Call of Duty: Black Ops review
Has Treyarch emerged from Infinity Ward’s mighty shadow and crafted a compulsive Cold War epic? And how does that all-important multiplayer content hold up?
Let’s ask a controversial question. Is Call Of Duty really that good? Is it truly the best that gaming has to offer? Does it have the capacity to fundamentally push the medium into new territory? Does it innovate like more derided videogames such as Heavy Rain? Or, when you get down to brass tacks, is it just another guns and machismo shooter with more bells and whistles than the rest?
The sales figures tell us it’s great, as does the cacophonous noise that is the voice of belligerent fanboys across the net. It’s the mainstream videogame brand, the Avatar of gaming, the title with enough financial grunt behind it to ensure that it gets noticed. For many, Call Of Duty is the /only/ game, offering enough replayability to expand and fill a whole year until the next instalment comes a-calling.
But for those who can see through the ardent fanboyism, and particularly those who have played through the single-player campaign of Black Ops, you’ll know that the latest Call Of Duty is good, but not great. It’s whack-a-mole replaced with Vietnamese, Spetsnaz and Cubans, the cabinet traded for a stunning and continuously shifting backdrop of the Sixties as recalled by cinema, and the hammer an extensive range of weapons fit to get any gun-fetishist foaming at the mouth. But it’s all decoration for that most simple of gameplay concepts. Shoot, advance; shoot, advance; shoot, advance.
But you’ll also know that Call Of Duty, over the last three instalments, has become a game very much divided. While the single-player continues to suffer under the law of diminishing returns, that multiplayer has sneakily become the main part of the package. Call Of Duty was once defined by the bombastic, scripted spectacle of its single-player; now its raison d’être is its multiplayer – the emergent, frenetic, fast-pace of its online modes a new kind of spectacle all in itself. So is Call Of Duty a game about innovation? Is it the best that gaming has to offer? Is it worth playing for an entire year while you wait for the next instalment? It is if you’re playing multiplayer.
But let’s focus on the reasons why the single-player has found itself relegated to the role of supporting act. It’s not the fault of the core gameplay, which remains as tight as ever. Weapons pop rather than explode, but still deliver a sense of weight in their ability to drop enemies like a sack of bricks after just a few sharp, short shots. The AI itself is satisfactory but not too demanding, although players who wander out into the open will find themselves punished more strictly than in previous games, meaning use of improvised cover is a must.
But those base elements of design have rarely faltered across the series’ six games. What initially elevated Call Of Duty above the mass of first-person shooters out there was its ability to deliver a screen-shaker of a set-piece, and then following that the kind of real drama as first showcased in Call Of Duty 4. Infinity Ward made war feel not just real, but personal. In juxtaposing the loud with the quiet, the Marines with the SAS, No Fighting In The War Room with Ghillies In The Mist, Call Of Duty created an eight-hour game that had all the pace and tempo of contemporary cinema.
Black Ops attempts something similar but, like Modern Warfare 2, lacks the same finesse, and stumbles in its attempt. Its non-chronological, broken narrative jumps between timelines as much as it does settings by telling its story through the flashbacks of one Alex Mason, S.O.G. operative and now a captive, forced to relive the events of his past by an anonymous interrogator.
One minute you’re in The Bay Of Pigs, 1961. The next you’ll find yourself in a Russian Gulag in 1963. Later levels will transport you to the Arctic Circle, Hong Kong, a Russian launch facility and more. It’s an interesting conceit, and one that lends itself to variety in terms of art direction and level design. And yet it often feels disjointed, meandering and unfocused. It’s difficult to become invested in a character or setting when you’re so incessantly yanked from one to the other with the only connective tissue provided through voiceover.
But it works. Just. A violent introduction to Vietnam during the Battle Of Khe Sanh proves that Treyarch is just as comfortable with a ground-shaking set-piece as Infinity Ward, while a later level on the rain-drenched rooftops of Kowloon – replete with thumping techno music – demonstrates it can do the claustrophobic, room-to-room encounters just as well. Where the team really starts to distinguish itself from the series’ original architect is when the game places you in Vietnam’s Southern DMZ, 1968. For the next few hours, it’s Call Of Duty at its best, capturing the iconography of the era and delivering Black Ops’ best gameplay. It’s also where the game is at its most gruesome; a trip through the ‘rat tunnels’ sees Black Ops channel Soldier Of Fortune, with single bullets ripping arms and legs from their sockets. Several knife kills are also rendered in up-close detail, flesh ripping against steel and hanging limp from the wound. Unfortunately, Vietnam is also where Black Ops crests, with the remaining hours of the game a descent into all the mistakes Infinity Ward made itself in its latest entry into the series.
