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Call of Duty: Black Ops review

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Call of Duty: Black Ops
“If you are a Call of Duty hater, this game is more of the same, if you are a fan, it improves the series. Choose your POV.”
  • The story is enteraining in a summer blockbuster movie sort of way
  • The new multiplayer modes are fun
  • Treyarch's best game by far
  • The campaign AI is weak and the game features glitches
  • The multiplayer is more of the same
  • Uneven map design

Today marks the release of a minor title, an indie game developed on a shoestring budget, with no real expectations. If you believe that, we should totally play a wager match together.  After months of hype, and following one of the most drama-filled situations in recent gaming history with Infinity Ward, Call of Duty: Black Ops has been released. Thanks to the appeal of the subject, the pedigree of the name, and the monstrous success of the last game in the series, Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops was destined to be a massive hit from the moment it was announced. But would it be any good?

Activision could have sold Black Ops on name recognition alone. It could have released a terrible game and still made money on the pre-orders, but it would have damaged the most successful third-party property in video game history. After the falling out between Activision and Infinity Ward, the level of scrutiny on the franchise has been at an all time high. But the behind-the-scenes drama isn’t important right now. If you are curious about the telenovela surrounding the Infinity Ward and Activision split, you can read more about it here. Or just wait for the multiple lawsuits to begin. But for now, it is Treyarch’s big day. So with the video game world watching, did Treyarch manage to succeed with the shadow of its predecessor looming so large?

Yep, they sure did.

Call of Duty: Black Ops does a few things very well — mainly by not doing anything at all. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Treyarch looked at what worked and what didn’t with Modern Warfare 2 and its last title, Call of Duty: World at War, then made changes — some subtle, some innovative — but for the most part the game looks and plays like the previous games in the series. In a good way. The multiplayer is as strong as ever and some of the new features have added a layer of depth that will keep fans playing for a long time, while the campaign delivers one of the most intense stories you will ever see in a video game. So basically, Black Ops lives up to the hype.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The Cold War

With just a little bit of work, the story of Black Ops could easily be adapted into a Hollywood movie. It has the action elements down, plenty of twists and turns, and it touches on enough historical events without subjecting itself to the limitations of history, to make it appeal to a broad audience.  World at War contained some compelling characters, interesting scenarios, and intense scenarios, but there wasn’t much of a story. It was WWII—you fought the enemy and advanced; beyond that there wasn’t much to it. On the other hand, the Modern Warfare titles took a more fantastic story, with invasions, nuclear detonations, and the start of World War III. Black Ops falls somewhere in between.

You play as Alex Mason, and in a change for the series, you are a fully realized character, voiced by Sam Worthington, with a very specific story. Unlike previous entries, you do not switch between characters (with a few brief exceptions), and you are not just “that guy”, bouncing between events because you are trained to be there like all the characters in a WWII game. Instead, Mason is at the center of a mystery involving a series of numbers that relate to his long career as a soldier, which has included some some of the most difficult, and secretive missions that occurred during the Cold War. Beginning with the Bay of Pigs, Black Ops weaves in and out of Mason’s career as a soldier, a spy and an assassin, and takes him everywhere from Cuba to Vietnam; from the Ural Mountains to Star City, Russia.

Mason has seen the worst places in the world, and along the way he has made allies and enemies with people that live in the shadows. One of those people is Viktor Reznov, the one-time Russian Sergeant who acted as your guide through the Russian settings in World at War. Voiced by Gary Oldman, Reznov and Mason form a friendship through mutual adversity, and the pair work together despite their ideologies, in order to stop a new enemy. Giving away more would do more of a disservice than it would help illuminate the game, but the story is well thought out, and the finale nicely wraps everything up.

Joining Worthington and Oldman in the cast are Ed Harris, Ice Cube, Topher Grace, Emmanuelle Chriqui, and more. Treyarch approached this game like a studio would approach the sequel to blockbuster movie. There are no corners cut on the scope of this game, and each level contains moments that make you want to simply stop and look around. When mixed with real events and real people like President Kennedy, Castro, and many more, the story is arguably the best in the Call of Duty series, and one of the best FPS shooter plots ever told.

Black Ops is perhaps the most mature game ever made. While there are no hookers to beat up ala Grand Theft Auto, there are also no comedic moments to offset some truly brutal scenes of violence and carnage. This is not a game for kids, it is a game for a more mature audience, and should be treated as such lest it becomes another exhibit in the case against violent video games. If this game were a movie, it would be a hard R.

