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Call of Duty: Black Ops

Call of Duty

Call of Duty is dangerously close to outstaying its welcome for many PC gamers. While last year’s Modern Warfare 2 was, by all rights, a great game, the PC version was decidedly lacking in a few areas. In my original review, I glossed over a few of these problems; after all, the game itself was incredibly fun. Months after release, though, the seams started to show. The story that had blown me away on my first playthrough made about as much sense as Transformers 2 upon closer inspection, and the multiplayer had declined significantly, thanks to a number of exploits people had discovered after a few weeks or months of play.

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You see, Call of Duty has this sort of recursive effect on me. I loved Call of Duty 4, but after a few months I felt nostalgic, and returned to Call of Duty 2. I enjoyed World at War‘s multiplayer immensely, but after a while, I felt annoyed, and reinstalled Call of Duty 4. In a series that evolves so little with each iteration, the tiny changes can really make the games stand out more than they really should. At a glance, Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 are virtually identical, but play both for a few hours and its likely that Modern Warfare will feel less exciting or Modern Warfare 2‘s over-the-top perks will feel stupid.

What I’m getting at here is that Call of Duty is ceasing to work on me as effectively as it once did, or at least, I’m wise to its tricks. Black Ops has a lot to prove to justify its existence to PC gamers who still feel burned by Modern Warfare 2 and its lackluster PC port. A lack of dedicated servers and shoddy exploits, not to mention the outrageously priced map packs (Modern Warfare had several free map updates), soiled the Call of Duty name for many of the gamers who made the series popular on PC in the first place. Well, for starters, Black Ops supports dedicated servers. That’s something.

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Instead of a contemporary war setting, Black Ops takes place during the Cold War, although you’d be hard pressed to believe that with a glance at the weapon list. This game plays fast and loose with historical facts, taking a five-minutes-into-the-future approach with available technology. At its best, Black Ops is an interactive spy movie, and at its worst, a bad excuse for such. There are some fantastic setpieces, and the game is shockingly violent – something that previous games in the series have tended to shy away from. It’s satisfying and grisly to see the aftermath of a particularly intense shootout. Like all of the best moments in Call of Duty, the highlights of Black Ops are when it ceases to glorify the action and merely makes you a part of it.

Without spoiling too much, it’s safe to say that Black Ops is a better story than its predecessor, but it’s still entirely ludicrous. Some spotty acting doesn’t help, either; Sam Worthington’s accent seems to shift randomly in places. This is a shame, considering the game is the first to show the main character in cutscenes and give them a large speaking role. Still, if political thrillers and military espionage are your thing, Black Ops will satisfy, even if it is a bit silly.

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The presentation is different, but what about the gameplay? This iteration isn’t much different from any other recent Call of Duty, although it does have some welcome additions, particularly in the multiplayer department. Gear is now unlocked with credits, similar to Halo Reach, and there are tons of customization options for most weapons. This includes emblems, which can display beside the player’s name and, if you so choose, on your gun. Emblems are designed with layers, similar to Forza Motorsport or Armored Core, and with patience, it’s possible to make some really incredible insignias – or you could paste penises all over your gun, it’s up to you. Credit can be earned through Wager Matches, which are free-for-all games that offer deathmatch variants, as well as a cool Call of Duty version of the classic Counter-Strike mod Gun Game. While the usual array of objective and deathmatch games are all here, it’s these Wager Matches that really set Black Ops apart, since they offer tangible (at least, in game terms) rewards and creative game modes.

There’s also a new ability that allows you to dive into a prone position while sprinting. You can do it through windows and over crouching people. It’s way too much fun.

Otherwise, Black Ops is fairly by-the-numbers. That isn’t a knock against it – it’s a well-crafted and fast-paced shooter that still looks great, considering how old the engine is. On a decent computer, it runs very smoothly, although as of this writing there are a substantial amount of reports involving choppy framerates and crashing. That’s not good, although I personally can’t say I’ve experienced these issues. However, there are some annoying latency problems that can occur when playing Wager Matches on Activision’s servers.

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Visually, the game wavers between impressive and serviceable. The animation in the campaign can be quite stunning, and some of the locations are breathtaking. However, the age of the engine is beginning to show; physics are relatively minimal, and objects can look fairly lackluster if inspected too closely. Smoke, rain, and other special effects are still the game’s strong suit, just like it has been since Call of Duty 2. Unfortunately, the soundtrack doesn’t meet the standards set by other games in the series. The music lacks the bombast the series is so well known for; in fact, it can be downright pitiful in spots. Who decided that nu-metal guitar was the best way to go for a game set in the 1960s? However, all is not lost – there are some fantastic moments in the campaign that feature licensed songs from the period. It’s a shame not all of it could be as memorable.

Black Ops is an excellent entry into the series, even if it is fairly inconsequential. It doesn’t add anything radical, but like the past few Call of Duty games, it adds enough small things to make it different enough to call a sequel. Thankfully, these changes are mostly interface-based. Dedicated servers are back! The customization is better! You can do a stupid dive move! There isn’t anything mind-boggling here, but it’s just as addictive as Call of Duty has ever been. If you haven’t been burned out on the series by now, Black Ops will still be a great deal of fun, and if you’ve given up on Call of Duty‘s PC versions, it might just coax you back.

7 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in October 2006.

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