WORDS BY: Ryan McCaffrey
Human nature suggests that we should be sick of Call of Duty by now. Black Ops is the series’ sixth game in as many calendar years on Xbox 360, and we’d be well within our rights as gamers to not care about it anymore. But just as this brand reinvented itself once already with Modern Warfare, Black Ops marks another metamorphosis. It not only avoids the dreaded franchise fatigue that has claimed plenty of once well-respected victims in recent years (see: Tony Hawk, Tomb Raider, Guitar Hero), but also lifts the first-person shooter franchise to new heights in the process. Black Ops packs the titanic series’ most compelling campaign, must-play multiplayer, and grin-inducing set of extras and secrets yet. It’s a monster destined to devour your free time for yet another year.
Even in its opening minutes, Black Ops makes it clear you’re in for an intense thrill ride unlike any other Call of Duty game. Previous titles in the series elicited their “wow” moments from big spectacles and bigger explosions, but Black Ops makes things much more personal. Case in point: you begin the game strapped into a chair against your will, electrocuted by captors who seek specific intel on your combat operations spanning the Cold War. It’s a tale told through a run of clever flashbacks that detail how the conflict wasn’t a mere arms race with the Russians, but rather, more often a war often waged within the minds of the men fighting it.
Black Ops’ subject in question is primarily super-agent Alex Mason, who is first shown in a Cuban bar during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. As the Cuban police enter your crew’s meeting spot, Mason tells pal Woods to “Just be cool,” and in the first of Black Ops’ many grisly moments, Woods instead chooses to pin the officer’s hand to the bar with his knife, igniting the game’s first battle.
It spills out into the streets and later takes you to a compound and Fidel Castro’s suspected whereabouts. Stacking up at a door inside the facility, you place your hand on Woods’ shoulder and breach in slo-mo, only to see Castro cavorting with a scantily clad woman inside. He quickly takes the young lady hostage and puts a gun to her head. Forced to react instantly, you put a bullet-time round through the dictator’s forehead, exploding his skull in gloriously gory fashion (unless Castro’s somehow fooling you…).
And this is only the start of Black Ops’ global, multi-decade journey. Variety is the spice that defines its campaign. The game deftly mixes balls-out action, stealth, and for the first time ever, compelling characters who we can not only remember, but actually get invested in as well.
Perhaps no mission embodies all of Black Ops’ best traits as much as its Vorkuta sequence, in which you first meet memorable ally Viktor Resnov in a prison. The feisty felon has been plotting his escape with his fellow inmates for months, having devised an eight-step plan you get to help execute when you encounter him. First, you’ll quietly brain a guard who’s clubbing Resnov (Step 1: Secure the Keys). With a shank now in hand, you’ll escape from the subterranean cell with the other prisoners (Step 2: Ascend from the Darkness). After Viktor and friends push a mine cart loaded with rocks across a guard-infested courtyard — offering you makeshift, moving cover from the rifle-firing guards on the walls along the way — you ascend a tower, where Viktor’s men have jerry-rigged a sort of Molotov catapult on the roof. You pull back, aim, and sling homemade firebombs at occupied guard buildings (Step 3: Rain Fire).
Now able to free the bulk of the prison’s inmates (Step 4: Unleash the Horde), you begin to push forward until an attack helicopter swoops in to try to stop you, just as Resnov predicted. With a hacked-together harpoon gun, you pierce the chopper and bring it down (Step 5: Skewer the Winged Beast). Moving to the armory and getting your hands on the Death Machine mini-gun (Step 6: Wield a Fist of Iron), you’re finally put down with tear gas before awakening next to Resnov, who saves you and has two motorcycles waiting. Hopping on one, you speed away with your pal, shotgunning pursuing guards (Step 7: Raise Hell) and eventually leaping off at high speed onto a moving train (Step 8: Freedom).
And that’s just one mission in a game packed with eight hours’ worth of memorable scenes. Frozen decommissioned ships in the Arctic, meeting JFK in the heart of the Pentagon’s nerve center, and the jungles of Vietnam are just some of the stamps you’ll put on your passport. And only in extreme rare moments does the gameplay make you think, “This is old-school Call of Duty.” Whether it’s a new setting, weapon, or character, you’re rarely doing the same thing twice, and the hours fly by.
By the campaign’s climax, you’re fully engaged in Mason’s struggle, ready to see it come to a head and resolve. And though you may predict the pop-culturally familiar twist before it happens, you won’t see the amazing zinger that swoops in before the credits roll. It’s easily one of the best “holy s**t!” surprises in gaming all year, and great fodder for office discussion.
Though Call of Duty’s multiplayer has long been regarded as sensational, we’d argue that it’s largely iterated itself since Modern Warfare reinvented the series. Black Ops puts a stop to the stagnation, though. It brings back World at War’s immensely popular Zombies mode (with a secret twist we won’t spoil), although it’s playable on only three maps. Moreover, it bets that we won’t be able to keep our hands off of the traditional multiplayer.
Like Halo: Reach, Black Ops introduces a currency system that awards credits for everything you do (headshots, objectives, and so on). The difference here, though, is that they buy you tangible gameplay-affecting pieces rather than just aesthetic costume changes. Perks, weapons, attachments, and killstreaks are now all bought with currency. Want more fast? Try betting on your skills in a Wager Match, where you can venture into one of three playlists, each with a bigger buy-in and thus a bigger potential payout.
You won’t be able to resist Wager Matches because the unique game modes found here are some of the best this series — and in fact, all of Xbox-dom — has ever seen. In Gun Game, the best of the lot, everyone starts with pistols and each kill upgrades you to the next-most-powerful weapon until you’ve run through 20 firearms or the clock expires. The catch? Being knifed drops you down to the previous weapon, making things extra tense as everyone closes in on 20.
One in the Chamber is almost as gripping. Each player gets a pistol with just one bullet. Miss, and you’ll have to stab your opponent. Hit, and you’ll get a kill and an extra round. Yes, it’s as tense as it sounds. Sticks and Stones, meanwhile, gleefully arms everyone with crossbows and ballistic knives. And in all Wager matches, the top-three finishers win currency.
What if you love the sound of Call of Duty’s multiplayer but are intimidated by its hardcore online base? The new Combat Training mode’s got you covered, offering intelligent bots (and we were playing on Normal!) for you and your friends to tussle with. In the spirit of competition, the game even boasts a Theater mode that’s quite similar to Halo: Reach’s, letting you snap screens and record clips as you review footage from your recent matches. Combined with 14 wholly original maps, it’s a multiplayer package that’s nearly impossible to criticize.
Gamers and critics alike are sure to compare Black Ops to Halo: Reach. After all, they occupy the same genre and are the leviathans of Xbox Live; they’re the Yankees and the Red Sox of the Xbox world. Is Black Ops better than Reach, or vice versa? No, they’re simply different. Black Ops matches Reach step for step and nearly feature to feature, getting its hooks into players in unique but equally effective ways. If you have to buy just one game this year, don’t. Buy two. You shouldn’t pick one over the other. Play both. Love both. And may Bill Gates have mercy on any other 360 game that tries to vie for your multiplayer attention on Xbox Live this holiday season.
Though the series had already earned it, Black Ops justifies Call of Duty’s place on Halo’s Xbox-ruling tier. It stands with Reach as the gold standard by which all Xbox first-person shooters should be judged.
+ Glorious, reinvigorated multiplayer modes.
+ Intense, varied campaign.
+ Oodles of extras like Theater mode, Dead Ops Arcade, and Zork.
- How long until the first documented case of â€œCall of Duty gambling addictionâ€ hits the news?