Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reflections: Call of Duty: Black Ops

Another year, another Call of Duty, another 20 million men between fourteen and forty years of age living out their inner bloodlust fantasies. Black Ops is the same old dance to a slightly different song, and there's plenty of content to enjoy here. Go ahead and skip to the multiplayer portion of the review if you so desire - it is highlighted a little further down the scrollbar.

Let's first establish this: if you, the reader, are not a fan of Call of Duty, the most recent iteration will not do much to please you. As previously mentioned, this game is more of the same. Compared to other franchises, it could more appropriately be labeled as an expansion pack to the CoD series than a sequel. We're still trotting through warzones, aiming down our sights, shooting, throwing grenades, and going prone when the screen is red. There is little departure here from what fans have come to expect.

The game looks good - as do most games on this generation of consoles. With a multi-million dollar budget, Treyarch has crafted sprawling vistas, cramped tunnels with roots hanging from the ceilings and mud on the floor, fiery explosions and beautiful plumes of smoke. Standard fare for action games, and well-polished. Vehicle sequences deliver satisfying sensations of speed, as well. I dare to say that this is the best-looking NVA/Russian murder simulator that has ever been released.

Characters look great, too. The attention to detail on the outfits of Woods, Bowman, Reznov and the whole crew would flatter the manufacturers of such fatigues. Some of the faces look a bit plastic, and Reznov's facial hair looks like it came from a dollar-store, but these are minor complaints, even to the critic's eye. From mud-smeared faces to the buttons on the pockets of your squadmates, there's a lot of eye candy to oogle at in between bouts of chaos. Lip-synching is well-timed, which is great considering the amount of orders a player will be taking from angry, impatient veterans.

Black Ops introduced a delightful storytelling mechanism to the CoD franchise. Instead of playing through a campaign in present-time, first-person narrative, the missions are introduced via a series of flashbacks. Alex Mason, the main character is under interrogation, and the game consists of playing through his memories, and the occasional mission from a squadmate's past. Some jazz about number sequences (that I won't spoil for you) and secret weapons keep things moving, but many of the missions felt tired by the end of the campaign because only a handful of missions really reveal anything substantial regarding the plot.

The plot in itself is nothing revolutionary, and basically gives a player a few good reasons to mow down multitudes of foreign faces. A few memorable missions are placed throughout with some regularity, but the plot unfolds at a very slooooooow pace. Also, the tie-in character from Treyarch's previous CoD game, World at War, gives the game a welcoming sense of familiarity. In terms of quantity of information, the whole plot could be written by hand in a few minutes, but no one purchased this game to question their goals in life - we wanna be blown away by visceral engagements and thrilling firefights.

Personally, the best part of the campaign, hands down, was the interrogation scene in the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) tunnels. Although, with respect to realism, the game hardly takes itself seriously, this scene really brought to life the inhumane torture practiced by the NVA and Viet Cong during the infamous Vietnam War. Being forced to play Russian roulette with your squad's leader, and then the subsequent daring escape from the rat tunnels really had my heart pounding.

Black Ops features an impressive variety of sound effects. Every gun has its own unique firing sound, every firing sound has a different tambre depending on the location from which it's fired. Tunnels, empty buildings, the great outdoors and cramped alleys all carry unique variations of the sounds of gunfire - an impressive feat for a game with over twenty unique weapons. The ejection and replacement of magazines during reloading animations all sound clean and crisp, and CoD's trademark "tat-tat-tat" of bullets tearing through fabric and flesh are all clear and present, and as welcome as ever.

I must say that Treyarch overjumped their destination, to my dismay. While it is obligatory for a game that takes place in a war zone to feature banging and booming all the live-long day, there were more than a few occasions in which I just kinda felt like a piece of meat getting bombarded by the sounds of gunfire and grenades more than the gunfire and grenades themselves. In all seriousness, I advise keeping this game at lower volume than players are accustomed to because of the sheer noise factor. At more than one occasion, my ears rang from the constant pounding and cackling of gunfire and explosions.

