Call of Duty: Black Ops Review

By Abbie Heppe - Posted Nov 09, 2010

Good news. COD: Black Ops is both the embodiment of Modern Warfare and the advancement of Treyarch's installments into the modern era. The game succeeds in nudging the time period several years forward into the years of Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis while conceding that everyone really loves to shoot their friends in the modern day, anachronistic multiplayer.

The Pros
  • Fantastically rebalanced multiplayer in the vein of Modern Warfare 2
  • Lengthy and exciting single player campaign
  • Tons of added multiplayer content like new modes and personalization
The Cons
  • Single-player campaign dabbles in cliché and unintentional hilarity
  • Animations can be quirky, even in multiplayer

Call of Duty: Black Ops Review:

A short history lesson, if you will, before we dive into the Call of Duty: Black Ops review: Call of Duty first appeared in 2003 and quickly set the standard for first person WWII shooters. Then, they just kept coming. At about the same time even The History Channel figured out it couldn’t survive on Hitler alone, Call of Duty 4 launched the series into the modern day and quickly became the highest selling game in franchise history. Though a solid game, next year’s World at War seemed passé, remembered more for Nazi zombies then recouping CoD4’s user base. Then there was Modern Warfare 2: controversial, sure, but initially only for the “No Russian” level, then for its notorious glitches, rampant cheating and delayed patches. With the majority of Infinity Ward jumping ship, we questioned if we’d ever really see Modern Warfare 3 and where the series would go next.

Good news. Black Ops is both the embodiment of Modern Warfare and the advancement of Treyarch’s installments into the modern era. The game succeeds in nudging the time period several years forward into the years of Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis while conceding that everyone really loves to shoot their friends in the modern day, anachronistic multiplayer.

Saddle up! Lock and load!

Initially, it was discouraging that Black Ops never had a public beta; however, after playing COD: Black Ops, I’m happy to tell you that the improvements render Modern Warfare 2 -- a game that had, perhaps, the largest beta ever conceived -- completely obsolete. From balance to map design to customization and game modes, there is nothing lacking in Black Ops, and the fact that it’s suitable for both the hardcore and casual audience is impressive to say the least.

Dedicated CoD fans will quickly discover a host of features from MW2 that don’t appear in Black Ops: The nuke kill streak (streaks in Black Ops cap out at 11), one man army perk, stopping power, and dual-wielded shotguns. Black Ops doesn’t have any of those, but I’d be hard pressed to complain.

Part of me will miss killing people who wield the riot shield, but for the most part, Treyarch has tactically deleted everything that can throw the game’s balance off kilter. Past what has straight up disappeared, many of the perks have been renamed and assigned to different loadout slots to keep players from abusing perks that work too well in concert with one another.

As a concession to newer players, almost every perk, attachment and piece of special equipment is available to buy right off the bat. A few rounds of multiplayer down and you’ll have enough points to purchase almost anything you need. Guns are still unlocked by leveling up, but the frustrating post-prestige rounds or initial entry into the game is definitely more player friendly. The best restructuring measure of all might be the return to CoD4’s secondary weapon policy. Pistols, rocket launchers, crossbow or ballistic knife only, the shotgun has returned to its proper place as a primary weapon.  

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I love the smell of napalm in the morning

Even with all the rebalancing and removal of game elements, Black Ops is by no means a pared down version of MW2. Beyond the brand new modes, customization, theater, extensive stat tracking, combat training AND zombie content, the game adds (and brings over from WaW) several new weapons, attachments and kill streaks like the RC XD remote controlled bomb car, nova gas, napalm strikes, attack dogs, defensive anti-air turrets, a flamethrower attachment and much more. My favorite is definitely the RC car, which acts as both recon and a weapon and most of the maps have special tunnels explicitly for its usage.

Past all the blatant changes to multiplayer, the area where Black Ops really succeeds is in the details: tweaks like letting you back your whole party out of a lobby rather than wait for the last person to figure it out, or fading out flags that block your point of view in Domination (and other team game modes) are minor but significant changes that illustrate how thoroughly Treyarch has fine-tuned the multiplayer experience.

F#@k, man, this is better than Disneyland!

Once you jump in, you’ll realize that Black Ops offers a ton of XP challenges and contracts geared towards all skill levels and player preferences. Almost every aspect of the game has challenges tied to it, including game modes like Domination that were left out of challenges in MW2. In addition, perk challenges will often require you to use them in a different context to get credit, like backstabbing other players with the Ninja perk on. Again, so many of the tweaks are subtle but interesting and the contracts (updated daily) allow players to earn optional extra credits by completing goals ranging from “Win one match” to “Execute 5 headshots without dying.” 

