Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops (multiplayer)

After being addicted to Battlefield: Bad Company 2’s multiplayer since its release, and massively underwhelmed (read: epically disenchanted) by Medal of Honor’s promising-on-paper-but-ultimately-disappointing multiplayer component, I had high hopes for Call of Duty: Black Ops’ multiplayer. As fans of the show will know, I had the privilege of being the only Australasian journalist to be flown over to LA earlier in the year for a super-secret Black Ops competitive multiplayer hands-on event. I couldn’t rave enough about the game then, and that was only a relatively small taste of what was on offer.

Fast-forward to the release date of Black Ops and it wasn’t long before I delved into the multiplayer component with my good friend and website contributor, QuesterX. Over the next few days, I would clock up some 26 hours of gameplay time in multiplayer. That’s a very, very good sign.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those who have played any form of Call of Duty competitive multiplayer over the last few years (basically since the launch of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare), you will be familiar with the formula; much of which translates to Black Ops. And why not? After all, if it ain’t broke, why the fuck would you fix it?

Usually I’m against this mentality for games as it relies a lot on letting developers rest more on their laurels than pushing that beautiful envelope otherwise known as innovation. But when it comes to multiplayer, it’s infinitely more logical and forgivable to repeat and improve upon the existing formula because that’s what keeps a multiplayer community coming back for more. Especially considering how adamant Treyarch were that they’d taken community feedback into account—which is certainly evident in the final product—there’s not much point in making a multiplayer component if no-one wants to play it!

The fast-paced nature of Call of Duty multiplayer is back and better than ever. With a dedicated competitive multiplayer team, a lot of time and effort has been put into balancing the game. Divisive Perks such as Juggernaut (extra health), Commando (increased melee range), Stopping Power (increased bullet damage) and Overkill (two primary weapons) have been removed entirely, while grenade launcher loving ‘n00b tubers’ have been somewhat nerfed.

Because Call of Duty multiplayer encourages a breakneck pace, this balancing is crucial to ensure two main staples: that no weapon/Perk combination is too overpowered and that there is still some level of accessibility in what has become a fiercely competitive and aggressive multiplayer game. To further support fresh blood in the world of Call of Duty competitive multiplayer, Treyarch has also added a neat n00b-friendly feature: Combat Training.

In this mode, players can explore maps, Perks, Kill Streaks, weapons and all other manner of multiplayer combinations without fear of being owned or flamed by aggressive Call of Duty players screaming over their microphones (come on, you know we’re like that). You can choose to play by yourself with/against AI-controlled teammates/opponents, or cooperatively with some of your buddies to get the swing of things together.

Although rather watered down compared to the actual experience of the online foray, this is a fantastic place to cut your teeth if you’re new to Call of Duty or have been owned in the past. Once you get the hang of the different maps and find a loadout that suits you, you’ll be much better equipped to take the fight online.

But that’s not to say there isn’t a learning curve once you step onto the online battlefield. As a proficient first-person shooter fan who firmly believes in being able to migrate generic FPS skills from one arena to another, there’s still an initial slog to get a feel for the game; particularly after spending far too many hours in the slower pace of Bad Company 2’s multiplayer.

For me, the main problem with the initial learning curve is the weapons that are available to you from the outset. They’re not completely useless by any stretch of the imagination, but for anyone who didn’t start unlocking new weapons from the release day, you’ll be at a noticeable disadvantage. The higher level weapons are usually more accurate, dish out more damage and basically have a whole lot more stars than their lower-levelled counterparts.

While this doesn’t usually matter if you know the maps and how to get the drop on other players, it does become problematic in a head-to-head firefight, as the better weapon will usually win. So in some respects, you have to prepare yourself for at least a few hours of grind (if not longer) to find a weapon/Perk/Kill Streak/kit combination that suits your preferred playing style and, of course, have enough credits to pimp them all out.

