Friday, November 19, 2010

Call of Duty: Black Ops

Black Ops is Treyarch's fourth Call of Duty game, and it seems like they've finally gotten the hang of the series. They've long been seen as a very secondary developer in comparison with Infinity Ward, the team that created the series in the first place, but with that studio obviously having issues following the departure of many key employees, Treyarch has the opportunity to establish themselves as top dogs. Black Ops has already surpassed Modern Warfare 2 in early sales, and I certainly had a good time playing it.

If there's one thing the Black Ops campaign does right, it's that it's consistent. I've played all of the main entries in the series except for Call of Duty 3, and every single one of them, while fun and impressively presented, has had moments of pure frustration that lasted way too long. When the series was primarily set in World War II, they occasionally liked to throw in missions where you had to defend a lightly fortified position for several minutes, and these always ended up being frustrating trial-and-error sections as you repeatedly got killed and tried something slightly different the next time until you miraculously made it to the end. As the series went on, they started using this type of mission less, but there still always seemed to be at least one level that asked too much of you, just overwhelming you with enemies without stopping to ask if what they were throwing at you was realistically playable. Thankfully, Black Ops has no sections like that. There were a few moments that irritated me a bit, but they were never as bad as the series can be.

I hesitate to call it the best game in the series though, because while the campaign is consistently pretty good, it doesn't often reach its previous high points. It's possibly just series fatigue after playing seven of these in the last five years, so I'm pretty familiar with what the games do well at this point, but it's just not as impressive as it's seemed in the past. There are some interesting scenarios that play out for you and a few really cool set pieces. It was nice seeing the vehicle sections return with so much vigor, and I appreciate that this is the first time the series has really focused on a single character for the play, besides three missions where you play as Ed Harris and Gary Oldman (which is cool too). But the most tightly designed and scripted moments are rarely as shocking and compelling as the Modern Warfare games at their best, as their focus seems to be less on what's cool and more on just being brutal as hell. There are some very violent things happening, including several that you do yourself, and the way the game lingers on it feels sort of gross and seems like it's trying too hard to please frat boys who would otherwise stay away from the story in favor of the online.

The multiplayer is cool, but it's just not why I like these games. I know that at this point, the majority of Call of Duty players must spend the majority of their time with the games shooting friends rather than computer enemies, but the amount of effort put into single player shows me at least the developers still care. It's an impressive game visually, especially the work by the effects team, and while the gun sounds still aren't as dynamic as in Battlefield, it sounds pretty good too. The use of licensed music worked for me even if the choices were obvious, and the celebrity voice cast did a nice job, even if Sam Worthington sounds way too Australian a lot of the time. I liked the story for the most part, as it got the most attention of any game in the franchise, and the writers seemed to enjoy working in as many historical figures, conspiracy theories, and real-life locations and operations as possible.

It's odd that they dropped campaign co-op play after having it last time, but you can understand with the focus on the storyline this time. Obviously zombie mode can fill that gap a little bit, but it's pretty much the same as it was before, and really doesn't measure up to Spec Ops in terms of variety and replayability. They actually do a lot of little things to surprise you with the amount of stuff they crammed onto the disc, although in the end, it's another Call of Duty game and that formula can really only take you so far the more you use it every year. Still, it's worth a try.

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