Of course, all this will leave you with a glut of credits that you can use to unlock everything from attachments and perks to sunglasses for your sword wielding bunny emblem…or maybe that’s just me. There’s a decent level of customization in Black Ops. Emblems can be created by layering decals and then applied, as with clan tags, to your weapon. There’s also the ability to customize your reticle (odd at first but quickly satisfying) and an option for facepaint, though I can’t see what difference this would make to anyone. The emblem alone is perfect for clans…and the creative. 

Past all of the improvements above, Black Ops also features the most impressive stat tracking to date. You can see your most used weapons, your progress from past matches in graph form, sort your challenges by completion rate and monitor almost all of your game progress. You can also view your past matches and upload clips of in-game video to share. Chances are, if you’ve wanted something in a CoD game, it can be found in Black Ops.

Everyone gets everything he wants

There are also things I didn’t know I wanted, and the massive amount of modes in Black Ops satisfies desires I didn’t know I had. Of course, there are all the pre-existing game types like Domination, TDM and Barebones, but now there are also Wager Matches, Combat Training and a very fleshed out incarnation of private matches. It makes me happy to note that the team based modes now include your total caps, plants or defuses in the post-game report, making it easy to tell who the team players really are.

If team play is not your thing, the Wager Matches have you covered. You can buy-in for almost nothing or a large sum of money depending on how good you think you are, and the top 3 players for each round win a chunk of the pot. Gun Game has you leveling up through 20 different tiers of weaponry from pistol to shotgun to assault rifle, sniper rifle, rocket launcher, crossbow, ballistic knife etc. When you kill someone with a weapon you advance to the next weapon tier. If you get knifed (humiliated) you drop back a tier. One in the Chamber gives you a pistol with one bullet and a knife. If you kill someone, you get an extra bullet. Sticks and Stones gives you a crossbow (exploding bolt) and a ballistic knife, but my favorite mode is probably Sharpshooter where you get random guns and they change every 45 seconds. It’s awesome for trying out new weapons and building proficiency with all of them.

Then again, you could just try Combat Training where you can practice your skills by taking on somewhat terrifying bots. It’ll even automatically load in your friends list so it’s almost like playing with real people. Freaky programmed AI people who will decimate you on Veteran and use flanking, knifing, air support, grenades and the same tactics as humans to hunt you down. It’s honestly somewhat scary every time you forget you’re playing against the computer. It’s even scarier knowing that computer always knows where you are. You can also customize this mode like you can with private matches.

Perhaps you can see the theme emerging: Black Ops wants you to play the game in your own way and, especially in regard to private matches, gives you far more tools to do so. Gone are the days of knives-only private clan matches on the honor system. This time, you can actually enforce your game restrictions and share them with other players over the servers. So far, it would appear humans vs. zombies is a popular theme (isn’t that already a mode? And another game?).

You are likely to be eaten by a teleporting zombie dog

As far as cooperative multiplayer modes, unending waves of zombies make a return in Black Ops with two separate scenarios, one which I’ll refrain from spoiling, plus the top down Smash TV style Dead Ops Arcade which will require a bit of detective work to unlock.

While I enjoy these modes, they obviously don’t quite have the long-term appeal of standard multiplayer; however, I highly recommend finishing the single-player campaign to unlock the Nazi-free zombie map because it is a hilarious addition and stole my heart immediately. If you’re able to find Dead Ops Arcade in the game, you’ll find it pleasantly rewarding. You compete with and against your teammates to collect power-ups and money and progress through room after room of zombie hordes. Plus, if you can find DOA, you can also find Zork, if you remember/know/care what Zork is. If you don’t, you can go get eaten by a Grue.

I wanted to see exotic Vietnam... the crown jewel of Southeast Asia

All that and I haven’t even covered the multiplayer maps yet. There are a ton of maps in the game with a huge range of locations and variations in both scale and complexity. The maps certainly reflect the single-player time period even when the tech you’re using on them doesn’t. Two of the stand outs are the Shipment-style Nuketown map which has double rainbows and creepy mannequins in an A-bomb testing neighborhood and Firing Range, where moving gun range targets provide interesting cover and distraction.

Though I noticed that the same maps tend to come up over and over again, this time players have the ability to vote for the upcoming map or previous map or opt for a random one. Incorporating bridges, tunnels, overlooks, a launching rocket that shakes the map, blast doors that randomly open over cap points and of course, the RC car networks that tunnel through walls, each map feels varied, complex and suited towards all weapons and game modes. There are also recessed spawn areas built into the smaller maps to temper spawn killing, though it doesn’t entirely eliminate it. 

