Some of the credit for this success comes from the simple change in thematic direction, which the "Black Ops" in the title gives away. Call of Duty games, including, to a degree, the two Modern Warfare entries, cast the player in the midst of large-scale battles. This approach created epic encounters and brought with it a unique aspect of being there to observe historic moments. But it also forced the fairly unbelievable uber-soldier role on the character.
By embracing the small-scale covert actions behind the scenes of war, Black Ops strikes a combination much better suited to the style of shooter it wants to be. Being behind enemy lines, facing seemingly insurmountable odds, comes naturally because that's what these soldiers do. The personal nature of their exploits also lends a sense of intimacy that works better at setting up the moment-to-moment gun battles in the game. Even when caught in larger battles, it's with the context of the personal mission at hand--like working through the chaos to an insertion point or rescuing a high value target.
Black Ops uses all this to its advantage to create my favorite story for the series to date. It begins with a setup that works perfectly for the late-60's cold war era in which the game takes place. It was a time filled with clandestine operations as each side vied for the upper hand, with mutually assured mass destruction hanging in the balance. Telling the story as a series of flashbacks that come out while the main character gets aggressively interrogated, immediately raised the stakes for the game right off the bat. Falling into the hands of the enemy had to be an operative's greatest fear. So there I am, no idea what's happened, putting together the story as I'm being tortured and wondering all along if at the same time I'm compromising the future of the free world.
Flashbacks also provide the narrative device necessary to maintain a coherent story as the game hops to pivotal events around the globe. A little bit of setup as the interrogator lays out what he wants to know provides just enough framework to start organizing events in my head and make sense of it all. Sure, the story takes its twists and turns, but by maintaining the integrity of the plot around one central character, when it all comes together in the end, it makes sense. And along the way I enjoyed thinking I had things figured out--sometimes correctly, others, not.
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The game side of Black Ops poses no similar challenges. It relies on the tried-and-true, down-the-barrel experience with very little change to the core shooter mechanics. The action keeps pace with the story, rarely overstaying its welcome in any one place or mode. If anything, it occasionally abandons something that's working well before I'd had my fill. For instance, the sequence that's been frequently shown with a SR-71 recon plane guiding a squad on the ground ends before really exploiting what could have been an interesting dynamic between tactical and shooting elements.
Black Ops also falls into some lingering bad habits in its push to maintain focus on progressing the story. Level design stays strictly linear and it mostly works with the high-adrenalin, moment-to-moment action. But in a few places where the illusion broke I felt artificially constrained and herded down a narrow path ahead. At those times the trigger points for the next "event" also became painfully obvious. In the worst couple of examples I got held up facing endless waves of enemies where instead of using my wits to fight forward the best answer was to make a mad dash in hopes of hitting the next trigger.
These are isolated incidents, though, and for most of the game Call of Duty's satisfying gun play shines brightly enough to distract me from its problems. Black Ops isn't stingy with its arsenal; a combination of weapons stashes and drops from enemies made it pretty easy to get whatever combination of guns I wanted. The variation between those guns felt less distinct to me than before, though. The distinguishing features came from rate of fire, clip capacity, and kick (some of the assault rifles really kick hard now) but, at least among classes, the lethality of the various guns seemed about on par with one another.
By the end of the game I'd settled into my preferred loadout and felt ready to crank the difficulty up for another run through. More importantly, I was set to start my multiplayer career. In Call of Duty tradition, Black Ops features extensive multiplayer unlocks, driven by the new CoD points currency system. Weapons, perks, clan tags, and all the rest return from prior games. A couple of new perks are sure to see a lot of early action. In our closed review sessions the flak jacket helped tremendously in cutting down on deaths from grenade lobbers. The RC truck on the other hand became possibly more reviled than the dogs of World at War. It's easy to hear coming, but drawing a bead on it and taking it down before it gets in range to detonate is a whole other matter.
Along with the traditional multiplayer modes of the series like domination and team deathmatch, Black Ops introduces a new type of online game called wager matches. The betting element relates back to the multiplayer credits system used for all the unlocks. Anteing in with CoD points sets the pool which gets divvied up among the top three players on the scoreboard at the end of the match. Adding an extra little tweak to the system, each of the four modes has a risk/reward element to it. For instance, in 'Sticks & Stones' everyone gets a single throwing tomahawk; land a kill with it and the player taken down loses all their points, dropping to the bottom of the leader board. Or 'Gun Game' where everyone starts with a pistol, progresses through every weapon in the game with each kill; knife someone, though, and they drop to the previous weapon in the ladder. This can cause complete chaos near the end of the match as everyone vies to knock off the leader of the moment.
With so much of the multiplayer coming down to how well the maps and modes deter exploits when pounded on by thousands of players, it's impossible to give Black Ops multiplayer a final say from my closed matches. The carryover modes and character development system have proven to be powerful draws in prior versions and should have the same effect here. The novelty of the wager matches brings in a nice twist and seems particularly well-suited to hopping in for short sessions and still feeling like I accomplished something.
We'll know in the coming weeks and months whether it all comes together as it ought and if it receives the continuing support attention necessary to for it to succeed. With heavy sales all but assured from the record-setting pre-orders, we should get the answer to that question pretty quickly. But I doubt many will want to wait and see what happens. The real question about multiplayer isn't whether people will be playing; it's how many complaints they'll have, how serious they are, and how long it takes to see them addressed.
Even if it stumbles against those challenges, Black Ops still has zombies up its sleeve as another option. Like World at War, Black Ops includes a zombie defense mode with up to four holed up in a bunker. There's also a "secret" Dead Ops Arcade game as well. It's a twin-stick, top-down shooter done in the main game engine so it has all the special effects to boot. Innocuous as it appears, I lost over an hour to it the first time I tried it out just chewing through levels and grabbing loot and power-ups.
Deciding how to spend my playing time could wind up being my biggest problem in Black Ops. I enjoyed the story and high points of the single-player campaign enough that I feel the pull to go back and play it again at higher difficulty—something I almost never do. I want to get online, work on my class unlocks, and have more of those frenzied last couple minutes of wager matches. And I know I'll wind up dropping zombies here and there and jump in to Dead Ops. Launch day only starts the storyline for a game like this, but with a great single-player story, complete multiplayer, and supporting modes, Black Ops looks well-prepared to take, and hold, the title as the best Call of Duty game.
[Call of Duty: Black Ops review was conducted on a final retail disc of the Xbox 360 version of the game. Early access to the game was provided by Activision at a special event held at a remote resort. Activision provided food and lodging for the three day event.]