Another year, another Call of Duty and another crackpot Russian plotting to blow up the world from his parent’s converted attic.
By now the Call of Duty formula is so established it is safer than a Disney Sing-along Christmas compilation CD. Black Ops resonates with all of the series’ hallmarks; it’s gratuitous, there’s a man with a moustache on screen a lot of the time, there are far too many vehicle sections and there are more parts where you’re not actually doing anything than in Metal Gear Solid 4 (sort of).
The difference here, of course, is that Black Ops takes place in the midst of the Cold War and Vietnam, ditching World War 2 (save for a brief flashback level) and embracing that oh so unglamorous period of American history instead.
But that unfamiliar territory makes for a welcome break from the proverbial battlegrounds of the Second World War. Black Ops’ is still a campaign that (wait for it) spans the globe though and barely a half hour passes without Mason, (that’s you), being hauled off to a new continent. You’ll visit Vietnam, Cuba, Russia, the USA and then Vietnam again.
The story trips itself up enough times to make a primary school egg and spoon race look eloquent but offers a mildly intriguing excuse to shoot just about everybody on the planet (including the English this time). Mason, voiced by Sam Worthington who, try as he might, just can’t hide the fact that he’s not American, spends the bulk of the game strapped to a chair where he’s interrogated about some numbers he may or may not know. His [poorly] veiled captors jolt him with electricity and shout loudly and this inexplicably helps Mason trigger flashbacks, which form the basis of the game.
The campaign is certainly explosive, literally as well as metaphorically. Supreme shouters “YAHOO!” nail it with their blurb praise: “breathless” because it’s certainly aimed at those with an attention span somewhere around the 0.2-second mark. Battlefields hum to the clichéd cries of “tango down” and “hooah” with a splattering of explosions and gunfire for good measure. There’s a mission where you skewer a helicopter with a harpoon, another spent deep underground in the claustrophobic Vietnamese rat holes and another where you have to shoot Fidel Castro right in the face. There are prison breakouts, infiltrations, on rails vehicle sections and at one point you shoot a nuclear missile out of the sky with a guided rocket. Even loading screens are riddled with quick cuts, zooms and shouty people.
So it’s still utterly ludicrous but through it all the beating heart of Call of Duty remains driving the action on.
That heart, of course, is the yellow waypoint. Taken away in a rare moment where instructions are relayed via a character’s voice (unbelievable, I know) and you’re left with an almost infinite supply of fuming forum goers decrying the lack of handholding. Similarly, there’s a great bit midway through the game where Mason asks his mustached buddy Reznov “which way?” when confronted by a fork in the path ahead. Reznov’s response: “follow your instincts”. Of course in reality you chase the famous yellow marker you’ve been engineered to follow. This is Call of Duty, the very same.
Elsewhere there seems to be a back and forth between Infinity Ward and Treyarch to see who can include the dumbest scene. Modern Warfare 2 had No Russian and, in response, Black Ops has a level where you ram some glass into a guy’s mouth and then punch him a few times by hammering on the triggers. Following that he spits out some blood, gets up and helps you finish the mission.
Black Ops is full of gratuitous torture scenes, or, when it’s feeling less sadistic, just straight up over-the-top violence. Inside the rat holes your Python 6-Shooter tries its hand at surgery: shoot a man in the arm and it flings off like it were made from clay leaving him writhing and, with the rat hole being so small, you get a delightful front-seat view. The Python isn’t normally an amateur amputator but, for some reason, take it underground and it becomes one. Vulgar and stupid but the antithesis of a direction the series has been taking for years. In its continual shift toward cinema, Black Ops even finds the time (and money) to include a little Rolling Stones for when you’re in ‘Nam.
In defense of Treyarch though, missions never suffer too much at the hands of monotony largely due to some ridiculous weapons drip-fed to you over the eight hour or so campaign. Highlights include the Dragon Breath shotgun and the Explosive Crossbow each of which pack a little extra… bang. Vehicle sections intersperse the proverbial corridor shooting – which itself flips between methodical trench warfare and lightning-fast rooftop escapes – and the game even finds time to try its hand at both survival horror and RTS with mixed results. The latter section shares a thing or two with Modern Warfare 2’s AC-130 Spec Ops mission but fails to reach the same giddying heights.
Predictably then, the campaign is all very testosterone filled, dramatic nonsense but it does what it sets out to do well enough that anyone not yet tired of the formula will find that Black Ops caters for their every need.
And if one of those needs is a co-operative zombie horde mode, Black Ops has one of those too.
What begins as a fairly lethargic defending of one poorly lit room quickly descends into a mad dash through a deadly labyrinth. The descent from tranquil headshot hunting to spray and pray warfare is both quick and fantastic. The hunters almost immediately become the hunted and as you plough further through the maze-like levels (of which there are two), opening new rooms and gaining access to new weapons, traps and items, you’re also opening up a whole new avenue the dead can use to overcome you. It’s hectic and requires the utmost in teamwork and the best moments are almost always those that involve weighing up the pros and cons of going back for an incapacitated teammate.
Of the two modes it’s undoubtedly the better but demands at least one other player to make the dive into undead territory one that will last more than eleven seconds. That said it’s worth it for the Nixon sound bytes alone.
Ultimately for those apathetic to the multiplayer, Black Ops is hard to recommend. The short campaign pales in comparison to the likes of Bad Company 2 and Halo Reach and remains painfully faithful to a formula that may guarantee Activision enough cash to buy a new galaxy to store all their money in, but as a result never transcends expectancy.
If you’ve played Call of Duty before you know what to expect from Black Ops. It’s more gratuitous, more melodramatic and well, more Call of Duty than ever before.