Call of Duty: Black Ops is not an innovative title by any stretch of the imagination, but there are signs of genuine playfulness here which is always a welcome presence in game design. You can see it in the little things.
The best example is in one map of the game’s Zombies mode where players can play as JFK, Richard Nixon, Robert McNamara or Fidel Castro, who spout humorous, if predictable, quotes between acts of undead-ocide.
The interface is another thing that was done quite intelligently. Save for the multiplayer and pause menus, all of the set-up for the game is built around the premise that players are strapped to a chair in a secret government interrogation facility.
Aside from a couple of wonky physics issues, the single player campaign was also bug-free. In a perfect world, that would simply be par for the course, but seeing how most developers are adopting “we’ll patch it later” policies, a bug-free launch is an increasingly rare hallmark of care.
Overall, Black Ops is better than the lackluster World at War and the laughable Modern Warfare 2, but it is not nearly as mature or as striking as the first Modern Warfare.
The single player campaign has players playing as Alex Mason, a CIA agent with all the depth and personality of the crosshair you guide across the screen, ever-so-fittingly voiced by Sam Worthington.
You start the game strapped to a chair where you are being interrogated. Over the course of that interrogation, memories of various skirmishes throughout the Cold War and Vietnam are relived.
While an interesting premise, the story falls prey to a painfully predictable split-personality and brainwashing one-two punch, finishing with a weak twist ending.
Worse than the story, though, is the fact that the campaign is so relentlessly scripted that it feels like the player’s presence is almost an intrusion in the game.
Almost every firefight has a pre-rendered kill animation or explosive micro cut-scene waiting to be triggered, and every mission in the entire game has a sequence that must be played in certain way to satisfy some arbitrary criteria.
If that sounds incredible, Black Ops may be right for you. To me, it was stifling and grating.
The worst part is the way the game will force the player to obey its orders.
If spotted during the mandatory stealth sequence, every enemy in the place will be summoned to the player’s exact location and kill instantly, but when the game allows the player to start shooting twenty seconds later, everybody goes back to being deaf.
To be fair, there were a couple of scripted moments that were really cool, like firing a zipline via crossbow and sliding through a window with guns blazing to rescue a hostage.
But there are not enough clever, unique moments like that to justify the game’s dictatorial structure.
Of course, many players will not even touch the campaign. For them, multiplayer is the main course, and they will eat heartily as gameplay has been dramatically improved over Modern Warfare 2.
All the series staples are present and accounted for, from Kill Streaks to challenges to customizable perks and equipment load outs. However, things have been tweaked to restore balance and sanity.
Gone are the game-ending tactical nukes. Gone are the indestructible riot shields and dual shotguns. Gone are the familiar stopping power, juggernaut and one man army perks. In their place, you have explosive RC cars, crossbows and napalm air-strikes. The result is a game that feels harder to grief and easier to learn.
This is not to say that experienced players will go wanting for challenges. The new Wager Mode system will allow experienced players to test themselves and climb the rankings faster in the process.
By betting COD points, players can select one of four gameplay variants that will either limit ammunition or force the use of different weapons.
There is also a daily contract system that is similar to Halo Reach’s challenges in addition to the standard Call of Duty challenges. To top it all off, the game is launching with a generous 14 maps.
There are also three different zombie games. This essentially plays like similar modes from other shooters, but with infernal enemies, power-ups and a limited selection of firearms.
The first scenario is set in a German cinema while the second level takes place in The Pentagon, starring the historical figures mentioned earlier, though both maps share identical mechanics.
The last zombie game is a top-down shooter that plays like an old school arcade game.
Despite all these innovations, there is still very little new here. In fact, everything you can do in Black Ops you have likely done in other games.
These familiar systems have been streamlined and polished. Even Halo Reach’s fairly conservative addition of Armor Abilities seems bold and adventurous by comparison.
If you are the type of player who has enjoyed previous Call of Duty games and has yet to tire of shooting the same people with the same guns, go ahead and give an extra star.
Black Ops will not let you down. But if you were hoping for an intelligent single player experience and something that changes the rules, you can keep waiting and let this one pass.