It seems that Treyarch got the names of their games mixed up. Their previous Call of Duty was given the subtitle â€śWorld at Warâ€ť, but it is with their latest offering, Call of Duty: Black Ops, where you can really fight your way across the globe.
If you are not familiar with the Call of Duty series, then shame on you. Both its fan-boys and its detractors canâ€™t ignore the fact that itâ€™s one of the most successful franchises ever, and throughout its (at times controversial) history it has continued to raise the bar when it comes to what makes an excellent FPS title. Through its two-developer cycle it has been able to keep first person enthusiasts occupied round the clock.
There are a lot of similarities between Treyarchâ€™s earlier instalment and this yearâ€™s blockbuster title, and there are a lot of differences as well. This is a game that tries to find a bridge between the two Worlds. The result of that attempt is a Call of Duty title that is engaging, interesting, and exciting. But even with those enthusiastic attributes, itâ€™s still a title that doesnâ€™t quite manage to get your heart pumping and your trigger fingers twitching. But, you canâ€™t fault it for trying.
Call of Duty: Black Ops biggest strength is probably its story and its setting. Treyarch took a risk here. The title boasts a narrative that is complex, complicated and nuanced. Set in the 1960s (a time zone often overlooked by blockbuster videogame titles), it places gamers smack back in the middle of the Cold War, at the time when it was the hottest it would ever be.
The storyline is fairly routine. You play as an American Special Forces operative named Alex Mason. After the infamously botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, you find yourself shipped off to a Russian Gulag. With the aid of an old friend of the series you make your way out and are once again snapped up the CIA to do their dirty work for them, and in the 1960s all of the dirty work was in the jungles and valleys of Vietnam. Thatâ€™s the â€śBlack Opsâ€ť part of the narrative. Elite commando shacks up with his elite commando pals and goes around killing everyone. So far, so good.
But the risk comes from what Treyarch placed over the top of this shoot-em-up experience. It is slightly hard to explain without giving away too many spoilers, but if The Manchurian Candidate got into a tumble drier with Apocalypse Now and then Rambo 2 started hitting the whole contraption with a rusty swastika, youâ€™d have some kind of idea.
And the risk was worth it. While the eventual storyline does seem a little far-fetched, Treyarch should be commended for being ballsy. The mix of intense action and psychological drama is innovative and entertaining. Itâ€™s important with first person shooters that you get the narrative structure right; otherwise you are just shooting bots in between cut scenes. And with this yearâ€™s contribution, Treyarch got it more right than most. In particular their attention to historical detail deserves a special mention. There is just something awesome about meeting Robert McNamara in a limo then being marched through the Pentagon to be briefed by President John F Kennedy. It made you feel like what you were doing meant something and what you were doing was connected to a world that went beyond the game. I know that seems like a peculiar observation, but thatâ€™s what good storytelling does.
There are however, some difficult problems. The storyline is progressed via the missions, as retold by Mason during his interrogation. This is a pretty neat cinematic device, but the unfortunate consequence of developing your title in this way is that some missions â€“ missions that are critically important to understanding what the hell is going on â€“ lack context. This is a game that is meant to be played through from start to finish in one eight hour long session, but without the luxury of that kind of commitment, the story can seem disconnected, or even at times, a little bit farcical. This is regrettably compounded by a mid-game that seems to run out of narrative steam. Itâ€™s regrettable because once the grand finale does roll around, it is certainly worth the wait â€“ providing the kind of immersive and cinematic chutzpah that we have come to expect from the series.
Call of Duty: Black Ops by no means scores perfectly on the balance between narrative progression and heart-pounding action, but it boldly tries some new things. And for this it deserves a thumbs up. The main criticism here is that ambitious â€śfilmicâ€ť story-lines are necessarily intricate and Treyarchs application is, at times, a little rough around the edges.
Unfortunately the same can be said of the combat mechanic. Now, bear with me here. Black Opâ€™s combat mechanic is not bad, itâ€™s not at bad at all. Itâ€™s obvious that real attention has been put into the way maps flow, what weapons are available and what kind of missions you are presented with.
And on the whole Black Ops performs admirably. The combat is intense at the right spots, and there are various missions that do make you recline your lazy-boy and satisfyingly mutter â€śhooahâ€ť to anyone who will listen. Itâ€™s interesting that the majority of these gung-ho moments are best exemplified by the missions in Vietnam. During these (sometimes literally) claustrophobic action sequences Treyarch easily shows why it is a tier one developer. The attention to historical detail is fastidious, and there was more than one subtle homage to great Vietnam action romps such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon. It really doesnâ€™t get more immersive than chugging down the Mekong in a flat-bottomed river raider shooting rockets and M60 bullets out left right and centre, while Creedence Clearwater Revival pumps out Fortunate Son on the radio. I loved it, while Fortunate Son is the quintessential Vietnam War clichĂ© (second only to the Ride of the Valkyries) it was still f***ing awesome.
