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Call of Duty: Black Ops OR How Activision prints money

So ok, everybody hates Activision, we get it.  They’ve gouged us on map packs, probably screwed over original Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward, and are generally just a giant corporation hell on bent on making money at the expense of the little guy.  Since Call of Duty is so huge we have the expected backlash of “oh it’s a terrible game only morons buy it”!  But let us be honest for a second, dear readers.  If Call of Duty, as a game, truly sucked, it would not sell over 5.6 million copies on the first day it was released.  Yes, you read that right.  Treyarch, who was kind of the “off-year” CoD developer and most recently made the precursor to Modern Warfare 2, World at War, had the helm for Black Ops.  Considering the state of Infinity Ward at the moment, Treyarch has suddenly been thrust into the alpha dog position for the biggest franchise in gaming.  So, how did they do?  Forgetting all the money and hype and myriad of opinions about the idea of Call of Duty, we do have a game in front of us here.  Treyarch hasn’t done anything drastically different but they deliver a very slickly produced game that delivers on its promises.  An engaging single player, absolutely insanely large multiplayer, and even the return of ZOMBIE MODE (ooooooo scary) make Black Ops an excellent addition to ye olde game library.

The single player campaign in Black Ops is in your face from the moment the game disc starts spinning.  The main menu options are displayed on a tv screen that’s in front of your face on-screen, because the menu has the main character of the game, Alex Mason, strapped into a chair while a distorted voice asks him vaguely threatening questions.  The actual present tense of the game takes place almost entirely in this room.  The various “Black Ops” themselves are actually memories of such missions from Mason.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  It’s a blessing because it allows the player to be put into a storyline that spans the majority of the 1960’s, from the Bay of Pigs to Vietnam to really secret stuff involving the Cold War.  It was actually a nice departure from the Modern Warfare game plotlines.  The first Modern Warfare had an excellent plot, the second one had an incomprehensible plot, but it was nice to have  a historical context to wrap the game around here, especially one that wasn’t World War 2.  So while I applaud the varied locations and time periods, it is not without drawbacks.  For the first half of the game in particular the story feels very disjointed.  The first mission has you in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs invasion, but even within the mission Mason’s memories jump around.  One second your escaping troops in a car in the dead of night then that fades out and you find yourself atop a cliff looking down at an enemy encampment at dawn.  I realize that the goal was probably to have the gamer fill in the gaps so to speak and to make sure every single moment was action packed but it was just a little too fast with the memory edits.  The lack of breaks in any action makes it all somewhat run together ( I think of the excellent scene in Uncharted 2 where all you do is explore a mountainside village for a few minutes) and initially makes exactly how all these things are related unclear.  To Black Ops’s credit, the memories and plot in general get tighter and easier to follow about halfway through the game and actually comes together quite nicely for the end, which is basically the opposite of Modern Warfare 2.

Trust me, you want this man with you in the jungles of Vietnam. Unless you're the VC. In which case, he's not very cool.

One thing that did bother me about the single player story that I feel the need to talk about is the treatment of real world people, one in specific.  There are MINOR SPOILERS upcoming here about the very very end of the game, specifically the post credit sequence.  It’s actually a jokey thing and has nothing to do with the main storyline, but if you don’t want the joke to be spoiled, jump to the next paragraph.  Now, like I said, I enjoyed the historical context of the game.  It’s the 1960’s so very appropriately John F. Kennedy is the president and he makes a couple of appearances in the main storyline.  I have no problem with this.  The problem I have is that very end of the game puts you into a zombie mode match (I talk about how zombie mode actually plays in a bit, but that’s irrelevant for now) with world leaders playing the role of those fighting the zombies.  It’s played as a huge joke, with everybody saying insanely ridiculous things and such.  Kennedy is one of them.  I’m about the last person in the world to be offended at anything, but I was a little taken aback by how glibly Kennedy was treated here, especially given how serious he was treated in the main game.  The game makes references to his assassination, which I have no problem with, because they treated in a serious and respectful manner while playing up the fact that hundreds of conspiracy theories exist about his death.  To go from that to him yelling and hopping around in the zombie game mode seemed in poor taste.  I’m not one of those people who will yell and scream and accuse Activision of shaming America or something, but it did strike me as a bit uncomfortable.  I just couldn’t get out of my head that Kennedy would have probably never approved of this kind of “appearance” for himself.

