, that with Black Ops, that sort of knowledge isn't necessary. There's a certain amount of quality and polish that the Call of Duty franchise is known for, so for someone reviewing it, the question is no longer 'Is the game good?', but rather becomes something to the tune of 'Is the game good for you'. If you've made it this far into the review, then the answer is yes. Be warned, though: There are some release day jitters that have to be worked out for an optimal experience.

Call of Duty: Black Ops takes place in various world locales during the Cold War era in American history. You are Alex Mason, sufferer of amnesia, and hostage to an all-seeing, all-knowing something that is very interested in your whereabouts, activities, and co-workers over the past year or so. These men have warped voices, cover you in wires and microphones, and ask you questions that are necessarily cryptic in nature. Each mission is broken up by these interrogation scenes, and while it moves the story along nicely, one can't help but giggle at the ridiculously dramatic way nothing is told to you. There's even numbers (ala LOST) that have specific meaning, and theoretically will have you guessing until the very end! For myself, though, it came off as a little misplaced, and unwarranted. Make no mistake, it's worlds better than Modern Warfare 2's 'here is a nuke every 2 minutes' plot structure, but it's still sillier than your average Michael Bay extravaganza.

The gameplay structure is intact: You run down a few corridors, take a look to your left and right to see a big explosion/setpiece/kung fu kick, start a cutscene, then rinse and repeat. As your progress, the missions get more difficult, and slightly more ridiculous. The levels in Black Ops are much better designed than the ones in Modern Warfare 2, not only in pacing, but in overall weaponry choices, size, scope, and storytelling. It's a theme park ride in the highest order, and it's still very impressive on a techincal merit. Being released so soon after Modern Warfare 2, though, makes it feel like this entire franchise is starting to feel like an impersonation of itself.



The real reason a majority of gamers will be picking this up, though, is the Multiplayer, and Black Ops delivers in spades. I've only had one major complaint with the Call of Duty recipe for multiplayer, and it was the way in which good players were rewarded quicker, with better weaponry, and with better bonuses, than the people who just started or were new to the genre. Billy Bob could get 10 kills, and be rewarded with a gun that makes the next 10 kills easier, in which he's rewarded again with something that makes killing 10 more people even easier: It was a snowball effect, and it always rubbed me the wrong way. With Black Ops, Treyarch noticed this whacked balance of power, and opted to reward players with two forms of currency: Xp and CoD Points. XP works in the way it always has, being rewarded after a successful kill, or protecting/securing an objective. These points are used to level up, unlocking perks, weapons, and accessories. CoD Points, however, change the game up, allowing you to reward yourself with the perks, weapons, and killstreaks that you want to use.

Here's an example. Let's say you kill enough guys to get to level 5. Congratulations! The XP you earned to get to level 5 unlocked the ability to purchase Light Machine Guns with your CoD Points. You can purchase any Light Machine Gun, as long as you can afford it. Now then, you hit level 6! Well done, but there's no tier unlocks for you. However, you do get these bonus CoD Points to use on whatever you please, whether it be a killstreak, an addon (silencers, scopes) for your new Light Machine Gun, or facepaint/emblems/tags/accessories for the appearance of your character. The addition of CoD Points kills two birds with one stone for me: It allows true customization of your character's appearance and loadout, and it also rewards you for playing in the style you choose. You're not shoehorned into what the developers feel is the 'right unlock' for your level. While it's true, you still have to gain a ton of xp to unlock the most dangerous weapons, the road getting there is much less frustrating.

This review is for all versions of the game, but since I played on PC, I must make a few things known that are PC specific. Dedicated servers are back, with dedicated server lobbies, clan tags, and server browsers. Treyarch has gone on record saying that soon, they will be releasing an SDK for PC users, so the mod community is more than welcome to work with the game's source code. Your Steam friends list is integrated into the game immediately, so it's very easy to see where your friends are at in regards to rank and performance. There are some obvious things that aren't included though, such as the ability to manually search for a browser by IP address. Some of these oversights are understandable, but some will leave you scratching your head in confusion.

Other additions are bot support, custom game lobbies, a new and improved Zombie mode, and what I consider the highlight of the bonus features (hell, part of me thinks it's the highlight of the game period) is Dead Ops Arcade. DOA is a twin-stick shooter in the same vein as Smash TV or Geometry Wars, but set in a cold war, zombie infested time of astronaut monkeys, bright and colorful jewels, and infinite laser pistols that tear through zombies like butter. It's easily a game that could cost $10 on XBLA and PSN, yet it's a free bonus hidden in the depths of the game's source code. Treyarch has said in multiple interviews that it listened to what fans have to say, and it seems they delivered: There are multiple avenues of game here, and you're not punished if one gameplay style doesn't suit your fancy. Not a fan of getting smashed on online rank servers? Grab a few buddies, and make a private bot match game, and tear through some AI controlled foes. Single player got you down? Bust out some zombies mode, or turn on Dead Ops Arcade. If there's one thing that can be said about this package, it's that Black Ops is easily the most content-rich installment of the franchise.

To wrap up this review, though, I have to let you all know that currently there are game-breaking glitches in the game: During the livestream, there were no less than 4 times that either a crash or bug happened to where I had to hard-restart the game, and once where I had to restart the PC entirely. The pathing would glitch out, enemies would become invincible, hit detection would stop working, and the framerate was constantly atrocious throughout my play sessions. I bring this up, though, to tell you that these are things that will be addressed through patches, and while it's frustrating, the enjoyment I've gotten from the game so far is definitely worth the price of admission. Once the kinks are worked out, Black Ops is going to be one hell of a looker this holiday season, and easily a contender for Game of the Year, based purely on the value the package brings.

Will you like Call of Duty: Black Ops? You already know the answer to that question. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, it doesn't stray from its rollercoaster style of presentation, and it makes no apologies for continuing the trend of overdramatic, hyperbolic storytelling. The game is fairly broken at the moment, and even console users are complaining of shoddy performance in online matchmaking. The multiplayer, while adding a ton of great features and improvements, is still the MMO-lite that we've come to know and expect. I'm here to say, though, that even with this laundry list of mishaps, Black Ops is still good. In fact, it's great. There is a great game under these flaws, and with such a strong list of gameplay types, we'll have plenty of time to kill while the technical kinks are worked out.

While Treyarch may have the perception of having Infinity Ward's hand-me-downs, they've done a stellar job with Black Ops. They didn't make the game 'bigger and badder', but they did something more important with the franchise: They've made it their own. That's all one can ask from the team, and even with its share of  faults, I can wholeheartidly recommend Call of Duty: Black Ops to any gamer looking for a fun, expansive, competitive shooter experience

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