Review: Call Of Duty: Black Ops

Duty calls.

Call Of Duty, the mere mention of those three words divides public opinion almost more than any others. On one hand there are 25 million players battling it out over billions of man-hours. On the other, there is a sense of bemusement at how ‘just another FPS’ can be so popular.

On first starting the game up you are greeted by a Graphic Content Warning which lets you know that player discretion is advised. Although the title doesn’t feature a set piece like No Russian it does feature gore in the form of neck stabbings, throat slitting and a torture scene. The most controversial aspect however, is the use of real world characters such as President John F. Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and even a mission to assassinate Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Once you’ve made your mind up on seeing the graphic content it’s on with the action.

Call Of Duty: Black Ops is the seventh title in the franchise, it’s the first time the Cold War has featured in the series and, as the game’s title suggests, the story centres around the CIA’s ‘Black Operations’. Just like Modern Warfare 2, you take on the role of several characters but this time visiting Cold War hot spots such as Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Hong Kong and the now-obligatory snow-filled Arctic level but unlike Modern Warfare 2 the narrative is tied strongly together.

The lead protagonist Alex Mason wakes up disorientated, strapped to a chair in an interrogation room. He’s being questioned by a shadowy figure in another room, talking through a voice-changer, demanding to know about previous operations, this triggers the flashback where you play through that operation neatly tying together all the locations and various characters, clever huh?

Starting in a Havana bar in 1961 Cuba, the game holds your hand as you get to grips with the basic tasks such as aiming, shooting and melee attacks. As is usual for a Call Of Duty game, the controls feel light and responsive, helped in part by the higher than normal framerate.

As well as being responsive, the controls are instantly familiar, with the left shoulder button aiming, the right firing and the face buttons mapped in the now standard way that just makes sense. Once the initial hand-holding is out of the way it’s on with the action. Enemies come running at you like cannon fodder, with a few of them doggedly hiding behind cover but its nothing a well aimed grenade can’t sort out.

The enemy AI seems a bit dumb in comparison to some games, on the easier difficulty levels they often stand around waiting to be shot or are blindly firing at you from behind cover. However, on the higher difficulty levels anything less than doggedly sticking to cover yourself and only progressing once you’ve mopped them all up will see you die, lots. The level design is broad enough to give you an opportunity to try and outflank enemies as you to find your own route to navigate from cover to cover picking them off.

This highlights a problem, because no matter where you are, there is always a yellow arrow beckoning you to walk towards it and whenever you approach it it moves to the next disappearing point in the near distance. Whilst you’re getting to grips with the game, this cheat’s form of level signposting isn’t a problem but as soon as you’ve settled in and are enjoying the action, it becomes an annoyance. It’s not even like there’s bad level design which requires this form of help.

Thanks to the flashback style of knitting the narrative together, the locations are extremely varied. One minute you’re on the terracotta rooftops in Cuba, the next you’re breaking out of a Soviet prison camp, piloting a helicopter through Vietnamese jungles, running across Hong Kong skyscrapers and even a river cruise with a difference in Laos. This provide’s one of the most atmospheric moments in the game as you lay waste to village after village with missiles and machine gun fire with the Rolling Stones’ classic Sympathy For The Devil on the radio. Certainly it’s a bit distasteful but it is the title’s stand-out moment for capturing the feel of the era, it’s akin to the Hollywood Vietnam blockbusters with trigger happy troops causing carnage in the jungles and villages.

The game certainly doesn’t make any pretences that it is anything other than a CoD game, the action feels firmly CoD-like and there is the sense that, despite the new setting, you have seen it all before. That’s not to say that Treyarch haven’t attempted to make bold strides into new territory. The bold strides are of course relative as we’re talking about an FPS mega-franchise, not an experimental indie digital download title.

As you visit the various locations, Black Ops adopts a variety of tactics to keep things fresh. Searching an abandoned ship armed with nothing more than a pistol and flashlight, it feels more like a survival horror than anything the CoD universe has thrown at us so far. Later you take control of a SR-71 Blackbird soaring up to 85,000ft to command a unit RTS-style, its very basic, but it is fabulous and leaves you wanting more, perhaps a Call Of Duty RTS game, please Activision?

The internet has been alive with chatter about Black Ops’ graphics, but having been through the campaign twice and thoroughly got to grips with the other game modes, I honestly can’t fault them. Everything looks fantastic despite the sub-hd resolution which shows that there is far more to an image’s quality than resolution alone. The cut-scenes driven by the game engine look fantastic with great textures and are a generational leap over previous endevours in the series. These cutscenes also show off the great voicework carried out by all the actors including Garry Oldman, Ed Harris, Ice Cube and Sam Worthington, however no amount of great acting can prevent the script from sounding clichéd, perhaps it’s lost in translation on its journey across the Atlantic and sounds different to American ears?