Because Hollywood loves to try and make money off of things that already made money, it wouldn’t be all that surprising that someone tried to make Black Ops into a movie. It would be ironic though, since Black Ops is already pretty much a movie that just happens to be a video game.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The gameplay is what you would expect, in a good way

The gameplay of the campaigns is as solid as you might hope from a Call of Duty game, and the new additions, like the crossbow with exploding bolts, gas grenades, and a handful of other additions keep the game feeling new even though it will be very familiar. The missions are varied and interesting, and while sometimes you will be involved in stealth missions, the majority of your time will be spent fighting for your life as the enemy closes in on you, or you suddenly find yourself on the frontline of a major battle. Black Ops continually mixes it up, and each level has something unique to offer.

Black Ops offers a satisfying campaign that will last you between seven and nine hours, longer if you increase the difficulty, and odds are you will want to play through more than once.

The look of the 1960s

Black Ops looks amazing at times and generally maintains some stellar graphics throughout the campaign, which is important because the look and tone play a huge part to the storytelling.  The character animation, both in facial and body movements, are top notch, and the sound is also well done for the most part, with a few exceptions.  Oddly, the multiplayer graphics are not quite as impressive, especially compared to Modern Warfare 2, but they are still solid. The music is nothing spectacular, but it is not obtrusive either, and it is generally overpowered by the sound of gunfire and explosions any way– although the sounds do seem off at times.  It might be a syncing issue.

It is easy to take the graphics on games like Call of Duty for granted.  They are the leaders in the gaming industry, and stellar graphics are expected.  Perhaps this is unfair and it takes away from the accomplishments of the designers.  Black Ops looks amazing, and the look quickly helps to build the atmosphere of the story.

It isn’t all gravy

While the story, graphics and settings are generally amazing with a few exceptions, there are a few technical glitches that mire the exceptional campaign. The levels are always linear, so it is generally easy to find your way around, but sometimes the mission objectives can be unclear, even contradictory. A few objectives will ask you to take a location, but your teammates will simply sit there as the position you are meant to take is literally surrounded by enemies. Sometimes you just need to take the “Leroy Jenkins” approach to the game and charge in to see what happens.

Treyarch also loves to toss you in situations where you are not able to wait it out, instead you must fight through to get to the next point. If you don’t move, the enemies will simply keep on coming endlessly. It adds to the sense of intensity, but it also can become frustrating when you are unsure what exactly you need to do.

There are also several instances of AI befuddlement, where your teammates will wander around aimlessly, and take cover until you advance well beyond them. It is also good that they are invincible, since they tend to wander in and out of gunfire now and then. The enemy AI are equally simple, and most will stay exactly where they are, no matter what, except to maybe move a few feet to the side.

Thankfully, these glitches are minor and are more quibbles than problems. The campaign is so good that when something goes wrong, it stands out like a spotlight in the dark. While you can be assured that you will see a problem or two along the way, you can also be sure that you will quickly forget about it as the pace of the game pushes you ever onward.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

And now, the multiplayer

While the campaign might be worth the price of admission, a good chunk of the people that buy the game will buy it just for the multiplayer. Putting aside every question about how it plays, what the leveling is like, and all that, the answer to the one question that most fans of the series will want to know is yes—it is good enough to succeed Modern Warfare 2.

To delve into true geekology here, Black Ops definitely feels like a Treyarch game, but it builds itself on the foundation of Infinity Ward’s designs — even more than usual. While fine wine connoisseurs might be able to tell the difference between a 1999 and a 2007 pinot noir, first person shooter geeks can tell the difference in developers by the subtle differences. Medal of Honor and Call of Duty play very similarly, but most that have played both games would not mistake the two anymore than someone would confuse the gameplay of Halo for BioShock. The same is true for Infinity Ward and Treyarch’s shooters — albeit the differences are subtle.

Treyarch’s games tend to move at a slightly more frantic pace than IW’s, both online and off. There is also a different feel to the guns, both in the way they sound and recoil, not to mention the damage they deliver. The level design is also set differently for a different pacing, and little things like the damage grenades do are also slightly different. It isn’t a good or bad thing, just a signature, or a style, like two bands playing the same song. Black Ops is not Modern Warfare 3, but it is a worthy alternative that takes enough from its predecessor to justify replacing it.

The competitive multiplayer is essentially identical to the previous games in terms of gametypes. The standard multiplayer deathmatches and objective-type games are all present, as is the new wager mode.

Wager mode is perhaps the most obvious addition to the Call of Duty franchise, but the most significant might be the CoD points. When you play through a game, you earn experience points to level up, as always. In addition to those experience points, you also gain CoD points, which are earned both from completing challenges and simply from time spent playing. These points are used to unlock items and add-ons, including weapons, camouflage and killstreaks.

