The third and possibly final Call of Duty: Black Ops map pack, Annihilation, has been released for Xbox Live (with PC and PS3 releases due out soon), and if this is the final release, Treyarch is going out in style. The pack will cost around $15 which means that if you have bought both previous packs, and plan on purchasing this one, add in the cost of the game itself, and you would have dropped at least $105 for the game. And while that might sound like an exorbitant fee, and you can justifiably grumble over the headshot your wallet just took, compare it to the time most fans of the game actually spend on line. Sure it is a racket, but it is one that pays for itself in time spent using it.
But whether you love them or hate them, the map packs expand the life of a game that people will play to death. Sure it doesn’t hurt Activision’s pocketbook, but that is the way of games these days. Additional content for dollars isn’t going anywhere. Sure an additional $15 might seem steep, but if the content is worth it, it is reasonable. And thankfully the Annihilation map pack with its four new multiplayer maps and zombie map is definitely worth the price. Our own Ryan Fleming and Adam Rosenberg break it down.
Adam Rosenberg: A lot of Call of Duty fans like their maps small and intimate. You see evidence of this every time Treyarch sets up a “Nuketown 24/7” playlist during Double XP weekends. We all flock at the chance to run buck wild, scoring kills simply for spraying ammo and explosives out randomly. It’s no surprise then that “Nuketown” was the inspiration for “Drive-In”. The ‘50s vibe is in full effect, though here we have a war-torn drive-in movie theater replacing the squeaky clean nuclear bomb testing ground of the core multiplayer map.
Unlike “Nuketown”, which is highlighted by a wide-open central space that offers good sightlines across the relatively small space, the new map focus on several individual close-quarters engagements. Shotguns and SMGs are your friends here. Even the central area with the tattered movie screen (how the heck is that projector still even working?!) is tight and closed in. The projector booth overlooking it is a danger zone if you happen to be wandering through, as the distance is short enough that even an assault rifle makes an effective sniper’s tool. The surrounding space forms a rough oval around that central area, and it’s in these surrounding areas that you’ll want to run through, moving from building to building as you rack up kills.
The overall map is larger than “Nuketown”, but the layout presents a much more close quarters-focused experience. As someone who enjoys breaking out a shotgun every now and again, this has quickly become my favorite map of the four new competitive multiplayer offerings.
Ryan Fleming: “Drive-In” is a tight map with several hiding spaces, but nowhere safe. As with most CoD maps, there are three paths, the center and two flanking areas. All three are defensible, but the relatively small size of “Drive-In” makes this the fastest moving of the four maps. You can try sniping if you like, and you may get a few kills if you are well positioned, but it is only a matter of time before someone flanks you. Speed and powerful, fast firing weapons are your friends here, although a silenced SMG and a defensible location can net you a ton of kills–until a well thrown grenade ends your streak.
Because of the size, “Drive-In” is a good map for most gametypes, with the possible exception of Ground War—which may be too chaotic for most, but time will tell. Headquarters will also be a little cramped, but domination should offer some interesting battles as the areas are constantly switching hands.
While “Nuketown” is a definite inspiration for this map, there are two things that differentiate it: First, it is slightly bigger and offers more cover. Second, it is a rundown area so enemies can hide in the tall grass, or in dark corners. “Nuketown” is a great map that offers some fun games, but they are a very specific type of frantic game. “Drive-In” has that same appeal, but it is more balanced, and a better map for it.
Adam: The word on the street is that Hazard is a remake of the World at War map Cliffside. Actually, that’s a fact, confirmed by Treyarch. The shape of the landmass is the same and several key features, including the bridge at one end, the two centrally located bunkers and the wide open lane down the middle that looks from one end of the map to the other. Don’t get too caught up in those feelings of nostalgia though, or a sniper will almost definitely take your head off.
“Cliffside”… errr… that is, “Hazard”, is all about long-range engagements. That AK-74u you’ve been carting around isn’t going to do you much good here. Not only is this battlefield wide-open, there are also multiple cover points you can use to both cross it and stake out your prey from. Teamwork is essential on this map, especially for objective-based games. The control points in Domination maps are right out in the open, with little to no cover available. It was a devious map in World at War and it is even more so now, thanks to all of the tools you have to work with in this more modern theater of war.
It’s actually really cool to see this remade map come to life in a new game. Fans have long talked about the dream scenario of a Call of Duty multiplayer game that ropes in maps from all of the releases in the series. “Hazard” not only proves that it can be done, but that it can work well even in a different time period.
Ryan: “Hazard” is one of the best looking maps in Black Ops. The golf course setting is attractive and lush looking, and it is a stark contrast to the other maps which have a more war torn look dominated by grays and browns. Like the map “Hotel” from the Escalation map pack, the aesthetics alone help break up any possible monotony, and for that reason alone “Hazard” is a great map. It is also a lot of fun to play.
