Call of Duty: Black Ops Review
Smooth and addictive multiplayer experience with an intriguing and frantic single player
Yearly Call of Duty releases have become the norm and you might be hesitant to pick up another release thinking it is just going to be more of the same. Rest assured Black Ops doesn’t disappoint as the well known frenzied campaign and silky smooth multiplayer are as satisfying as ever. The campaign starts off with the Alex Mason, the main character, under torture and interrogation slowly reliving previous missions and their consequences. The story is well presented with a great selection of heart pumping music and copious amounts of explosive action. The pacing can be a little extreme at times and some of the missions aren’t completely up to the high standard it sets for itself.
Can we abort the mission and just watch the launch instead?
Mission quality is unfortunately rather inconsistent and if anything it starts rather badly with some cheap looking action along the streets of Cuba. Just as the story unfolds before you the missions get better, including an awesome rooftop sequence in Hong Kong and a heavy fire fight around a launching rocket. Unfortunately there is also the drudgery of bunkers with the North Vietnamese Army rushing toward you like the Bonzai charges we saw in World at War. Around this time you also get a taste of infinite spawns which will simply not stop unless you perform a specific action that is not even made clear to you. The opening few missions are actually rather disappointing but thankfully the game picks up.
The story centres on Alex Mason but you also play a few other characters mostly from the late 60s including a CIA agent and a Russian soldier. Each explores different aspects of the same story arc involving a highly dangerous bio weapon originating from the Nazis in World War 2. There seems to be a more logical connection between the different characters you play and toward the end things come together naturally just as a critical piece of the story is revealed. The story itself is worth mentioning if not for the intrigue then at least for the good presentation in exposing the twist. It’s the pacing of the action that can become a little overbearing not the twisting story.
The pacing of Black Ops is frenetic almost throughout the entire campaign as you move from one battle to the next via several viewpoints. Consequently there are a few incredibly refreshing stealth sections but they also barely give you much time to breathe before you are at full speed again. One of the better stealth mission is located around small shacks along a river in Vietnam after you helicopter is shot down. Creeping your way through the huts in the rain and swimming underwater was a superbly crafted sequence but there was never enough of it. A few minutes later you are engaged in a full on open war with countless soldiers surrounding you.
I'm not going out there, it's raining and I can't swim
Even the interrogations performed between missions can make it feel like you are being constantly bombarded with information, be it action or just a sensory overload. One of the very first missions tasks you with killing Castro and it possesses an excessive number of explosions created just outside the building you are in making it hard to even aim. Although the game is designed to be heavy on the action it does somewhat take a toll and more variation in pacing would have helped highlight the even better action sections. The good news is that some levels can be fairly open allowing you more than a few ways to get to your next objective marked on your HUD.
Like all the recent Call of Duty games the game controls what the player does and sees so precisely you can almost see the strings pulling the characters along. The HUD displays where the game wants you to move next and you rarely have to think about your direction. Friendly AI run along predefined paths causing them to sometimes move through solid objects (moved by explosions) or other characters.
Welcome to Vietnam, on your right are the infinite respawns
The AI itself left uncontrolled can struggle at times occasionally running passed enemy soldiers only to do a double take and then shoot them down. Even some vehicle segments are automatically controlled requiring just a button press at most although a helicopter sequence has good freedom of movement. The pacing and inconsistent mission quality doesn’t have a huge negative impact on the overall reception of the campaign.
When things are going well though the structure and action is very rewarding. An example was moving throughout a burning building where you get hold of a shotgun with incendiary shells which bestows upon you incredible power. Taking down several soldiers with a single blast as well as setting them on fire is quite the adrenaline rush. Another mission gives you a handy crossbow with exploding darts allowing you to blast enemies into chunks that in turn generates a satisfying squish sound. Not to forget the claustrophobic tunnel system underneath a Vietnam jungle. On normal the game is certainly not difficult and you won’t need to spend much time hiding behind cover to recharge your health because of the enemy placement. The campaign is largely a success despite the overbearing pacing and inconsistency of missions. After approximately six hours your focus will turn to the multiplayer and zombies.
The zombies are back from World at War and again you defend from hordes that come through the walls. The zombie mode in Black Ops has two playable maps with multiple areas that can be opened up as you defend from increasing waves of dangerous zombies. In one map the characters Nixon, JFK, Castro and McNamara lock and load to take down these slow moving zombies. The non-fiction characters inject some additional humour into the mode and it will certainly please fans of zombies in World at War. If you aren’t interested in zombies then the multiplayer emulation against bots, Combat Training, might be worth checking out.