Yes, there’s an in-game currency system in Black Ops that is really well implemented. Instead of unlocking a core weapon and then having to use a particular attachment/get a certain number of kills with said weapon to unlock further attachments, you now have access to all attachments once a weapon has been unlocked. You need to spend your hard earned in-game cash to purchase pretty much everything: Perks, Kill Streaks, weapon attachments and the fancy personalisation options such as face paint and weapon engraving.

You earn more credits by pwning n00bs, winning rounds and completing a variety of passive Challenges that the game throws at you. On top of this, you can select to have three concurrent ‘Contracts’ running at a time to earn even more cash. Back yourself to complete certain objectives—such as scoring a certain number of headshots in a certain amount of game time—and you can win back more money than you put down to start the Contract: simple.

But this isn’t even the real fun part of the currency system. The biggest drawcard is the inclusion of Wager Matches. These take on four different flavours—Gun Game, Sticks and Stones, One in the Chamber and Sharpshooter—and all start off at high levels of addictiveness and stretch out to rather extreme levels.

Gun Game will be familiar to anyone who played the Counter-Strike mod of the same name: everyone starts with the same weapon and a kill upgrades you to the next weapon until one player gets a kill with the 20th weapon. Stab someone, though, and they’ll lose a level.

Sticks and Stones spawns every player with a ballistic knife, crossbow (with explosive-tipped arrows) and a tomahawk. The ballistic knife is a one-hit kill, the crossbow sticks to enemies and blows them to hell, while the tomahawk ‘bankrupts’ an enemy. That’s right, you can be winning (as I was many, many times) and get taken back to last by a well-aimed tomahawk. Also, if you get stuck with an explosive arrow, you can run down your opponent in your remaining seconds of life to take them down with you… and also bankrupt them: vengeance never tasted so sweet.

One in the Chamber is by far my favourite and, without a doubt, the tensest multiplayer mode I’ve ever played. Every player has one bullet and it kills with one shot, regardless of where it hits. You can earn an extra bullet by shooting an enemy, or stab them to horde more lead. You only get three lives, and your spawn position factors into how well you will go… yes, luck is a big part of this particular Wager Match play mode.

Sharpshooter spawns every players with the same randomised weapon that cycles every 45 seconds. Get consecutive kills and you’ll also earn Perks that make killing a whole lot easier. It’s the most straightforward Wager Match and the one I played least.

Treyarch could’ve taken the easy path and given players a whole lot more of the same, with new weapons, Perks, Kill Streaks and all the other tiny nuances that we expect to be added/improved upon in new Call of Duty games. They earn full respect points for doing all of that AND adding Wager Matches that could have easily have been a charged DLC thing.

Most of my Black Ops multiplayer hours have been spent on the PC; after all, why wouldn’t I play on the platform that was built for FPS? Unfortunately, the PC multiplayer experience has a few kinks to be ironed out from when I last played (quite a while ago at the writing of this review). The server browser is an odd affair that, when refreshed, seemingly returns different random server results every time. Although Modern Warfare 2 was slaughtered for its lack of dedicated server support, it did have the rather groovy inclusion of a console-esque party system so your buddies could all join a pre-match lobby before joining a server. This feature is sorely missing from Black Ops and means that you have to wait for a friend to be fully connected to a server before you can join their game. Couple this with the ‘coin flip’ mechanic that determines whether you’ll actually be on your friend’s team, and it becomes rather frustrating.

But the biggest PC-related gripe in regards to Black Ops multiplayer is the 100% CPU load issues that were being reported all too frequently during my 26 hours of play. Unfortunately, this also applied to my experience. What this translates to is frame rate skipping; which, as any avid PC gamer will know, is the worst thing that can happen in any online FPS. The slightest skip in frame rate, can mean the difference between a headshot and frequenting dead place. I even tried turning my graphics down (I ran the game in full settings for the campaign without any dramas), but the problem persisted.

But, despite these flaws, the reality of the situation is that Black Ops multiplayer is a tour de awesomeness, brimming with content and improvements across the board that make it an engaging online experience. I haven’t even had a chance to play with the Theater (thank you American spelling) mode that lets you play director over stored footage of your recently played games, but that is really an extra cherry on top of an already-impressive cake.

9/10

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