The Call of Duty series has always confused me. With the exception of Call of Duty 3, none of the games were outright bad per se, but I could never get into them as much as some people. Especially with Modern Warfare sub-series, they encapsulated the painfully generic undertones and all had uninteresting stories and even a worse cast of characters. Yes, the shooting itself was always solid, but everything surrounding the gunplay could not turn me off more if it tried, especially with tiring frequency of the series’ release schedule. This is, until Call of Duty: Black Ops, Treyarch’s latest venture into the series.
Right off the bat, Black Ops corrects the one of biggest problems I have with these games: the story. Every other game has you as some faceless, speechless chump in some war with a bunch of other smucks with the likability of a racist homophobe on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Treyarch set to fix this by putting a face and, more importantly, a voice to your main characters. You (mostly) play as SAD/SOG special force operative Alex Mason and start the game strapped in a torture chair being poked and prodded about the “numbers.” The mysterious voices demands answers that Mason can’t think of, but these send him into “flashback mode,” which are playable visions from the past. The mystery is laid on thick, keeping you guessing and gains momentum during the latter half of the game being something you need to see the end to. As long as you pay attention to person you are playing as, it is easy to follow and stands tall because of the different way of which it is being presented to the player. No longer is the story told by a bunch of maps in a loading screen.
The narrative doesn’t only stand up because of its unique presentation and content, but the likeable cast play a big role as well. Mason is usually joined in his exploits by his long-time squad mates Woods and Bowman. The fact that I even remember their names calls for rejoice, but don’t consider that a negative comment. Bowman and Woods are strong characters to root for and care about, a first for the series. These tough sons of bitches go through hell and back, scarred up and always standing loyal, giving them reasons to be respected and not fall victim to being “just another couple soldiers.”
While some people could give a flying crap about what happens narratively, almost everyone cares about the shooting. This is for a good reason because it feels so damn good. Running at double the framerate of just about every other first-person shooter out there makes every action fast and responsive. Movement, aiming, shooting just feel so satisfying and definitely shows why every other shooter aims to emulate this specific “feel.” Guns (and there are a lot of them) have a loud bang to them as well, making the shooting as a whole a well-rounded package.
Shooting fares well but what you’re shooting doesn’t always have the best results. For some stupid, unexplained reason, unlimited spawns have returned. Some instances call for you to clear out a room and some require you just to push forward and assuming the “wrong” solution is often deadly. Being pinned down (especially on Veteran difficulty) can happen all too frequently and can lead to pure blind luck in some scenarios or can lead to wasting five to ten minutes shooting at enemies who never back down.
Somewhat being the bastard child of endless spawns is the sometimes overly chaotic nature of the game. Don’t get me wrong, I want explosions and other action-filled special effects, but it doesn’t transfer to combat as well. Walking into a wide area filled with enemies can often lead to getting shot and killed by some guy hiding off screen or camping out of sight. Since these areas are so open with so many different opposing soldiers, it’s overwhelming to pick who to shoot because almost everyone is shooting at you. Thankfully, this definitely winds down in the second half of the game, but it can put otherwise great combat in a chokehold.
I’m sure things are different now, but getting into the military then must have not had any sort of intelligence training. To put it bluntly, the AI sucks on both sides. Enemies will kamikaze run right at you, sometimes even rubbing shoulders with your fellow stupid buddies who don’t stop them. Apparently they don’t give a shit if I die, but would rather stare my assassin down, only giving him a slight nudge in the elbow along the way. “Allies” don’t even put up a good offense either, most times just crouching behind cover and blind-firing when they feel enough time has passed to press the trigger again. I get that I am important an I need to do the shooting, but it would have been nice if they would pull their weight sometimes. I guess they do, if they weigh as much as a bag of tissues.
When the credits role after the six hour campaign, don’t fret; there are plenty of other experiences sitting on the disc waiting to be explored. Starting on the smallest, there is a top-down dual-joystick shooter worth at least fiddling around with. It might not hold your attention for more than twenty minutes, but it is a shamelessly fun diversion and shows Treyarch really threw everything they could think of in this game.
Zombies might have been added late in World at War‘s development cycle, but it completely took off and has become a bigger, better mode here in Black Ops. Up to four people can team up in keeping the undead at bay in the two maps given, but the real fun comes from the economy and strategy. Killing zombies and repairing windows nets points which can be spent on weapons, the alluring mystery box, opening doors, upgrading weapons, and buying perks. At first you only start out in one, small room, but after some smart spending, the map opens up leading to more surprises and a larger zombie horde. Buying weapons and cooperating with your friends makes this ridiculous mode a complete blast and gives the game legs for people not into playing competitively. Dying quickly and getting stuck on the environment is awfully frustrating, but it can be easily ignored when you and your friends are obliterating horde after hordes of the undead.
If you don’t like cooperating and would rather be killing your friends, competitive online multiplayer is where you are going to spend the most amount of time. Chances are, you already know if you like this multiplayer, as it has the same roots. Experience is still gained, challenges still need to be completed, and weapons still need to be unlocked but it is slightly different this time. There is a currency system on top of the XP and these points can be spent unlocking what you want to unlock, giving you greater control of what your soldier can do. Choosing my soldier and customizing almost every aspect remains a familiar, if solid, way to take your skills online.
Or, if you lack skills, you can stay offline. I am still completely awful at the online competitive shooting so, thankfully, an offline equivalent called Combat Training has been included. It includes most of the modes without the stress of being placed against people better than you since you are only shooting bots. Honing your skills against these bots is a great way to have the online experiences without all of the human judgment. At least I hope the bots aren’t judging me.
The Call of Duty series is like a nice house. It receives a fresh, glossy coat of paint every year, but remains almost unchanged on the inside, despite the outside renovations. Call of Duty: Black Ops is definitely the nicest hue of paint and has moved the furniture around a bit, but it still remains pretty similar. However, it does enough interesting things with the story and setting that make it stick out just enough from its brethren and the shooting is as solid as it has been with the same strengths and flaws. Sticking out “just enough” is good enough this time, I just hope future installments can take Black Ops‘ approach further and maybe renovate the outside and inside of the house a bit more.
+Smooth, responsive shooting
+Gripping story with strong main characters
+Variety and intense fights make it hard to put down
+Filled with fun extra modes
-Endless spawns are awful
-Too chaotic at times
-Bad friendly/unfriendly AI
Final Score: 8.5/10