Call of Duty: Black Ops [Review]

The Cold War Rages On

Call of Duty: Black Ops

History is Written Between the Lies

Black Ops is the seventh installment in the Call of Duty series and the fifth made by developer Treyarch.  This is the third Call of Duty to take place in the modern era, though this is set a little further back than its Modern Warfare brethren and takes place during the Cold War.  During the campaign you’ll find yourself in the perspective of a few characters, but the story centers around special forces operative Alex Mason and the threat of a Russian chemical weapon.  Though the story is fiction, it involves some very real people, events that took place, and military groups during the time period.

Classified Intel

One of the most entertaining things that struck me about the single player campaign was the sheer variety of weapons available.  With the number of assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, semi-autos and handguns available you’ll have no shortage of tools to carry out mayhem and maim the forces opposing you; and I do mean maim considering the upgraded version of the World at War graphic engine at use in the game; visceral shots of limbs being blown off enemies as you hit them at close range with a shotgun will paint a grittier picture of the war for you than any amount of talking or story would.

There were actually points in the game where I felt the team at Treyarch actually went a little too far in the graphic portrayal of some scenes.  The way my character snuck up on Viet Cong and basically sawed their throats open during the Vietnam era in the game stayed with me well after I finished the levels in which they took place.  I feel in retrospect that the graphic nature of some of the kills were a deliberate attempt at saying, “Hey, war isn’t pretty and it should definitely make you uncomfortable.”  If that was the intent, then they passed with flying colors.  Luckily for those who would be made too uncomfortable or have weaker stomachs, the option is given to tone down the really graphic kills to a level that is more in line with the Modern Warfare games.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

There are also more vehicular combat sections than during the course of most Call of Duty games.  You’ll pilot gunboats and helicopters, and at one point will even sit in the cockpit of a SR-71 Blackbird.  The vehicle sections are a bit uneven, with levels where I was given a large degree of control (like the Hind) being very cool, and others (like the Blackbird) giving me so little to do they felt like throwaway sections.  It was definitely a deal breaker to feel like a part was just included simply to say “HEY! PRESS R1! YOU’RE DOING COOL STUFF NOW!”  Luckily the weaker sections weren’t long enough to overwhelm the positive experiences of blowing everything around me to high hell.

The story in Black Ops is another odd duck, with some things it does well and others that leave a bland taste.  For a game called Black Ops that was supposed to deal with the secrets of the Cold War there was a surprising lack of operations that I felt were actually special.  The first mission you undertake in the game is by far the best in making you feel like you’re a force attempting the influence the currents of history.  The overall story still takes an action movie approach, but is more compelling (and longer) than what took place in Modern Warfare 2.  You will genuinely want to find out what the numbers that appear so frequently stand for and what events took place to put Mason in the position we find him in from the onset of the game.  On the flip-side, you’ll probably have figured out the “twist” in the story well before you actually hit it.  I definitely had a “That’s it?” moment when it occurred, which was obviously disappointing.  The story has moments where it pays off, but a number of others feel like you’ve been there and done that in previous CoDs.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

Def-con 1

The best moment in Black Ops actually occurs after the credits roll.  I won’t spoil the cutscene if you haven’t already heard, but let’s just say things get very…presidential.  There’s also a healthy dose of undead involved in what is by far the shining star out of Black Ops.  Needless to say, zombie mode is back.  The gist of things is still the same as in World at War, but with a new setting, characters both new and familiar, and new toys to play with.  Zombie mode can be taken on solo or with friends, either locally or online.  Constructing barricades and wiping out the undead menace help you build up points, which you’ll need in order to purchase revives, new pathways, weapons, and ammo.  The zombie mode has just the right mix of humorous irreverence, solid gameplay, and tactics to make it a mode you’ll return to when the grind of multiplayer gets boring and well after you’ve finished the campaign.

The Main Event

Then, of course, is the reason why most people pick up Call of Duty at this point: multiplayer.  Those who played Modern Warfare 2 will be right at home here, with nearly every mode from that game present in this one.  Maps have a fair range of styles, from the long range Cracked to the close quarters and extremely active Nuketown.  There are fourteen maps in total, all suited to a variety of match types, although some map and mode combos (like Hanoi with Headquarters) will make for better matches than others.

There is still a level system in place in Black Ops, and progressing means access to new weapons, game modes, and other tweaks and options (such as being able to create custom classes and clan tags).  One major difference is that instead of kills with a weapon and its attachments unlocking other attachments there is now a credit system in place based on performance which you use to unlock upgrades for different aspects of your multiplayer character.  The level of customization in Black Ops is staggering, and is the one feature that really sets it apart in multiplayer from the Modern Warfare games.  Everything from kill streaks and emblems down to your targeting reticule can be customized with the credits you earn, giving rise to some very unique weapons.  Even your character avatar changes based on the perks you have assigned, with different clothing and face paint being available to unlock as well.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

I’ve unfortunately not gotten to spend any time with the PC version of the game, but from playing the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions server lag has been a problem at times.  It’s not horrible every match, but it’s cringe-inducing when it  starts happening.  The problem is increasingly bad the more people you have in a party trying to get into a match; groups of four or more have the biggest issues.  This is something that will undoubtedly be fixed in the near future as patches get released and the load stabilizes.  All the same it’s fair warning if you have plans to get the game sooner rather than later.


What’s odd is I could say more about Black Ops, but I feel like it wouldn’t mean anything.  There’s some new things going on within the entirety of the game (which I’ve covered), but so much of it is the same as Modern Warfare 2 that it would be pointless to rehash it.  The similarities to MW2 mean that it’s not a bad game, but there’s a lack of ideas that put Call of Duty in the dangerous position of turning into a by-the-numbers yearly sequel whether the Modern Warfare moniker is attached or not.  This game would have been the first to fall in that rut, but it is saved by the intervention of the zombie mode and the personal touch you can add to multiplayer.  Black Ops is worth picking up if you’ve played the Modern Warfare games and are looking for something new, but like I’ve said, don’t expect huge strides from what you already know.

Robert Hill-Williams
Robert Hill-Williams
Robert Hill-Williams

MASH Veteran

The only things Rob has been doing longer than gaming are breathing, sleeping, eating, and reading. RPGs were what made him view games as an experience instead of a distraction, but these days he likes and plays every genre gaming has to offer. Outside of his usual reviews and articles on MTB, you can find Rob on the weekly Mashcast and frequenting Twitter.

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