Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops (single-player)

It’s no secret that the first-person shooter genre is, by far, my most beloved gaming category. I still have cherished memories of sitting around a computer with my brothers and playing Wolfenstein 3D. From the earliest days of my PC gaming obsession, the first-person shooter has been a regular port of call, and one that I still like to visit often. But my beloved genre is changing. Some may argue evolution but, for the most part, it seems to be one step forward, two steps back (or sideways), and I’m not entirely convinced that this evolution has been altogether positive; instead, it’s more platypusian than anything else.

The Call of Duty franchise isn’t exactly new and has, seemingly, taken a fully modernistic military turn now that Treyarch has shot its way out of the trenches of World War II and into more contemporary battlefields. While Call of Duty: Black Ops, the latest offering from Activision’s ridiculously popular FPS series, isn’t as chronologically evolved as the Infinity Ward entries (Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2), it goes a long way to showing that Treyarch can make Call of Duty lightning hit twice.

Say what you want about the Activision decision to go from Modern Warfare’s contemporary setting to the World War II time period of World at War, but the latter game rocked. That’s not to say that Modern Warfare wasn’t awesome—it was—but Treyarch had the tricky job of following one helluva hard act, and having to offer compelling reasons for gamers to want to jump back into the oft-visited World War II conflict.

With Call of Duty: Black Ops, it’s clear that Treyarch has not only been given a whole lot more resources to work with, they’ve also been given a whole lot more faith and, more importantly, trust in their abilities. Right from the word go, I was immersed with the cryptic loading screens followed by an anonymous woman reading out random numbers: intriguing. Even the semi-interactive menu (for more on the menu-based Easter Egg, check out this post here) gets you in the mood for what’s to come, before the story has even started.

And when the story does actually start, it sucks you in. As with the aforementioned menu, the game begins with the protagonist, Alex Mason, strapped to a not-so-comfortable torture chair while unseen assailants persist with distorted-voice questions and the occasional provocative bout of electricity. Mason already seems in a bad way and the story is told, for the most part, from his memories of the various undercover events he’s been involved in.

This is a fantastic storytelling mechanic for a game. It allows Treyarch to move around in the chronology of the story, switch perspectives and even weave in some interesting plot reveals right from the outset. In many ways, this makes the Call of Duty tradition of juggling perspectives a lot smoother than other outings and it goes a long way to engaging the player more in terms of its storytelling.

Everything about the campaign is epic. The scope is huge, the time periods covered are vast (from the end of World War II to the late 1960s) and the action set-pieces are explosively delicious. From an opening mission where you’re tasked with the job of taking down Fidel Castro, to flying a borrowed Soviet attack chopper and dishing out some airborne justice, the pace of Black Ops is frantic. Just when it threatens to become too overbearing, the game slows down for a time, offering stealthier missions that provide some breathing space in between frantic shootouts and oodles of big bangs.

To call Black Ops the Michael Bay of first-person shooters is unfair (although I can certainly see why some would say that), because it doesn’t acknowledge the depth of this shooter. Sure, the explosions are abundant, the music is mostly of the rock ballad variety and you’ll end the game with a body count big enough to make Rambo blush, but I cannot stress enough how pleasantly surprised I was by the depth of the narrative.

World at War showed some fantastic moments of characterisation and effective emotional moments (the end of the Russian storyline springs to mind) and these have been improved upon for Black Ops. Where Modern Warfare 2’s twists and character deaths felt cheap and convenient, Black Ops has some genuinely impacting character demises and a clever reveal towards the end that was still satisfying (albeit a wee bit unnecessarily convoluted), even though I saw it coming.

I found it amusingly ironic that Black Ops succeeded in areas that Medal of Honor (check out my review here) did not for me. Medal of Honor tried hard to be gritty and realistic with an engaging storyline, but thanks to the abundance of bugs and other problems it fell short and failed to maintain any sort of immersion. While Black Ops is certainly the less realistic of the two, there is an emphasis on realism (weapon research, tactics, related historical events, etc.) and there are some rather gritty and confronting moments. Try not reacting to Mason stabbing a dude in his windpipe and none-too-quickly sawing his way out.

Most of my campaign experience with Black Ops was on the PC and, as with any FPS, I always default to playing on hard difficulty. There is a very hard (read: insane) option as well, but hard was sufficiently challenging, even if the game had to cheat from time to time to make it difficult. There were isolated moments when an enemy would be temporarily invincible, or the odd random bullet/explosion that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Occasionally I could run through firefights and take an abundance of damage, while other times I’d die from a whole lot less.

Regardless, the challenge factor rarely creeped into the undesirable district otherwise known as Pulling My Hair Out-ville. While the enemies can be tough (particularly those rolling Spetsnaz bastards), it’s mostly due to the advantages they often have in numbers, bunkers and elevated positions more-so than their cunning stunts.

For the most part, Black Ops is a corridor shooter, but it subtly makes you believe that you’ve chosen the path you have by dragging you into the heat of the moment. A lot of what kept me connected with the game’s narrative was the superb voice acting. Except for the occasional accent slip-up by Sam Worthington, the voice of Alex Mason, he did a fantastic job of breathing life into the first instance of a voiced protagonist in the Call of Duty series. It also helped that he had support from Hollywood legend Gary Oldman, who returns as the voice of Reznov (although you’d be hard pressed to pick any trace of Oldman’s voice in Reznov) and Ed Harris as Special Agent Hudson. Even Ice Cube does a solid job of voicing Corporal Bowman.

I was expecting a short campaign length, but it took around 10 hours to complete the single-player portion of Black Ops. Bear in mind that this did involve me dying a lot… apparently first-person shooters nowadays require the player to use odd things such as cover and when the screen starts going red it means death is imminent not that you’ve just entered Awesome Town. There were sporadic odd moments where it wasn’t clear what my objective was (the napalm barrel mission springs to mind) but, by and large, the game held my focus from start to finish.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Black Ops and am seriously considering revisiting the campaign on the Xbox 360. This is mostly because I want to unlock the second Zombies level for playing on Xbox LIVE, but the fact that I’m so willing to return to a campaign that I’ve recently bested also speaks volumes for its appeal. While there aren’t any overly compelling replayability factors involved in the Black Ops campaign (unless you’re an Achievement junkie), it left a really pleasant aftertaste in this gamer’s mouth that I’m keen to try again.


SECOND OPINION – ko-zee-ii

Considering my love for what Treyarch brought to the Call of Duty series and my dislike of Modern Warfare and the online jackals that support it, I felt in limbo as I worked my way through the single player campaign. When the story lagged around the half way mark, I almost put Black Ops aside and was more than happy to make my way back to Bad Company 2. At Nachos’ and guest Steve Farrelly’s urging I persevered on, and I’m glad I did.

I became invested, once more, into Mason’s plight and found the plot dragging me in deeper than before. It did little to allay my dislike for the frequency at which you constantly die, and cheaply, mind you, with certain levels (particularly the one where you’re in a Hazmat suit to prevent exposure to Nova 6) nearly turning me bald with hair tearing frustration.

Though it wrapped up a little quickly for my liking, I was satisfied at its conclusion, and would happily take it out for another spin… venturing online, however, that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.

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  • Anonymous

    Good review Nachos, IMO it is arguably the best of the COD franchise, and MP is actually good fun in BlacOps. The campaign can be terribly frustrating in parts, playing through on veteran first time round probably wasn’t the best idea I ever had, but is great fun. It has some great moments too, cruising down the river blowing the hell out of everything to the sounds of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and the start of the POW mission two of the standouts.