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Treyarch goes 'deep black' amid Cold War paranoia and the trials and tribulations of America's war in Vietnam...
Activision's Call of Duty games are really starting to rack up a hefty carbon footprint. Forget all of the greenhouse emissions from the copious amounts of military craft and vehicles (not to mention one nuclear explosion) - just the travelling alone is more than most people would do in a lifetime. The Modern Warfare games went from favelas in Rio de Janeiro to a gulag in the far-eastern corner of Russia and an SAS training camp in the UK to a village in Azerbeijan - they even had the audacity to go back in time with Captain Price's flashback to Chernobyl irradiated Ukraine, and we all know how polluting those flux capacitors are. Call of Duty: Black Ops is no exception in that regard, leapfrogging from Cuba to the Vietnam War, the former USSR to quite literally the edge of space, and Treyarch even has time to flashback to the Arctic Circle at the end of World War II (as if it hadn't had enough of that era already).
If you don't even like first-person shooters, perhaps it's just worth buying the game for the virtual travelling opportunities? If not that, then just take a punt for the impressive levels of historical research on show. Military vehicles, weapons, and clothing have obviously been loyally recreated from the Cold War era, but it's the finer details that really stand out here - even the computer command consoles are unmistakably of their time and the voice-actor for JFK is spot-on the money. People harp on about how great TV shows like Mad Men are for precisely these reasons, so perhaps it's worth remembering that some videogames (CoD: Black Ops being a standout example) also do a remarkably good job in their own right (Resistance: Fall of Man, on the other hand, definitely did not).
Black Ops presents a campaign that's adventurous and believable, then, but it's also unmistakably Treyarch. Much like with World at War, the initial levels play out like the final levels in the Modern Warfare games - with over-clocked gunfights around every turn - and this onslaught doesn't relent until the credits roll. There's very little time for subtlety here (Treyarch doesn't even bother with a tutorial really) and there are times when you'll ask yourself, where's the foreplay? You do feel a bit like a floozy who's been flung on a bed and dominated with animal-like aggression - at times we'd have liked Treyarch to slow it down and show a lighter touch for a second but, if we're being honest with ourselves, the red-blooded vigorousness of it all is just as much of a turn-on. Treyarch is kind of carving out its own style away from Infinity Ward in this regard, and all the power to it for that.
While the studio's previous Call of Duty games have often been criticised for the vehicle sections in their campaigns, Black Ops finally manages to deliver. Things start off badly in the first couple of levels with some quite shoddy car and bike action but, as the campaign moves on into Vietnam, the vehicles come into their own. Driving a boat down a Vietnamese river, showering the undergrowth with bullets as the radio plays The Rolling Stones' 'Sympathy for the Devil' at full volume is a priceless moment. Equally brilliant is the opportunity to take full control of a chopper a bit later on, raining fire on gun emplacements and sniper towers with disdain. In general, Black Ops does a very good job with the levels that it sets during the Vietnam War - a full-scale invasion by the Vietcong at one point is quite something to behold and ranks among Medal of Honor: Frontline's opening level as one of the finest to actually place gamers amid a heaving battlefield (or, at least, successfully cast that illusion).
At 6-8 hours in length depending on your skill level, Black Ops' campaign is actually quite hearty compared to its immediate peers (i.e. Modern Warfare, Medal of Honor etc.). Where it does fall down a little, though, is with its variation in gameplay. There are a few examples of a change in pace, such as the SR-71 Blackbird level and one particularly good section with a Hazmat suit that we won't go into for spoiler reasons, but you're left with the overall feeling that Black Ops comes off a little gunfight heavy. Just one or two more novel design ideas could have made the difference here though and Black Ops does a much better job than most other FPS titles in this area regardless, so we're inclined not to be too critical.