For the people that enjoy rushing out and taking the head first “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka” approach to Black Ops, you will not enjoy your time with “Hazard.” If you win a bet against your friend and are looking for a suitable payoff, make them play this map with only a shotgun and see if they can get a single kill. There are paths to avoid being exposed, but they will force you to go out of your way. You can either flank or risk getting shot at. This map is made for snipers and long range fans. Even the average sniper (like me) can land a few satisfying kills from distance, and there is very little chance of getting bored while waiting for enemies to show themselves.
Certain game types will not work well on this map. Deathmatch is always fine, and domination will work if you bring smoke grenades, but capture the flag, demolition, headquarters, search and destroy and others might be frustrating. In fact, any game type where you need teamwork will be especially tough considering half of your teammates will want to hang back and snipe. “Hazard” is an excellent map, but it will turn a lot of people off.
Adam: There are two layers to “Hangar 18″. First is the coolness factor that comes from exchanging weapons fire on the ground at Area 51. You’ve got a giant, open hangar with an SR-71 Blackbird – the coolest military jet in this world by a large margin – sticking out of it. You can even walk on the thing. There’s an autopsy room with what is almost certainly the body of a Grey alien covered by a surgical sheet. There’s even a domed structure containing a bizarre column-shaped apparatus, at the center of which floats a shiny, red, bulletproof apple.
That’s the first layer. The second layer is the map itself as a construct for waging team-based gun battles. “Hanger 18” is a success there as well. This is a large map, and a fairly open one in the center area. Some of the heaviest fighting happens in, and spills out of the hangar, the map’s centerpiece. There are multiple entrances and quite a few shadowed nooks to sit silently in as you wait for your moment to strike. The fringe of the map is where you’ll find the truly weird stuff, like the dead Grey and the floating apple. Also, plenty of windows and hideaways to snipe from. This map isn’t all about the snipers, but ranged classes definitely have an advantage.
It really comes back to the SR-71 in the end though. It’s a dangerous thing to hang out on top of and snipe from, but man is it cool.
Ryan: Putting aside the cool visuals, including the Blackbird and the mystery apple (which ricochets bullets off of it), the map is actually fairly straight forward, in a good way. In traditional CoD fashion, there are three paths to choose from, with a central area that makes it a good map for most game types. There is plenty of room to snipe or attack with long ranged weapons, but the cover is good enough that you can make your way through the map with close quarter weapons too.
“Hangar” is just a good, balanced map. If you took away the alien stuff and the Blackbird, it would be somewhat basic compared to the other three maps, but that is just in the look. You can play “Hangar” 10 times, and it would move differently all 10 times. A team can set up a coordinated defense, but eventually one team will break through and rout the other. On the other hand, both teams can constantly keep moving. There are a ton of choices, and ways to play. Domination plays particularly well here.
If you don’t care about the alien stuff, “Hangar” might come across as a simple map compared to the other three, but it is well balanced and will offer the most for all types of players. It is also deceptive in its size. There is plenty of room to snipe and fight with ranged weapons, but it isn’t big enough to hide. Give it time and this may become one of the most popular Black Ops maps.
Adam: Silo is a lot like “Hangar 18” in some ways. It’s a big map, and an outdoor one. You’re inside some kind of large, heavily secured military complex. There are also some cool features to the map that have zero effect on the gameplay… they’re just cool. Specifically, beyond the borders of the map are missile silos that fire off a large rocket every few minutes. The screen shakes a little and other sounds are temporarily muffled, but it’s so short that the impact is minimal. Unless a launching missile happens to distract you long enough for someone to walk up behind you and plant a knife in your back.
That’s where the biggest difference between “Silo” and “Hangar 18” lies. Pause too long on the latter map, and a sniper’s bullet will inevitably find its way to you. There’s a lot less range to work with on “Silo”. The rundown missile launch facility is all tight corridors and cramped indoor spaces. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but very few wide open sightlines across the map. This is the perfect map to break out the shotgun for and just run amok on.
Ryan: “Silo” is my favorite map in the new map pack, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Sure, it doesn’t move as fast as “Drive-In”, it isn’t as visually stunning as “Hazard,” and there are no alien autopsies going on, but there is a lot of freedom in this map. At first glance “Silo” is a big map, but after you learn the pathways, you see that it isn’t as much big as it is dense. There are multiple pathways—even one underground tunnel—sniper nests, and plenty of nooks to hide in, wait in ambush, or just use as cover from incoming fire.
The people that learn this map first will have a huge advantage. It’s not like you will get lost or anything, but learning where you can duck under cover is going to make a huge difference. While snipers will have plenty of options here, this map truly favors the players that like to constantly keep moving. There is always the fear of being snuck up on, but if you are fast and move with confidence, you can make your way around the map, racking up some kills on the way, and be gone long before anyone knows you were there. There is so much cover that stealth players will murder people here once they learn the map.
