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Call of Duty: Black Ops


Treyarch finally breaks the second-rate stigma.
The juggernaut game series has definitely changed over the years. Once it was Super Mario games that put gamers into a frenzy; in the age of Playstation, the Final Fantasy games were the hot ticket. Now it seems like the mega sales and anticipation belong to two franchises: Halo and Call of Duty, with the latter definitely blowing away the competition in the sales department. Since the revamp of the noted WWII game series to a more modern setting with the original “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” and last year’s record breaking sequel, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” the franchise has become THE multiplayer FPS choice of the masses, but often with mixed reactions from hardcore gamers. In the middle of it all, there have been the Treyarch offerings in the series; while the main series has always been handled by Infinity Ward, Treyarch released their own take on next-gen series with “Call of Duty 3” (prior to “Modern Warfare”) and “Call of Duty: World at War” a WWII themed entry between the two “Modern Warfare” games. The reaction to these entries have always been mixed with many gamers arguing they just weren’t as good as the Infinity Ward games. “Call of Duty: Black Ops” marks another entry into the game series from Treyarch, but promises to be the proper successor to "Modern Warfare 2." Has Treyarch finally done it and produced a game that matches the quality of it's predecessor, or maybe even surpasses it?

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On the surface, “Black Ops” looks like another entry into the modern fray of warfare. However, that’s far from the truth. The story, which opens with your character, Alex Mason (voiced by Sam Worthington), strapped into a chair, deep in the interrogation room on an unknown building. Shadowy figures in an observation room ask you through disguised voices, questions which you either refuse to respond or honestly don’t know the answers to. Television monitors flash images of your past handiwork, and you are soon pulled back to the Bay of Pigs invasion as part of a three-man team consisting of yourself, Frank Woods (James C. Burns) and Joseph Bowman (Ice Cube). Your task: Kill Castro. The game initially starts out with a low-key approach to things, emphasizing stealth, but soon, your group is spotted and some minor shootouts unfold. For those who hated the over-the-top absurdity of “Modern Warfare 2,” I regret to inform you that it returns by the end of the first mission, which has your character fighting his way to a bomber, man a mounted gun to take out half the Cuban army, and eventually dive from the plane to take out a roadblock, ensuring your crew’s safety.

Captured by the Cubans, you are turned over to sadistic Russian General Dragovich and thrown away into the labor camp of Vorkuta. There you meet “World at War” character Reznov (voiced again by Gary Oldman), who is leading a riot and ultimately escape from the prison. It’s here where it’s firmly cemented that “Black Ops” is not going for the more grounded firefights of “Modern Warfare” but instead the action movie quality of “Modern Warfare 2.” The level itself is very engrossing as you charge out of the mines, overtaking guards first with simple tools, before acquiring more heavy-duty weaponry to repel elite soldiers desperately trying to quell the riot. The final set piece, a motorcycle escape with Reznov, is straight out of “Terminator 2,” right down to the single-handed firing of a Model 1887, lever-action shotgun. Upon your escape you are taken by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and your new CIA liaison, Jason Hudson (Ed Harris) straight to the Pentagon where you are given your mission, straight from President John F Kennedy himself.

While I wouldn’t say “Black Ops” ever reaches the Michael Bay-esque tone of “Modern Warfare 2” with insane action moment after insane action moment making up the core of the game play, it does have it’s crazy moments. Unfortunately, in an effort to add some quieter moments to the game, many missions are more like interactive cut scenes with your character merely following another to an objective. A prime example of this comes in the Vietnam sequences of the game, which are engrossing at the time, but in hindsight a little sparse in actual content. One large portion of a level has you following Woods, now part of SOG (Studies and Observations Group), sneaking (largely unopposed) through a jungle to a Vietcong camp. The action here consists of swimming up to a boat to silently kill a clueless VC, setting some C4 charges around the camp, while taking out two more VC silently, and eventually blowing the camp apart. A big firefight follows, but really all that preceded it was a cut scene that gives you the illusion of you being in control as you are led down a purely linear path. The game is guilty of these moments in other spots too, including anytime you're asked to rappel or slide down a zip line. Sure it feels like you’re doing something because your pressing buttons, but in reality, you’re walking to one point on the map and pressing a button because the screen tells you. You can’t choose where to rappel or where to fire the zip line, it’s all predetermined, but at the time you don’t really realize a good portion of the game are basically in-game cut scenes.