An important message from your reviewer

It should be noted, as usual for multiplayer games played before full-scale release, that I haven’t had much time to play the game with the general public. Given the release state of Modern Warfare 2, my worries mostly extend to game breaking and cheating. Already there are reports of care package glitching and on smaller maps like Nuketown, it’s rather easy to spawn kill with some well placed napalm or a chopper gunner, so I’m going to hope like everyone else that Treyarch and Activision are vigilant about fixes and pushing patches through.    

“I want to go to Vietnam - and I'll die there if I have to.”

I’m guessing that the multiplayer analysis is enough for a lot of people, but Black Ops has single-player campaign, too. It’s a more extensive, length-wise, campaign then the series has seen in quite some time. It’s certainly action packed, over the top and insanely gory, but does its alternate mid-Cold War history tale deliver? For the most part, yes.

The campaign is set in the early to mid-60’s with missions revolving around the Cuban Missile Crisis, the war in Vietnam and covert operations in southeast Asia and Russia. For good measure, there’s a dose of Nazis thrown in. Sure, World War II may have precipitated the tension between the US and Russia, but without Nazis, how would the Nazi zombie mode make any sense? Plus these are snowtrooper Nazis (like, Hoth Nazis) and they’re guarding a bioweapon that could destroy the world. What’s clever is that the story is told from the perspective of a spec ops soldier being interrogated by unknown (but easily guessable) captors. This allows Black Ops to jump from location to location and timeframe to timeframe in a cohesive manner, hence Nazis.

“It's a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma!”

I won’t say the plot doesn’t get pretty convoluted and, tonally, it teeters between seriousness and camp, all the while treading in the realm of cliché. Russian roulette, fine, but do I really need to land my helicopter in Nam to the sound of “Fortunate Son”? At this point in time, the only people to generate a fortune off of the Vietnam War would be Halliburton, Oliver Stone and Creedence Clearwater Revival. By comparison, the sequence set to the only other licensed track in the game, “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones, is downright gleeful. Despite the fact that I will nit pick, I was always enjoying myself for the duration of the campaign.

That enjoyment stems from the various locations and action sequences. There were several which made my callous heart race. Skydiving, motorcycles, helicopters and face punching a dude with glass in his mouth, all bolster the standard shooting fare. Being imprisoned in a Russian labor camp has never been this fun before!

Plus, you’re accompanied by a cast of colorful characters like the Russian defector Reznov and your squadmate Bowman, voiced respectively by Gary Oldman and Ice Cube, who are both fantastic. Plus, since the game fully embraces its possible -- though unlikely -- history plot, there are cameos by Castro, John F. Kennedy and Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and the man responsible for early advocacy and implementation of seatbelts in automobiles. See? Learning is great, but don’t attempt to proffer anything gleaned from the single-player campaign in an actual history class.

“Shut up! Shut up and take the pain!”

As expected, Black Ops has a level of polish that’s refreshing after an increasingly buggy fall release calendar, but that isn’t to say it doesn’t have its quirks. Floating shovels or friendly troops climbing an invisible fence won’t impact your gameplay, but (especially on Veteran difficulty) constantly respawning enemies that run to the same place as their predecessors and can shoot you during procedural animation sequences will cause frustration. At the very least, the constant grenade spam of World at War has dissipated here, and conquering the game on Veteran is a far less daunting task.

Whatever difficulty you finish the game on, you’d be a fool not stick around after the credits, where the game plays out one of the more hilarious sequences I have ever seen. There’s a very worthwhile punchline waiting for you and its intentionally funny compared to the end of the game when I couldn’t tell if I was supposed to be laughing or not. If David Caruso had popped on screen and delivered a well timed “YEAAAAAH,” I might not have been surprised but hey, better to go bigger than mundane, especially when FPS obsessives like myself begin to tire of tried and true formulas.

Are we done? Can I go back to playing the game now?

Since I’m pretty sure I’ve exceeded my word count even before I broached the topic of single player (and I’m itching to hop back online with the game), I’ll leave you with this: Black Ops manages to achieve what I’ve been craving in CoD multiplayer since CoD4, down to the most finite details. Though I miss last year’s Spec Ops mode, there is so much in the single-player and delightful zombie slaughterfests to be had that it’s impossible to be bored or dissatisfied with the experience as a whole. Now, pardon me, I’m so close to unlocking the rainbow pony background for my emblem that I’ve been eyeing since day one, so I need to get back to merciless online destruction.