It’s no surprise that many people look forward to Call Of Duty for the multiplayer action, and as you’d expect Black Ops doesn’t disappoint, Treyarch have really gone to town and listened to the community to improve on everything that has gone before. Out of the box there are 14 maps available, encompassing small, medium and large sizes which offer very different experiences, ranging from the frenetic action of Nuketown lending itself to deathmatch style modes to the snow-swept wide open spaces of Array and of course everything in between.

As you’d expect there are a multitude of game modes ranging from the normal deathmath, team deathmatch, capture the flag, domination and more, but this time the multiplayer modes have been enhanced with the addition of CoD points, an in-game currency which can be earned though completing contracts. These are time-limited challenges such as earning x amount of kills with a particular weapon, or coming top in a particular game mode. These CoD points can be gambled in wager matches which themselves bring a whole roster of game modes, your winnings can then be spent on customisations.

Treyarch haven’t stopped there however, all multiplayer modes are possible with splitscreen, enabling users to take their local fun online and for the first time in the series they have added bot matches and a fantastic theatre mode which automatically records the multiplayer action enabling you to edit it, take screenshots and upload them to video sharing sites. The theatre mode has the added benifit of being able to catch glitchers red-handed, providing an incentive to play fairly.

Although Black Ops doesn’t feature a MW2 style Spec-Ops mode, the co-op fun is provided by a Zombie mode which sees gamers fending off wave after wave of Zombie attack. Although things start off leisurely its not long until you’re surrounded and the action hots up and although it can be played on your own, its far more fun buddying up and kicking zombie ass together.

Still, even that’s not all as Black Ops contains an unlockable twin stick shooter called Dead Ops Arcade, very much in the mould of the classic Smash TV, although this is a great Easter Egg, it seems far more than after thought as easily it’s one of the best examples of the genre I’ve played. Even that’s not all though as there is even a fully working version of the classic text adventure, Zork. All things taken into account there is one hell of a package on offer here, and rarely if ever is any of it anything less than great.

Pros.

  • Solid campaign with fantastic story driven action
  • Genuinely does attempt to break into new territory for an FPS
  • More multi-player maps, modes and customisations than ever
  • Dead Ops Arcade is a gem of a twin stick shooter
  • The theatre mode is great.

Cons.

  • Sometimes you just wish the yellow arrow would go away and let you find your own way from A to B
  • When the game does attempt to break into new territory, it pulls back from the brink to follow the familiar FPS well-trodden path
  • Although the story is great the script is clichéd

Call Of Duty: Black Ops features an exhilarating campaign mode, arguably the best in the whole series with a compelling narrative. At times Treyarch do make genuine attempts to break new ground with the addition of the RTS and the almost survival horror section, it’s a shame these don’t go on for longer, perhaps they hint at a future direction for the franchise? Longevity is provided by hunting down and collecting intel, the increased difficulty levels with the insanely hard veteran mode and of course the most popular multi-player action around. With Zombies, Dead Ops Arcade, Zork and the multiplayer additions of bots, contracts, CoD Points, Wager matches, theatre mode and a great community sharing system there is more content than ever before to enjoy, and enjoy it you will.

Score: 9/10

79 Comments

  1. The story was really fun and going brilliantly well until the plot twist. Not only was it unrealistic (I don’t mind a bit of fantasy/conspiracy) but it simply didn’t make sense, the events of the last half the game couldn’t physically have happened if it were true. It seems that they just put it in for shock value without any thought of how it would affect the rest of the story.

    I won’t mention it here because lots of you probably haven’t finished the campaign yet. What made it worse though, was I guessed it after the Rat Tunnels section, when the guy you’re with asks what’s wrong with you. But then I thought they can’t have put this in because it doesn’t make sense.

    But lo and behold they did it anyway. Also, it’s clear they weren’t worried about offending anyone by the lack of respect they show JFK, Nixon, McNamara and Castro in the zombies mode, so I wish they’d put more effort into the JFK sub-plot. They could have had a brilliant conspiracy storyline but they just disappointed me with a photoshopped image after the credits.

  2. Christmas me thinks. Great review Chris, cheers.
    Little concerned about everyone saying there indeed problems with textures and screen tearing. I’m sure it isn’t game breaking though.

    • I didn’t notice any graphical problems. They’re only noticeable by people who are looking at the game specifically for that purpose. If you play it for enjoyment you won’t see a problem.

