Call of Duty: Black Ops looks as though it may go on to become one of the best-selling games of all-time. This is a worrying statistic.
Black Ops is not a disaster, it’s not the searing exposé of Treyarch’s failings as a developer many thought it would be. It’s well put together, slick and at times accomplished. The core package offers you a 6 hour single -player campaign, Easter eggs, zombie modes and the latest instalment of the ever popular multi-player component. But there is nothing exceptional about it. If the Modus Operandi of the early COD games was excellence, immersion and realism, then the MO for Black Ops was to insert enough explosions and cool shit like people bursting through windows on a grappling rope to make a bad-ass trailer. Consequently the single-player feels a bit like a Michael Bay film, with eye-candy, over the top set pieces and about as much depth as a toddlers paddling pool. The same criticism could perhaps be levelled at last years Modern Warfare 2, where a wilfully controversial level did much to mask the lack of any real substance. One of the main problems is that the core game, the shooting section has remained exactly the same for several years now. So much effort has gone into the set-pieces and even the story, that the actual first-person shooter section of the game is beginning to feel dated and neglected. Instead of being the glue that holds the package together, the shooting is beginning to feel like the dull bit between the set pieces that has to be endured.
The early game has enough variety that you may not immediately notice these problems, you’ll find yourself throughout the course of the game doing things like escaping a prison on a motorbike, piloting a heavily armed riverboat through the treacherous waters of Laos or flying a chopper around blowing up oil pipes. These sections don’t last long, which is probably a good thing as they are more about spectacle and the thrill of doing something new than actually being fun and interesting in their own right. But the very last part of the game is back to basics – run, take cover, shoot the bad guys, proceed ten meters, rinse, repeat. It’s here you’ll notice just how dumb the AI is, never surprising, never being much more than slightly an annoying roadblock that must be cleared before you proceed. You’ll get plenty of different tools to dispose of them, but each is as good as the next and the combat lacks any urgency or tension. Even the obligatory stealth scene in the game feels like little more than an interactive cut-scene. The story is marginally better than recent entries in the series, using a more personal tale as an excuse to visit various cold-war locations and blow them up. There are recurring numbers, crazed Russians, jail-breaks, torture scenes and a big twist at the end that is nicely foreshadowed, if a little obvious. All in all the story gives you enough incentive to keep playing through the campaign, but it would be nice if the game-play was reward enough.
The multi-player is probably the strongest part of the game offering a number of tweaks from Modern Warfare 2 that make it a worthwhile proposition. If you ignore the zombie mode (you should, it’s rubbish), what you’ll find is a mode filled with options for how you want to play, how you want to look and what kinds of games you’ll want to take part in. Choice, customization and one of the best multi-player arcade shooters out there make for a satisfying and long-lasting experience. With 15 levels of prestige to be attained, there’s always something willing you to keep on playing and there’s always something to unlock. Although the mode initially released on the PC with a horrible CPU issue that caused masses of lag, the problem seems to have been patched out now, although some people with lesser PC’s may still want to give it a miss. Guns have proper recoil now, kill-streak rewards are slightly harder to earn and you can slap a picture of a unicorn on your gun if you so choose, a feature sorely lacking from most online shooters. Perhaps the best new feature of the multi-player is the inclusion of wager matches. Forget the pretence of playing to earn cash, you’ll earn enough through normal play that it will never be a great concern. Wager matches are essentially mods to the core game that ignore your level, weapons and perks and place everyone on a level playing field, each with some fun conditions. My personal favourite is Sticks and Stones, which gives everyone a crossbow with explosive bolts, a tomahawk and the ballistic knife. You earn points through getting kills with these weapons, the person with the most points at the end of the game wins. The twist is that tomahawk kills, hard to pull off but immensely satisfying cause your opponent to lose all their points. The game becomes a tense show-down where skill and timing is everything, you can’t camp or sit still for a moment in case someone comes along and sticks a tomahawk in your vertebrae. The Multi-player segment of Black Ops can be a genuinely good time, but it will still feel overly familiar to players of the last three Call of Duty installments, if you’re not interested in more of the same with new maps and weapons and gamemodes, this isn’t for you.
The Call of Duty series seems to be at a point now where it has transcended criticism. Activision are not a particularly popular company. Their CEO is something of an internet hate figure . Yet this seems to have little impact on their record-smashing sales figures even with a series that runs the risk of becoming mired in mediocrity. The worry is the message Activision and other publishers must be getting from those figures. A yearly release, churned out with a good trailer and a celeb-studded launch party are fast becoming more important than a game being any good. Black Ops is not a bad game, but it’s not the greatest of all-time. But why strive for greatness when middle of the road reaps better rewards? If you don’t care for multi-player you’d be better served avoiding Black Ops, it will leave you reminiscing of the days when the Call of Duty name was a seal of quality.