Call of Duty: Black Ops Review (Best Deal in US)

Last year’s praise-filled reviews of Modern Warfare 2 were followed by an astonishing backlash from gamers.

Critics were initially wowed by the thrilling set-pieces, tactical co-op and tried-and-tested multiplayer. But annoying bugs and game-ruining exploits spoilt the fun for many, whilst the single-player game seemed decreasingly stellar as the months past.

With hindsight, suddenly those 10/10 reviews didn’t look quite so fair. And, boy, did hardcore gamers let us pundits know they thought we’d got it wrong.

Critiquing Call Of Duty: Black Ops, then, requires some trepidation. With CoD cynicism at an all-time high, it’s going to to difficult to say anything celebratory without you lot not believing a word of it.

But we’re going to do it anyway.

Illegal Operation
As far as the campaign’s concerned, Black Ops blows Modern Warfare 2 out of the water. Make no mistake: This is the coolest Call of Duty yet. It’s action-packed, inventive, interesting and – for the first time ever in this series – actually offers something resembling a compelling narrative.

You wake up on an interrogation chair, bright lights in your eyes and a masked, robotic voice blaring demands from behind frosted glass. You’re Alex Mason, a deadly Studies and Observations Group operative. It’s pretty clear from the off that you have a secret past – and that someone, or something, is willing to torture you until you spill the beans.

What this information is and who’s holding you become clearer as your interrogation progresses. At time passes, you revisit decades of classified SOG battles across the globe via flashbacks.

You can probably tell this is already a more compelling setup than anything the pair of CoD studios have ever attempted before. Treyarch pulls it off with aplomb.

Every scenario in the game is interesting and clearly defined: You’ll visit the brutal jungle battlefields of Vietnam in what we’d describe as ‘the ghillie suit level with more stabbing’; You’ll drive a motor bike in a high speed chase through a military compound; You’ll sneak through a huge and intimidating missile launch site and hold on to the flight stick to take part inĀ helicopter dogfights. Oh yes.

That’s about as much as we can tell you without strolling into spoiler territory – and we wouldn’t want to do that, particularly as the Black Ops missions you haven’t seen in the press screenshots and trailers are arguably the best.

The Call of Duty series still has the best action set pieces in the world – but it’s the surprising focus on narrative that really brings the Hollywood moments together for an overly satisfying campaign.

Treyarch has thrown half of Hollywood’s smart alec ideas from the past 10 years into Black Ops. Eavesdrop our post-review completion pub conversation with other critics and you would’ve heard references like ‘Fight Club’, ‘SAW’, ‘Inglorious Bastards’, ‘Das Boot’ and ‘f***ing brilliant war movies’.

Credit where credit’s due then: Black Ops’ twisting and deep narrative is a brave move on Treyarch’s part, as many of the game’s target audience probably won’t have the faintest idea what’s going on. Especially the Xbox Live kids. You know who I mean.

It’s not Shakespeare, sure, but – without spoiling anything – Black Ops could have been a great movie. Treyarch’s obviously put a lot of effort in to the plot, and it leaves Modern Warfare 2 looking like a comparatively mindless shooting game.

That must have taken some guts – but not quite as much as you’ll see in-game. The SOG team’s brutal first-person killing moves and limb-flinging levels of gore wouldn’t look out of place in Manhunt. They’re that extreme.

Unless you opt out in a pre-campaign menu option, you’ll see throats slit, hatchets clumped in faces, hooks stabbed into the nape of necks and people beaten to death with an iron pole until their eyes roll back. Sound grisly? Imagine it in in super-detailed first-person view. That’s what you’ll be contending with – because most of the time, you’re the one executing the brutality.

Even for a hardened FPS freak, it’s occasionally shocking stuff, but it fits in with the no-holds-barred, any-measure-necessary attitude the Black Ops soldiers need to stay alive behind enemy lines. (That won’t keep the game out of the newspapers of course, but at least there’s a warning message at the start of the game – and a huge 18 sticker on the box.)

Back Flops
Disappointingly, the single-player campaign is beset by the exact same problem we complained about in the previous three Call of Duty instalments; namely, unspectacular enemy AI.

Just like in Modern Warfare and, perhaps worse so, World at War, you’ll often feel like you’re fighting against sheer numbers rather than actual intelligent opponents.