When you reach a pre-determined level you usually unlock an item like a new weapon. But now with the CoD points, you unlock the weapon but still need to purchase it with those points in order to equip it. While at first that might seem like you are doubling the amount of work, it can also lead to a far better level of personal customization. In Modern Warfare 2, if you wanted to create a silent class, you needed to wait until you reached the level to unlock the proper perks, then you needed to complete the weapon challenges to earn a suppressor. Now with the CoD points, you can unlock only the things you want and either save up for things you will have access to later, or simply spend them on things like killstreaks rewards, which you can now also customize to your preference. The more you play it, the more you will feel how deep it goes, and people who love prestige will likely find this a huge boon to keep the game feeling fresh.

The wager mode is an entirely new game type that also uses these CoD points, but it does so by having you gamble them. When you enter a wager mode, you bet the CoD points, and when the game ends, the top three players of the round are awarded those points. There are four different types of wager games: “One in the Chamber”, where every player has a single bullet (and you earn more by killing an opponent), their melee attack, and three lives. “Sticks and Stones” starts you with a crossbow, a ballistic knife and a tomahawk only. “Sharp Shooter” randomly selects the weapon you have, then changes it after a set period of time. “Gun Game”, arguably the best of the bunch, starts everyone with a pistol, and for each kill you are awarded a more powerful gun—the winner is the first to advance through 20 levels of weapons.

With the competitive and somewhat aggressive nature of the Call of Duty community, the wager matches should appeal to fans of the series. Even better, the next time you get taunted by a mouthy 13-year old kid with a vocabulary of racism, just challenge him to a wager match and take his lunch money.

The levels are varied, but there is something for everyone. The detail to each map is fairly incredible in parts, and the majority of the levels will have several paths to take, on multiple levels.  Snipers will be able to find areas to hunt, while close combat fans can haunt the tight corners, leaving the mid range players to act as a balance.

Treyarch has always excelled at map design. Where Infinity Ward tended to make maps that conformed to a similar style—generally a large area with three major ways to go from side to side and multiple paths leading off those three main paths, Treyarch’s maps tend to be more varied. Again, that isn’t really a good or bad thing but some people might prefer one style over the other, and Black Ops maps naturally conform more to the Treyarch style than the Infinity Ward design.

There is one issue with the multiplayer that some will like and others will despise. In what seems to be an attempt to keep the game moving quickly and offset campers, the spawning is unpredictable. You will frequently have people appear behind you, and you yourself will might suddenly find yourself surrounded by enemies. It seems like a deliberate plan by Treyarch to speed the games up, but expect complaints.

As with all heavily online games, and Call of Duty especially, if something is off balance, there will likely be a patch. So while a few things stood out as mismatched — certain guns being more powerful than others and things like that — Treyarch knows its community, and you can expect any balance issues to be corrected.

Beyond that, if you have played a Call of Duty game online, then you know what to expect. The gameplay is as good as it gets, and the games are fairly evenly balanced. There is a steep learning curve for new players, but the addition of a practice mode– where you can play the online game with AI-controlled bots filling in for online players — helps. The gun selection is robust, as are the add-ons and perks. Little inclusions like camouflage and adding tags to your weapons are nice touches, but in general it is the same game that millions of people play, just new and shinier.

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Making the trip over from the World at War online is also the zombie mode, a co-op scenario where you and up to three other people fight off waves of zombies. There are three game modes, the first is set in a theater, while the second and third are played with special guest characters in unique locations. No spoilers here, it is worth the surprise.

The zombie mode is something more of a diversion than a genuine addition to the online game, but it is a great diversion, and one that you will keep coming back to. Assuming more maps are released as DLCs, the zombie mode should continue to be a small, but well-played piece of the game.


Call of Duty: Black Ops lives up to the hype — at least as any game that has ads with Kobe Bryant, custom Jeeps worth $35,000, and a fanbase in the millions could. It builds on what worked with all the previous entries, Treyarch and Infinity Ward alike, and gives enough to be fresh, while retaining the core elements and keeping itself familiar.

A few technical glitches including wacky AI and unclear mission objectives mar the game, and while the online is fun, it is nothing new.  Treyarch may be an innovator, but it doesn’t invent.  If you have never been a fan of the Call of Duty series, or just hated World at War, Black Ops is unlikely to win you over.

Black Ops is a moody and mature game with a campaign that is strong enough to make the game a hit, but when added with a polished multiplayer, the game becomes one of the best values of the year. Expect to be playing Black Ops for a long, long time- at least until we see what the next Call of Duty has to offer.

Score: 9 out of 10

(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Activision)

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Ryan Fleming
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ryan Fleming is the Gaming and Cinema Editor for Digital Trends. He joined the DT staff in 2009 after spending time covering…
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