Inside Pulse 12

Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Call of Duty: Black Ops
Genre: First-person Shooter
Developer: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: 11/09/10

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was a hard act to follow. Let’s not pretend otherwise. The game made a ton of money, spent months at the top of the top sellers list, and basically refined online multiplayer FPS action to a point where people are STILL packing the servers a year later. There are very few online games in general that have done what Modern Warfare 2 did as effectively as it did, and any sequel is pretty much going to be held under much scrutiny as a result. Treyarch’s last effort in the series, World At War, was hailed by many as “good, but not great”, with complaints generally being directed at the fact that the game did nothing to advance the series in any notable fashion. With all of the less than stellar press surrounding Modern Warfare 2 developer Infinity Ward and all of the expectations surrounding Black Ops months before its release, the hope was that Treyarch could straight hit one out of the park with this release, an expectation that Activision even seemed to be unsure they could appropriately fulfill. Well, here we are, with Black Ops finally available to the gaming public, and the inevitable question isn’t “is it good”, or “does it do anything new”, but rather, “is it a good enough game to pry my clan away from Modern Warfare 2“?

Let’s find out.

The events in Black Ops center primarily around one Alex Mason, a representative of the Studies and Observations Group, a black ops organization who takes on covert ops during the Cold War. When the game begins, Alex is strapped in a chair and being interrogated by faceless captors who are demanding his knowledge of the events of the past several years, as well as a series of numbers Alex doesn’t understand the significance of directly. The game itself basically recaps the past several years of Mason’s life, going through the various events that have led to that moment, including operations in Cuba and Vietnam as well as a prison stay in Russia as Mason attempts to put the pieces of what’s going on together, with some interesting results. The story in Black Ops is more interesting than that of Modern Warfare 2 in the sense that the twists and turns that come up are generally less implausible and easier to follow, though it’s less interesting in the sense that the scope of the events in Modern Warfare 2 is much broader and more powerful than those of Black Ops. By and large, though, the story is interesting enough to follow through until the end and it works well enough as a political thriller to be engaging. Aside from the story campaign, there are also the expected online and offline multiplayer modes based around a system that allows you to level up as you play, though some mechanics have been changed around a bit, so it won’t just feel like a sixties themed Modern Warfare 2 to returning players. There’s also a Zombies mode, which makes its return from World at War, which can also be played online and off and acts as a sort of survival mode where the players attempt to live through a zombie onslaught, similar to something like Horde Mode in Gears of War 2 for example. This also extends to an overhead shooter, similar to Smash TV, where, again, you and friends can shoot at zombies, on and offline, as well as some other interesting additions that add to the experience. Black Ops has a lot going for it, variety-wise, and it doesn’t come off as just a recycling of its predecessor at first glance, which is easily the best thing I can say about it.

Black Ops is visually outstanding, and while it’s fairly apparent that it’s using the same engine as Modern Warfare 2, it doesn’t feel like it is. The character models are as detailed and well animated as ever, even when you’re lighting them up like Christmas, as they move believably and respond appropriately in cinematics and when getting obliterated. The game environments look appropriate for the expected locales, from the snowy wastes of Russia to the jungles of Vietnam to the cities of Cuba and beyond, and each location is convincing and sets its tone nicely. The visual effects of weapons and explosions are also convincing and well done, and make tense firefights feel more satisfying than they would without. It’s apparent in some instances that the visual engine is being reused from Modern Warfare 2, of course, as there are visual similarities here and there, but it’s also apparent that the visuals have been almost entirely redone, and to good effect. The game music is your standard “impressive orchestral score”, as you’d expect, and it’s fine for what it is, fitting the theme of the various setpieces as needed without being anything you’d want to listen to in your free time. The voice acting is pretty fantastic all around, between the large amount of voiced dialogue that carries the storyline and the little snippets of dialogue that pop up in battle which help to bring the battlefields to life. The sound effects, also, are appropriately powerful and make the experience convincing and exciting, as one would hope.

Black Ops plays similarly to Modern Warfare 2 before it, so fans of that game, of which there are many, should be able to figure out the controls with little effort, though regular FPS fans might have to relearn a few things. The left stick and right stick work as expected, controlling moving and looking around respectively, and the left trigger aims your weapon while the right trigger fires it. The bumpers toss out whatever two types of grenades you’re equipped with at that moment, the A button jumps and allows you to vault onto stuff, and the X button reloads. None of the above should be too confusing for FPS fans, but the rest of the controls might take a mission or two to adjust to. You press in the left stick to make your character run faster and the right stick to melee attack enemies, for instance, neither of which is the “default” location for such actions, hence the assessment of taking time to learn the ropes a bit. The B button controls whether you stand, crouch or lay prone, while the Y button switches between the two weapons you’re allowed at one time. Finally, the D-Pad is laid out with whatever odd accessories you might have on your gun or person that don’t fall into the above categories. So, for example, if you have Claymores, they’ll be mapped to the D-Pad. If you have a Masterkey (an underbarrel shotgun attachment for a rifle), it’ll be mapped to the D-Pad. You can arm whatever item you need by pressing the appropriate direction, allowing you to switch to what you need on the fly. This will all come as second nature after a couple missions with it, honestly, but it might feel a little odd to newcomers at first.

