Call of Duty has quickly become the flagship series for first-person shooters, and for good reason. For years now, they've provided epic, cinematic-driven campaigns, and insanely addictive multiplayer modes. And even though a new Call of Duty is released every year, the games have been split up between developers Infinity Ward and Treyarch, which has helped keep the series fresh. However with the latest entry in the series, Call of Duty: Black Ops, that freshness is somewhat... lacking. Still, Black Ops is a great shooter that will satisfy many a gamer, even though it's not much of an improvement over its predecessors.
Black Ops takes place during the 1960s, at the apex of the Cold War. Over the single-player campaign, you'll visit a myriad of era-appropriate battlefields, including Cuba, Vietnam, and Russia. Although the setting is new to the Call of Duty franchise, it doesn't really take center stage like the transition from World War II to the modern day did in Call of Duty 4. Still, there are some pretty epic set pieces in Black Ops, including one mission where you need to shoot down a space ship before it can launch and leave Earth's atmosphere.
In typical Call of Duty fashion, the campaign is told from the perspective of a few different characters. Primarily, though, you'll be playing as Alex Mason, a covert op specialist who has been captured by some unknown group. Each mission takes the form of a flashback, as Mason's captors are trying desperately to uncover some secret that only he knows. This type of narrative technique isn't super original, but it is nice to see Treyarch trying something new in their approach to storytelling. And it does work the campaign is action-packed from beginning to end. There are a number of memorable missions that will stick with you long after the campaign is over, and some great characters really help nail the cinematic feel, including a feisty Russian who played a prominent role in Call of Duty: World at War. The only problem with the campaign is that it ends far too quickly. Most gamers will be able to plough through the entire story mode in a measly six hours.
Luckily, there is lots of other stuff to do when finished with the single-player. The competitive multiplayer has been reworked in a few ways, yet it still retains the deep addictiveness of the past few games. Experience points are still earned by killing other players, completing objectives and challenges, and winning matches. However, you now also earn Call of Duty points, which serve as a kind of currency. You still unlock new weapons and gear as you level up, but in order to use that stuff, you need to buy it with your points. Pretty much everything is bought with these points, from weapons, to attachments, to perks. And there are tons of customization options in Black Ops, from the clothes you wear, to the colour of your aiming reticule.
And the new currency does have its benefits over just experience points, the most prominent being the new contract system. Contracts are time-based objectives that you need to pay for, but if you fulfill their requirements, reward you with COD points and experience. For example, one contract may cost 25 points, with the objective of getting three headshot kills in a 40-minute span. If you can do it, you get paid 250 points. If not, well, at least you're only out 25 points. There are riskier contracts that cost a lot more, but also pay out a lot more, which is what makes it so fun. There are also new "Wager" matches, which are free-for-all games that have each player bet their COD points. There are some really unique modes in this gametype, such as the "One in the Chamber" where each player is only given one bullet and three lives. At the end of the game, the collective pot is split up between the top three finishers, while the rest get nothing. Betting your points is fun, and somehow makes playing online even more addictive.
Another new addition to Black Ops is the Theater mode. Although long overdue, the Theater allows you to watch replays of your games, and upload clips to the Internet to be shared with others. Considering the success of Halo 3's file share mechanic, it's kind of surprising that it took this long for something similar to be put into Call of Duty. But better later than never.
Now if you're new to the Call of Duty scene, then playing competitively online can be kind of intimidating. Black Ops introduces the Combat Training mode, which allows you to play alone or with some friends against AI-controlled bots. You earn experience and points in this mode as well, but they can't be spent on items for the online multiplayer, just on stuff in Combat Training. It's a good mode for beginners, but will more than likely go untouched by the majority of people buying Black Ops.
And if for some reason killing other human beings isn't your thing, you'll be happy to know that the co-cop zombie mode from World at War makes a return in Black Ops. And it's safe to say that killing zombies is far better in Black Ops than it was in its predecessor, simply because of the level "Five." Taking place in the Pentagon, you and three friends will fend off an endless horde of zombies as John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Fidel Castro, and Robert McNamara. It sounds weird and wacky, and it is. But it's awesome. Hearing JFK say "Zombies? Gentleman... lock and load" in his distinct voice will have anyone rolling on the floor with laughter.
All of the action in Black Ops is top notch, as is to be expected in a Call of Duty title. There are a few times in the campaign where you'll take control of a vehicle, but most of the time it's just you and a gun. There are a few notable glitches I ran into, such as having enemies shoot at me even though they weren't even holding a gun, or watching a helicopter fly through the top of a ship. And the game crashed a couple times as well. Luckily, these occurrences weren't very common.
Graphically, Black Ops is outstanding. The environments are detailed and immersive, and character models look stunningly lifelike. Plenty of little details, like the reflections and lighting effects during a thunderstorm, really draw you into the campaign. And the audio matches up with the visuals perfectly. The soundtrack is diverse, and appropriately suspenseful. The sound effects, from gunfire to explosions, all sound great. And the cast of voice actors is superb, which includes big Hollywood stars such as Gary Oldman, Ed Harris, Sam Worthington, and Ice Cube.
On its own, it'd be hard to argue that Black Ops is anything less than phenomenal. The campaign is thrilling from beginning to end, the competitive multiplayer is as addictive as ever, and there are plenty of zombies to be slaughtered for all the co-op junkies out there. But compared to the last couple Call of Duty games, Black Ops doesn't really do anything to set it apart. It is still a great game that shooter fans will love without question just don't expect it to change your perspective on the long-running series.