Also Available For: Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii, PC, PlayStation 3
It’s the final week of “CoD Month” here on my site. So far, I’ve played all three titles in the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Trilogy (Infinity Ward/Sledgehammer Games, 2016), Call of Duty 3 (Treyarch, 2006), and Call of Duty: World at War (ibid, 2008) and I’ve been less than impressed with what I’ve seen so far. For the longest time, I’ve never been much of a fan of the Call of Duty titles (Various, 2003 to present), mainly because I don’t really get on with first-person shooters (FPS) at the best of times. The perspective can be difficult to judge, enemies shoot at you from nowhere, and I just find them (especially military shooters) quite generic and uniform and, so far, the Call of Duty games I’ve played haven’t done much to change my views. World at War was probably the one I enjoyed the most and, it turned out, spawned a spin-off series for the Call of Duty franchise that continued with this title. Black Ops was another title that happened to come with the Xbox 360 I bought a while back and I’ve heard a lot of positive things about this title, especially, among all the Call of Duty games. So, one last time, I sat down to plough through one more Call of Duty game simply for the Achievements and to see if my personal bias could be swayed.
Sixteen years after the events of World at War, the United States and the Soviet Union are locked in a “Cold War” that moved warfare away from the trenches and towards more clandestine operations. Black Ops revolves around the discovery of “Nova-6”, a deadly chemical weapon that is in the hands of several Russian sleeper agents placed across the globe, and the race against time to locate, isolate, and destroy it before it can kill millions.
Call of Duty: Black Ops is a first-person shooter that sees you in the role of SAD/SOG operative Captain Alex Mason; unlike the other Call of Duty games I’ve played so far, you primarily control Mason throughout the game’s campaign but, at various times, you’ll also play as CIA paramilitary operations officer Jason Hudson. Also in a change from the previous Call of Duty titles I’ve played, Black Ops’ protagonists are actually vocal, talking during gameplay and in cutscenes, which is a nice change of pace.
When it comes to the controls, you know the story by this point and nothing is really different here: you reload with X, jump with A (still as useless as ever unless you’re vaulting over walls), switch weapons with Y, and sprint for a bit by holding in the left analogue stick. Grenades and other explosives are tossed with the Left and Right Buttons, you aim and shoot with the Left and Right Triggers, respectively, and can shoot wildly from the hop or try to be a bit more accurate but pulling on the Left Trigger to aim down your sights. Pressing B allows you to assume one of three stances: standing, crouching, or prone, each of which alters your aim and ability to be stealthy or open to enemy fire.
Health still automatically replenishes when you avoid enemy fire, and you still get a generous amount of checkpoints to help you reload when you’re inevitably blown up by a random grenade but Black Ops mixes things up a bit by having a few missions where your health “bar” doesn’t really mean shit: the first is when you pilot vehicles (such as the Mi-24 Hind attack helicopter and an attack boat) and the vehicle’s damage doesn’t auto-repair and the second is when you (as Hudson) must walk through a cloud of Nova-6 in a haz-mat suit. As you take damage, the suit cracks and doesn’t auto-heal so you’re at risk of being exposed to the deadly nerve agent if you linger too long or rely on the traditional auto-heal mechanics, which is actually a nice touch and harkens back to FPS games of old where auto-healing wasn’t a thing.
A helpful mini map is located at the top left of your heads-up display (HUD); this shows your location, the location of your allies, enemies, and the direction of your objective. Maybe I’m just used to them by this point but I actually found this mini map quite useful as it actually gives you a far better idea of the layout of your current area and where you need to go. As always, the game isn’t all just mindless shooting; in fact, story plays a major role in Black Ops. Having a vocal protagonist really helps with this and Mason is right in the middle of the Russian’s plot to gas their Capitalist enemies as he was captured and brainwashed by the Soviets; the narrative is framed by several cutscenes wherein Mason is interrogated by US personnel regarding his actions and the action frequently cuts away to more of these scenes. Sadly, these cutscenes can’t always be skipped; sometimes, you’re able to skip them by holding the A button but you’ll have to sit through a fair few which is annoying on repeated playthroughs.
Also breaking up the action are a variety of other gameplay sections; there’s the vehicle-based ones I mentioned above which are basically similar to the tank- and helicopter-based missions of previous games but actually much more enjoyable. When controlling the Hind, you both pilot the craft and shoot with a machine gun and missiles; while it’s quite difficult to manoeuvre and get a good bead on targets (especially other helicopters), it’s still quite fun to be up in the air and have a greater field of view. The boat mission is pretty much exactly the same as a tank-based mission from World at War except you’re on a boat, in the water, and it’s night-time in the jungle; the boat is still a bit slippery and awkward to control but it’s fun just wrecking shit up with its armaments.
One mission also sees you inside of an SR-71A aircraft; from here, you’ll use a thermal radar to direct your ground forces and then switch down to them to clear out the opposition. Once the mission switches to the ground proper, you’ll have to rappel down to a facility and utilise the same stealth tactics seen in the previous games to progress further. Stealth also plays a big part in another mission where you must first avoid an overhead helicopter, silently dispatch of two guards, and then infiltrate a Soviet missile based while wearing their uniforms. As dark and grave as World at War was, Black Ops is even more so. The game opens with Mason escaping from a desolate Soviet prison where he reconnects with Viktor Reznov from the previous game; Reznov’s edict is literally burned into Mason’s mind as he finds himself compelled to assassinate a number of Axis scientists throughout the game’s narrative. Oh, and did I mention that you end up going to Vietnam? Well…you do. Similar to how the Japanese elements made the last game more brutal and affecting, seeing the Viet-Cong charge blindly into gunfire and try to slice your throat out is legitimately jarring, almost as much as them capturing Mason and his comrades and forcing them to play Russian Roulette!
