Call of Duty: Black Ops

On the heels of last year's hit Modern Warfare 2, Call of Duty: Black Ops will insert you behind enemy lines again, this time during the Cold War, when large governments were officially not involved in the affairs of smaller countries, but unofficially trying to either topple or prevent the toppling of those dominoes. So when you’re thrown into the boots of elite special forces units engaged in covert warfare, you’d better succeed, because anyone who can help you will say "What mission?" in this era of "deniable operations" in explosive conflicts around the globe.

There was a time when I appreciated the idea of a franchise. It seemed to me that the attachment towards certain standards, the development of familiar notions and the opportunity to continue or strengthen a universe previously described were the engine fueling a trademark. It seemed to me that I could trust something that had a pedigree to it and that branded things brought along a guarantee of superior quality. I believed in a license’s power and the conservation of certain values within a company.
Then I turned seven.
Let’s be honest. Franchises are created for one reason only. Money. It’s an industry, even if it’s the entertainment industry, so nobody gives a rat’s ass on something so immaterial as respect towards the fans. This is neither funny nor sad – it’s a fact of life and should be accepted as such. You may be expecting a more spectacular explanation, but the truth doesn’t have to be spectacular. The truth has to be palpable, within reach. And the truth is you have to be pretty damn naïve to think you’re being owed something on behalf of the digital entertainment industry. Which is why I find ridiculous the ever present indignation spilled on the forums in regards to Call of Duty: Black Ops lack of novelty.
This isn’t my way of saying everyone is wrong and that the latest CoD is actually a step forward. But it’s a logical sequel made for the sole purpose of cashing in on the franchise. It might as well have been named Modern Warfare 2.5. The new elements it brings are all tweaks in functionality and detail and if you squint your eyes, you’ll see the exact same landscape the previous title served you. So if MW and/or MW2 didn’t make any impression whatsoever, stop reading right now.
If you’re still on this text, you must first accept that we’re essentially talking about a new edition of an old game. Look at it this way: if you didn’t like an old movie, what are the odds that a remake will pleasantly surprise you?

Up until now there have been more war shooters than wars. Just about every modern historical event found its mise en scene somewhere in a Medal of Honor/Call of Duty/Vaguely heroic name named after a Sabbathon single. The producers would have been in serious trouble had they not taken tips from Michael Bay or the Baron Munchausen – if you make enough stuff up, any banker’s banter can turn into an exciting odyssey. And add explosions. Don’t forget to add lots of explosions.
Out of bullets
Thus, Black Ops takes place in the hot zones of the most lacking in open combat segment in human history: the Cold War. This doesn’t subtract from the intensity of the action movie we’re being served: the massacre in the Bay of Pigs looks like an Eric Bana flick, gulags are about as guarded as a day care center and the Nazi officers depicted in flashbacks can’t hold back for five minutes without gassing someone. No, really. It’s Activision’s way of saying they’re sorry for the airport level back in Modern Warfare 2.
Aside from the story’s Kodak moments, animated pretty convincingly and intensely, the campaign is a teeth-clenching rail ride. Its structure revolves around the alternation between the present and past, for about 8 hours total, time which will be spent shooting up everything that yells in foreign tongues, while you’re getting tortured.

“Yeah dude, but Call of Duty has been a scriptfest since, like, forever.” I know, but when a mate dives over a balcony and starts shooting away like a maniac while an enemy shows up behind him, pushes a wardrobe aside and starts shooting at you, totally ignoring the enemy standing one foot away, the “it’s always been like this” excuse can only hold for so much. To which you can add the endless advancement through a tunnel that’s sometimes briefly paused by “gauntlet” events. Actually, I wonder why you can still strafe, since the level design is more similar to, say, Virtua Cop (or any other rail shooter) than Quake.
Visually, the moments in which you rappel, dolphin dive in slow-motion or take a mouthful of snowy boots are gritty and intense. There are, however, two issues – one is that everything is scripted, and there’s a feeling of getting pushed aside from what is supposed to be an interactive experience after all. Furthermore, events may not get triggered correctly at times.
The mini games from the previous titles (guided bombings, rocket control) are replaced by a very short sequence of RTT-style gaming or the mandatory chopper piloting and other armed devices. But other than that, as I was saying, it’s just a rail shooter marked way too often by sequences in which control gets snatched away from you for a better “cinematic” experience.
Even so, the campaign is slightly longer than in previous titles, or shooters in general. It moves you around through multiple periods and continents, adequately adjusted to the Cold War warmed up by plastic explosives. The Vietnam parts borrow Oliver Stone’s Platoon as an atmospheric reference (Rolling Stones included) and the experience is wrapped around a psychedelic twist.