The gameplay remains mostly the same as it ever was for the Call of Duty franchise.  Black Ops does have a few more vehicle sections, including some where you are actually controlling the vehicle movements and not just on rails gunning.  These sections lend themselves well to the cinematic action movie type moments the series is known for.  Some effective 60’s era music is also used to great effect, most notably Sympathy for the Devil by The Rolling Stones.  Yeah, its cliche, but Treyarch hits that beat well.  A couple of interesting new weapons make an appearance, the most fun being the crossbow with explosive bolts.  Sticking somebody with one and watching them try to run to their comrades, only to blow them up too, is pretty fantastic.  Given the game’s setting the weapons are true to the time period of the 60’s, so we don’t have the crazier stuff like heartbeat sensors from MW2 involved.  However they also don’t feel archaic.  The assault rifles may have different names and look a bit different, but they fire much the same.

Yes, you can fly his helicopter. No, it's not realistic at all. Yes, it's bleepin fun.

So the single player is all well and good, but the reason Black Ops sold 5.6 million copies on day one is that OTHER game mode.  With the people.  ON THE TUBES.  I’m going to assume a moderate level of familiarity with the general idea of CoD multiplayer from this point on, fyi.  All the basic game modes return, standard team deathmatch, the point capturing domination, bomb setting search and destroy, hardcore variants for each, blah blah blah, all the same MW2 stuff.  The new game modes are found in the Wager Matches section of the menu and they all are successful and cool.  Gun game starts everybody with the same weapon, a revolver, with any kill earned instantly switching you to a different weapon.  The first person to get a kill with twenty different weapons, working their way through the gun lineup, is the winner.  This includes sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and even the new ballistic knife, which while hard to hit somebody with is pretty satisfying when pulled off.  Forcing you to play with different weapons may not be the comfort zone for some players but it’s worth a try.  I know I generally create one class with perks and weapons I like and stick to it, but being forced to learn something else was actually fun.  The somewhat similar mode called Sharpshooter will do the same thing.  The game will assign everybody in the game a random weapon (same for each person).  After 45 seconds, everybody gets a new weapon.  This includes mid gun fight, so an up close and personal battle with shotguns might turn into an odd close quarter battle with sniper rifles in the blink of an eye.

One major difference, that didn’t seem that major at first but actually makes the feel of a Black Ops game different from that of a MW2 game, is how killstreaks are earned.  In MW2, killstreaks earned you other killstreaks, ie if you earn a predator missile at five kills and blew up two fools with it, you earned the seven kill harrier jet that instant.  Black Ops forces you to earn those kills personally.  This results in less overall killstreaks, especially the later more powerful ones.  At first I wasn’t a fan, as my favorite part of MW2 was having a harrier and pave low helicopter in the air at the same time while I sat in a corner and just watched myself constantly getting kills.  Black Ops is refreshing in that there isn’t something CONSTANTLY in the air mowing you down anytime you step outside.  This puts a bit more emphasis on skills with a gun and the game plays better for it.

He may not be present in this shot, but trust me, there is some unfortunate person laying on the ground just off-screen.

