Call of Duty: Black Ops makes a lot of ambitious changes to things around the outside edges of the action while leaving the core campaign and multiplayer components largely intact. It's got a lot of great moments, but portions of the story feel cliched and hokey. Also, this is now the fourth game out of Activision that has used the same style of combat to power its campaign and multiplayer. The formula, as awesome as it can still be, is starting to wear thin.
That's not to say that Black Ops doesn't have a lot of new tricks up its sleeve. The story found in the campaign feels like a solid departure from what's come before it. Set in the same universe as Treyarch's Call of Duty: World At War, Black Ops doesn't spend much time weaving different playable characters together into a single narrative. Instead, you play the majority of the game as Alex Mason, a special ops guy who's hooked up with the CIA to do dirty work anywhere it needs doing, and missions where you don't control Mason are there to fill in some gaps or tell Mason's tale from a different angle. The game is set over a large chunk of the Cold War, opening with a Cuban raid as you attempt to assassinate Castro. For taking on that mission, you quickly end up locked away in a Siberian prison, and the globetrotting begins. As much of the game is told via flashback, Mason's adventures are able to cover a wide period of time, taking you up to the war in Vietnam and beyond. Since we're dealing with the past, you'll encounter a few characters from real-life history, too, which feels really out of place, considering all of the over-the-top theatrics you're performing across the rest of the game.
To be clear, Black Ops is not a Vietnam game. But the middle of it most definitely is, complete with cliched examples of licensed music from the era. At one point, you're traveling down a river, blasting "Sympathy For The Devil" by the Rolling Stones. I just sort of rolled my eyes at this point. They aren't always directly related to the music, most of which is really great, but the campaign is full of moments that just don't fit. The action, meanwhile, is fairly standard. There are a lot of guys to shoot, and all that shooting gets broken up by a few larger set-pieces, including one where the game sort of turns into a real-time strategy game for a few minutes as you order a squad around from the cockpit of an SR-71. There were also a couple of baffling moments that just feel like they're underexplained by the game. In one case, you need to run up to barrels full of napalm and interact with them to take out some enemies. But the game isn't clear that running up to them is the way to proceed, so I found myself shooting the barrels, running around the barrels, running past the barrels, and so on until I stumbled upon the trigger needed to make the game move forward.
But it's the multiplayer side of Call of Duty that keeps people coming back year after year, right? The list of modes in the team-based multiplayer component hasn't really changed. Yes, Headquarters is still Headquarters. There are some gameplay changes to consider, though. You can dive to a prone position by hitting the stance change button while running. This is especially fun when used to dive through windows, and there's an in-game challenge that'll get you some bonus experience points for diving through five of them. But by and large, it's the same game, new maps. There are some great maps in the game, like Nuketown, a 1950s-style neighborhood with mannequins hanging around. Oh, and at the end of every match, a nuke goes off and destroys the level. Other maps give you a larger playfield, like Jungle, which has a small, wooden bridge at its center with enough ways to get to it that anyone crossing the bridge tends to get gunned down pretty quickly. There are 14 multiplayer maps to choose from.
Most of the killstreaks, perks, and equipment you'd expect to find in a Call of Duty game appear in Black Ops, though there are some notable changes. On the killstreak side, nukes are out and dogs (boo!) are in. There's also a new remote control car killstreak bonus that lets you control a little buggy with the aim of driving it up to a foe and making him and the car blow up. It's kind of annoying and it only requires three kills, so those little things are liable to be everywhere. Deathstreaks are completely gone. Perks are definitely present, but the pro versions of the perks take more work to unlock. Still, I found gaining the ability to get my gun back up more quickly after coming out of a run to be insanely invaluable. Some of the pro bonuses are, as before, very nice. While all this stuff is present, how you'll get it is a bit different this year.
A lot of the changes to how the multiplayer functions takes place outside of the game. The player progression has been broken into two pieces. Now, leveling up merely unlocks the ability to purchase additional weapons, perks, equipment, attachments, and, well, just about everything else. You'll have to spend your "COD points" to actually use any of that stuff. On one hand, this is nice because it lets you skip the items that don't fit with the way you play. For example, I have no desire to use gas grenades or sniper rifles. So I can focus my purchases on assault rifles and LMGs. The downside to this is that you don't feel the same thrill when you gain a level. By the time I was level 20 or so, I felt like I had unlocked just about everything to make my class function the way I like, leaving me with a lot less to look forward to. At least the pro versions of the perks are significantly tougher to unlock in many cases, giving you something significant to grind on. You can also gamble with your COD points using a contract system, which gives you a set amount of time--like 40 minutes of in-game time, in some cases--to complete specific tasks, like getting five headshots with a specific weapon or planting the bomb a certain number of times, and so on. You have to spend money to buy these contracts, and you only get paid if you complete the task before your time expires. The challenges appear to rotate on a regular basis, giving you new things to try over time, if you're so inclined. But that's not the only way you can lose all of your money.