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”Black Ops’" core game play is essentially unchanged from “Modern Warfare 2” and the main storyline will take you around four hours tops to complete. It was a very fun ride, with a healthy dose of plot twists and a couple of levels that would make the top of my list for the franchise as a whole. One later game mission has you fill the shoes of a SR-71 Blackbird pilot, giving a ground squad commands to move around a Soviet base. It feels like another interactive cut scene, but Treyarch throws a curveball when the camera flies down from the plane into one of the troops on the ground, revealing it’s Mason and his team. It’s a nice touch that you get to clear out the few troop encampments, instead of just seeing it take place in the plane, and the transition from ground to air is a nice cinematic flourish. I will admit the finale of the game, while action packed, is very hollow and unsatisfying, especially in comparison to the epic tone of the finales of “Modern Warfare” and “Modern Warfare 2.” The game relies heavily on a conspiracy angle involving your character and while things do get a decent resolution, the game does try to leave some mystery, most assuredly so the inevitable “Black Ops 2” has a place to pick up.

All in all, I’d say the single player earns a strong B+ in the game play department as well as the story department, which relies heavily on clichés and plot contrivances. It’s not as absurd as “Modern Warfare 2” and essentially playing as Mason in every mission of the game does give you a stronger character connection, but the emotional impact of the game is very hollow compared to some key sequences in the preceding Modern Warfare games.

MULTIPLAYER

The brief single player aside, everyone probably already realizes multiplayer is the selling point in a Call of Duty game. While single player was firmly rooted in the 60s, multiplayer keeps that feel but does add some more modern elements to the game. To make a long story short and in an effort to not build false anticipation, I’ll say that if you liked the multiplayer experience of “Modern Warfare 2” you’ll find, for the most part things are very similar. However, even if you hated aspects of the “Modern Warfare 2” multiplayer experience, “Black Ops” may have fixed some of your problems. Either way, after logging quite a few hours with the game, I feel the changes are for the better, but it’s still far from a perfect experience.

call of duty black ops team squad

The most noticeable change is the reduction in damage done to some of the weapons. The early assault rifles are no longer as overpowered as they were in “Modern Warfare 2” which can be very frustrating early on in the game. The game now forces you to choose your shots more wisely, but once you are able to level up and buy (more on that in a minute) new guns, you’ll easily find something that strikes your fancy. All the standard choices of weapon classes are back: assault rifles, submachine guns (which now are very useful in close quarters compared to assault rifles), sniper rifles, shotguns (fret not, the 1887s are gone), and light machine guns. Sidearms feature the standard pistol selection, propelled explosives, and two new special weapons in the form of a crossbow that fires explosive bolts and a set of dual ballistic knives that can fire two blades at enemies. The weapon class that just doesn’t cut it anymore though are sniper rifles. Obviously listening to complaints from the previous game regarding “quickscoping” Treyarch has made it so the sniper rifles won’t do damage while aiming until you are completely looking for the scope, rendering them only useful from far distances (which they should be), but sadly the selection of maps do not provide them with proper grounds to do so.

As mentioned above, you have to buy your new weapons as they unlock. This occurs through the COD Points system. Essentially you earn a number of points equivalent to 10% of your end match XP as COD Points. These points are then used to buy almost every unlockable in the game, from new weapons, to the attachments that you choose to equip, down to face paints for your character. The new system forces players to pick a good set of weapons and stick with them for awhile, but in the long run if you want the best weapon in each class, you’ll have to buy all the other weapons in that class to unlock them. The points themselves are rather easy to come by, with most weapons costing around 2000 points a piece, and considering you earn around that amount just as a bonus for leveling, you’ll easily be able to have a good stock of weapons, once you hit level 15-20.

