Review: Call of Duty – Black Ops

First things first, I have a new level of respect for the people who write the Eurogamer subtitles. After sitting here for nearly half an hour trying to think of a clever and funny one and coming up with nothing, I hearby vow never again to criticise the puns that make up the subject of so many comments posts.

And now on to the game… (and yes there will be spoilers, as if anyone who cares hasn’t finished the game already).

Like most self-respecting gamers I have very little love for Activision/Blizzard right now. Long ago did Rock Band steal my heart from Guitar Hero, I have never understood the draw of World at Warcraft and every sentence that Bobby Kotick emits kills a small part of my boyish spirit: the cream of the crop was my firm belief that Bad Company 2 was most definitely better than Modern Warfare 2. You must now imagine my horrible distress to find myself enjoying Black Ops more than I had with any Call of Duty game before, and that’s all because, against the horrific soap-opera that was the Infinity Ward split and Kotick’s geyser of inane drivel, Treyarch went about putting together a really good game, which to be fair I don’t think anyone expected.

The single-player has many shortcomings, one of them ironically being its brevity, although compared to Medal of Honor it feels like a digital War & Peace. The story is utterly and completely ludicrous to a point that stretches even beyond the parody of a Roger Moore-era James Bond flick. The notion that the Soviet Union could have built that enormous underwater base in the Caribbean with no-one noticing defies belief, and the numerous action sequences which never let up are just as illogical. Then we have the fact that the Vietnam War, which let’s describe as questionably motivated at best, is presented in exactly the same style and with the same atmosphere as World War II games, which leads us to the conclusion that Treyarch either didn’t do any historical research or purposefully ignored it. That’s not even considering the idiocy of a team of “Black Ops” making such a wreckage that any possible deniability is not incomparable to the setting of the game: i.e. blown to pieces. But after all this the problem with the story that got to me most was the way they dealt with Dimitri Petrenko. To anyone who spent hours of their lives getting him through World at War (even worse if you tried to complete it on veteran) the decision to kill him off in such a cheap manner to try to create emotion in a game completely devoid of any is lazy at best, and insulting at worst. He might as well have just jumped off the Reichstag at the end of WaW for all the difference it would have made.

But if you don’t care about story then the mechanics of the game are fairly solid. You point your gun at people, they die, you walk to some more people, repeat, occasionally with some extra heavy ordnance included. There’s nothing inherently bad about any of it, but it also hasn’t changed one iota in numerous iterations and the whole experience is really starting to stagnate. In order to push it up to Bioshock or Deus Ex level something fresh is needed to reinvigorate this franchise.

However, given the prominence of multiplayer that’s probably never going to happen. As ever then, it has to be the multiplayer which serves as Call of Duty’s coup de grace, and while there are still numerous hair-wrenching, controller-smashing experiences, this is definitely one of the best multiplayer CODs in many a year. For one thing it lacks the sniper-heavy feel of Treyarch’s last attempt, whose huge and open maps gave long-range campers an unfairly large advantage. It also doesn’t have anywhere as many annoying little glitches and secret spots that unscrupulous types can use to their advantage, as most obviously happened in Modern Warfare 2. Additionally the removal of reward-kills from earning killstreak rewards means that the whole experience feels much more rounded than before and succeeding is far more about skill than it had been in previous iterations. It’s by no means perfect, and spawn campers, glitchers, drop-shotters and people generally playing to artificially boost their own sense of self-worth rather than for fun can be still be found in a good portion of matches, but that’s hardly unexpected when a game has a player base as huge as Black Ops enjoys.

The real God-send that raised Black Ops above the rest though is the sheer genius that is the wager matches, although not so much for the wager function. No, the real brilliance is getting a small group, 5 or 6 is ideal, and just having your own group games. There is nothing as enjoyable on Black Ops as repeatedly stabbing your best mate on Gun Game and setting them back when they’ve just moved off their least favourite weapon. Quite frankly it never gets old. All of the game types serve to foster this atmosphere, with there always been a tense balance to find between progressing your own goals and generally trying to screw over your friends, knowing quite how annoyed they get with every humiliation you send their way. The originality of the modes themselves is also a breath of fresh air for what had become a long-standing musk of deathmatch, headquarters and capture the flag, even if the absence of the match type war from COD 3 and WaW is criminal.

Black Ops is not perfect, and it probably won’t stop any nightmares of Bobby Kotick laughing maniacally over a swimming pool of money, but if you let yourself get over that the game can be very fun. While the single player may be simplistic and ludicrous, it’s impossible to describe it as being bad, and with the multiplayer, Treyarch is clearly making an effort to make the game less camper and glitcher friendly in a way that Infinity Ward never seemed to be bothered with. In order to get the most from this game you need a very specific set of circumstances like the one I described above. In those instances I’d feel like giving the game a 10, such is the fun I’ve had with it. Even without however, Black Ops is still a very good game. It’s not the best and while we’ll all bemoan the sales this gets while genius like Rock Band 3 and Bayonetta barely dent the all-formats chart, it’s very hard not to find this game likeable, enjoyable and, yes, even good.

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