Call of Duty: Black Ops
Call of Duty: Black Ops is easily the most violent game that I’ve ever played. There are scenes that I didn’t want to act out, that caused me to hesitate and seek an alternative before clicking in my analog sticks or pulling the triggers. Treyarch, the oft-criticized developers of several entries in the franchise do give players the option of opting out at the beginning of the game. Being an adult and having taken in violent media in various forms for the better part of my life, I chose not to. I have to say, I wish I had. The excessive gore, and I don’t think there’s an argument that can be made that it isn’t since members of the team have admitted that they “went too far”, doesn’t add anything to the experience. The over-the-top violence, which includes a throat slitting scene and another where the player tortures a restrained individual by shoving a piece of glass into his mouth and then punching him, does nothing but keep more sensitive gamers who don’t opt out from enjoying the best shooter of the year.
Fans of the Call of Duty series who have been disappointed with Treyarch’s efforts in the past will be silenced by this entry, which is the first to prove that a team other than Infinity Ward can make a shining entry in the franchise. Treyarch achieved this not by simply copying the formula as they tried to with Call of Duty 3, but instead by rearranging the set pieces and daring to make significant changes to the game’s story-telling and structure. The developments over the course of the game’s seven hours of single player gameplay are interesting enough that I want to avoid any spoilers, but in terms of character development, I will say that this is one of the only entries in the Call of Duty series to actually develop not just a memorable protagonist, but also an interesting supporting cast as well. With the exception of a few flashback segments, the game is set during the Kennedy presidency, offering players a chance to battle through a fictional hot moment during the Cold War.
With Medal of Honor, Battlefield and Modern Warfare 2 all set in or around the present day, the current flavor in first-person shooters is definitely modern combat. Treyarch was definitely taking a risk setting the game in the past. Despite the historical setting, it’s mostly focused on the story and not the gameplay. The plot could be completely changed and this entry could be turned into a modern day shooter with little change other than updating a few weapons and textures. The missions are often familiar: in one, you’ll take to the skies to help out troops on the ground, just as you did across entries in the Modern Warfare franchise. But instead of piloting a drone like you did in Medal of Honor, you’ll instead sit in a high-altitude spy plane marking targets for troops on the ground. Once the target is marked, the camera swoops down from the plane to the ground, where you’ll assume the role of an operative and complete the objective.
In terms of overall design, Black Ops doesn’t set any unique precedents in terms of its single player campaign. It does feel in many respects like Modern Warfare. But a failure to advance gameplay significantly isn’t as bad as a failure to make an interesting game, and in every way, Black Ops is a positively thrilling game. There are dozens of tense moments over the course of the campaign, from participating in the invasion of Cuba, escaping a prison camp in Russia, taking on Russian helicopters in pristine Southeast Asian jungles and even battling through Hong Kong in a segment that feels ripped from an action film. The pace of the action is constant and there’s no chance of a dull moment thanks to the game’s unique narrative structure, keeping players in the action from start to finish. There was only one level that fell flat for me, a segment in Vietnam that felt more like Treyarch’s earlier contributions to the franchise than the rest of what they offered us here, but by the time the credits started rolling, I’d completely forgotten it.
Once the credits finish, players are treated to a round of Black Ops‘ take on the zombie mode Treyarch introduced with Call of Duty: World at War. Those buying the game simply for the series’ heavily lauded multiplayer modes will be happy to note that they can play the mode without beating the game, simply hopping in online as soon as they start the game. The mode isn’t nearly as fleshed out as something like Left 4 Dead, but it is still a blast to play because seriously, who doesn’t like killing zombies? Fans looking for something more akin to Modern Warfare’s multiplayer will also find that Black Ops offers a solid stable of multiplayer modes and matchtypes, including several new additions to standard modes. Particularly fun is the newly introduced Gun Game, which is a take on one of my favorite Counter-Strike mods. In this mode, players must earn a kill with two dozen weapons, one at a time in a linear order. If you gain a kill with one, you’ll automatically be assigned the next. This pattern continues until one player earns a kill with all of the weapons and is declared the winner. With constantly changing arsenals, players are forced to play differently than they would in modes where they can keep one weapon type indefinitely.
With solid single player and multiplayer components, Call of Duty: Black Ops is easily the best game that Treyarch has ever produced. Given the pedigree of this franchise and how well received it has been over the many iterations that we’ve been able to experience, I feel completely comfortable saying that Black Ops is one of the best entries the series has seen. It is in every way as competent and engrossing as any of the Infinity Ward offerings. Treyarch’s success largely stems from deviating not only from their own past iterations, but also daring to try new things with an established franchise that until this point many haven’t considered their own. While their attempts to add such hyper-realistic violence to the series was misguided, nearly every other design decision, from the narrative devices employed to the pace of the gameplay, were successful. With this entry, Treyarch is no longer a company following the leader, but a well-deserved leader in their own right.