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Call of Duty: Black Ops review: The great battle

Maybe it's our competitive streak. Maybe it's the fact that we're constantly battling, over leaderboards and in deathmatches, that pushes us to compare one console against another, one franchise title against its peers, or even, as the industry has grown and matured, one developer's artistic creation against another's. Even when developers work in huge teams for years to craft a great experience, we're children of numbers and "less or greater than," of rankings and high scores and levels. Someone's got to win, and someone's got to lose.

Maybe it's only natural, then, that much of the discussion around Call of Duty of late falls into the question of whether Infinity Ward is a better studio than Treyarch, or whether megapublisher Activision can continue to have a successful series of games without Jason West and Vince Zampella. Our little community keeps asking, like some political zealot overcome with decision on the eve of an election: Are you with IW or Activision? Did you like WaW or CoD4? Will you like Black Ops more than MW2?

Our competitive nature is working against us here. The truth is that, in the latest two iterations of Call of Duty, we've gotten two great games. With Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Infinity Ward brought us a cinematic, action-filled FPS combat title with a strong and lasting multiplayer element. And with Call of Duty: Black Ops, Treyarch has done the same thing.


If you need to see the differences, they're there. Black Ops is obviously set in the past, mostly in the late 1960s, and though the game feels a lot like modern warfare as you're guiding missiles to tanks and calling in helicopter strikes with a digital overlay, the game admirably never betrays its period premise, even including some actual history and personalities in the cutscenes. The game itself is darker than Modern Warfare 2 as well, both in terms of the actual brightness (though the darkness allows for some really fun tricks with the light effects), and in the story's tone.

Where Modern Warfare 2 used common American settings to show off flashy battlefields, Black Ops is more concerned with the back alleys and byways of combat. But even with the smooth touches of crossed-out text to start each mission and some good point-of-view twists (along with a few sly winks at the slow-motion pistol finales of the previous games), Black Ops has all the subtlety of a gun butt to the head. Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" played with modern moral fire, but Treyarch's game just lets you play with a fire-spitting shotgun.

The campaign's pacing is as uneven as it is thuggish -- gameplay segments sometimes end before it seems they're meant to, and there's one particular segment that will make you wonder if the developers ever playtested it themselves (made even worse by your fellow soldiers' overtuned propensity to call out enemy placement -- yes guys, I know they're "in the trenchline"). Regardless, by the end of the game, Black Ops has built up a solid narrative head of steam, perhaps thanks to the aid of David S. Goyer.

The action supporting the story isn't particularly innovative (there are still "enemy wells" and some messy AI), but it's varied enough to hold attention for the duration. Treyarch does play a lot with the game's "classified" premise, allowing you to use some wackier-than-life weapons, from a three-man molotov slingshot to an explosive bolt crossbow. And I was actually surprised by how well the "first-person swimming" segments went -- one of the game's best levels has you following a colleague, "All Ghillied Up"-style, through the swampy waters of a Viet Cong camp, emerging like a painted Martin Sheen to silently kill sleepy guards.

While Black Ops' campaign hits and misses, its multiplayer is just great. Headquarters, Domination, and all of the other Modern Warfare modes are implemented well and just as addictive and rewarding as ever. One small issue: The Hardcore playlist is a little thin, allowing for only Team Deathmatch, Search and Destroy, and Free for All. Treyarch has said that they can patch in playlists in real time, but it will be disappointing for Hardcore fans to load up the game and see the new versions of their favorites missing.

The switch to a "CoD points" currency was a wise move as well, allowing you to choose your unlocks more freely, rather than just waiting to reach a certain rank. Ranks are still in, and you still feel them strongly -- I had to wait until level 14 to unlock my FAMAS, and even things like customizing your Playercard don't unlock until level 10, no matter how much money you earn (reticule customization doesn't start until level 25, though it is a welcome cosmetic reward when you get there). But money does allow you to go for accessories and perks that you'd rather have earlier, so you can buy the Second Chance perk or an ACOG sight right away if that's how you choose to play. Consequently, the challenges are slightly less meaningful, but the new Contracts fill in that gap by allowing you to put up some of your money for a bigger reward if you can pull off a certain goal.

Money also allows for the clever new Wager Matches that have everyone anteing up some CoD points and divying them up among the top three players. Sticks and Stones was probably our favorite in the group of people I played with -- it gives you a crossbow (with a sticky explosive bolt) and a tomahawk that bankrupts anyone you hit it with. One in the Chamber was another favorite, giving everyone one bullet in a gun, leaving you to use your knife if you miss that first shot.

Unfortunately, Black Ops doesn't seem as technically sound as some other titles in the series -- the framerate would occasionally drop, and lag was sometimes a problem. Treyarch has implemented a "Combat Training" mode with bots to encourage players uncomfortable with the online game to jump into multiplayer, but the they're a little jerky, and it doesn't help that the modes are completely separate -- you can customize and level everything in Combat Training only to step out to a completely default multiplayer mode, and vice versa.

Treyarch has also added a Theater system with an intuitive and impressive editor, and the ability to share screenshots, clips, or full games with the rest of the world. The fileshare only holds six shots, movies, or custom games on default, but browsing the system and watching movies or loading up custom games was quick and easy, and should get us a lot more videos like that knife throw from MW2.
Zombies (and more)

Treyarch's big hit with its last CoD was the Zombies mode, and it's back in full form in Black Ops. Unfortunately, as you'd expect from a dramatic action game about real historical warfare, it feels a little spliced in -- it's actually included in the main menu of the game rather than as a variant of the multiplayer mode (probably because you can run it solo, if you want, and it serves as the only co-op mode as well). Just like the last game, you're tasked with defending an area against the shambling undead, all while earning cash you can use to buy more weapons and ammo, or open up unlocked areas.

The offerings were surprisingly limited -- I only saw three maps available (and only unlocked one of them -- after ten or twelve tries, my fellow players and I never made it past the mode's sixth round). But then again, Treyarch hints there's more to the mode than we've discovered yet. There's an extra zombie mode unlocked when you beat the campaign, and it's just as hilarious as the leaks have promised. There are a lot of other easter eggs hidden for players to find in the main menu as well, including a full "Dead Ops Arcade" dual stick zombie shooter minigame to play, and a full implementation of a classic text adventure.

They're all great additions, but they feel unfinished and unpolished, as if Treyarch had a little too much money to spend on development and not a solid focus on where to spend it. The Zombie mode's UI is either messy or nonexistent, and while it's nice to have the mode on the disk, it barely feels as if it deserves the place on that main menu.

It's preferable to Activision charging for this content as DLC later, but a little more polish could have made it something great rather than just something to fill the kitchen sink.

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Black Ops is a terrific action game with a solid story and a deep, rewarding multiplayer mode. Sure, when placed up against the other games in the series, players may feel forced to pick favorites -- they may be disappointed that their favorite playlist is gone, deathstreaks are out, or that the Nuke killstreak has been removed (though the Attack Dogs killstreak in its place is really darn funny, and has the benefit of not completely ending the match early). They may challenge each other to figure out which they liked best, or compare sales figures like a high scores on an old arcade machine. But in the end, who cares? We may all be competitive, but when games of the caliber of Call of Duty: Black Ops continue to be released, nobody has to lose.

This review is based on early 360 code of Call of Duty: Black Ops provided by Activision. The game was played at a review event, but no accommodations or travel were provided to Joystiq. The reviewer played the campaign to completion, the multiplayer for 12 hours and additional modes for four hours.