You can also earn money through in game “contracts” which have you spend a nominal amount of points with the task of completing an in-game challenge within 40-60 minutes of in-match time. If you succeed you’ll get a handsome reward, with the higher-level contracts also offering XP. The easiest of these, which can be re-bought every few hours are as simple as stabbing an enemy in the back, killing three enemies without dying, or ending a match with more kills than death. The investment of 10-25 points for a payout of 100-250 points is a no-brainer. If you are more confident in your skills though, you can risk bigger amounts in the new Wager Matches.

Wager Matches were honestly, the selling point of the game for me. Consisting of four modes: One in the Chamber, Sticks and Stones, Gun Game, and Sharpshooter, Wager Matches have you pick a gambling class first. The lowest level has you risk 10 points (which I firmly believe is a glitch and should be 100) and throws you into a match with 5 other players. Should you make it into the top three scorers at the end of the match, you’ll walk away with a nice payday: 3x your investment for first place, 1.8x your investment for second, and 1.2x your investment for three. Ties however split the winnings, so if you invest 10 points and third place is a tie, you’re only getting 6 points back. The higher levels have you risk 1000 points and 10,000 points respectively, with the only difference being, a the 10,000 point level the Wager Match mode is randomly chosen.

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The matches themselves are very fun, with One in the Chamber giving you a bullet with a single, one-hit, one-kill round and your melee knife. Knife your opponent and you get their bullet, shoot them and you get their bullet, but miss and you’re left with only your knife to defend yourself. The match also gives everyone three lives and forces you to actively hunt; even if you camp and wait to hunt down the other man left, you’ll likely not have enough points to be “in the money,” meaning one of the top three players. Sticks and Stones is a point-based match that gives you a tomahawk (think throwing knife), crossbow, and ballistic knife. You rack up the points by getting kills, but the death by tomahawk bankrupts the unfortunate victim, sending them back down to zero. Gun Game is my favorite mode, starting you off with a Python Revolver. Each kill you make steps you up one tier and gives you a more powerful weapon. The first man to get through the 20th weapon ends the game. However, if you can get a knife kill, you won’t advance a tier, but will send the victim back one. Last but not least is Sharpshooter, which randomly changes the weapon everyone has every 30 seconds, basing the winners on the highest point totals at the end of the round. All in all, these new matches are a good innovation and make for a nice diversion from the core deathmatch and team based style of play.

Game mode wise, everything from “Modern Warfare 2” is back from standard deathmatch to search and destroy; zombie mode from “World at War” is back with one classic map available from the get go and another set in the Pentagon, allowing players to fill the shoes of Robert McNamara, JFK, Fidel Castro, and Richard Nixon, unlocks after complete the game. It’s a fun, but punishing and hard mode, that really demands you have three competent friends to aid you. There are also new lobbies in the form of Barebones, which strips away perks and attachments, and the standard Hardcore, which is very similar to a Rainbow Six: Vegas style of game play. These lobbies are unlocked at higher levels, with Hardcore unlocking last at level 20. For those who choose to Prestige (again at Level 50; there are 15(!) Prestige Levels too), you’ll get access to your own lobby.

I personally prefer the Hardcore Team Deathmatch, especially with friends as it forces you to play at a less hectic pace and teamwork pays off. The respawn delay though is still an annoyance. Most annoying though, is the dismal selection of maps that as stated previously makes sniping useless. You’ll likely warm to a good selection of them with repeated playthroughs, but many just seem to similar in tone and aren’t as inspired as “Modern Warfare” or “Modern Warfare 2’s” offerings. I would honestly trade five of the worst maps here for a remake of the phenomenal, sniper-friendly Derail of “Modern Warfare 2.” Thanks to the inclusion of Combat Training (a multiplayer mode that doesn’t net you XP but allows bots), you can check out the maps at your own pace instead of being forced to learn on the fly.

