I can’t imagine what it was like to be an employee at Treyarch last winter. As the saga over at Infinity Ward dragged on, Treyarch found its own good name dragged through the mud. The developer became the creator of the “Bad Call of Duty,” the company that couldn’t compare to the beloved creators of the series. The high quality of both Call of Duty 3 and World at War was forgotten, and a lot of misdirected anger was pointed squarely at the studio.
It seems that Treyarch designed this game with a chip on its shoulder, because this is a superior shooter, and deserves a spot in the top of the Call of Duty pantheon. The multiplayer is as good as it always been (though it does have some release lag issues) and this is, without a doubt, the finest single player effort in the series. The amount of content offered in the release is staggering, and anyone who purchases Black Ops is certainly getting their $60 worth.
The single player campaign is a massive upgrade over the uneven Modern Warfare 2. The storytelling is fantastic. The game opens with your character, a Black Ops agent named Alex Mason, being tortured by an unknown assailant. Most of the games missions are flashbacks to operations referenced in this inquisition. It’s a novel method of storytelling, and a huge upgrade over the random radio transmission of last year. The narrative is actually compelling, and not just a vehicle for amazing action sequences (though it is that as well). Though you’ll probably figure out what’s actually happening shortly before it’s revealed to you, the payoff at that juncture is amazingly satisfying, and as a bonus, the ending will really throw you for a loop. It really is the best narrative you’ll find in a Call of Duty game.
The action, for the most part, is small unit action. The huge sweeping battles of previous efforts are eschewed in favor of tighter battles with less men on both sides. I think it suits the system very well. The level design is top notch, tossing you into a variety of environments, including Siberia (beware the avalanche), Cuba (on an attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro) and Vietnam. The Khe Sanh mission is the only one that really has issues. There is one portion where you’re supposed to kick some barrels filled with napalm, only the game never actually tells you that’s how you move on, and gives you an objective point that’s misleading. It seems that a lot of players are getting stuck there, and it’s probably something they should have caught during testing. That said, the rest of the level design is fantastic, and this is one hiccup as punishment for a delicious, delicious meal.
The game really throws a lot of new wrinkles at you. You get to command a riverboat, actually pilot a helicopter (as opposed to the on rails sequences of the past) and order an infiltration team around from low orbit in your SR-71. All of these sequences are well done and enjoyable, and combined with the classic Call of Duty FPS action to make a game that feels fresh and never becomes repetitive.
The popular Zombie mode is back, with a few new wrinkles. Play through the campaign, and you’ll be able to battle zombies are Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro and Robert McNamara (why? To make confused teenagers look him up?) in a situation room in the Pentagon. There’s also a twin stick zombie shooter unlockable from the main menu. I’m not really sure why zombies are the Call of Duty flavor of the year, but these modes add a lot of content to the game, and blasting Nazi zombie dogs with your buddies is a riot.
There are a sad of lot of people who will skip these wonderful modes (a full retail release on their own) and go directly to the competitive multiplayer. To them, I say… wait.
And why wait? Well, because at the moment, while the action is quite similar to that in Modern Warfare 2, it has some serious server issues. I will never understand why Activision continues to release games that are supposed to be on the cutting edge of competitive multiplayer and ignore the necessity of having a public beta. I’m sure the game performed well on their internal servers, but when you put a few million users online (I saw 3 million players on at once this week), it’s going to stress the system, and they’ll be problems. Best have a free beta instead of a mountain of public hate. The developers over at Treyarch are hard at work fixing the issues, and I have no doubt that in several weeks, the matchmaking and servers will be at a MW2 level. It’s just silly that they’re at that point to begin with.
Those issues aside, I love the new progressions, using cash earned in matches to buy weapons and upgrades. I always thought it was silly to have to use a weapon in a very specific way to get the attachment I wanted. Now, I can earn it in combat. I also don’t have to spend time using weapons that are utterly terrible in order to get their upgrades. It was awful in MW2 upgrading your assault rifle in every way, only to unlock a much better one 20 levels later, and not even have a sight for it.
Cash for performance is an amazing new addition. You can purchase contracts which, if fulfilled, will get you even more money. The contracts are for things like “get 25 kills with an AK-47,” and you’re given a certain time limit in game play to accomplish your goal. And then there are wager matches, which allow you to risk money, basically betting that you’ll perform well (in a sort of Pete Rose kind of way, except legal). The new maps are all decent (I love you, Nuketown), though you’ll notice that now since people can vote on several choices each match, some seem to pop up more than others. The kill streaks fit the era, with napalm among them, and if you’ve played, you dread the sound of an approaching RC car.
Call of Duty: Black Ops is the complete package. Once fixes are deployed to the multiplayer, you’ll have that incredible competitive suite, 3 different zombie modes, and an amazing single player campaign. Treyarch clearly designed this effort with a chip on their shoulder, making a distinct attempt to prove that they were not the lesser Call of Duty developer. They succeeded.
5 out of 5