An hour into Call of Duty: Black Ops, the series showcases why it's got such a tight grip over the gaming world. The pressure has always been on Treyarch to deliver, especially after Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare titles made the 'COD' name tastier than any battered fish you can pick up from the local chippy. With Black Ops, they've done just that.
To honour the subtitle, Black Ops is the grittiest Call of Duty game yet. Within seconds, you'll find yourself strapped to a chair and tortured by an unknown source. Looking through the eyes of Captain Mason, you're forced to watch archive footage of key military and political moments from the 1960's. Mason's memory is faltering, and his failure to answer questions clearly puts him on the end of numerous electric shocks. It's these questions that kick-start his memory and the ability to relive what happened after he took part in an assault to kill Fidel Castro. Straight from the beginning, it's hellish stuff.
The power of the knife comes to prominence in Black Ops, as you dish out some serious silent pain
Though the campaign is frantic from start-to-finish, it clocks in at a disappointing six hours. Throughout this time you'll see more of the world than previous Call of Duty games, visiting Cuba, Russia, Vietnam; all of which are crammed with set-pieces. Treyarch's love for the tank has been exchanged for an aerial threat, as you commandeer helicopter's numerous times. Flying over the lush jungles of Vietnam, it's vital that the basic strafing moves are learnt to full effect. You can bet your left claymore that if you're in a helicopter, the enemy wont be far behind in their own bird.
Alongside aerial warfare, there's huge variety throughout. Treyarch break up the foot soldier missions with some excellent stand-out moments. Snowmobiles are so last year, this time being swamped for a quick blast on a Russian motorcycle. A snazzy new rocket launcher lets you control shots through a first-person camera after firing; mightily useful when you've got a fleet of tanks bearing down on your position. Despite all the action, there's moments of solitude too. An emphasis is put on guiding your fellow soldier during one section, and the confidence your peers ooze when outnumbered gives Black Ops a feel that you're always in power. Treyarch even throw in a bullet-time moment, forcing you to witness your work first hand as the slug inches towards a Viet Cong fighter.
We can't help but think the grip on his boots aren't working all too well
For all the campaign's entertainment value, it also indicates how the series is in danger of losing some of it's spark. A few full levels can be seen as rehashed versions from older titles in the series, and some of Call of Duty's ever present factors aren't as effective as they were three years ago. Blacking out in times of extreme peril, only to be saved at the last minute is dramatic, but not five times in as many hours. The overzealous cut-scenes are also feeling tired, even in a title that is meant to produce the feeling of confusion through flashbacks and surges in memory. They're minor gripes, but Black Ops doesn't keep the player guessing like previous games did. It may be harsh to say, but it's the last Call of Duty game we want to see structured in this way.
Away from the lonesome affair, there's a lot to shout about online. Black Ops refines everything about the franchises multiplayer and even throws in some cool new extra features. You now earn money for your hard work, and can purchase almost any upgrade from the outset. This provides an earlier scope for customisation, and will stop players from becoming bored as they don't need to reach level 42 for a new gun any longer. Contracts have been introduced to challenge players in different ways. Complete the objectives given in any contract, and you'll find an extra payload waiting for you to spend. Even cooler, wager matches allow you to gamble against other players, with the top three scorers coming away with the share of money. You need to put some funds in at the beginning, and may be rewarded throughout the match with a better weapon for each kill you notch up. It's an intriguing new mode, and offers a welcome distraction from the classic deathmatch and zombie types. With this said, if you've ever wanted to unleash the power of a remote controlled car carrying a mine, this title will honour those dreams.
The game features acting talents such as James Burns, Gary Oldman, and even an appearance from Ice Cube
To bring it all together, Treyarch have added a theatre mode that allows players to view back any of their matches, from any angle or crevice on the map they wish. Available in Halo 3 years ago, it's an ingredient that's been noticeably missing from the Call of Duty pie for some time. Watching a well thrown grenade over and over again is rewarding, especially compared to the moments you see yourself make a fatal mistake. The video playback is also useful for serious clans, as it allows you to spot where the enemy are hiding and the tactics they bring to the table.
CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS VERDICT
While it holds more first week sales than any other game before it, Black Ops isn’t the series’ high point. What we have here is a refined and extremely confident product from a studio that has found its feet in the FPS world. This sequel captures everything that makes the series great, and apart from the odd mishap, is engrossing throughout. If the short campaign doesn’t hold your attention past the credits, the online multiplayer almost certainly will. Right now, we’re intrigued to see what’s coming next, especially as the Call of Duty series heads into a period of major transition.