The first three quarters of the game are a simple affair. The bad guy, Dragovich, has access to a deadly biological weapon and must be killed. Fair enough. Treyarch restrains itself from the overblown CNN ramblings of Modern Warfare 2, keeping things involving but understandable. And then, so close to the end, it drops the ball. Unwilling to let history dictate the course of the story – which would have been fine, as the real incidents surrounding Vietnam and The Cold War are interesting enough in themselves – Treyarch goes all HBO special, tangling itself up in a tedious conclusion that leaves the player with more questions than answers. Primarily: how did it all go so wrong?
And there are other problems too. The disjointed narrative of the story sometimes cuts levels short just as they’re getting interesting, leaving Mason to narrate the concluding events from the discomfort of his interrogation chair. Oh, so you gave chase to Dragovich and blew up his limo? Sounds great, but why aren’t we playing that sequence ourselves? Mason is even a problem in and of himself. Before Modern Warfare 2 we were faceless, disposable soldiers, fighting a war because it was our duty. Now we’re Mason – hero of the hour, saviour of the world, and all-round videogame archetype. There’s something lacking when you know your protagonist is completely safe from harm – there’s certainly no ‘Aftermath’ moment – and a game of forced Russian roulette during the Vietnam portion of the game reveals itself to be a missed opportunity if ever there were one, because of this very fact.
It would be fair to say that Treyarch is somewhat standing on the shoulders of giants, in that none of the multiplayer’s base elements are its own; the perks, killstreaks, levelling, customisation and more all the work of Infinity Ward before it. But how Treyarch has built outwards from that base is nothing short of brilliant. Its stance on those shoulders is assured indeed.
The biggest alteration is the addition of a currency system, with ‘COD Points’ enabling players to unlock items at their discretion. Weapons themselves are still unlocked via level, but how they and the player’s tactical loadout are modified is done according to player preference, meaning new players can customise according to their own play style early on. Thankfully, it never feels like an imbalanced system. CP isn’t easy to come by, but neither is the game stringent in its distribution, meaning progression is slow and methodical but still rewarding on a constant basis. It’s a satisfying feedback loop that’s difficult to break away from.
Matches themselves are as terse and eventful as you’ll remember from Modern Warfare 2, with the dizzying array of customisation options available to each player establishing a battlefield that’s unpredictable, chaotic, but also governed by rules that ensure a structured play experience. The maps themselves are excellently designed too, many even surpassing Modern Warfare 2’s. Some take their time to reveal their secrets and bottlenecks, but once each is mastered the canny player can find countless ways to exploit them, and as such, the opposition.
The multiplayer’s real gift comes in the form of Wager Matches. Supporting up to six players, opponents gamble their hard earned CP in the hopes of a bigger return. Each of the four matches highlights a different skill – One In The Chamber is all about precision and patience; Gun Game is about mastering a variety of weaponry; Sharpshooter demands players be good all-rounders; and Sticks and Stones… well, let’s stop and talk about Sticks and Stones. At its core a deathmatch, Sticks And Stones is made special by its armory. Players are equipped with an explosive crossbow, a ballistic knife and a tomahawk. Slow but extremely powerful, these weapons require nothing less than the greatest accuracy and timing if to be used effectively and achieve those one-hit kills. The result is one of the greatest deathmatch modes going today – it’s absolute chaos, but underneath the explosions and tomahawk throws is a game of skill, pace and patience. It’s anarchy tamed only by those players with the utmost skill, and a game mode defined by the whoops, laughs, cheers and groans of its players. If Treyarch releases any more Wager Match modes as DLC, we’ll be first in line to lap them up.
So, you could claim that Treyarch is trading on the success of others, but to suggest so would be a massive disservice to the work the studio has done. This time, Treyarch has made Call Of Duty something to call its own. And not just with regards to the multiplayer – the single-player might fizzle out with an overly-indulgent, unsatisfactory ending, but it still contains some commendable work. The Vietnam levels in particular are not just some of Black Ops’ best, but some of the series’, and that’s high praise indeed.
Ultimately, with Black Ops Treyarch has proven that it’s got the stones to compete with Infinity Ward, or perhaps more aptly, complement it. It’s not just working with Infinity Ward’s template any more, but building it outwards in new directions. We can only hope that the team at Infinity Ward has the humility to learn from and implement the features Treyarch has introduced when it comes to the next Call Of Duty, particularly with regards to multiplayer. And if there were ever a sentence we didn’t expect to write, that would certainly be it.