The story mode of Black Ops doesn’t really do much more with the experience than the above describes; while there are some interesting sections, such as a boat piloting sequence, a motorcycle sequence, two helicopter sequences and a very interesting stealth bomber/ground raid sequence, the majority of the campaign is either about the above mentioned gameplay elements or story exposition. As such, it’s a good gameplay tutorial, and it’ll learn you the ropes, but aside from a few interesting setpieces, it’s another FPS with a plot set during the Cold War. Where Black Ops stands out is in its multiplayer, same as its predecessor did. The basic concept is that you’ll play online in various different matches against other people, and as you kill your enemies and assist your allies, you’ll earn experience points which level up your online ranking. As you level up, you unlock new options, such as match types you can play, weapons you can use, enhancements you can add to your weapons, clan tags, pieces of equipment, perks that improve your overall performance in various ways, and other fun and useful things. You’ll max out your levels at Level 50, though the ability to “Prestige”, that is reset your level to 1, allows you to basically continue leveling as you wish. Of course, resetting yourself to the start wouldn’t be very productive on its own, so you’re also given new loadout slots that you can build with different weapons and accessories, as well as new gameplay modes that can only be unlocked after doing this thing. You also keep all of the gameplay modes you unlocked the first time around, though you’ll have to earn weapons and Perks again.

Of course, all of this was in Modern Warfare 2, so it’d be somewhat silly for the game to just give you the same modes and options without adding anything to it. The biggest change to the multiplayer dynamic is the addition of COD Points. These points basically act as money in the game, allowing you to purchase the weapons and upgrades you want as you see fit. This is a big change from Modern Warfare 2, in that in order to enhance guns in that game you had to perform various challenges in Multiplayer, some of which were a colossal pain, to put it bluntly. Instead, you can simply use COD Points to unlock the options you want, thus allowing you to only have the things you’ll feel you need instead of unlocking things you have no interest in using as you play. There are also some options added that play into the COD Points, most notably Contracts and Wager Matches. Contracts are pretty much what they sound like: buy a contract, complete the objective, and earn more points than you spent buying the contract. Wager Matches are also pretty easy to grasp: you bet points on a match, and if you place in the top three, you get a payout for doing this. The match types in Wager Matches are also different from your typical matches, featuring interesting restrictions such as limiting the weapons offered and offering benefits or punishments based on what you do, which makes the mode compelling aside from its “bet on your performance” aspect.

The game also allows you more customization options for your character, including the ability to choose a costume, apply face paint, put emblems and clan tags on weapons, and change the appearance of red dot sights. Further, there are a lot of gameplay modes to play around with online, including the expected regular gameplay modes like Team Deathmatch, Free For All (regular Deathmatch), Domination (sort of a team King of the Hill), Search and Destroy (set or diffuse a bomb), and other fun options. You’ve also got Hardcore modes, where bullets deal more damage, respawns take longer, Friendly Fire is on, and other changes have been made that increase the challenge for everyone. Pure Mode is also available, which made a big splash when it was added into Modern Warfare 2, as it basically strips the game of its more game-changing elements or limits their use, such as Equipment, Killstreaks, Perks and so on, allowing you to limit or excise entirely elements that can completely change a game in seconds, bringing the game down more to skill than luck of the draw and enhancements. The game also offers an online training mode so you can play against bots and improve your skills, though unlocked bonuses don’t transfer from this mode. The Zombies mode from World at War also makes a return, as up to four players can play through a Horde styled survival mode while buying gear and unlocking parts of the map as you play to eventually turn on the power, allowing you to access added weaponry that may help you survive. There’s even an overhead shooter game that can be unlocked that’s similar to Smash TV and is also playable online with friends. The various multiplayer modes also offer split-screen play so you can play with local friends as well as online friends if you choose.

The single player campaign can be completed in about six to eight hours, give or take, though you’ve got multiple difficulty modes to play with if you want to plow through the game on a higher level. The online, between the level up system, the many different play modes, and the Prestige option, is where most of your replay of the game will come from, as it’s addictive and in-depth, and offers a lot to do from start to finish. There is a good amount of unlockable content to find in online play and otherwise, through standard play and through using the computer screen at the title screen to unlock things. You can record clips of your online play, unlock achievements, play online and offline with friends through the regular multiplayer modes and the Zombies mode, play through the single player campaign or the online mode against bots of various difficulties, and more, depending on what you’re in the mood for at the moment. To be honest, Black Ops is one of the most in-depth FPS titles on the market, and more than justifies its asking price simply based on content, as it’s a massive game with plenty of gameplay options from the start, and with the assumed DLC that will be coming, it’s only likely to get larger from here.

