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Let's Go To The Op (Black Ops Review)

Game: Call of Duty: Black Ops
Rating: M
Platform: Xbox 360/Playstation 3/Nintendo Wii/Nintendo DS/PC
Developer: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
Released: October 2010

It seems that, especially in recent years, first-person shooters have become something of a convenient scapegoat for everything that's wrong with the games industry today.  Admittedly, I'd be remiss to pretend the genre hasn't been more than a little oversaturated, but I think the problem lies less in FPSes themselves as it does with everyone making the same kind of FPSes

First everyone was trying to be like Halo, and now everyone's trying to copy "Call of Duty," or more specifically, "Modern Warfare."  It's gotten to the point where-- even though I think the first one can be fairly considered a great game on pretty much all counts-- the look and feel of the 'gritty realistic military shooter' is honestly just getting tiring.

So after permanently getting handed the reins of the series after the Infinity Ward debacle earlier this year, developer Treyarch-- largely considered the 'other CoD developers' to put it charitably-- knew they had to do something different (at least as far as its general approach goes).  Which basically consists of taking it not into either of its regular eras like World War II and Current Events... into slightly-less recent events.

And really, they've done pretty well.

 

In the campaign that no one cares about anyway, you play as a... um, Black Ops agent, fighting through the major theatres of the 1960s, from the failed assassination on Castro during the Bay of Pigs to the fall of Hue City at the eve of the Vietnam War. 

Let me say first of all that "Black Ops'" narrative is a surprisingly good one.  In fact, this may actually be the best one in a Call of Duty game to date.  Granted, even the biggest setpiece in this one isn't as jaw-droppingly spectacular as the Bay-shaming ones of "Modern Warfare 2," but what "BO" lacks in spectacle in makes up for in focus and genuinely good storytelling.
 
It seems during their one-off year away from the series, Treyarch has been picking up tips on how to weave a narrative in the context of a first-person game, and the influences ranging from "Bioshock" to "Half-Life" (and even "Mirror's Edge" along with a touch of "Eternal Darkness" if you squint) are clear.

Granted, your character isn't exactly a font of depth, but moreso than any other Call of Duty narrative, I actually managed to care about the people in it, though the fact that I've always dug conspiracy-theory political thrillers like "The Manchurian Candidate" (another big reference point here) certainly helps.

In terms of the multiplayer, "Black Ops" is as inherently good and well-constructed as the series has always been, and what Treyarch's chosen to add generally works.  The currency system feels like a slightly more roundabout way of leveling up and the degree to which things are nickel-and-dimed seems a bit arbitrary (A layer on the emblem editor costs as much as an entire gun?  Really?), though the new Contract system is a good way of both encouraging extraneous goals and playstyle experimentation. 

The other big thing here is 'character' customization, which while fairly extensive, still isn't as good as that in "Halo Reach" on the grounds that, in adherence to 'realism,' you can't make a female soldier avatar.  Incidentally, the "Black Ops" realistic plot includes an ocean-bottom-level sealab that's actually a radio station that broadcasts numbers that tell people to do things.  So at least they're being consistent.

Really, I think the main draw of multiplayer with this new game (or at least for me) are the new Wager Matches, or more specifically, the crazy gameplay modes that go with them.  From Gun Game (in which you get a new gun for every kill and rise through 20 tiers to victory) to Sharpshooter (in which weapons for everyone are randomly cycled every 45 seconds) to Sticks and Stones (all Explosive Crossbows, Knives and Tomahawks), anyone who fondly remembers "Goldeneye" or even messing with game settings in "Halo" will have some fun with these unorthodox rulesets.

Lastly there's the Zombie Horde mode, and while it's pretty small (consisting of just two maps), in terms of context this just might be the best take on the now-obligatory zombie-murdering option we've yet seen.  Or maybe I'm just especially fond of Nixonian garbling, who knows.

"Black Ops" is certainly an enjoyable game and it's more well-rounded than plenty of other online-focused military shooters, but for me at least, this is looking like the swan song of this particular subgenre.  Not only can I not really see any other place for the "Call of Duty" games to go from here, but between "Bulletstorm," "Bodycount" and of all things, "Duke Nukem Forever" hitting shelves next year, it looks like the unrealistic over-the-top first-person-shooter may be making a comeback.  And I'd be lying if I said it can't come soon enough.

The Good: Intriguing campaign, hilarious Zombie mode, Wager Match

The Bad: Too short, new currency system feels a little arbitrary

The Ugly: Getting slaughtered on Nuketown because the other team's learned all the spawn points on the map.

Rating: 73/BG Obligatory "Fortunate Son" Playing Over a Vietnam Setpiece
 

 


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