But the problem is that those moments are the exception. The bits in between, (you know, the main meat of the game) doesnâ€™t really offer us anything new. Itâ€™s the same kind of action we saw in World at War; a linear map with limited scope for tactical play filled with endlessly spawning infantry which are either insufferably difficult on the harder modes, or puppy-stompingly weak on the easier settings. The comparison to World at War is intentional because it really is just more of the same, just with additional ziplines and door breaches thrown in for good measure.
If you enjoyed the Rambo-esque grinding of that title then you are not going to have any qualms with Black Ops. But Treyarch missed an opportunity here to balance the boldness of their storyline with new-thinking updates to the combat mechanic.
But at least when grinding through the main combat, there were a lot of nice things to look at. The graphics are great and Treyarchâ€™s technical mastery is there for all to see. There was very limited lagging and the title pushes the 360 to grand effect. Mowing down bad guys with the â€śDragonâ€™s Breathâ€ť pyrotechnic shotgun was truly an awesome sight. As was raining down hellfire from a Helicopter, or unleashing a wall of bullets from any of the historically (and graphically) accurate weaponry on offer. Treyarch has done their homework, and it showed in their visuals.
However, again, some things let the side down. At times there were buggy glitches in combat animations and the scripting of your co-agents. Dead infantry falling through walls and CIA agents â€śsnappingâ€ť into scripted paths is a little distracting. But, given the amount of infantry I did mow down, these events were in the significant minority, so this criticism canâ€™t be extended too far.
But where the title does show off its stars was with its audio. Black Ops audio direction is impressive. From the consistently good voice acting to the breadth and complexity of the titleâ€™s sound-scape, the audio is further evidence of the hard work that went into creating an immersive experience. However, selecting Eminem as the follow up credits song was perhaps a little misguided. Thatâ€™s not because Iâ€™ve got it in for the poor guy â€“ it was just a little odd going from the period-perfect Rolling Stones, to the blackest white man in Detroit.
So, the single player campaign has its ups and its downs. But since Modern Warfare, the Call of Duty series has had another ace of up its sleeve â€“ its multiplayer.
Itâ€™s a little early to make any definite calls about the quality of the multiplayer experience. As with all multiplayer excursions there are a multitude of factors that influence things. Your ping has an effect, as does your system and the amount of noob in your trigger fingers. As time progresses the Black Ops multiplayer experience will develop to suit the needs of its community. But what was on offer on disc was certainly promising. Every disc ships with a free two day Xbox Live voucher, allowing everyone to quickly get into the action.
And there is a lot of action. The game boasts a multitude of modes, from capture the flag to team death match. And thankfully it does not get carried away with things, instead preferring to focus on its core gameplay in an attempt to provide a solid base to get people gaming on. And it does this remarkably well, even with the controversial addition of the new currency system for upgradeable weaponry and accessories. But doing simple things well does not mean a lack of creativity; some of the new kill-streak rewards are simply ingenious â€“ such as the terribly hilarious remote controlled car-bomb or the humiliatingly funny ballistic knife (a knife... you fire at people. Awesome, right?).
The inclusion of â€śwager mapsâ€ť definitely raises the stakes and the intensity of your multiplayer experience by making the consequences of failure (or the benefits of success) that so much more severe. Win, and you collect your opponents currency wager, lose and its gone for good. I didnâ€™t think it was possible to combine multiplayer first person shooting and horse-betting, but it seems Treyarch have found a way. Joking aside, NZGamer.com will be watching closely how the community reacts to the new currency system; as if itâ€™s not carefully managed it could create a problematic digital divide between the gaming haves and the have-nots.
On the local side of things the Nazi-zombie mode of World at War returns and with a spruce up. Now you can play as the main political protagonists of the Cold War; Castro, Nixon, McNamara and Kennedy. Itâ€™s absurd, itâ€™s ridiculous, and itâ€™s damn fun. Even if it is a little imbalanced; the difficulty curve on this one is a tad steep, but thatâ€™s probably a good thing when playing it cooperatively with a room full of beer and your gaming mates.
Call of Duty: Black Ops is a fine game. It is a solid, well presented title with a hell of a lot going for it. But when viewed holistically it did not blow me out of the water. While its attempts to push the boundaries in terms of narrative plot development and characterisation were courageous, its rote combat (with a few brilliant exceptions) ultimately works against it. The result is a title that shows tremendous promise in all of its different discrete areas. But thatâ€™s the main problem; it is not quite the sum of its parts. As a consequence, regrettably Call of Duty: Black Ops does not quite manage to pull everything together in a way that would have elevated it into the Grand Pantheon of great first person shooter titles.
But to Treyarch I would say: donâ€™t give up the fight. Keep going. Because you are so very nearly there.