Trick or Treat
Combat Training is deathmatch multiplayer with bots which although flawed is a helpful addition for those hesitant to jump online. The bots are competent enough to move around the map but don’t really reflect human opponents without the erratic and aggressive behaviour and they often stand in the open or bunch up behind rocks. On higher difficulties their aim and prediction skills (read wall hacks) is inhuman and will probably discourage you from playing too much. Even still it’s a good chance to test out weapons, maps and attachments without venturing online.
As soon as you start playing the competitive multiplayer against humans you will notice the fast paced gameplay resurfaces in the online battlefield. This also applies to the levelling system as it took me less than 10 hours to get to level 30. You earn currency and XP points, with XP increasing your level and unlocking weapons and equipment. The currency is used to buy weapon attachments, perks or killstreaks once unlocked. It can also be used to buy a huge selection of playercard items, face paint and weapon camouflage for those looking to show some personality. This system works well because you can use your preferred attachments without needing to meet some obscure challenges which are instead replaced with contracts.
Contracts can be bought using the earned currency and they will ask you to meet certain criteria like headshots, finishing on top of the scorecard or winning certain game modes. They expire after a certain time in game and range from easy to very hard but can be repeated at a later date. You can pick and choose ones that will be relevant to you or take contracts that force you to play a certain way. You earn money and XP by completing the contracts so you are just betting that you can pass the challenges in time. You can also bet on your performance during the new wager matches.
This guy is a show off
Wager matches occur on subsets of existing maps with fewer players and also ask you to bet on your performance under pressure. Six players do battle in free-for-all modes like sharpshooter, gun game and one in the chamber. The stakes are higher and if you can get a game the action is quite enjoyable. Sharpshooter itself gives each player the same weapon and then after time it rotates everybody to another weapon. The most skilled at all weapons, or the most adaptable will come out on top. It also lets you get a feel for weapons you may not have used in multiplayer yet. Even in these wager matches the gameplay should still feel familiar to Call of Duty fans.
The gameplay dynamic feels much like Modern Warfare 2 with smooth movement, fast takedowns and of course the familiar game modes. New maps are very easy to learn but have a lot of depth with good encounter spots and smart understanding of line of sight with careful object placement. Spawns can still place you in front or behind enemies for cheap kills but they are no worse than MW2. The spawns were only really a problem for me in the Headquarters mode where both teams spawned a distance away from the headquarters. A few times a handful of players from each team spawned in the same room. Even though there are cheap kills there seems to be fewer Killstreaks called in.
Killstreaks still provide heavy offensive capabilities once you gather a certain number of successive kills. RC cars replace the predator missile but have been balanced rather well; called in often they can be destroyed easily in the open. They usually give the operator one kill at least but leave you vulnerable, even still you retain control of it after death. The SAM turret is a defensive Killstreak reward that should be placed in a quiet area of the map with good sky coverage to take down spy planes and other air units, effectively shutting down many other Killstreaks that could otherwise decimate your team. The best part about Black Ops online is that it still uses a dedicated server system.
RC car go boom now
On PC Black Ops heralds a return of dedicated servers and a server browser. The browser itself works well enough and it takes very little time to get into a game. In game the dedicated servers create a much more consistent battlefield experience. Compared to MW2 there are no host migrations, no host advantages, no lobbies, no disconnections and very little changes in latencies during matches. Although player numbers for modes haven’t really increased (18 for most modes) the consistency certainly has.
The server browser and dedicated system isn’t flawless but it’s still much better than the peer 2 peer structure provided in MW2. Sadly there Is currently no way to filter by ping or stop a list while it refreshes but these simple features can be added quickly. During matches some players can stutter a bit making them hard to hit and the final killcam looks like the server is displaying it at 5 frames per second. There also doesn’t seem to be team auto-balancing should a few players happen to leave one team. Thankfully there is very little downtime between map change so you get more action during the course of session. The system is imperfect but still much appreciated after the problems plaguing its predecessor.
Perfect camping spot, wait is that a countdown?
Black Ops brings back dedicated servers and the campaign makes for a more intriguing story with action that rarely takes a break. Although still occasionally resorting to shooting gallery sections the combat is always satisfying. The incredibly high pace and sensory overload of the campaign will be tiring for many. Multiplayer feels familiar but is well balanced and highly enjoyable even in large doses. Levelling is fast, wager matches are high stakes and player customisation is rife. Black Ops stumbles at the starting line and includes some inconsistent missions during the mostly great campaign. The multiplayer is fast, smooth and incredibly rewarding and together makes Black Ops one of the best shooters of the year.