The main new multiplayer thing in Black Ops is set of six-player free-for-all modes that fall under the heading of Wager Match. In these modes, you pony up some of your COD points as an ante, and the top three players in the round get a portion of the overall pot. These modes play around with how the weapons are used and acquired, so in Gun Game, you'll all start with basic pistols, but each kill upgrades you to a new gun, and the first player to cycle through all 20 guns (which includes the crossbow, one of the new weapons found in the game) wins. I think my favorite is One in the Chamber, which gives everyone a pistol with only one bullet. If you kill another player, you earn another bullet. So if you're out of ammo, you'll need to knife someone to rearm yourself or lose one of your three lives. It's a tense battle, because accuracy becomes so, so key. The wager-based modes feel like little mods and, in fact, Gun Game was actually a somewhat popular Counter-Strike mod. It's interesting to see the developers take a fresh stab at free-for-all play, considering that team-based modes effectively rule the shooter landscape in this day and age. It's a cool addition, but considering that most of the key items you'll unlock for multiplayer don't cost that much, it's not really something you'll need to turn to for additional funds too often.
Black Ops has a file-sharing and video editing setup similar to the tools found in Halo 3. Your matches are automatically saved, and if you like, you can go in and watch any other player's recent matches. You can also chop up smaller clips, fiddle with speed and camera angles, and save the files out to your file share, which has six slots for your saved films, screens, and custom game modes. While you can customize modes for private matches, the tools at your disposal feel fairly basic when you compare them to what Bungie's been doing with Halo for the past few years, but hey, it's a start.
The Nazi Zombies mode found in World At War returns in Black Ops, and you'll find two maps available for online play once you've completed the single-player campaign. Each map is setup with a little video, and each one has you play as a unique set of characters, giving each map its own "zombie team." Perhaps this is an unpopular stance, but I really didn't like the zombie mode in World At War, and it's not much better here. All it does here is make me miss the Spec Ops mode found in Modern Warfare 2, which I found to be a much more exciting cooperative mode. There's also a Combat Training mode that lets you go up against bots in deathmatch or team deathmatch, which would be a great option for players out there that don't have Internet connections... but for whatever reason, the mode is only available when you're connected to a network.
Moments of Black Ops look fantastic, and Treyarch's signature fire technology shines yet again, whether you're using a barrel-mounted flamethrower or just blowing things up. You'll find some sharp lighting in spots, and much of the character animation is solid. A few textures here and there look a little grungy, but it's easy to forgive some of its shortcomings when you consider the game's solid, smooth frame rate. You can opt to sacrifice a lot of that frame rate to play in a 3D mode, but I didn't find the tradeoff to be worth it at all. There are some moments that look really cool when you're playing on a proper 3D setup, but the Call of Duty series is all about that great frame rate. Without it, the entire experience suffers, even if you're getting some new depth from the 3D display.
The audio is largely fantastic. Gun reports, especially ones in the distance, really stand out nicely, and much of the voice acting helps sell the campaign. It's helped out by some big names, like Ed Harris and Ice Cube. But it's also hampered by Sam Worthington, who voices Alex Mason in such an awful, inconsistent way that by the end I was wondering if Mason (said to be a native of Alaska in the game's backstory) was Australian. Maybe it's just the horrors of interrogation, right? As I said before, a lot of the game's music is also fantastic, setting up the intense sequences with pounding tracks that don't try to be period-appropriate. The smattering of licensed music found in the game just sort of gets in the way, and makes you feel like the game is trying too hard to be compared to Vietnam-era films.
I'm usually not too big on bonus material, but Black Ops does a great job with its intel items. You'll get a couple of microfilm-style pages for each mission, and collecting intel items in those levels removes the redactions that prevent you from reading the text. This helps sell the covert CIA vibe that the game is attempting to pull off really nicely. Also, there's a hidden terminal in the game that lets you read e-mail and hack the accounts of world leaders to read theirs, as well. The terminal feels more fully featured than it probably needs to be--it even has a command history. You can unlock a couple of bonus games here, too, including an overhead twin-stick shooters and a classic text adventure. Though comparing a game to Enter the Matrix is usually seen as a bad thing, it's similar to the computer terminal found in that game, and it's very cool, even if reading JFK's e-mail feels ridiculously anachronistic.
Do you want to play more Call of Duty? I'm guessing the answer is yes, and by all means, Black Ops is worth playing. But for all its ambitious steps to set itself apart from the previous games, it flounders in a few too many of those areas to be a total success. Even with those flaws, though, the heart of the series--its competitive multiplayer--lives on quite well, which should be enough to satisfy most fans of the franchise.