Released just shy of a year out from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the series is back for more intense first-person action with Treyarch's Call of Duty: Black Ops. Taking would-be soldiers back in time again, you will find yourself running secret operations in Cuba and throughout Southeast Asia and Soviet Union. With a decent single-player campaign and addictive multiplayer, Black Ops does its part to maintain the series' coveted status as the go-to shooter but does little to elevate it beyond the efforts of its predecessors.
The story revolves around the exploits of operative Alex Mason, who awakens in a rather ominous room, strapped to a chair, surrounded by televisions, and being questioned by an unseen interrogator.
Before the adventure kicks off though, take a minute at the main menu to struggle free from the chair and have a look around. At the back left of the room is a PC using a DOS-like operating system that is worth tinkering with. If you're stuck, per the on-screen notice, 'help' brings up a list of commands. Aside from getting more of the game's backstory, with text files and pictures, there are also two of the coolest Easter eggs in any game: Dead Ops Arcade (DOA) and Zork. DOA is a top-down shooter, with one analog stick controlling movement and the other weapons fire, which pits a lone soldier against hordes of approaching zombies (zombies are always lurking in Black Ops' periphery). This is a really fun game in its own right, with branching paths and awesome power-ups (including helicopters and tanks). Zork is, of course, the classic and influential Infocom text-based adventure that Activision owns the rights to and of which Treyarch has taken full advantage of. As far as I can tell, Zork is a complete copy, and a tempting enough reason to actually buy a Text Messaging Kit. To access the games, simply type in either "DOA" or "Zork" at the initial command prompt. It's also worth poking around the other files and directories, as there are some pretty interesting tidbits to be discovered.
Now then, it's time to get down to business. After failing to assassinate Castro during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, you are quickly set on the trail and sent around the world in search of the deadly Nova-6 nerve agent. The story actually jumps around quite a bit, from events in 1945 to 1968, as Mason (and others) find themselves imprisoned, betrayed, and racing against the clock to stop the agent from being unleashed on the United States.
The expansive timeframe and flashback approach allows the game to tackle a number of interesting situations by picking diverse locales without it seeming random. However, the story itself seems largely random as the method used to link events together is a series of jarring clips that can only be described as frantic montages, with archival footage of Kennedy and other leaders of the era mixed with rendered graphics, flashing numbers, and choirs of distorted voices used as the trigger to indicate Mason being 'lost' as he fades out of consciousness during the interrogation. By the end, you realize that the story and its handful of twists aren't bad but, like the levels themselves, are easy to read and whose window dressings mask some rough edges.
For all the spectacular views and setpieces laden with bullet-ridden bodies, the heavily scripted sequences and varied environments manage to feel confining and, at times, contrived. This isn't new to Call of Duty, of course, since the series has relied on scripted encounters to deliver the cinematic punch that it's known for from the beginning, but it's often more cleverly hidden than in Black Ops. Go too far forward and the enemy won't know how to react; spot an enemy before an AI teammate does and it's impervious to bullets, only to fall a few seconds later once their position's been spotted and called out; and never, ever think about getting off of the narrow path.
It's not that the single-player campaign is bad, but that the level the series had been built up to and peaked with Modern Warfare and maintained in Modern Warfare 2 has faltered some in Black Ops. Small things drag the campaign down, from the scripting issues to baffling objectives – looking at you, Khe Sanh – to small glitches, including one that forced a mission restart whenever my AI buddies just wouldn't do anything. Speaking of the AI, while the enemies do a good job at spraying anything and everything that moves, your teammates can be seen acting like highly trained soldiers at some times and at other times laying waste to rocks. Enemies also seemed to have too easy of a time flanking my squadmates, leading to some trust issues, and there were some awkward moments when an enemy would spawn near a squadmate and not be engaged. I did notice that they did a decent job of calling out direct targets, though, Ice Cube's grating voice aside, as well as when an enemy had been downed.
There are highlights, though. Some choice weapons, such as incendiary shotgun rounds (Dragon's Breath) and flamethrower attachment for AKs, along with some well-designed scenarios, escaping a prison camp, provide for some exciting firefights. There are also some noticeable references to other works, including a big nod to Deer Hunter, that go well with some of the more surreal effects and sequences that serve to underscore Mason's struggle to remain sane. But while it has its moments, the delivery is inconsistent.
At this point, the single-player story portion is nearly secondary to the series' multiplayer component. And in that regard, Black Ops is in fine form. Not only does it continue to deliver, with all the perks, stats, and upgrade options as before, but four-player co-op is back along with Zombie mode, everyone's favorite single- and multiplayer horror-themed Horde mode. One of the most notable additions is CoD Points. The points act as an in-game currency with which you can purchase weapon attachments, gear, killstreak rewards, and perks, both in general and for custom loadouts. The points are also heavily ingrained throughout the matches and modes.
Points are used to add an extra layer onto the variety of included modes, which run the gamut from Free for All to Team Domination. Contracts can be purchased for use in all modes, and these offer an incentive to go after a certain time-sensitive goal, be it getting two wins in a row to defeating enemies with a particular weapon, which offer both extra points and experience. There are also Wager Matches, bouts that have certain restrictions – three lives to score as many kills with a knife and single bullet, more being earned by downing enemies – and a buy-in price which can be anted up with the agreement of other players. The points are actually a secondary layer of objectives, adding to the weapon-specific ones from previous titles. While it might not lead to quick unlocks for casual players, it does keep things livelier for long-term play.
A few additional new modes spanning both components include Theater Mode for sharing recorded games, bot support for Combat Training, and the new RC-XD surveillance vehicle. Of particular note are Combat Training and the RC-XD. Combat training allows you to not only to try out all of the levels before going online but also go through the same leveling, unlocking, and customization process as in multiplayer. None of the items carry over when going online, but it's still a great learning tool. The AI functions fairly well throughout the difficulty levels, acting about as erratic as real players. A fun feature is that the bots also take the names of your Live friends, adding a bit of personality. The serious amount of customization, from emblems on weapons to tweaking your character's face paint, also does a good job of helping to add a touch of individuality – no small feat in such a densely populated game.
The RC-XD brings up the issue of balance, which, as with Modern Warfare 2, can sway between feeling just right and to curse-spewingly unbalanced. Helicopters tend to shut games down, with the side calling in the manned gunners doing serious damage to their opponents, while the RC-XD itself can be extremely difficult to hit and is capable of clearing small rooms; though, to be fair, they are just as enjoyable to use as they are infuriating to contend with. There are also the more common questions that tend to arise during play – should a light machinegun fired from the hip be so accurate? – but, on the whole, Black Ops is off to a good start.
Call of Duty: Black Ops provides a decent single-player campaign and a robust multiplayer component, but it isn't as strong a release as its predecessors. The new CoD Points system, increased customization options, and multiplayer features add much to Black Ops' longevity, but the linear maps, needlessly convoluted story, and inelegant scripting sequences result in stalled scenes and strange encounters that bog down the campaign. Multiplayer helps to pick up the slack with extensive amounts of customization, weapons, and modes. A solid addition to the series that neither meets nor bests its precursors.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)