Call of Duty: Black Ops Review
The first new Call of Duty since the implosion of Infinity Ward and the exodus of the guys who created the franchise in the first place is going to be a critical one. Savvy gamers will know that the heart of what makes these games fun will leave the franchise and move over to whatever new project Vince Zampella, Jason West, and crew are working on, but Treyarch still has a few tricks up their sleeve. They've been working on Black Ops for two years, crafting an interesting era-spanning campaign and working on all kinds of new multiplayer modes.
They've got a lot to live up to: Modern Warfare 2 sold 20 million copies, mostly to people who know (and care) little of development teams, lawsuits, publishers, or why the next Call of Duty after this one is going to be ... different. These gamers just want another fun online and offline experience with slick visuals, blisteringly smooth frame rates, and lots of enemies to shoot in both the campaign and in multiplayer. And in that respect, Treyarch is most definitely living up to their promise.
But there's also an interesting story here in the campaign. You play as a Special Forces soldier named Alex Mason; he's been strapped to a chair and is being interrogated for all the classified operations he's participated in, starting with the attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1961. It moves on to Russia, Laos, and Vietnam from there as we trace back key parts of Cold War operations, and you'll switch perspectives more than once to other soldiers in the fight.
With solid voice acting from Aussie actor (and star of James Cameron's Avatar) Sam Worthington as Mason, Ed Harris as CIA Agent Hudson, and Gary Oldman reprising his role as Viktor Reznov (first seen and heard in Call of Duty: World at War), we've got an all-star cast that generally works well. Sure, Worthington isn't exactly the best voice actor and he still has trouble maintaining an American accent, but he does the job well enough. The campaign is about as explosive and hard-hitting as you'll expect from a Call of Duty game nowadays, although I think you'll find the situations you get into in mid-battle to be just a bit more plausible than Modern Warfare 2. Your suspension of disbelief is still going to be challenged, but at least this time you won't have things like epic snowmobile jumps when you find out that the army inexplicably put your rendezvous spot on the opposite side of a ravine from your current location. It really does make a difference with the immersion when you're playing a campaign that's at least potentially believable.
There's a mystery in all this, something about a series of numbers that Mason keeps seeing and hearing, and the interrogator that's torturing him is trying to decipher them. The story takes some twists and turns and doesn't always add up, but it does maintain the illusion for about as long as the campaign lasts - which is more than I can say for Modern Warfare 2. Unfortunately, Treyarch simply aren't quite as good at constructing exciting firefights so they had to rely once again on infinitely respawning enemies to create more tense and explosive battles, and it really becomes a problem once you get to the Vietnam section of the game - and it's a real step backwards from Infinity Ward's effort last year. To put it in simpler terms, Black Ops tries to hide its less-than-amazing combat design with solid visuals and a mostly interesting story - and it does work, if only for a short while.
Moving on to multiplayer. Call of Duty: Black Ops includes a multiplayer mode that's similar to what we saw in the last few games, allowing you to level up and unlock weapons and perks as you kill people and win matches. This time, the perks seem a little less ridiculous and hopefully not nearly as game-breaking, although it's impossible to tell this quickly after release; we'll have to see in the weeks ahead if players figure out exploits or just totally broken loadout combinations, and how quickly Treyarch can fix them. There are also new modes, like one where every player has only a single throwing tomahawk, and another where each kill you get switches out your gun for a more powerful one. On top of this, there's a new "money match" system where you can take the fake currency you've earned from playing and wager an amount you want on a match; the top three players will then split the pot. And finally, the Zombies mode is back, allowing you to play an updated version of the World at War Nazi Zombies mode, and a new one in the Pentagon with the four playable characters consisting of JFK, Nixon, defense secretary Robert McNamara, and Fidel Castro. All of these modes are a blast to play, and while we won't know for a while whether the perk and unlock system will hold up as millions try to get an edge in multiplayer, the prognosis is good so far.
All of it works pretty nicely on consoles, but sadly the PC version, at least on day one, hasn't fared nearly as well. Treyarch was careful to keep in the PC-centric features that went missing in Modern Warfare 2, like FOV controls right from the menu, dedicated servers run by the community, a command console, and mod support. Sadly, this Steamworks-requiring game also launched with some massive stuttering and frame rate issues that make it a chore to play in single-player and pretty much impossible to play properly online, even on blisteringly-fast PCs and apparently with a pretty wide range of hardware from Intel, AMD, and Nvidia. At this point, all we can do is hope for a quick fix from Treyarch, but to launch one of the biggest games of the year on PC with a crippling, widespread bug that essentially ruins the whole experience is just awful. Frankly, I expected better out of Treyarch, and I'm really disappointed that one of the most broken PC game launches of the year came from them. I'm sure they'll fix it, but the question is how soon it'll be.
While Black Ops plays great on consoles and will undoubtedly be a huge seller, there is still some doubt cast over the future of the franchise when we know next year's iteration won't be made by the same Infinity Ward that has delivered in the past. Over the years, they were slowly improving the formula, and I fully expected them - before the implosion of the studio - to make sure to address Modern Warfare 2's campaign issues and multiplayer exploits when making their next game. This year, Treyarch has done a good job making a fun campaign and some really interesting multiplayer, but some of the old problems with the franchise are creeping back in. And on PC, Black Ops is nearly unplayable for many gamers, and the best we can do is wait for a patch to deliver the smooth, responsive FPS action we've had since the first Call of Duty was released over six years ago.
Black Ops does well, mostly due to the sheer amount of exciting and fun multiplayer content, but I've got some serious concerns over where Call of Duty is headed.