Last but not least, the changes for the better. Treyarch wisely listened to complaints from gamers when it came to the Killstreaks and Perks department. The days of running around a map at high speeds knifing people right and left are over. The melee knife itself has been slowed slightly to a more realistic speed; if you want lighting quick stabs and slashes, the ballistic knife, even in empty form provides the advantage. The very exploitable One Man Army perk as well as Commando and Danger Close are gone, thankfully. Killstreaks also peak at 11 kills, with the top rewards being a fully controllable, Hind chopper complete with chain gun and missiles, as well as the dogs from “World at War.” New rewards include mortar strikes, SAM turrets that target enemy air support, napalm strikes, Blackbird support which shows enemy position and movement in real-time, and the RC-XD, a remote controlled car that delivers an explosive surprise to hapless enemies. While the car is great fun, it’s easy acquisition (3 kills; 2 with hardline) can cause it to nearly destroy games of demolition. Fortunately it can be heard coming a mile away and taken out with gunfire or even a tomahawk. Treyarch also wisely changed the kill streak requirements so only direct kills by players add to the streak; no longer can you rack up to the higher-level streaks through the use of lower level air support. These minor changes force gamers to rely on their own skills to win the game and earn XP and those who made their way through “Modern Warfare 2” by getting a few cheap kills and sitting back to let their killstreaks do the rest are in for a big shock.

Ultimately, “Black Ops’” multiplayer experience is a definite enhancement over “Modern Warfare 2’s” despite the less than perfect maps and initially frustrating lowered damage in standard game modes. It’s not without other problems such as parties being dropped when trying to enter matches, matchmaking taking a bit more time than expected to work, and lag sometimes making for some questionable close quarters kills, but no game could possibly live up to the hype and obscene expectations that “Black Ops” had to face. Is this the definitive multiplayer FPS game? Yes and no; yes, for the fast paced action “Black Ops” provides it is, but from a pure smooth FPS experience, “Halo: Reach” is still king, but very much a slower paced game. “Black Ops” is definitely the best multiplayer offering from Treyarch yet and had the single player experience been a bit longer and more interactive, the game as a whole would be one step above “Modern Warfare 2.” “Black Ops” is a solid A in the multiplayer department.

Graphics

  • Graphics are very immersive, from the green jungles of Vietnam, to the rainy depressed rooftops and balconies of Kowloon. Environmental effects such as fire, flies, rippling water, and the occasional butterfly help draw players into the game world.

  • Character models are well rendered, despite some occasionally stiff animation. Mouth animations are still a bit odd-looking, but that is a relatively minor nitpick. Weapon models are solid as expected, with reload animations being incredibly smooth.

  • The frame rate holds up very well, especially impressive in the Khe San level where waves of Vietcong soldiers are coming at you from every angle, with explosions throwing dirt in your face. There is the occasional graphical glitch (pop-in), but when the action is intense, I often didn’t notice them.


  • Audio

  • Voice acting is phenomenal, with Sam Worthington giving his most animated performance to date, which might not mean much to those use to his wooden performances on the big screen, however he really makes Mason come alive. Supporting players are firmly consistent, with Oldman as Reznov being the standout.

  • Sound effects are all solid although I didn’t feel the guns had as great a “kick” to them as in past installments. What the game lacks in straightforward immersion from the guns, it doesn’t compensate with environmental effects.

  • The score is almost entirely forgettable, with the only musical moment I can recall being the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” playing on a patrol boat as you go down a river in Laos. The original score is essentially your typical attempt at aping a big budget action film, hence the forgettable aspect.


  • Conclusion

    I personally didn’t buy into the hype of “Black Ops” despite being a huge fan of “Modern Warfare 2.” I actually went into the game expecting a less than stellar product, only picking it up to play with friends. The end experience was a short but mostly satisfying single player experience made up of conspiracy theories and vintage action in historical settings. The multiplayer experience is worth the investment to fans of the Call of Duty series; yes it takes some time to get used to (I personally hated it until I was around level 11 or 12), but once you get in that groove, you should have some fun as there is a lot to do in the killing department. Is “Black Ops” a game of the year? No, but it’s still a very good game. Highly Recommended.



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