The addictive leveling system has been tweaked by Treyarch to make it a bit more customizable and is done so by the addition of Call of Duty Points.  Think of them as secondary points you earn alongside the standard level gaining experience points.  While guns are still only unlocked at certain overall levels they also now include a cost in Cod points.  Though it sounds like double dipping the points actually let the player customize their loadout and character much quicker than was possible in MW2.  Points are not that hard to come by and while you can’t buy everything on the board all the time there was never a situation in which I couldn’t decide to try out a new gun and have more than enough for it.  Also, all the attachments for the guns such as scopes or grenade launchers do indeed cost points, but they are all available to buy from the moment the gun is unlocked.  So if you just love the AUG assault rifle with a reflex sight replacing the iron, jungle camo, and a grenade launcher attachment (provided you have the two attachment perk equipped!) than all of that is available to you as soon as the gun is unlocked.  Not having to kill 10 fools with just iron sight to unlock a red dot site, as was the case in MW2, is totally fine with me.  The customization of guns also brings some nifty new stuff to the table in the form of different reticule.  Yeah the standard red dot is fine, but isn’t a bright green smiley face better?  Or a Yin-Yang?  Or a radioactive symbol?  Throw in about 20 other more standard sights (crosshairs, dots, square, triangle, you name it) and the ability to pick the color of both the reticule itself and the lens of the sight means every kill cam yields a slightly different setup.   Character face paint can also be chosen, as well as the icon in   your name info box thingy that people see when you kill them and your clan tag.  Yes, both of those were in MW2.  Here (provided you have enough CoD points!) both of those can actually be put onto your gun.  It’s these small things that make every player feel a bit more unique and I predict much time will be spent in these menus making that favorite set up.  Options are good and Treyarch has them here in spades.

CoD points are earned just be getting kills and generally playing the game, but there a couple of ways to expedite the point earning process if funds are getting low.  The aforementioned Wager match modes, not just being nifty new game types, also force players in them to ante up some of their hard-earned CoD points, with the top 3 at the end of the game being “in the money” and earning more than they put in.  These can range from putting up just a few points (basically for non gamblers to try out these game modes) to going “all in” and betting thousands of them in one high pressure match of Gun Game.  It’s a fun way to earn points and raises the intensity level of the multiplayer higher than any previous CoD.  Another way to gain your points is the addition of contracts.  Pony up varying degrees of CoD points lets you take on contracts, which pay out a healthy return if you complete them, or nothing if you don’t.  Some are easy to complete;  finish a game with more kills than deaths, earn a three kill streak, stab somebody in the back.  Others are much much harder, such as get 16 headshots with submachine guns or earn the attack dog killstreak, which is 11 kills (and remember, killstreaks are a bit harder to earn now!)  All of these are timed, so getting a 3 kill streak in the next 40 minutes of game time (literal in GAME time, the clock does not tick in the menus, fret not!) is fine, but getting those 16 submachine gun headshots?  Tricky.  The payouts reflect the challenge involved well, with some earning you normal xp on top of the CoD points.

The last mode is Treyarch’s signature mode that debuted in World at War and makes quite the return here in Zombies.  Basically taking the place of the Spec Ops mode from MW2, Zombies is a four player coop game pitting you against the undead.  Points are earned for killing zombies, reviving friends, or rebuilding barriers.  Those points are spent to buy new guns and open up new sections of the map.  This makes for some really fun gameplay, as you start in one room with bad weapons and eventually end up trying to cover an entire map being overrun with undead with awesome things like grenade launchers or those wind up drumming monkeys.  Whatever they’re called I forget.  They distract the zombies ok.  I have no idea what the “goal” of a zombie mode map is beyond just surviving because in my experience, surviving is really god damn hard.  The hordes of undead very quickly become true HORDES, with zombies coming from many directions.  Characters are fragile here, with only 2 hits dropping you to the ground in need of revival by an ally.  Teamwork is an absolute must to survive anything other than the first few rounds.  I recommend playing with people you know because voice chat is almost essential.

So ok, I think at this point it has become clear there is a ton of content packed into Black Ops.  It’s that level of content that makes the game worth playing.  The single player and zombie mode alone could have been made a retail game, but the absurdly large mutliplayer will make this game rule the charts on Xbox Live and PSN for months and months to come.  As I said in the opening, there is no reinvention of the wheel here.  If MW2 or any of the previous CoD titles weren’t your thing, Black Ops isn’t going to suddenly make a new fan out of you.  The tweaks to the multiplayer, most notably how killstreaks work and the level of customization possible, are what make Black Ops a better package than MW2.  Treyarch had some absurdly large shoes to fill and they did it.  The 5.6 mil sold locks them in for another CoD title I’m sure and it’s one I will look forward too.

Also: There is a freaking chain gun called the death machine. It has earned this moniker.

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