And then you get to the multiplayer. Because in the current economical climate, spending 50 Euros on 10 hours of a partially-interactive machinima would a waste. Unsurprisingly, the multiplayer is identical to the Modern Warfare one, simplified and more efficient. The same hassle of leveling up and unlocking weapons and customization tools. At level 50 you can reset everything for a new Prestige icon and some exclusive content. The achievements give you hunks of experience and you have an emblem that can be customized. The only difference from MW2 is that the inventory doesn’t fill up after you unlock stuff – you need to farm cash and use your budget to buy every toy you want to play with beforehand.
Where there are many…
In this manner, you have more control when it comes to arsenal development, and you can also try to complete contracts. Basically, you accept various gameplay challenges such as a certain kill streak, a certain number of frags with a certain weapon, finish in the top 3 and so forth. Obviously, the rewards are considerably larger than the credits you use to purchase a contract, and more difficult tasks have a better ratio. It really depends on how cocky you get.

I found the maps to be considerably better than the ones in MW2, with more hideouts, somewhat more unpredictable points of entry and – with one exception – notable difficulties when it comes to covering all angles at the same time. Nuketown aside, you’ll be able to have organized massacres in the objective-based game modes and by that I mean Search & Destroy (Counter-Strike, basically) and anything not called Free-For-All or Team Deathmatch. Also, it needs be said there are no premades – even if you invite your friends over on the same server, the Ranked ones randomly distribute everyone.
The weapons make up the standard arsenal, accessories included –scopes, iron sights, grenade launchers that gave birth to the “Noobtuber” insult and even a flamethrower. AK-47, M16, MAC11 couldn’t have been absent and we’ve got a few eccentric toys as well: Russian throwing knives, a crossbow with explosive arrows which stick to your enemies and poisonous gas grenades. The kill streaks are back as well, with helicopters, the classic spy plane and other bundles of joy. Fortunately, the nuclear bomb was removed, while the final and most entertaining assistance comes either in the form of an attack dog pack or a chopper you can pilot.
FFA enthusiasts and misanthropes everywhere will be happy to hear there are Wager Matches to be had, with alternative rule sets (such as upgrading your weapon after every frag or fixed time interval; eccentric arsenals or a single bullet in the barrel) in which you bet credits and win cash prizes as long as you’re in the top 3 – out of 6. The maps are naturally much smaller – sections from the standard roster. If you’re good, you’ll get rich in no time. If not, you’ll rage quit because someone just bankrupted you with a well placed Tomahawk to the forehead.

The Co-Op campaign Activision once promised is nowhere to be found, so stop looking for it. There is however a co-op survival zombie mode with some management elements (weapon purchases, paying to open new rooms, barricade construction) but it’s not all that addictive and compared to any contemporary zombie shooter, it falls flat.
Although I find this addendum somewhat redundant, the realism demands anyone may have from Call of Duty will not be satisfied even in passing: the recoil, sounds and weapon effects have more in common with Unreal Tournament than planet Earth in the Cold War period. True, Call of Duty was never about realism, but the sound quality is considerably lacking when compared to the competition and even previous titles in the series.
On the other hand, servers and opponents can be found in spades, so you won’t have any kind of problems getting into any sort of mode at any time of day or night. Assuming, of course, that you have an adequate PC, because the optimization in Black Ops leaves something to be desired. If you don’t own a high-end PC, you’ll have to cut down your details until it looks like a 6-year old game in order to have decent framerates, and the bad part is that even if you go all the way up it doesn’t look all that great. At least the producers are trying to solve the issues via patches, but it remains to be seen whether the obnoxious system requirements will get Treyarch on the same plank Activision made Infinity Ward walk.
Adding everything up, Black Ops has to be taken with a pinch of salt, as a list of improvements on Modern Warfare 2’s hit skeleton: lean, dedicated servers (but only for rent), as well as everything we bullied the last Call of Duty for, along with a campaign that can basically be described as a tram ride and a level of optimization that made our editor-in-chief wonder why he handed me the game without a solid upgrade coupon in the first place.

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