By launch day the franchise's hype has usually got ahead of itself, giving the game impossible expectations to live up to. The Infinity Ward developed Modern Warfare 2 was greeted with so much rapture and excitement that when the game launched it felt like a let-down. The formula worked fine and the game was a cut-above the market's other offerings, but when compared to the extortionate levels of hype, its confusing narrative detracted from the overall experience. It tried so hard to replicate the winning formula of Call Of Duty 4, but it failed to ever capture the subtle essence of what made that game great.
Coming from Treyarch, often described as the CoD B-team, Black Ops' hype is not quite at the same level as last year's game. Early preview footage has offered an indication that the game's going to secure Treyarch's position as the premier Call Of Duty studio — but the proof is in the pudding.
Simply, Call Of Duty: Black Ops is the best Call Of Duty game since the original Modern Warfare. It never comes close to topping the surprise success of Infinity Ward's console release, nor does it capture the same tone as Modern Warfare's debut entry — but it's not really trying to. Black Ops is trying to be something all of its own, and while the gameplay remains familiar throughout the entire package, its narrative is entirely unique. It shows the ambition of Treyarch when promoted from the "off-year" ranks. In short, it's really rather good.
Set during the Cold War, Black Ops iterates on the traditional Call Of Duty narrative dynamic that sees the story jumping from character-to-character over a vast number of locations. Unlike Modern Warfare 2 though, Treyarch's commentary is more considered and smarter. While littered with set-piece moments, Black Ops never gives the impression that it's narrative is simply "exposure" for the next interactive cut-scene, and the game's cast and plot are gripping enough to push the story along. It's a different kind of Call Of Duty game — arguably darker and grittier, made all the more startling by its real-world ties. This is an action-movie style plot (with some questionable twists at the end), but it's grounded enough to raise some "What if?" questions. Treyarch's deft writing and cinematic touch make it a much more enjoyable campaign than both World At War and Modern Warfare 2.
The muliplayer is largely familiar — though there's the sense that Treyarch had a point to prove. While largely the same component that's made the franchise a smash-hit over the past four years, new features such as COD Points, Theatre modes and Wager match gametypes give the multiplayer a fresh polish, even if it does boil down to the same gameplay traits.
Call Of Duty: Black Ops' single-player campaign lasts around six hours, but the game's competitive multiplayer is obviously the longevity highlight, as is Treyarch's returning zombie mode.
Call Of Duty 4 revolutionised the concept of cinematic, linear first-person shooter campaigns. Black Ops plays into the series' values, providing a campaign littered with stand-out technical moments and great tension techniques. The game's narrative (told in a series of flash-backs) allows the game to use some clever techniques as the story darts between narration and gameplay, giving the game an identity and some smart use of immersive media. We've always liked when games play with our head, it is one of the strength of video games as a medium, and Black Ops has some great moments like that, where the interactivity is used to convey an unsettling component of the protagonist's mind-set. Like Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops also forces you to witness and interact with some uncomfortable moments. There's never anything on the scale of Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" level, but Black Ops is still pretty dark and unsettling.
Once we got started with Black Ops, it was pretty hard to put it down. The game's got a pretty smart story-arc which consistently brings up new questions while answering the last set. It's a clever game in that regard, with unique and likable characters. Compare Black Ops to last month's Medal Of Honor (which was fun) and it's clear the franchises are in completely different leagues. Perhaps worryingly so for EA. Sure, the games are trying to tackle vastly different subjects, but Black Ops feels so much more refined. It wills you into the next mission, wills you into the next chapter because it's so well told.
Call Of Duty: Black Ops feels incredible — as is to be expected from a game in the CoD franchise. The snap-to aim assist and super punchy weapons give the game a distinct feel that convey an enormous sense of power. The guns also look and sound fantastic, with some unique weapon types featured. The crossbow with exploding arrows was perhaps our favourite, but there's plenty elsewhere to get excited about. The game-world also reacts to the action, with paper and objects flying across the environments as shots are fired. It gives the game a dynamic feel that makes everything so much more satisfying.
Call Of Duty: Black Ops' multiplayer is good. It's very good. But it's essentially more of the same, with the typical RPG levelling system and perks/killstreaks on-hand to further the action. Despite a new set of maps and new array of weapons to work through, the multiplayer does appear a little tired. Fans will lap up the formula, but we've don't believe the Call Of Duty franchise can play off the same style for too much longer. That said, Black Ops does feel like the best game of its kind. The new economy system allows the game progression to work in the player's desired fashion, and the "Wager" matches (which require the player to buy-in) provide a new set of game-rules for fans to explore. There are also features for new bot matches and custom multiplayer game types. An Uncharted-esque theatre mode rounds out the multiplayer package, so there's certainly plenty more to explore, but at its core it's the same formula. It's definitely enjoyable; the maps are well designed, varied and graphically interesting, while the gameplay feels tight and balanced. We're just not sure it still commands the same interest as it once did. It's certainly fun, but not to the same extent it was when Call Of Duty 4 revolutionised the multiplayer shooter. It needs something new to refresh the base gameplay.
Digital Foundry's run an extensive report on Call Of Duty: Black Ops' visuals. Apparently the PlayStation 3 version of the game suffers from some technical challenges. Without playing the numbers and resolution game, we just don't think Black Ops is a particularly good looking game — especially given its budget and status. The textures are weak and the whole game suffers from a flat, dull gloss. It definitely has its moments, and the frame-rate remains fairly fantastic throughout, but as a whole, the game's a little disappointing from a graphical stance. Which is a shame.
Nit-picking, but Call Of Duty: Black Ops suffers from its fair share of glitches. They're not as obvious as in Medal Of Honor, but we did spot a few dead enemies floating in mid-air. It's almost impossible to pick up on every bug in a game, but it really breaks the illusion when you encounter one — especially in a game so tied to real-life as Black Ops.
Where next? It's probably unfair to criticise Black Ops with the future of the CoD franchise, but Treyarch's game really does feel like the peak of the series' trade. Honestly, aside from making things shinier and more polished, we're struggling to see where the Call Of Duty franchise heads next. As good as the core gameplay is, it's starting to feel formulaic. The franchise needs a shake-up, and in that regard Black Ops is pretty unambitious. It's the most interesting campaign the series has had, but the gameplay is identical.
Freed from Infinity Ward's shadow, Call Of Duty: Black Ops really demonstrates Treyarch's creative ability. The gameplay remains familiar, but the story-telling is much smarter, refined and cohesive. The multiplayer structure's unlikely to cause many surprises, though a slew of fresh complimentary features will ignite the franchise's relationship ruining qualities once more. Call Of Duty: Black Ops feels like a series at the peak of its potential — so much so, it's hard to imagine where the franchise can possibly go next.