That said, the game is not without its flaws. The biggest and most obvious issue with the game is that, frankly, it’s Modern Warfare 2 in the Cold War era. None of the tech on display here, insofar as it relates to the game itself, is really new, and the game is largely a reskin of its predecessor. While that’s fine from a mechanical perspective, as hey, Modern Warfare 2 was a great game, it’s in no way rewarding from an originality perspective, as there are few changes to the formula all around. The changes that have been made aren’t going to appeal to everyone, either. The COD Points system is great in that it allows the player to buy only what they intend to use and removes the need to spend hours performing tasks to get a specific scope, for example, but it also removes a lot of the drive the player might have to spend time with the game, since you can just buy what you need and move on with your day. The Contract and Wager options are nice, but the Contract system is kind of limited at this point, and jumping into a match in the middle of the session can make completing your Contract a pain, to be frank about it, and the Wager Matches, while interesting, aren’t so interesting that they’re going to be something players will want to spend time with over the main multiplayer modes. The hit detection, as of this point, also seems to be a bit more spotty than that of Modern Warfare 2 online. While this doesn’t seem to be an issue offline, and as such can probably be blamed on the server overload from so many people jumping online at once, it’s not cool to lose a match because of technical issues, and until this is evened out, multiplayer simply isn’t as fun as it could be, and people I’ve played online with in Modern Warfare 2 have already gone back to that because of it.

Call of Duty: Black Ops is still a good game all around, make no mistake about that. It’s a strong FPS with a great deal of play and replay value, with an interesting presentation and concept that make the game worth playing for anyone who’s a fan of the genre. The story campaign is fun all around, between the mission design, the multiple difficulty modes and the interesting and engaging plot. The game looks and sounds pretty great overall, the gameplay is easy enough to pick up and learn if you spend a little time with it, and there’s a ton of depth to the online play. With some changes to the leveling system that allows the players to simply unlock what they’d use instead of unlocking many things they won’t, and several online and offline multiplayer options outside of the regular online play, Black Ops offers plenty to keep fans coming back for more and enjoying every minute of it. However, the game simply feels like an expansion to Modern Warfare 2 rather than a fleshed-out new game in its own right, the leveling changes also tend to remove some of the more challenging aspects from the online play in some respects, and there are some technical issues online that can hamper enjoyment of online play. Black Ops is absolutely a great game despite those issues, and once some patches are put into place to resolve some of the more annoying issues, the game will probably be on par with Modern Warfare 2 as far as online play enjoyment goes, but as of this point, while the game is a lot of fun, it’s simply not as impressive as its predecessor, and while still great, it’s not as great as Modern Warfare 2 was.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: CLASSIC
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: CLASSIC
Balance: GREAT
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: GREAT
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Call of Duty: Black Ops is a mostly worthy successor to last year’s Modern Warfare 2, in that it’s very well designed all around and still a lot of fun, online and off, but it doesn’t make the same strides as its predecessor to advance the series, and the end result, while good, isn’t as good as its predecessor was. The story is very engaging, the visuals and audio are well assembled and implemented, and the game is still as fun as ever to play, online and off. There’s a ton of depth to the online play and the leveling system has been given an overhaul, focusing on earning points to exchange for things you want instead of asking you to perform tasks to earn them, streamlining the process somewhat. There are also new online modes to play with and plenty of options for online and offline multiplayer, as well as plenty of things to unlock and earn throughout the game, making this game a good acquisition at least for the depth and variety. However, the game really feels more like a modified version of Modern Warfare 2 rather than its own game, the level up system changes decrease a lot of the appeal of leveling up in some ways, and there are some technical issues with the online play that are going to annoy players when they lose because of a technical flaw. Given some time to work out the kinks, Black Ops is likely to be a great game all around, and fans will certainly appreciate it, but it’s not going to replace Modern Warfare 2 for many fans as their online game of choice, and while Black Ops is good, it’s not as impressive as its predecessor, unfortunately.

  • Harry

    Good review. Only criticism I have is that reading the article, it sounds like the reviewer thinks Modern Warfare 2 was an original, redefining game, when it owed pretty much all of its success to its unmentioned prequel.

  • Mark B.

    That’s a fair point. The intention was less to argue that Modern Warfare 2 was original and more to argue that it pretty much was a gold standard for the genre and the series. That said, I think Modern Warfare 2 did enough on its own to seem like a logical evolution from the first game, while Black Ops just kind of feels like an expansion pack in a lot of respects.

  • Sebastian Howard

    What I hated about MW 2 was that the story was in-ter woven with the first one, it also felt that you were coughing up fifty bucks to play multiplayer with. Great review and it’s pretty cool you can write so much about the game. Also I think that Black Ops did enough to distance it self from the previous game, you have new american weapons and russian weapns. There’s a lot more than just that too but you touched on the rest on your review. I also think this game touched on some of the issues of the last one, anyway great review!

  • Mark B.

    Sebastian – Why thank you. I actually liked that Modern Warfare 2 carried over the continuity of the first game, but I tend to like that sort of thing in game stories. They kind of carried over the continuity from World at War in Black Ops, though not to the same extent.

    And I tend to write a lot about any game I review, mostly because my theory is that the review is basically defending however I end up feeling about the game, so, really, if I don’t have something to say to defend myself, then why bother, yeah?

    And my cousin describes the game as Modern Warfare 2 on steroids, so I can relate. Personally, I just didn’t think it did enough to feel fresh, but I can understand why someone who spent more time with MW2 than I did might or might not agree.

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