PC Game Review: Call of Duty Black Ops

Since the second game in the series, Treyarch and Infinity Ward have alternated development duties for Call of Duty games: Infinity Ward did the excellent first two games as well as Modern Warfare 1 & 2. Treyarch, on the other hand, did the worst-in-franchise Call of Duty 3 and the underwhelming World at War … and has now returned for Call of Duty: Black Ops! Have they finally abandoned their bottom-feeder ways? Read on and find out!

The Hype:
Call of Duty: Black Ops is a first-person shooter with stealth and tactical play aspect that puts players in the role of a shadow soldier fighting in a variety of historically representative fictional Black Ops missions of the Cold War era. Created with the input of actual Black Ops soldiers from the time, the game mixes traditional Call of Duty tactical shooter gameplay with new gameplay options designed to expand the players’ experience. Additional features include extensive multiplayer options, along with new vehicles and explosive new weapons.

The Reality:
Have you ever been on the Buzz Lightyear ride at Disney World? You get in a car and are scooted through a course during which you try to shoot as much stuff as possible, and can even direct which side you are shooting at … to an extent. That pretty much sums up what playing Call of Duty: Black Ops is like.

Don’t get me wrong: it is a terribly exciting thrill ride filled with tension and release, excitement and peril. But there is seldom a moment when you aren’t completely aware that this whole experience is ‘on rails’ – not literally, but close enough. For reference, an ‘on rails’ game is like the arcade game ‘House of the Dead’ where you control the gun and are moved from place to place shooting everything you see.

Before digging deeper, let me heap praise on the presentation of Call of Duty: Black Ops. Visually the game is stunning, with detailed character and weapons models,

You start by being interrogated: you are in a chair being spoken to by someone with a disguised voice, and are taken through a history of the special operations you have been on through many years, from Cuba to Russia to Vietnam and so on. The settings are well detailed and believable, and the historical references help give an even more convincing feel.

But it is this realism that is also a constraint: you go to Cuba, but you have a very limited mandate and almost no freedom of action. You need to constantly be following someone and do exactly what is expected of you. If you veer too far off course, you die. Don’t do as assigned, you die. And so on.

It goes from limiting to absolutely silly at times: you are anticipating what is needed and are firing at a bunch of enemies without seeming to do any damage … and then suddenly you are called upon to do exactly that and the enemies become vulnerable! Same for vehicles and so on. The game is constantly breaking credulity as a shooter just to provide a more cinematic experience.

This extends to the start and finish of the game: typically I want to play more than one game during a session, so I don’t appreciate getting forced to endure too much junk video before the opening menu. But Black Ops makes it even worse – when you try to quit, it feels like you are playing a demo and the game is post-selling you on the experience before letting you get away. It is annoying and actually has the opposite impact on me.

But let me return to the actual game: I found that once I stopped viewing it as a FPS I enjoyed it more. Sure it is first-person, and certainly you are shooting people, but Call of Duty: Black Ops continues the regression from the open-feeling shooters of the past and further along the ‘you are there’ interactive cinematic adventure feeling that war-based shooters have had for a while. Way back in 2002 we had Medal of Honor Allied Assault (MoHAA) and the Normandy invasion – you needed to navigate your way to the beach and beyond, and there were only a few ways to do it without dying.

But in MoHAA, before and after that intentionally controlled and gut-wrenching scene, you have plenty of freedom of movement and choice. You can decide on weapons and positions and so on in order to accomplish goals. In Call of Duty: Black Ops you generally need to get to a single location and use the one designated weapon to have things work. Of course I’m being a bit dramatic, but given that the history of shooters has been about broad goals with tremendous freedom of action (though given the history of level design, not so much freedom of movement) Call of Duty: Black Ops feels like a step in a completely different direction.

By now millions of folks have been playing the game for nearly a month, having bought it for one of three reasons: as a gift, because the cool kids were all doing it, or for multiplayer. Seriously. Anyone dishing out $60 for four hours of terrifically average on-rails shooter gameplay has more dollars than sense, as the expression goes. So most folks will have bought the game, spent their lunch going through the single-player, and then started up multiplayer.

The multiplayer is the meat of the campaign, but for me it is yet another mixed bag. Certainly it is better than Medal of Honor, but as I said earlier – that is a pretty low threshold. If anything, I would call the multiplayer ‘Modern Warfare 2++’ – if you have already played Modern Warfare 2, expect to be able to jump right in and find most everything the same, but with a few tweaks.

There are new features such as the ‘spike cam’, which offers a remote viewing option for a small area to help out. There is a strong focus on money – all of your new items, perks, weapons, and so on need to be bought using CoD points you earn by playing rounds and taking on specialty matches. There is an abundance of points to earn, but you can also blow through them pretty quickly.

There are a ton of game modes, many the same as previous games, but there are some new challenges such as sharpshooter, where your weapon changes after a fixed time period! That makes it fun if you started sniping just to change to a shotgun and so on.

What is missing from multiplayer? Co-op and evolutionary maps. Co-op allows you to work WITH others to take on missions, and is completely missing, which is a shame. So many games offer it now that it feels like a glaring omission. Also, after Battlefield: Bad Company 2, a static map feels stale and outdated. Things should be able to flow freely – you should be able to demolish a route, forcing enemies to take a new path.

But overall multiplayer does its job – it provides the millions of franchise faithful with something familiar yet new enough to feel like they are getting their money’s worth. And as I said, it is that target audience that mattered to EA: the franchise faithful, the millions who coughed up $60 at midnight to get the game at release.

To me, Call of Duty: Black Ops is more or less like Madden NFL 2011 – it is pretty much the same as last year’s game, but has enough tweaks to give a feeling of a refresh without feeling foreign. It is tailor-made for the faithful followers, those who are built-in fans – and that is the case for a reason: they are OK with a four hour campaign, will dive right into multiplayer … and most importantly will be there coughing up real money for DLC on a regular basis,ensuring EA of a regular revenue stream right up until the next game in the series launches in a year.

Should you buy it? That is a rougher call – because if you are in the target audience you have already put dozens of hours into multiplayer! If you are on the fence, take heed of the fact that the game dropped 85% of sales in the second week and plummeted down the charts after that. As a multiplayer game Call of Duty: Black Ops is a good game but not a great one, and the only attraction here is the multiplayer: single-player is a mediocre and frustrating experience that serves as a reminder of just how far from the original FPS games this particular branch of cinematic games has gone.

Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops

Where to Buy: Amazon.com

Price: $59.99

What I Like: Exciting action; Great locations; Works best as interactive cinematic experience; Multiplayer is a reasonable evolution from Modern Warfare 2

What Needs Improvement: Just plain awful as a single-player FPS; Too short; Multiplayer is nothing new; More hype than anything else; Looking for something truly new in Multiplayer? Forget it

Categories: Gaming, Reviews

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8 replies

  1. The way I look at it is like COD fans are pretty much like Apple loyalists. When a new product comes out, it’s almost a no brainer that I am getting it. I love COD since the original. Treyarch did a nice job with this and Activision set records on initial sales. It’s pretty close to rest of the games from the past, except some of the new extras in the multiplayer are really worth a look. As Michael said, its not setting the gaming world on fire, but if your into multiplayer FPS, then Im sure you already have it. Don’t forget Zombie Coop modes and the secret arcade style Zombie shooter that you enter from the computer terminal on the main screen.

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