Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was the biggest game of 2009, and was one of only a few titles to breach the $1 billion mark in total sales. To follow this game would be a somewhat daunting task for most but Treyarch felt up to the challenge and bring us Call of Duty: Black Ops.
Black Ops moves us away from the modern setting of Modern Warfare 2 and takes us back to the 60's. This isn't the swinging sixties of the Beatles, Carnaby Street and Austin Powers however; instead it's the rather darker side of the decade that included the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam and the ever growing tension of the cold war between America and Russia.
The main protagonist is Special Forces operative Alex Mason and it's his story that we follow throughout the single player campaign. We also get a chance to play as CIA agent Jason Hudson as the story jumps to his perspective at certain key points.
As we begin the game Mason is strapped to a chair in, what appears to be, an interrogation room. Not quite aware of what is going on he is repeatedly asked the same questions by his unseen interrogators. The missions then take the form of flashbacks that Mason endures while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.
The story starts with us forming part of a 3 man team in Cuba on a mission to assassinate Fidel Castro. Despite what appears to be a successful mission Mason is forced to stay behind to make sure the rest of his team escapes. Of course, since we know Castro wasn't assassinated in the 60's, we soon find out that Mason's team killed a double and the real Castro takes great delight in handing us over to the Russians.
From then the story bounces from Russia, to America, to Vietnam and Laos and back to Russia. As with any good spy story there's a twist towards the end...
Call of Duty: Black Ops provides several different gameplay experiences. There is a single player campaign, the widely popular multiplayer and a super fun co-op zombie mode.
The single player campaign is excellent and the story fits neatly into the time frame in which it's set. Being set in the 60's the feel of the story is very different to Modern Warfare 2. Treyarch have managed to weave into the story the real life events that occurred at this time, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, without it feeling overly ham-fisted.
The missions provided in the campaign are varied, moving from small unit combat through the streets of Cuba, to large scale battle scenes on the front line in Vietnam. Vehicle combat is also included, our favourite being a river mission where we pilot a US gunboat in Laos to the classic track "Sympathy for the Devil" by the Rolling Stones.
Since this is the 60's we don't have access to super modern weapons, such as the popular unmanned combat drone, we saw in Modern Warfare 2, however we do have access to a wide array of period weapons. The feel of the weapons we use helps set the mood of the game and reinforces the story being told.
The enemy AI in the single player campaign is good. Bad guys will duck and roll for cover, and then instead of just sticking their head up for us to snipe they'll fire their weapon from behind cover, though somewhat widely. The AI of our own team mates isn't quite as good though and for some reason they really wanted to walk into the line of our fire, and then blame us for it.
It took us around 6 hours to complete the single player campaign on regular difficulty. As with any good story we always want a little more however we didn't feel short changed by the campaign and while the replay value probably isn't massive there's enough challenge on the harder modes to make it a worthy successor to the single player story from Modern Warfare 2.
The real longevity of the game comes from the multiplayer mode and here Treyarch have endeavoured to make improvements over Modern Warfare 2. For the PC version of Black Ops the biggest of these is the return of dedicated servers. This allows the inclusion of developer mods and a much more flexible experience.
Online multiplayer games include classics like free for all, domination and team death match. The same experience points and unlockable reward system from Modern Warfare 2 has been kept for Black Ops. A currency system has also been introduced which allows us to improve ourselves by purchasing weapons, accessories and outfits.
For those new to online play Black Ops provides an online "Combat Training" mode. This gives us an opportunity to practise against AI opponents building up our skills before we take on real people.
Finally there is Zombie mode. This is just pure fun and provides up to four players the opportunity to take on the role of John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Robert McNamara or Fidel Castro as they defend The Pentagon against a zombie invasion. It sounds bizarre however we suspect endless laughs using this mode online with our friends and a few beers.
NOTE: It does appear that some users are experiencing bugs with the release version of COD. These appear to vary from system to system and many are limited to multiplayer, for example routers not being able to handle long server lists. Treyarch are in the process of testing a fix, to be released by the end of the week which should address many of the reported issues.
At the time of release Modern Warfare 2 set a high standard for graphics with detailed models and rich and interactive environments, so Treyarch had their work cut out ensuring the standard was maintained. We are glad to say that they have managed to deliver on this front and especially when running on a high spec system the game looks lovely. With missions taking place in such disparate regions as Russia, America and Vietnam a lot of variation in style is required and the game delivers. The backgrounds are lush in the jungles of Laos and sparse in the plains of Kazakhstan. We found the water effects to be particularly good and as with Modern Warfare 2, the environment within Black Ops is very destructible.
The player models move well, physics is well used and so they feel natural and added to this the damage effects on characters is good without being overly gruesome.
The cut scenes use a combination of in game graphics and archive video footage spliced together. Quick cuts and ambient effects are used add to the disturbed feel of the game as we experience it through the eyes of the ever deteriorating Mason which adds to the overall feel and atmosphere.
Treyarch and Activision have pulled out all the stops in getting big names for the voice acting in Black Ops. Mason is voiced by Sam Worthington, the current hot property in Hollywood following the massive success of Avatar. Hudson is voiced by Ed Harris with Gary Oldman, Topher Grace and Ice Cube among the other top self names providing voice talent.
Sam Worthington is superb playing the tormented and sometime demented Mason. The script is good and the actors do an excellent job of bringing the characters in the game to life. From the longer cut scenes to the short snips of voices in the middle of a fire fight, the spoken aspect of the audio in Black Ops is a winner.
Music is used sparingly throughout the game however in the places it used the tracks selected fit the period perfectly. As we mentioned before one of our favourite missions in the game sees us pilot a US gun boat up a river in Laos to the beat of "Sympathy for the Devil" by the Rolling Stones. It's not difficult to get carried away with this; however we may have watched too many Vietnam films to get in the mood for Black Ops.
Sound effects in game are effective in letting us know what's going on. We were particularly impressed with the mission on the front line in Vietnam. The wall of sound that hit us when the Viet Cong launched an all out attack on our base was amazing.
Despite having a mammoth predecessor and a ton of expectation on its shoulders Call of Duty: Black Ops has risen to the challenge and delivered a worthy follow up.
The single player campaign is varied and the storyline is engaging. The multiplayer experience is excellent and with the return of dedicated servers Treyarch have hit the right note with PC gamers.
Call of Duty: Black Ops has already broken the Modern Warfare 2 launch day sales record with 5.6 million copies sold, making it the biggest game launch of all time. After playing the game ourselves it's not difficult to see why this is, and we're certain that Black Ops will go on to massive success.
Varied mission types in the single player campaign and experience driven online play.
Rich and detailed environments with excellent player models.
Top of the line voice acting with A-grade stars.
The single player campaign is compact however online play will keeps this game on our hard drive for some time.
Overall (Not an Average)
Call of Duty: Black Ops is the latest game in a series that just keeps getting better.