Foes will infinitely spew from every window, doorway and rooftop – often running straight towards you, guns blazing – until you activate whichever trigger point that stops them appearing in their droves, whether it be an objective or proximity point to a building.

The spawning issue is far more tactically damaging than the intelligence of the enemy forces themselves – though it ultimately doesn’t ruin the experience.

We’re still desperate to see one of the CoD devs take the Halo approach; sticking you in a courtyard with a set number of clever, defined opponents, and then letting you pick your tactics. Looks like we’re going to be kept waiting on that one…

Black Jack
But we know the sole selling point of Black Ops for the majority of fans is multiplayer. So we’re delighted to inform you that it’s an absolute blast to play online.

We put countless hours in to the various competitive and co-operative game modes with everything unlocked – and it’s clear that naysayers will struggle to be disappointed by Trearch’s online offering. (Unless you’re the most picky of all deathmatchers. Or we’ve missed some massive exploits.)

Plenty of decent maps and an arsenal of meaty and powerful Modern Warfare-esque weapons (the Dragon’s Breath shotgun scares us) ensure that the core Black Ops modes feel very familiar to Infinity Ward’s game.

But the real attraction is the new Wager game modes, which could potentially shape the whole future of the franchise. The gambling-inspired game types herald the introduction of CoD Points, a new in-game currency accumulated by levelling up your profile, completing various Contract challenges and putting them on the line in the excellent Wager game types.

CoD Points are likely to have a huge impact on the way you and all your mates approach the game online. Instead of racking up XP the normal way and climbing through the ranks to earn upgrades, you can now use CoD Points (which are earned alongside vanilla XP points) to immediately purchase that killstreak or perk you wouldn’t have otherwise unlocked until level 30.

At level 10 you could already have a top-tier killstreak reward and one of the most powerful perks available (although those can of course be upgraded with gameplay time). Fingers itching yet?

The setup is a complex one (why Treyarch couldn’t just have you gamble XP we don’t know), and will take a bit of studying. Its made even muddier by the fact there are special rules for weapons. You need CoD Points to unlock a gun AND to purchase it – so they’re one of the few goodies in the multiplayer game you can’t leapfrog to the top.

Luckily, Wager matches are bloody good fun regardless of your lust for these new types of stat. Our favourite of the four 6-player game modes (read more about themĀ here) is Gun Game, which cycles participants up a ladder of 20 guns as they gather frags, with a knife kill downgrading you down the weapon scale.

You’ll start off with a lowly pistol, before bagging a headshot and upgrading to double pistols, Uzis, shotguns and, eventually, assault rifles.

It’s a fantastic change of pace to normal deathmatch games as you have to adjust your style of play to the weapon in hand, running and gunning with the Uzis and taking the action indoors with the shotguns.

Eventually you’ll hear the gunfire fall silent as everyone comically reaches the sniper rifle levels; legging it from the gun brawls to sit in the corner behind a scope. And then the first man steps up to the rocket launcher…

Modern Thinking
As Modern Warfare proved this is an online package so vast and so dependent on the community that it’s difficult to predict how it’ll be shaped or received after a thousand hours of play. But the signs look great.

It’s truly massive – we haven’t even touched on the two Zombies maps, which are deep and brilliant fun, if a little dependent on having friendly people to play with.

With a franchise this familiar – housing a multiplayer engine being wheeled out for the fourth time – there’s always the risk that you might not be, as the advertising loves to promise, “blown away” by Black Ops.

But you’d be a fool not to love the campaign – our favourite in the series so far – whilst the multiplayer, though far from perfect, offers a wealth of fun and customisation to suit all tastes.

Treyarch has served up a gorgeous, smart Call Of Duty that should to appeal to online nuts and single-player enthusiasts alike.

Before Modern Warfare 2; before the cynicism, the backlash and the online rage – wasn’t that what we all wanted in the first place?

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9.5 Total Score
The verdict

A thrilling and brutal single-player campaign that's one of the series' best. But will you be blown away by multiplayer the fourth time around?

  • Best campaign in years
  • Stunning set-pieces
  • Proper plot
  • Wager matches are brilliant
  • Enemy spawning/AI is still dodgy
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