Nonetheless, if the campaign by itself scores a very high 8/10 that could just about scrape a 9, then CoD fans will be glad to hear that the all important multiplayer is a sure-fire 9/10 that reaches for the perfect 10. The simplest ideas are often the best ones and Black Ops' new Wager Mode is precisely that - it's the most notable addition to CoD's multiplayer format from Modern Warfare 2 and brings about a completely different way of playing the game. In the mode, gamers can wager CoD Points against matches in 6-player lobbies - if they manage to finish in the top three (or 'in the money') at the end of a match then they are rewarded with a sliding scale of CoD Points depending on their final position. The catch is that you have to place a wager to even play in a match and, if you finish outside the top three, then you get nothing.
'What are these CoD Points?' We hear you cry. Well, they're effectively an extension of XP. While XP still unlocks weapons and various other customisation options, gamers then need CoD Points to actually purchase the new weapons, killstreak rewards, or perks etc. You can earn CoD Points by achieving various challenges in the multiplayer, or purchasing specific 'Contracts' that reward you with bonus pay-outs upon their completion (e.g. call-in two Spy Planes, win three Team Deatchmatches etc.). It's effectively a whole new currency and one that's clearly been designed to fit around the Wager Mode - to this aim, the CoD Points are almost as inspired as the Wager Mode itself.
But it's the actual gameplay modes within Wager matches that are the most innovative and original ideas. Four separate modes manage to mix-up the action in ways that few other FPS games have touched on previously, let alone the CoD series. From 'One in the Chamber', where each gamer has a pistol armed with a single bullet to kill their adversaries, to 'Gun Game', where players rank-up through Black Ops' armoury of weapons with each successful kill, the gameplay is always frantic and varied. It has the kind of inventive multiplayer feel to it that we remember from playing GoldenEye in the 90s, and we certainly won't be surprised to see rival developers pinching ideas from Treyarch's work in the next couple of years.
Other modes from the Wager matches include 'Sharp Shooter', where players accumulate perks as they build a killstreak, and 'Sticks & Stones', which is a crossbows and tomahawks-only mode. All four of them have been solidly put together and we particularly enjoyed how Treyarch has approached the gameplay balancing. In 'Sharp Shooter', for example, all players have the same set weapon at one time, although the weapons cycle through a set list during matches; in 'Sticks and Stones' your score is reset back to zero when you're killed by a tomahawk, and in 'Gun Game' you get demoted to the previous weapon on the list when you're melee killed by an opponent. It's all finely-honed tweaking that keeps the action fast, frantic, and varied.
Other than that, it's very much the multiplayer CoD experience that you know and love. The standard set-list of modes remains fairly unchanged, perks are pretty familiar, and weapon customisation remains consistent too. The big gameplay changes come from shotguns being reclassified as primary weapons (making them beefier as a result) and a radically changed list of killstreak rewards. Many of the new killstreaks have clearly been added to reflect the Cold War era, some have been re-introduced from earlier CoDs (e.g. attack dogs), and others are just variants on previously established ideas (e.g. the RC-XD bomb is an alternative to Predator Missiles and Spy Planes effectively replace UAVs). Overall, the killstreaks add some freshness to the experience and have been designed to offer a touch more hands-on control than their Modern Warfare 2 equivalents.
During our play-test of the multiplayer we managed to rank-up to level 11, providing a sizeable sample of the first few hours of play. We did sense some potential post-release issues, such as one or two predictable respawn points and gunplay that appeared to be balanced in favour of sub-machine guns. That said, these are the kind of issues that can only be solidly identified after the first few weeks of play and weapon balancing will vary greatly as you rank-up through the tiers. If these things do turn out to be bugbears, then they're also the kind of problems that can be rectified through patches and with a game of Black Ops' certain mass popularity, player feedback and developer response should be a fairly straightforward process.
Beyond the multiplayer, Treyarch has brought along its world famous Zombie co-op mode complete with some rather unlikely protagonists in a map that you unlock after completing the campaign (which we won't go into for spoiler reasons). When you add this to the 4-player campaign co-op and local split-screen multiplayer options, Black Ops really is stocked with content that's been intelligently dished out, allowing gamers to play precisely how and with whom they want. You really have to look to the likes of Halo: Reach for another shooter that's just as well-stocked with options and modes.