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Preview: Call of Duty: Black Ops (single player)


It's not easy to do justice to war. Make a game too realistic, and you threaten to make it so brutal that it's simply not fun to play. Make it too bombastic, and you risk making a mockery of the soldiers that risk their lives every day in the real world. In this writer's opinion, Modern Warfare 2 is guilty of the latter. "Heart" was replaced by in-your-face Bruckheimer-inspired drivel that made me swear off the Call of Duty franchise for good. I went into Black Ops knowing full well that I would hate it.

I was wrong.

In many ways, Black Ops is everything you'd expect from a Call of Duty game. The gameplay certainly looks unchanged: duck, take cover, fire down the sights and throw back grenades. It's still a heavily scripted experience, with set piece after set piece. And, of course, there's no shortage of explosives -- The Expendables would be jealous of Black Ops' abundance of helicopters and missiles. At first glance, Black Ops struck me as "just another Call of Duty." For series stalwarts, that's enough to buy back into Activision's annualized franchise. For me, I needed more.

Gallery: Call of Duty: Black Ops (Gamescom 2010) | 4 Photos

One part of the hands-off demo I saw had the player character crawling through a dark cave. Equipped with only a flashlight, he crept with his squad, unsure of what was to come. As the passage made a sharp turn to the left one of the squad members moved on ahead. Ambushed! He took a knife to the throat from an undetected enemy, and the player opened fire.

Black Ops is horrific, but rarely celebrates the violence.

It was too late for the squadmate though. The player glanced at the gash in the dead man's limp neck as he pressed on into the darkness.

There is an uneasy horror that permeates Black Ops, one that separates it from many of the previous Call of Duty games, save perhaps Treyarch's last outing, World at War. The tempo of the game is wildly erratic, going from high-octane action sequences to terrifying moments of silence. Treyarch's demo did a terrific job of playing with the unknown -- of disarming me, not with the sight of an unstoppable wave of enemies but with the mere threat of confrontation. In the loneliness of the jungle, sometimes all you'll hear is the faint sound of ethnic music playing on a radio somewhere. Combined with a score that's more Platoon and less Saving Private Ryan, Black Ops is surprisingly provocative.

Adding to the game's visceral presentation is updated technology used to render better gore. Death is bloody and gruesome in Black Ops. You'll see severed body parts and other grisly wounds. It's horrific, but the game rarely celebrates the violence. Even the new contextual melee kills feel appropriately violent. There are a number of realistic animations for close combat kills, whether you're snuffing out an enemy in his sleep or taking hold of one as you burst from your submerged hiding spot underwater. The action definitely looks "cool," but it's presented in a rather mature, tasteful manner.

I only witnessed a sliver of what Black Ops has to offer, but what I've seen so far has me truly excited. With the intriguing backdrop of the decades-long Cold War, there's an opportunity here to tell an original, moving story. It's clear that Treyarch is going to supply plenty of heart-pounding action moments in Black Ops, but I'm looking to see if the game can rejuvenate that other quality of "heart" that's been missing from Call of Duty lately.

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