Additionally, there is one objective in particular, during a very particular mission, in which the sounds of enemy gunfire drown out some mission-critical information. The resulting confusion will incite frustration and rage in every one of you (the readers), as it has in every one before you, so you RUN DOWN THE HILL AND PRESS THE "USE" BUTTON ON THE THREE BARRELS to progress. Having revisited the mission, Mr. Woods indeed is very clear in his instruction, and even shows you an example of what must be done, he's just difficult to hear.


Here's what we came for. The price of admission is justified in the dozens of hours we'll be logging into this epic time-sink. Once again, if previous entries in the Call of Duty series didn't spring you, this one isn't likely to sweep you off of your feet. But in the likelihood that you do, go ahead and jump in - the water's warm.

Treyarch apparently listened to the legions of fans who inundated Activision's inbox with tales of frustration, rage, and trade-in ultimatums. Wisely, many issues of imbalance have been addressed, and make MW2 feel like the beta-version of this shooter.
Gone are the days of:
- Semi-automatic .50-cal rifle
- Dual Wield shotguns of any sort
- Noob Tube + Scavenger + Danger Close = infinite supply of tactical nukes
- Quick-dives
- Marathon + Lightweight + Commando = War zone ninja
- Carry-over kills from killstreaks

Actually, much to my surprise, taking Black Ops online is nowhere near as infuriating as the Modern Warfare 2 experience proved to be. Yes, it's still possible to corner camp, and yes, sometimes knife kills will charge right through a bullet to the chest, but other than that if it pissed enough people off, it has been fixed.

The infamous diving that some players would utilize to immediately go prone to dodge a volley of bullets has been addressed, as sudden changes in stance -especially from a sprint- are accompanied by a brief moment of impotence as the weapon is shifted about. Also, the grenade launcher attachment for assault rifles has been toned down with a much more drastic arc. Whereas the grenades from MW2's attachments flew in what can best be described as a derivative of a straight line, the grenades in Black Ops have a truly arc-like trajectory, which must be taken into account before firing, which makes cross-map instant kills less of a possibility, and taking some of the "n00b" out of the "n00b tube." I won't kid, the grenades are still a very potent part of an arsenal, but the inability to gain additional attachment grenades via scavenger, and the complete removal of the "Danger Close" perk (which amplified explosive damage and blast radius) has reduced the grenade launcher attachment from a game-changer to a useful tool; a change I'm sure many players are welcoming.

I must say that the maps are well-designed. Favoring -in order of preference- domination, team deathmatch, headquarters, and demolition, the maps I've played on have placed the objectives in areas that are, by and large, challenging to both assault and defend. Having objectives in the right regions of the maps discourages camping and makes the strategy of placing equipment less of a routine and more of a practice of experimentation. All the maps (with the exception of Nuketown) feature arenas to cater to all playstyles, which is delightful. Corridors, rooms, multi-tiered warehouses, hills, and open fields compose some fine maps for multiplayer antics.

A controversial change in direction is the use of CoD points as a form of currency to unlock weapons, attachments, and perks. Experience is still earned from playing games and all that that accompanies, and experience is used to level up. The major change here is that all perks and attachments are available from the get-go, allowing players to create classes to their liking as soon as they acquire the points to allow it.

Relative to previous CoD games, players will be arranging their favorite classes much, much sooner. No more waiting until level XX to get the perk you love so much, all it takes is a few games' worth of points. Not all is lost from the leveling aspect though, as all primary and secondary weapons are not available for purchase until their corresponding level is met. Overall, the use of CoD points to purchase weapons, attachments and perks is a great idea; the only drawback being that leveling-up does not give the player as much to look forward to. Thus, your personal feelings on using CoD points as opposed to the traditional system dictated primarily by level alone depends on your affinity for leveling up.

Here's the gist: Do you like Call of Duty games?? Do you have $60?? Then do yourself a favor and purchase Black Ops, there's lots of fun to be had with millions of other players on the servers, and you know what to expect. More of the same old song and dance, but if you like the tune, then go ahead and indulge.

Call of Duty: Black Ops gets a B lettergrade!!

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