Also available on: PS3, Wii, PC
Genre: First-person shooter
It used to be that Treyarch's Call Of Duty outing came during an off year - something to tide us over until Infinity Ward blew us away with their game. Well, not any more. Things have changed in the past year and so it's up to Treyarch to take the reins. And it takes the responsibility with real vigour; Black Ops plays as if the developer is giving its all, with a relentless campaign and the most feature-packed multiplayer suite yet, along with the return of the fan-favourite Zombie mode.
Sticking with what they know best, Black Ops dishes out more mid-20th century warfare with a greatest hits package of the Cold War era, featuring Cuba, Russia and Laos amid a period of secrecy and paranoia, as well as a substantial portion of wartime Vietnam to rummage through. While previous Call Of Duty campaigns had you participate in forces tackling different fronts in a linear order, the entire game is a series of flashbacks told under interrogation, focusing on a few key individuals in covert operations, flipping back and forth between different years as the twists and turns reveal themselves.
The set-up also allows it squeeze out the humdrum parts of the mission. Just as a situation or mechanic begins to drag on a little too long, you're pulled back into the interrogation room for another slickly produced cutscene, flooding the screen with strange numbers and secret documents, before plunging you back into the action later down the line. It ensures that pacing is kept snappy and sharp, that the boring bits are cut out, and also makes it the most unique COD campaign to date, dispelling any thoughts that the single-player component is becoming a little stale in its presentation.
That's not to say it doesn't share those frustrating traits of old. Certain battles will keep populating with enemies until you press on and trigger a certain checkpoint, often during the more open skirmishes, where random deaths are commonplace and confusion of your next destination leads to mounting frustration. Gameplay is at its best when it's linear and clear what to do, edging down straight corridors and popping anyone stupid enough to cross your iron-sights, and consistently impresses with its schizophrenic pacing, snack-sized vehicle sections and intense first-person action sequences. And yet, it never quite wows you in the way that Modern Warfare did, which delivered one or two showstopping scenes which eclipse anything on show here. In fact, despite its ferocious tempo, it's ultimately a little forgettable.
Of course, the customary six hour campaign could be regarded as a starter for the multiplayer, which continues to grow from strength to strength. While Modern Warfare 2 vastly expanded the fundamentals, this doesn't dare toy with the basics, instead opting for a smart refresh. The new maps are tightly designed and novel in their own way, with ricketing trains and launching shuttles as backdrops, while the weapons pack a punch despite their Cold War origins. Attack dogs return as a killstreak but are quite difficult to obtain, while the contentious explodable remote control car isn't as annoying it it should be despite costing just three kills, thanks to its loud buzzing noise and flashing appearance that makes it easy to shoot down.
The new additions arrive outside of the matches themselves. There's a currency earned alongside EXP called COD Points, which allows you to unlock perks and killstreaks from the get go provided you have the cash, making it far quicker to get the load-out you want. It mainly comes into play through personalisation, allowing you to create highly customised gamercards and weapon decals, and most pleasingly a series of quirky laser sights, but never anything beneficial to upset gameplay balancing.
As such, their throwaway nature is put to good use through gambling: Contracts are time-based mini-challenges of meeting certain requirements mid-game, while Wager matches are a series of unique playlists where the top three players take the spoils. It's innovative stuff, giving players a single bullet and three lives to play with or cycling everyone's weapons every 60 seconds, but since they fail to reward EXP and fairly pointless nature of COD Points themselves, your attention on them will be fairly short lived.
Elsewhere, the franchise catches up with Halo to offer its own Theatre mode, sharing replays and screenshots with friends, while those less accustomed to online play can practice in the Combat Training area, allowing to replicate full multiplayer scenarios against bots that are cutely named after Xbox Live friends. Although the campaign drops co-operative play as seen in World At War, it makes up for it through split-screen online play - an arguably better deal - while Zombies provides proper co-operative legs, and delivers some interesting narrative twists that are best left unspoiled.
Although the campaign lacks the lasting impact of previous outings and that the multiplayer plays it safe, there's nothing in Black Ops that makes you feel left wanting. It'll keep players glued to their screens for yet another year, especially when you factor in the inevitable DLC offerings. While Treyarch's latest is a case of diminishing returns for Call Of Duty, it still continues to earn its chops as the premier blockbuster franchise.
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