In a perfect world, where money wasn't the bottom line, we'd close the picture book on Call of Duty with Black Ops. We'd tell our lovely grandchildren that that's where it ended, and no one minded, but that just isn't going to happen. Do I want a Modern Warfare 3 from a developer who suffered a mass exodus last year? Do I want another one of these games? I digress. Black Ops is a quality game, housing what is arguably the best multiplayer component the series has ever had. So, for just another year, a Call of Duty game is worth playing again.
If there's one thing Treyarch has never seemed to get, it's the single-player. Black Ops' storytelling, pacing, and scripting just aren't on the level of Infinity Ward's best efforts. The campaign is a departure from the Call of Duty norm, as it's intensely story-driven and mostly plays out through the perspective of one protagonist with, a Call of Duty first, a speaking role.
Set in a 60s backdrop with Cold War fears permeating the world and the Vietnam War going off, the game digs into the memories of Alex Mason, as Mason houses valuable information that could determine whether or not the planet practically explodes from nuclear fire. The game constantly jumps from past to present and vice versa, recounting important operations Mason and company have gone through, slowly weaving a story that's dumb, bombastic, and unintentionally hilarious.
"Black Ops has every Micheal Bay movie cue you could think of…"
Black Ops has every Micheal Bay movie cue you could think of – the slow-motion explosions, the excessive amounts of music and the grating desire to make everything a spectacle. The pace of the game is constantly on a level of Seriously Loud, never really trying to establish a varied, oscillating pace. Everything's almost always exploding, an electric guitar squeals in the background, and the game just never seems to relent. This rarely completely works in the game's favor – the Vietnam levels turn out to be the best the game has to offer, where that kind of bombast works well – but a lot of the time, it just feels entirely too forced. Go ahead and count the number of hand-crafted stealth kills to the jugular; it probably goes into the double digits. It's the kind of stuff that, after a handful of them, makes the eyes roll.
Flip over to its multiplayer suite, though, and you see the part of the game Treyarch absolutely nailed. Never has Call of Duty's multiplayer been so balanced, so carefully designed and so refined since Modern Warfare introduced perks and customizable weapon loadouts. Ever since Modern Warfare, there has always been a span of time between release and a few weeks after that where everything seemed utterly perfect. Once that honeymoon period was over, people discovered the glitches, the exploits, and the balance-shattering perk/weapon combinations that soured the game's fun. Black Ops won't have this problem. If something is discovered, it'll be easier than ever to show it to the world with the new Theater Mode, which lets you splice up and edit your videos without the need of a third-party capture device. I'm optimistic about Black Ops' future.
"…dedicated servers. Filters? Favorite servers? 24/7 Gun Range? Oh happy day!"
In Black Ops, all of the more controversial perks, like Commando and Last Stand, have been excised entirely from the equation. The kill radius of a grenade launcher has been given a massive nerf and, with the Flak Jacket perk, made even more irrelevant. SMGs still have the advantage in rate of fire, but over long distances, assault rifles have the advantage in damage, and once you factor in the larger maps, the pros and cons of each weapon type make for interesting loadout decisions. Kills you gain with your kill streak weapons don't add to your kill streak, making it impossible to chain a series of kill streaks to the game-ending nuke, which has been cut anyway. The list of intelligent and considered design choices goes on. Modern Warfare 2, despite its host of problems, was a lot of fun. Black Ops strips out much of the permutations and variables that its cousin had. What it does is it makes Black Ops the most raw, fast-paced and infantry-based multiplayer mode Call of Duty has had since the series' inception. I suppose this also needs mentioning – dedicated servers. Filters? Favorite servers? 24/7 Gun Range? Oh happy day!
Outside of how the game simply plays, a lot has changed in how your character progresses. Instead of unlocking new weapons and other doodads through simply leveling, you spend COD Points, which you gain with every round. The AK-47 doesn't feel so far away anymore; just buy it. While there are level restrictions to weapons, this extra layer of customization is smartly implemented, and the points are just another pat on the back for your hard work on the online battleground.
If you're a gambling man, then you can take your points and bet them in Wager Matches. Wager Matches are games where you gamble your points in specially designed modes that force you to conform to specific rules and alter your play style considerably. You've got old standbys from other games, like Gun Game, where each kill upgrades you to a better gun, whereas a mode like Sticks and Stones hands you the more primal weapons in the game, like the tomahawk. There's a whole new layer of tension, because unlike in any of the other multiplayer in the game, you have something to lose. It's incredibly rewarding when you come out as a winner and will probably make you feel vindictive if you come out of it with nothing, pushing you to play another game.
If the competitive nature of Call of Duty's multiplayer never had much of an appeal, then World at War's zombie mode is back. It's exactly what you expected; the number of zombies escalates with each new round, increasing the need for teamwork as the zombie threat grows uncontrollably. It's refreshingly different compared to the rest of what Black Ops has to offer, and if you haven't gotten this already, Black Ops is packed with content.
With so much in the game, it might explain the visual inconsistencies. The game looks better than the Call of Dutys before it, sometimes. Some of levels suffer from flat lighting, and some of the explosions look like they warped in from 1999. This mostly applies to the single-player levels, but on the whole the engine still proves that it's capable, and while it demands a bit more from your rig, Black Ops should run on a wide variety of systems while still looking good.
The audio has its own problems, but most of it is due to other games in similar genres and settings doing a better job. After hearing a game like Bad Company 2 the comparisons just have to be made. Black Ops has solid sound, but it's nothing on the level of Bad Company 2's rich, layered, and textured sonic greatness. Objectively speaking, though, Mason's speaking role suffers from Sam Worthington's performance. If Mason was secretly Australian, then great, he was the perfect casting choice. The rest does fine, but when Worthington's constantly slipping in and out of his accent, it's intolerable.
Black Ops' single-player, while not the best, is different. Treyarch has pushed the multiplayer as far as it could go. True, you've played it all before, and that kind of familiarity keeps Black Ops from being a game that truly represents the absolute pinnacles of 2010, but never has the multiplayer been this good. Now, it's time for something dramatically different. Annualized sequels will only work so well for so long, but in the now, Call of Duty: Black Ops keeps the series worth playing for another year.