The Call of Duty series has definitely been a hot topic within the gaming industry over the last few years. Although the series has been around for quite a while, it really didn’t start to gain the strong mass-following that it has until the first Modern Warfare. Its sequel, which sold about 20 million copies, sent the Call of Duty series to the stratosphere and now just one year later Activision has released a new follow up to their best selling game – there is a lot to live up to. Besides swapping developers, the biggest difference with Black Ops is the focus on a single character storyline with a 1960’s setting instead of waging modern warfare.
One aspect that has always made the CoD series stand out is by putting the player in extreme circumstances. Whether it was sneaking through enemy territory during the sniper level in the first Modern Warfare or the attack on the White House in MW2, Call of Duty has always tried to go for the biggest shock factor and Black Ops is no different. Yes, there are some intense moments during gameplay, but Black Ops’ biggest shock factor takes place more in the presentation of the game as a whole. When the game is first fired up, the player is strapped to a chair in a torture setting. This dingy holding cell acts as the story’s main hub with the player playing through flashbacks of the events leading up to the current interrogation/torture scene. It is an interesting mechanic and surely keeps the attention of the player, but it almost seems like it goes a little too far. Again, it almost seems like the game goes for a big shock factor just for the sake of having a big shock factor.
Whether you agree with the torture scenes or not, there is no doubting the high presentation values in Black Ops. Character models look great, mouths line up to voices, dust and explosion effects litter the air at every moment, motion capture makes each enemy move realistically and voice acting is higher tier. Sam Worthington, famous for Avatar and the latest Terminator movie, lends his voice as the lead role, Mason, while Ed Harris and Gary Oldman also help give his game a Hollywood atmosphere. The biggest complaint with the voice acting probably comes from Sam Worthington; his Australian accent seeps through in his performance when he is supposed to be portraying an American soldier. It just doesn’t line up as neatly as it should.
Although epic, the single player campaign still retains the same flaws as previous CoD’s and actually has an unsatisfying ending. In many situations, the player is faced against constantly respawning enemies until a certain checkpoint is reached. The environment might be filled with particle effects at any given moment thanks to an explosion or gunfight, but the environment itself still looks a bit too static. And the game’s four difficulty settings do not really offer anything new to the player other than cheaper kills on the higher settings.
Since Achievements can be unlocked playing on the easiest setting, why would a player play on the medium or harder difficulty? The highest difficulty rewards players with extra Achievements, but also results in a frustrating experience thanks to instant kills and off-screen hits. By boosting up the difficulty, the player meets death easier while enemies are harder to kill. In part, this can remove the realistic setting that this game has worked so hard to obtain by having the player unload an entire clip into an enemy before he falls. Instead of just adjusting health/armor levels, why can’t the game offer a higher challenge without feeling cheap? Limiting the player to pistols only, tweaking AI enemy behavior, or including extra mission objectives are just a couple ways to increase difficulty without ruining the realistic setting or prevent cheaper deaths and enemy tactics. With a big budget game like CoD and considering that it is almost 2011, why are games still using a difficultly setting from decades ago?
Just like the single player mode, multiplayer is just as flawed and unbalanced as previous installments. By performing certain actions on the multiplayer battlefield, the player is rewarded with a form of in-game currency. This currency is then used to purchase new perks, weapons, weapon upgrades and even emblems. Sure, this system gives the game more of an RPG-like feeling and provides extra incentive to keep playing, but has unbalanced results. This system rewards the most dedicated players while leaving newcomers completely at a disadvantage. And the word “dedicated” is better suited than the term “skilled” just because playing for hours will reward players with easier ways to kill opponents which essentially puts player skill in the backseat.
An example of this can probably best be described with my first few matches. In my first multiplayer matchmaking game, I was the only Level 1 player in sea of Level 20-40 players. Being that it was my first time playing, I was completely inexperienced with map layout and even the structure of the game in general. Facing off against these experienced players resulted in unbalanced gameplay in two-fold: opponents knew the layout of the map and also had perks and privileges that I was not exposed to. Needless to say, my kill-to-death ratio was way off and couldn’t help but feel that my team lost because of me. And with the vocal Xbox Live community, one player even threw out the “why does the Level 1 guy have to be on my team” comment.
Early level players are so underpowered, it is hard to continue playing without rage quitting or having a frustrating experience. Granted, Black Ops retains a little more balance than say Modern Warfare by giving newbies some perks right off the bat, but the multiplayer matchmaking is still suffers from uneven gameplay. Basically, if you were not playing this game from the first hours this title was released, expect to have a difficult and frustrating time trying to become a peer with the dedicated and more serious player. I am sure higher level players competing against other higher level players can prove entertaining. Breaking out of prison, fighting through ‘Nam, or having helicopter rocket battles are not the game’s most difficult and biggest battles; fighting the game’s unbalance multiplayer matchmaking is.
The game also rewards killing sprees with killstreak bonuses. Basically, if you kill enough players without dying, the game gives you a special privilege to kill even more players instantly. Maybe it is just me, but shouldn’t this system work in the opposite direction? Why make it easier for elite players to kill other players and give them another way to pick on n00bs? If anything, shouldn’t the game give struggling players some type of a handicap instead of holding them down even more thanks to overhead instant-death napalm airstrikes? Again, this only further questions the symmetry of the matchmaking.
Black Ops does introduce a couple new multiplayer modes that are bound to be copied in future First Person Shooters. Wager Matches is a way for players to bet their CoD points casino-style while One In the Chamber limits the player to a single bullet. Sticks and Stones only give the player access to knives and tomahawks while another mode randomly Switches guns every few seconds. These modes offer a new and welcomed twist on standard slayer type matches.
With a nod to Left 4 Dead, Black Ops has a built-in Zombies mode. Either online, same sofa, or solo, players will fight off wave after wave of an unending zombie horde. Zombie mode is CoD’s FireFight/Horde mode. But what makes this mode stand out is its weapon system. Starting with just a pistol, the player must make a few kills to earn enough points to purchase more powerful weapons like a shotgun or automatic. Weapon “shops” are basically chalk outlines on a wall and can be used at any time as long as enough points are available. Reviving downed players and blocking off zombie spawn points make this Zombies mode quite entertaining, especially since you play as some pretty unique characters, who I will remain unnamed to stay spoiler free.
And stealing an idea from Bungie, Theater Mode allows players to record and revisit old matches at will. While this mode can be entertaining and used to help built strategy for your next match, it also has worked against the developers by proving there is hit detection flaws and glitches. Spawn camping, invincible headshots, magical melee attacks…the game's flaws are a youtube search away.
Like the Modern Warfare titles before it, Black Ops is an action packed and shocked induced gaming experience thanks to high presentation values. Even though I think the multiplayer experience is highly unbalanced, there are issues with the game’s difficulty settings, and the over-the-top plot elements were introduced simply for the shock value, Black Ops will still be played and enjoyed by millions. Props must also be given for including many computer terminal secrets like the dual analog stick shooter (which I am sure the developers could have posted on the XBLA and charged extra for it), classic text adventure, and reading secret emails. It is just a shame that some key flaws and balancing issues hold the game back from being as great as it could be.
Better Than: being tortured and interrogated
Also Try: getting brainwashed by Russians to betray your own country
Wait For It: next year’s annual CoD
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