With Infinty Ward dead in all but name thanks to the studio heads leaving and the inevitable trail of employees following them to thier newly formed company Respawn Entertainment, it seems that fate has given Treyarch their moment in the sun. Whilst the average gamer may not look past the Call Of Duty title on the box before picking up this latest instalment, discerning fans watch with interest as not only do Treyarch step into the spotlight as the main developer for the series but also attempt to live up to the standards set by Modern Warfare 2 and act on fan feedback to improve upon one of the most popular games of this generation so far.
Modern Warfare 2 is a hard act to follow, it broke sales records and still has a dedicated fan base which has been starved of additional content since the IW well went dry. The perfect storm then for Treyarch to make their most ambitious game yet, as if to invite comparison they are coming closer to Modern Warfare than they have before by breaking the WW2 habit and bringing the game as far as the Vietnam war.
The IW3 engine is getting a little old at this point; originally used to create the first Modern Warfare, it was modified for World at War and it's again been improved upon to bring Black Ops to life, a theme of comparison to Modern Warfare 2 will inevitably run through this review and players who expected improvements on those visuals may be disappointed. Viewed on its own though Black Ops does a decent job, fire especially stands out as impressive, character and weapon models look good with the excellent animation selling the actions well while running at the trademark 60 FPS. Where it falters are some of the environments, at one point you fly over The Pentagon, an area not too dissimilar to the Whiskey Hotel level from MW2; looking out from the helicopter showed a blocky building i clearly wasn't meant to pay much attention to, these moments aren't overly common but they do serve as a reminder that the engine is now struggling to compete.
The difference is more obvious in multiplayer, if you spent alot of time with MW2 you're going to notice those subtleties which are missing, maps take on a less urban feel due to the nature of the subject matter, but more importantly none of them are particularly memorable, aside from Launch which sets off a huge missile during the match none of them stand out as a map you'll likely still be glad for when it pops up next on the rotation 6 months from now.
Sound is a mixed bag, those running 2.1 setups may not notice but those with 5.1 setups and/or headphones may register issues with directional sound, a key component when hearing an enemy which can often be a better warning than actually seeing them. While the sound mix might not be perfect the music used in the single player campagn hits all the right notes, the Vietnam levels demanded and received some classic tunes from the era and gameplay is often puntuated with music to fit the mood; an incursion in a military base will be supported by the usual crunching guitars whereas a WW2 era flash back will be accompanied by some more appropriate swelling orchestra and choir harmonies. The music does its job perfectly, standing out where it makes the most impact and integrating into the atmosphere when it's not the focus.
Chances are you have played a Call Of Duty game before, if not then there's even more chance you have played a shooter in the past 3 years which has been influenced by the series. Singleplayer focuses on an intense scripted experience, with an action packed story bullet pointed with some stand out moments. For the most part you play Alex Mason, a CIA operative who is being forced to relive some of his "Black Ops". The interrogation premise allows for alot of flexibility in the storytelling; they use it to good effect spinning one of the best tales in the series so far. It jumps around in both location and time, leaving little room for pause; but at the heart of it you still breach rooms in slow-mo, shoot bad guys with an array of weaponry and do perhaps a bit too much graphic up close neck slitting before getting knocked unconscious just in time for the next story advancing cutscene.
If this truly is your first experience with the series you're in for a treat, go ahead and jump on the rollercoaster and throw your hands up; the rest of us however have been round this ride 2 times now and although the twists and turns are still pleasant to sit through they are suffering from diminishing returns and fail to deliver the same impact as they have done previously.
The campaign struggles with this fact all the way through, some moments feel like they were literally ripped from Modern Warfare, watch the life drain out of your victim eyes while you show his insides Mr Shank? Check. Chase scene on a vehicle whilst firing in all directions? Check. Stealth mission where "I'll take the one on the left"? Check. Somewhere amongst the expected though there are aspects which make you sit up and pay a little more attention. The AC130 equivalent level started as a regular cut-and-paste as you oversee ground troops from above, but instead of just directing the show you jump between said troops clearing houses before returning back to the eye-in-the-sky, guiding the team to the next objective.
The high point of the campaign is a flashbank level which is presented as a monologue only interrupted by gameplay of the described events; it's done perfectly and is proof that Treyarch can tread new ground succesfully, perhaps they didn't have enough ideas to fill a campaign or didn't want to break from the mould too much but more of those new ideas would have been welcome. They are undoubtedly at their best when not trying to fill MW2's boots, it's a shame it just doesn't happen often enough.
Still, a lot of this recycled gameplay remains fun to an extent; little additions like incendiary shotgun rounds and explosive crossbows go a long way to making it interesting. At the same time though, there are aspects that survived from previous titles which are less desirable. The endless respawning enemies return, breaking down most encounters to an excercise in finding the trigger point to stop the spawns and move on, this trains the player to relentlessly push forward at all times, sometimes to a fault. AI take their sweet time moving through levels, several times you will run so far ahead that you'll miss an important mission objective because you didnt stop to chat. Thankfully this gameplay often gives way to more variety, motorbikes, cars, helicopters and more are used in sequences to break up the action and provide explosions Mr Bay could be proud of.