Domination plays well here, and for a change, you actually have a chance of sneaking up and taking the B area without eating a grenade. It’s not a good chance, but there is a chance. There are just so many pathways and alleys that campers will have a tough time avoiding being snuck up on. So while this is a dense map, it also moves well. “Silo” is well designed and fun to play in almost any game type.
Adam: The new zombie map is arguably the highlight of any map pack from Treyarch. “Shangri-La”, the Annihilation pack’s addition to the survival-based co-op mode, does not disappoint. The all-star cast and blockbuster sense of scale seen in the previous map, “Call of the Dead”, is done away with completely. There’s no preamble or postscript cutscene when you load up a solo match, and your zombie hunters are once again the familiar foursome of Dempsey, Nikolai, Richtofen and Takeo. There’s a new wonder weapon that transforms your foes into kickable voodoo doll zombies and three new special zombies: a stun-inducing Shrieker, a deadly, exploding Napalm zombie and rascally little monkeys which only pop up when pickups are left unattended. The furry little bastards steal said pickups and run off with them, though you can gun them down to get a random pickup back.
In short, what we’re looking at is more of the same creative lunacy we’ve come to expect from new zombie mode maps.
There is no “best” when it comes to these maps, but “Shangri-La” is definitely a welcome change after the tense “holycrapwealwayshavetorun” vibe of “Call of the Dead”. There’s no uber-boss hunting you at all times and there are no boss-specific rounds either. The Shrieker and Napalm zombies pop up in the midst of regular rounds far less frequently than regular deadheads do. It feels like pickups are more common since there’s now no boss round – and guaranteed max ammo boost at the end of it – though that could be an illusion.
“Shangri-La” is smaller than “Call of the Dead” and “Ascension” before it; it may actually be the smallest one overall. There’s a great deal of complexity, however. None of the traditional traps you’re used to seeing, but lots of funky elements. For example, one mud-filled room slows you down and prevents you from jumping unless you’re walking on wooden platforms that automatically appear as you progress from one to the next. The platforms appear in a certain sequence, seemingly randomized, that lead you to one of the room’s three possible exits. There is also an extended water slide and a mine cart you can ride on.
The centerpiece, though, is the new easter egg. By far the most elaborate puzzle yet conceived for the zombie mode, you’ll have to perform a certain action to trigger the map’s temporary (and unique) “eclipse” mode. It has no effect on the gameplay beyond changing the color of the surrounding environment, but certain tasks must be performed in a certain order to complete the easter egg, learn more about the mode’s ever-developing story and get a little bonus treat. Also, an achievement, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Ryan: Unlike Adam, for me the Zombie maps have always been a fun diversion from the multiplayer, but not much more. Treyarch obviously disagrees, and each subsequent zombie map is bigger, more complex, and more incredible than the last. “Shangri-La” is no exception—except for the bigger part.
The first thing to know about “Shangri-La” is that it is not for the casual zombie game fans. This map is a love letter to the players that have passionately flocked to the zombie games. It requires teamwork—and not just the occasional “Watch my back” teamwork, but a true coordinated effort. Even just moving through the trap infested map requires coordination.
“Shangri-La” is also the wildest of all the zombie maps. There are traps everywhere that can separate you and your team unless you coordinate, and turning the power on makes the map even more complicated as new waterways and pathways open up. The bosses of previous zombie maps are gone, but there are new mini-bosses of a sort roaming around that make things tough. I kind of miss the sense of presentation that “Call of the Dead” had, but in terms of game play, “Shangri-La” is a step forward. The zombie maps have come a long way from the simple mini-games that they were. They have taken on a life of their own, and Call of Duty is better for it.
Adam: Overall, Annihilation is my favorite of the Black Ops map packs released so far. Treyarch may well be onto something with the remix of “Cliffside” as “Hazard” (someone, please bring back “Shipment” from Infinity Ward’s COD4!), but the new maps hold their own just fine. “Hangar 18” is a highlight simply for being insanely cool, but “Drive-In” is the standout for giving virtual soldiers a new meat grinder to duke it out in. Then there’s “Shangri-La”, the zombie map, which is a special kind of paradise.
Ryan: The Annihilation map pack is the best of the three Black Ops expansions. The maps are balanced (with the exception of “Hazard” which is still fun to play), they look good visually, and they will accommodate almost any game type. Each of the four new maps has something to offer, and they all offer a ton of variety. A lot of thought went into the design, and it shows. “Shangri-La” is also an excellent addition and will keep fans of the zombie maps occupied for a long time. If this is the final Black Ops map pack, Treyarch is going out on a high note.
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Activision)