Graphics and Sound:
Building upon the level of detail seen in World at War, Black Ops is probably the darkest, grittiest, and most detailed of the series thus far (at least, of the ones that I’ve played). Character models continue to be the weakest aspect but it’s easily forgiven when you realise how detailed and elaborate many of the game’s locations are: the Vorkuta Gulag isn’t just a desolate, rust-filled prison; it’s a desolate, rust-filled prison in the middle of a snow-swept landscape that is perfect for a high-speed motorcycle escape to a train. Khe Sanh, and Vietnam in general, is rendered with a horrifically affecting realism that really captures the humid and horrific conditions of that particular conflict and stands in start contrast to the dark urban landscapes you run through in Kowloon City.
Voice work is even more important than ever to Black Ops because it actually features a speaking protagonist; Sam Worthington (remember when he was a thing?) takes centre stage as the tortured and haunted Mason, Gary Oldman returns as the revolutionary Reznov, and even Ed fuckin’ Harris shows up to voice Hudson. I also took much greater note of the music in this Call of Duty title; there’s a foreboding, heavy feel to the tunes of this game alongside the traditional stirring military melodies and, in true Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979) fashion, the troops stationed in Vietnam like to blast the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” at full volume in their base camp and when blowing enemy encampments to smithereens.
Enemies and Bosses:
Like World at War, Call of Duty: Black Ops has far more enemy variety than in the previous titles. Rather than simply gunning down Nazis, you’ll mostly be clashing with Soviets, Vietnamese, and even British Commandos. As always, these enemies are formidable thanks to their flagrant use of cover, melee, and explosives to whittle your health to nothing in no time at all.
While bosses aren’t really a thing in Black Ops, when flying the Hind, you’ll come up against a couple of enemy attack choppers that must be destroyed before you can progress and, when in your attack boat, you’ll specifically have to trade shots with another boat to complete the mission. When joining the assault on the Rusalka, you’ll have to provide cover fire from your attack chopper and also bring down another enemy Hind, before eventually confronting and killing Nikita Dragovich, one of the key minds behind Nova-6, in a quick-time event.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
As with other games in the series, Black Ops is going for realism over the more flamboyant aspects of other FPS titles so the closest thing you’ll get to upgrades is when you are able to call in air strikes, take control of armoured vehicles, or happen across an armoury.
Despite this, and the setting of the game, Black Ops has some pretty nifty weapons on hand for you to use; though you’re still limited to only having two at a time, some of the stand-outs for me were the Franchi SPAS-12, a pump-action shotgun that can also fire incendiary rounds, the Python (a high impact .357 Magnum), and the Beretta Model 682, all of which are great for close-quarters dismemberment. You can also grab a crossbow (that can also fire explosive arrows) and a couple of nifty grenade and rocket launchers, like the “China Lake” and the M72 LAW, and even duel-wield pistols and smaller submachine guns at various points.
As with the other Call of Duty titles, you can choose to play on a number of different difficulty settings and earn a fair amount of Achievements. These are generally earned after clearing missions in the main solo campaign but also pop with when find all of the Intel hidden throughout the game, complete certain missions with certain weapons, kill a certain amount of enemies in certain ways, or slaughter some poor, innocent test monkeys as quickly as possible. Multiplayer returns in Black Ops but, this time, you’re able to set-up a multiplayer match against computer-controlled opponents, meaning I was actually able to experience a Call of Duty free-for-all deathmatch for the first time. When in this mode, you can select or create a class where you customise your weapon loadouts, perks, and other aesthetics, which is a nice touch, and you can tweak the level of difficulty of your computer-controlled foes but I was absolutely owned by the computer even on the easiest setting and found it was little more than a standard deathmatch.
Returning from World at War is the “Zombies” sub-game wherein you must try to survive for as long as possible against endless waves of zombies in a variety of maps; one of these has you playing as John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Robert McNamara, and Fidel Castro in a fantastic piece of ridiculousness that is massively at odds with Call of Duty’s more serious tone…and I love it! The more zombies you kill, the more points you earn to spend on fortifying your defences, unlocking new areas, or accessing better weapons but the best part about the “Zombies” mode in this game is the inclusion of Dead Ops Arcade, a top-down arcade title that plays very similar to Smash TV (Williams, 1990) and Dead Nation (Housemarque/Climax Studios, 2010) and was honestly the most fun I’ve had playing a Call of Duty title.
Call of Duty: Black Ops was far more enjoyable for me than any of the Modern Warfare titles and a fine follow-up to World at War but I still find myself largely unimpressed. If anything, it’s annoying that it took this long for the series to feature a speaking protagonist right from the get-go but, while the game is better for it, I didn’t find Mason particularly compelling; you can see the big twist in his narrative coming a mile away (thanks in no small part to the constant cutscenes that jerk you abruptly from the gameplay to slap you in the face with the twist before it’s revealed), it’s outrageous to me that he was allowed back into active service after the big reveal, and the idea of chemical attacks or sleeper agents isn’t exactly new by any stretch of the imagination. Still, by taking everything that worked in the Modern Warfare games and in World at War and applying them in a more intimate story with greater stakes, Black Ops actually worked for me on a level the other Call of Duty titles didn’t. It helped a lot that areas were far more recognisable, varied, and interesting, that the locations were unique and engaging, and that the developers included Dead Ops Arcade and so many recognisable political figures happily blowing holes in zombies.
What did you think of Call of Duty: World at War? Where does it rank for you compared to the other Call of Duty titles? Do you think I have committed the ultimate sacrilege by besmirching the good name of the Call of Duty franchise or do you agree that the series is somewhat over-rated and stagnated? Whatever you think, please do leave a comment below and come back for more content and reviews in the near future.