The successes or flaws of the campaign are as usual overshadowed by the main event, Multiplayer. The recognisable pillars of the franchise remain, the stable of guns are excellently rendered and animated, the now ubiquitous Rank/Unlock system returns, veteran players will feel right at home from day one. There are however many subtle changes and improvements which will affect the way this game plays. Chief among them is the pace of the gameplay, although it is still fast, it doesnt reach the frenetic heights of MW2, gameplay requires a more deliberate play style; add to this that shotguns have been reinstated as primary weapons and kill streak bonuses no longer actually contribute to your kill streak itself and this leads to matches being dictated less by the flow of kill streak rewards and more by the players' actions themselves. A sound concept but in light of the perk Stopping Power being missing, some may find the amount of hits it takes to down an enemy jarring.
It's full of Rock/Paper/Scissors edits like this which change the way it plays. In the end though its still more of the same, these changes freshen it up enough to draw fans back in but it's not fundamentally different. Once stubborn MW fans stop scuffing their feet and muttering "That's not how IW would have done it" they will still find an excellent multiplayer mode which will keep them occupied for for the next year.
The major additions though are new game modes under the Wager match category, which allows players to bet thier hard earned COD Points to try and turn a profit by winning matches in various new game types. There are six new modes like One In the Chamber, deathmatch where everyone starts with one bullet and gain a bullet for every opponent killed, and another new gun game where each kill upgrades your weaponry, while knife kills downgrade them leading to an action packed race to get through the weapons categories. While the rest of the standard modes return, Wager match has all the new eggs in one basket and helps stave off the lingering franchise fatigue. The challenge system also gets a fresh coat of paint with the inclusion of contracts which can be bought using COD points and come with conditions such as kill X people from a long distance in 40m of game time; once completed you gain more credits and can pick another to attempt. Customisation makes an arrival in a big way, almost everything imaginable can be modified, gun camos, reticule colour, face paint and more can all be changed to make your classes more personal than ever.
This is very handy considering the all new Theatre mode which has been created to show off everything you do in the game. If you have used the Theatre in Halo 3 or Halo: Reach then you have an idea of what to expect here, your last 100 games or all games in the last 7 days (whichever comes first) are now available in the Theatre to view from the 1st, 3rd and your opponents' perspectives, these clips and screenshots can be saved to your fileshare, and accessed via other players in your brand new Player Card where all your information pertaining to the game can be found including the much improved leader boards and statistics which have been broken down in almost every way conceivable. Your clips can also be exported to both the Call of Duty: Black Ops website and Youtube for the world to see.
For those of the co-operative persuasion the fan favourite Zombies mode returns from World at War with new locations and new characters for you to defend from the undead with up to 4 friends via XBOX Live. A break out success from WaW, Zombies is an enjoyable co-op mode implemented well and provides a welcome middle ground between the solitary campaign and the dog-eat-newbie world that is multiplayer. Split screen mode is well supported with two players able to play on the same console; regular multiplayer now also benefits so gamers can compete on-line at the same time which is a small but nice touch.
At this point it's obvious this title has been stuffed with as much content as possible, and I haven't even touched on other aspects such as the included twin stick shooter Dead Ops arcade or the friendly introduction to the world of mutliplayer that is the the bot enabled combat training mode; like the gadget show prize list it just goes on and on.
As far as the core content goes, on Hardened the average campaign play through will take around 6-8 hours to complete, with the usual Veteran difficulty available for those keen to prolong the experience. Multiplayer has the potential for hundreds of hours of gameplay, Zombies will last as long as you and your comrades want to keep coming back for co-op zombie carnage. Add to that the aformentioned additional content such as Dead Ops and the hours that could be dedicated to Theatre, Player Card and emblem creations and it's undeniable that there is value for money here, even with its inflated RRP. Whilst players may not enjoy some of the changes and additions made to the series, Treyarch have clearly worked hard to ensure the amount of content outweighs any issues brought up by the minor changes some may not agree with.
Our RC-XD is online!
- Theatre mode
- Best narrative so far
- New multiplayer game modes & extra content
Enemy RC-XD spotted in your area!
- Series gameplay getting old
Call Of Duty: Black Ops Xbox 360 Review
Black Ops feels like Treyarch had something to prove, they fire on all cylinders and add an impressive amount of content to a familiar package. The quantity of content included helps to offset some of the ageing core gameplay which remains fundamentally unchanged. I'm sure Treyarch were sick of being compared to Infinity Ward and relished the opportunity to make their mark on the franchise; it's puzzling then that they seem content to keep reading from the same hymn sheet that IW left behind. They show promising signs of ideas which might revolutionise the series and the minor changes do enough to stave off the impending franchise fatigue. Black Ops remains an excellent game diluted mainly by its reliance on past successes, but for now at least it's still pretty good fun.
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