Treyarch gets a bad wrap for being the developer responsible for the non-Infinity Ward Call of Duty games. Sure, both of the Modern Warfare games are considered pinnacles of the current generation’s first-person shooter genre, but that doesn’t mean that Treyarch’s efforts (Call of Duty 3, Call of Duty: World at War) are any less worthwhile. Now that the dust has cleared after the big Infinity Ward incident, Treyarch is left shouldering the responsibility of carrying the Call of Duty name into the future. At least for the time being anyway. Fortunately, Call of Duty: Black Ops is more than capable of holding the franchise fort down. With a decent, if predictable, story, and an incredible amount of online customization, Black Ops is a can’t miss shooter that fires on almost all cylinders.
Early trailers for Call of Duty: Black Ops alluded to heavy psychological issues, and the moment you start up the single-player campaign, you’re smacked in the face with some 60s style torture. You play as Mason, a captured American soldier, tied to a chair. Televisions and monitors replay historic footage of the era, while Mason’s being questioned by two mysterious men who are only ever shown in silhouette. As Mason remembers events he’s being grilled about, you’ll play through that particular part of the story. Beginning in Cuba with the attempted assassination of Fidel Castro, and running all the way through Khe Sanh and remote parts of Russia, Mason’s story takes some drastic twists and turns, and you’re never quite sure just what side you’re on. For the most part, the story is engaging, and the narrative is presented in an interesting way. However, there is one major plot issue that bothered me immensely, which is revealed near the climax of the campaign. I appreciate what the writers at Treyarch were trying to do, but to me, the huge reveal came off as cheap, and took away from the rest of the story. There are bound to be some people who find the conclusion absolutely mind-blowing, but there are likely just as many who will find it aggravating and insulting.
Even more annoying than the ending of the game is the way Treyarch mistakes cheap AI and deaths for challenge. Modern Warfare 2 was guilty of this problem as well, but the degree in which you die a horribly cheap and unearned death in Black Ops has grown exponentially. Late in the game there is a level where the visibility is virtually non-existent, and you have to don a HAZMAT suit. If you get shot, the suit gets damaged. If the suit becomes too damaged, you die. If it wasn’t for the checkpoint system in place, I would have given up on the game during that level. It is incredibly frustrating to die, not because you ran out of life, but from your suit becoming punctured. That’s certainly not the only point of contention, but it was the most glaring offense. The teammate AI in Black Ops is also at fault for a lot of your deaths in the story. I know at this point I must sound like a broken record by now, but if developers are going to continue to give you computer partners to try and complete a mission, those AI soldiers should be competent enough to shoot an enemy standing right in front of them. I cannot tell you how many times I was killed by an enemy that walked right past one of the AI members of my squad. I lost count after the first few levels. It’s insulting, and Treyarch is not the only party guilty of this offense, they just happen to be the most recent example. Were the game actually increasing in difficulty, rather than just spamming enemy soldiers onto a level until I cleared the room, I might have been a bit more understanding, but that’s just not the case. One day some developer will get computer AI right, and that will be a glorious time. Unfortunately, today is not that day.
Multiplayer is where everyone is going to be spending the majority of the time, and though there aren’t many changes to the formula created in Modern Warfare 2, the additions Treyarch makes are almost all for the better. All of your favorite game modes return, as does leveling. The big difference comes in class creation. No longer are you limited to the unlock tree set by the developer. Now, you can pick and choose what weapons and perks you want to unlock next. There’s an in-game currency system that awards you cash for your performance in multiplayer matches, and that virtual money can be spent on virtual weapons, scopes, perks, camo, and more. Giving each player the option to craft a class that plays to not only their strengths, but to their budget as well, goes a long way in making an already excellent multiplayer component even better. You can also use your money to purchase contracts, which set forth goals you must complete to earn even more money and experience. Contracts could entail something as simple as winning three games of team deathmatch, or stabbing someone in the back, or more challenging tasks like fifteen headshots without dying. All contracts have a set time limit to complete, and whether you’re able to finish them or not, they will expire. Typically it’s about forty minutes of in-game time, which can be anywhere from three to six matches, depending on what game type you’re playing. There are plenty of contract options available, so just like classes, you can customize them to your playstyle.
Though many of the game modes in multiplayer are identical to the ones you’ve played in previous Call of Duty titles, Treyarch introduces wager matches into Black Ops. Think you’re really good? Why not bet on how skilled you are in a match against other players who think they’re better than you? Utilizing the in-game currency, you can place bets on a game, and if you finish in the top three, you’ll earn some coin back. Finishing out of the top three earns you absolutely nothing, so when you play in the lobbies with higher stakes, you could potentially lose massive amounts of fake money. The game types are much more varied in wager matches, and often have a unique hook. My personal favorite is “Sticks and Stones,” where you are only armed with a crossbow (four arrows), ballistic knife (2 shots), and one tomahawk. Killing enemies earns you points, but you can bankrupt someone by killing them with the tomahawk. All kills are instant, so everything is hectic and fast-paced. The one drawback is you don’t actually earn any experience in a wager match. These games are by far my favorite part of the new game, and even though I can’t play them non-stop, the change of pace they provide is most welcome.
It wouldn’t be a Treyarch Call of Duty game without a zombie mode, and fans of that particular game type will be happy to know that there are two new additions in Black Ops. Nazi zombies are present, but the only way to play in my book is with JFK at your side. Black Ops pits Castro, Nixon, JFK, and Robert McNamara against zombies let loose in the Pentagon. Killing zombies earns you points, which you can then use to open up more of the level and purchase weapon upgrades. Wave after wave will pass you by, and things can get pretty out of hand before too long. Having never experienced Call of Duty zombies before, I was pleasantly surprised how enjoyable the mode was. There’s also a secret zombie game called Dead Ops Arcade hidden in the interrogation room. It’s a top-down two-stick shooter that, like wager games, provides an excellent change of pace from the grind of the regular game. There are actually many more easter eggs hidden within the game, and I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of Black Ops’ secrets. You could actually lose hours trying to hack the computer in the interrogation room on the main menu, as there are emails, concept art, and more to find.
From a graphical standpoint, Black Ops looks fantastic. Characters look and act like real people, and the explosions and gunplay all play out just as I imagine they would in real life. There are occasional moments where the game slows down, but they are incredibly infrequent, and the game is almost always running at a smooth clip. There’s a lot of acting in this game, as the story is trying to be epic and emotional, and all the voice work is terrific. Ed Harris and Gary Oldman do terrific work, and I hope that there is more video game work in their respective futures. The best voice acting though comes in the zombie mode where all the historic voice impersonators really get to let loose with some absurd quotes that had me laughing the entire time I was playing. The score is actually pretty paint-by-the-numbers as far as period piece war stories go. The Rolling Stones show up for a bit, as does CCR, but outside of those rare appearances, there’s nothing that stands out about Black Ops score.
I like Call of Duty: Black Ops. It’s a very solid title that has fantastic multiplayer. At times the game does feel like more of the same, and that happens quite often, but it’s still a well-put together experience. I was skeptical about whether or not the franchise would be able to continue to evolve without Infinity Ward at the helm, but Treyarch has shown that they’re more than capable of carrying the torch on their own. What lies for the future of the franchise is yet to be determined, but for now, Call of Duty is once again the top of the class.