      • Don’t get me wrong I still enjoyed the game, the way they tied the story together was a good touch and there were some very good stand out moments and I do like the game.

    • Textures is an interesting debating point, because its the same graphical engine which undergoes refinements with each release, there are obvious marked improvements in character textures, the in-game cutscenes highlight just how good things like people’s skin is along with their facial features.
      Obviously its horses for courses and is slightly subjective, but I find them to better than what has gone before. In the multiplayer arena the graphics are also fine, the only one that looks odd is Nuketown, because its is a fake town and is designed to look fake.

      Screen tearing isn’t an issue at all, I’m surprised anyone says it is, because I never saw any, despite trying to break the game by spinning the camera around near an infinite enemy spawn point (so there was as many AI characters onscreen as there could be) and still couldn’t see any.

      Under the Digital Foundry’s microscope tech analysis he found the game to screen tear (ps3 only) but only in areas where people couldn’t see it eg. in the overscan area of your TV, so I don’t want to say people are exaggerating but the facts appear to be that screen tearing is largely speaking invisible. To maintain visual fidelity the game would sooner drop a frame than than tear the screen, this is held up by the variable frame rate, saying that I only noticed two bits of slow down in the whole game, and there was a heck of a lot of stuff going on and even then the framerate was apparently 40fps at its lowest point, which is still double the framerate of when a 30fps shooter slows down to 20fps.

      Is it the best looking game, no – but it is just fine

      • I don’t mean to disagree with you cc_star and I may be wrong when saying I’ve seen screen tearing, what I see is textures and objects not looking good on top of each other or next to each other, is that anti aliasing? I agree with the character models looking good but backgrounds and stuff just look bad to my eye.

      • All sounds fine to me then. Refinements to a good looking game engine (imo) can only be a good thing. To be honest, underlying things found by Digital Foundry do not concern me, a frame rate dip here and there are no problem to me, especially considering it is still maintained above the highest rate many games achieve. And tearing, which as you say isn’t visible is nothing for me to worry about. Once again, cheers Chris, I think I’ll take your word over anyone elses. If it’s good in your book, it’s good for me.

      • No probs grey_ghost

        I found there to be no real issues, sure its not going to win a graphics of the year award, but I didn’t find them bad either.

        I thought the view in the soviet desert for the rocket launch was stunning with some great dust effects once you climbed down to ground level, by the same token the view in the snow levels was good, but it certainly wasn’t great like Uncharted2 or Killzone3.

        When things are ok, and not great or terrible there is probably an element of subjectivity, but I do think the problem is being exaggerated across the Internet, there’s certainly no glitchy-ness we see in so many Unreal Engine 3 games

  3. Great review. I’ve played a bit of the campaign and multiplayer but i’ll try and do the other stuff as soon as i get time to see what its like

  4. I take it you’re joking about the simple story telling of mw2? It didn’t make any sense. It was all jumbled and total nonsense. So many people, myself included just didn’t get it.

    • Who me?

      I thought MW2 was an abhorrent mess of a game, it was so messed up I found it too confusing to continue and am still to this day bemused by its high review scores which I put down to a bit of IW hype.

  5. Great this makes me feel worse for not having it for weekend :(
    Hopefully my copy will arrive Monday

  6. the joys of now having black ops :P

    • *not, shocking error

      • That makes me feel better thanks

        Go and fold some paper :)

        Dr-Davros

      • lol, didnt u win yours as well?

  7. Really liking it so far. MP is so much better. Fairer and the customisation is awesome. To be honest, if Chris like it, it has to be good.

  8. I can’t comment on the campaign as I have not played it, but I strongly disagree with your view of the multiplayer side of things.

    It’s a complete joke, and a massive step back the way as far as I’m concerned, and I know many others that agree.

  9. Good job you didn’t review the PC version as it would of been 6/10! One of the worst ports to PC i have ever seen in my life!

    I honestly wish i could get my money back on this tripe….

    • You have to wonder if console FPS ported to PC will ever be as good as FPS designed for PC, I don’t know enough about it to comment too much but on recent evidence it would appear not, of course there’s the odd thing which will work out, but in the main they don’t.

  10. How long is the single player campaign? I’ll be getting this for christmas but all of my friends seem to own the game and that’s the only thing that they are talking about but none of them have played the single player.

    • I got through it first time on easy in 7 hours (which is the norm for a linear FPS these days, longevity is provided with the increased difficulty levels and course completionists will be hunting down all the pieces of intel and trophy/achievement hunting. IMO its easily good enough for 2 play throughs, maybe more if you’re a masochist who enjoys Veteran. and that’s not mentioning zombies, multiplayer, dead ops & zork

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