Thursday, 18 November 2010

Review: Call Of Duty: Black Ops (360)

Ignoring reality, Black Ops firmly has its feet solidly in the realms of fantasy: Busting through a set of doors before busting a cap in the head of Fidel Castro is clearly a world away from such endeavours black ops units actually get up to. But then again, we never know. Certainly not with a team designated to perform operations that no upstanding military commander would authorise - at least not officially, and that is what makes Treyarch’s latest an interesting tale.

So this instalment in the award-winning Call Of Duty series once again further allows itself to be larger than life, with intense set pieces and non-stop gunfights for terrain supremacy, funnelling you along corridors in what looks like an FPS gallery shooter with firm homage’s to yet more Hollywood movies. Then again, this is exactly what Modern Warfare turned the series into. But even before, it was heavily branching down the path of arcade realism. Black Ops simply lives up to this premise. It’s here to please those grown accustom to the series trademark style, and unrelenting ballet of bullets.

It’s not that I particularly mind this forte of action. In fact I rather like it. The balance of near constant shooting, with brief pauses in between to regenerate health, commandeer a fixed-turret machine gun, or in order to quickly take a breather and assess the situation is exactly what makes this series tick. However, Black Ops also shows that the now well-worn formula works even better when combined with a more coherent storyline, and a focus on individual characters, however small, rather than being an all out mish-mash of convoluted James Bond-esque set pieces and mindless exposition.

Here, you spend most of your time in the shoes of John Mason, a Black Ops team member that now finds himself captured and being interrogated about events from past missions. Hidden behind a smoky glass window, an un-named spook attempts to extract vital parts of your service history, which are presented through various flashbacks as you succumb to the pain inflicted. These flashbacks comprise the game’s long sea of missions, taking you through Vietnam, Cuba, Russia, and back again in a heightened Cold War era tale of misinformation and distrust.

Essentially, through these flashbacks Black Ops tracks your progress taking part in everything from the apparent assassination of Castro, and discovery of a chemical weapon – the potent never gas, Nova 6 – right the way through to hunting down the Russia generals and Ex Nazi commander responsible for the new terrorist threat.

At first the story seems somewhat disjointed, almost feeling dazed and confused like John Mason in the chair he finds himself strapped down to. However, as more of Mason’s memories come flooding back to the surface, and as the elaborate tale unfolds as a whole, everything becomes clear as day, with Black Ops keeping you gripped with its focus on giving away brief snippets of information via short and snappy cut-scenes.

To that end the single player campaign is a more tightly reigned in affair compared to MW2, with emphasis on big budget Michael Bay style set pieces, and a near constant barrage of action. It is never quite as overdone as some of the things found in Infinity Ward’s last COD title, with the larger events feeling more realistic in a warped sense of the word. Plus, the game tries to keep a balance between the large explosive encounters and quieter missions that are based around stealth or a brief moment of tactical combat.

Outside of these ebb and flow elements to the action, the straight forward shooting is broken up even more with several vehicle sections whereby you take control of helicopters, boats, and a tank in bringing about some stylised destruction. What’s cool about these, is that some have been deliberately influenced, and dare I say, going as far as ripping off various Vietnam flicks of the past thirty years of so with the use of licensed soundtracks and iconic confrontations – it all makes the fictional story, and the combat more natural when compared to some of things the series has thrown at you before (the nuke in COD4 anyone?).

Black Ops also takes the time to stretch out the battlefield even further than before, providing players with larger, more open spaces in which to take part in elaborate battles that have to be handled a little differently. Like with the rest of the game, there are always a few carefully orchestrated set pieces to be found amongst the endless amounts of enemies to kill.

However polished most of the action is throughout – and it is a superb, well-constructed affair - Treyarch don’t always seem to get it right all the time. And in too many of these open battlefield sections the old case of respawning enemies rears its ugly head once again. Ultimately, there’s little you can do other than to shoot down a few them before making a run for it to the next checkpoint, thus stopping the endless flow of potential cannon fodder.

The first Vietnam stage is home to the most obvious, and easily the worse implementation of this in the entire game, whereby, as you are making your way down an embankment to the trenches below over the horizon literally dozens of enemies continuously head your way. Sure, you can push over a few barraels and set them alight to keep odds stacked in your favour. But if you don’t… its run and gun until you reach the next section.

This is perhaps the main difference between Black Ops and Modern Warefare 2 – other than having a more succinct and character driven narrative – in which the game feels like its relying on an old, thoroughly worn out tactic to deliver a challenge that could’ve been handled far more intelligently. It’s no deal breaker. And other than a few short spells of frustration here and there, the campaign is handled with a lot more reserve and direction than expected.

Black Ops’ single player expedition through the cold war era is firmly solid and handled with minute precision. Cool touches like licensed music and the inclusion of real life figures such as president John F Kennedy add weight to the proceedings, whilst the gameplay is cut from the same cloth as previous Call Of Duty’s, almost feeling a little too comfortable in its own skin.

As you’ve probably guessed, progression isn’t a word Black Ops understands, nor heeds to at this point. But then again it doesn’t really need to, not when the overall game is as polished as it is. The gameplay, although tried and tested, perhaps even a little stale, is still as involving as ever, and the more focused nature of the campaign helps it shine through any excursions of monotony. As Modern Warfare 2 demonstrated: being bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. And this is one cliché that Black Ops thankfully manages to avoid.

Like with all Call Of Duty titles though, the campaign is just for starters. It could be argued that the multiplayer – especially online – is firmly on the charge, delivering an automatic spray of replay value well after the cold war conflict of the single player outing has happily exhausted its supply of conscripts. Black Ops then, doesn’t disappoint. With a range of inspired new game modes, and a return of World At War’s fanatically popular ‘Zombies’ Treyarch again have shown command of a franchise they originally were criticised for taking the reins of.

It’s no surprise then to learn that online and multiplayer is exactly where the franchise has taken its biggest steps forward. New modes, and a currency system of sorts expands and complements COD’s trademark use of perks and the established procedure of ranking up as you play, with the ability for greater levels of customisation amongst players whilst adding variety in an increasingly familiar environment.

The use of the new COD points for one, allows you to purchase weapons, clothes, and abilities in the form of perks instead of simply ranking up to get such items. Interestingly this adds a lot more variety to the proceedings without the expense of making the experience feel un-balanced. It’s pretty coo to gain new things more quickly, rather than having to battle it out in endless online matches in order to rank up to do so.

You can even gamble away these points in a series of free-for-all modes called Wager Matches, in which a variety of game types are available. Highlights include One in the Chamber, whereby each player is only given a pistol with one bullet, a knife, and three lives, and Gun Game, in which players start off with a pistol and are given a new weapon with each kill. Getting knifed gives you back the previous weapon, while getting a new one means that you’ll have to quickly adapt to using weapons you may not be very adept at using.

Also as mentioned earlier the Zombies mode from COD: World At War makes its riumpant return, but this time is expanded upom with several maps, and the ability to play as either of John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Robert McNamara, and Fidel Castro while battling Zombies in The Pentagon, which is pretty cool to say the least. Four players can play online in co-op, whilst there is the legacy two-player split screen option for those who want to be in a room with ‘real’ people.

If there’s anything to complain about, it’s that the game’s matchmaking service is a little slow, and the online co-op campaign of WAW is strangely absent. Besides that Black Ops takes some large strides forward in delivering the deepest, most satisfying range of multiplayer modes to date. The combination of perks, rankings, with COD points and a range of excitingly geniuos new modes helps keep it right up there along with the awesomeness that was the original Modern Warfare online.

Unusual as it first may seem, it appears that Call Of Duty Black Ops well and truly does deliver. There is always a risk of creating an instalment that fails to differentiate itself enough from past games, or one which strays a little two far from the crows nest. However, Black Ops does neither. Instead, it balances a fine line with a single-player campaign that simply treads old ground in a more coherent manner, and a multiplayer in which it mixes up the familiar helping to keep it exciting.

And overall, as complete package there’s simply no doubt that Treyarch have done a reasonably stellar job here. The level of polish, and expertly crafted, fast-paced, visceral action takes a page right out of the Infinity Ward rulebook, but doing it better than MW2, and with even more style. It can be said with confidence that the studio should no longer be looked at under the cloud of IW’s past successes, but instead as a solid team on their own, with their own take of what Call Of Duty should be.


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