Alex Mason is the hero of this story, and you'll play through his drug-induced flashbacks as he is strapped down in an interrogation room in 1968. This guy's covert exploits span the majority of the Cold War's most intense period, starting in 1961 and traversing every conceivable environment. Even if you ever only managed to barely stay awake during Contemporary American History class, you'll recognize most of the locations as borrowing heavily from popular films about the era, or at the very least well-known references about them.
At one point you even touch down in 'Nam to the iconic song “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, which has been used in every movie about Vietnam since the song was written. There's also a Russian Gulag, the Bay of Pigs, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, you name it, it's in there. The fact that this one dude managed to stay alive and was actually present during every major historical battle in the 1960s is not the largest stretch of imagination the plot of the game attempts, but it's up there.
In addition to the cliched set pieces, master chief–level survivability, and yet another Cold War-meets-War on Terrorism sub-plot revolving around sleeper cells and chemical WMDs, we have thrown into the mix the amazing voice talents of Sam Worthington, Ed Harris, and Gary Oldman. I think its a great move to put A-list actors in the position of voicing video game characters, but in sections that aren't well executed, it makes it even easier to be pissed off when something isn't convincing. I found that being familiar with the voices of the lead characters actually made me think more about the quality of the voice acting then I ever would have otherwise. Add that to the expectation that some giant blue space cat with a sex braid was going to crash the scene every time Sam Worthington spoke up, and I think the game probably would have ended up about the same without all the high-profile talent. While I'm on the subject, who decided that Sam Worthington should be some epic badass? Besides the fact his biggest role so far has been a military f*ck-up-turned-alien, he looks like his voice stopped cracking last month and he is already taking voice work for a role whose understudy probably required someone closer to Clint Eastwood. Next game: Mario Lopez; he's a real man, right?
O.K., so I've been really negative so far, but that's all behind us. Mostly The gameplay of this installment is tight, very tight. The controls are how you remember them if you've ever squeezed off a round in a CoD game, and there are no totally new dynamics you need to get used to or break old habits for. The way you move through a level is still linear, and you don't have the ability to run forever in any given direction, but how things unfold in this iteration should keep you from wanting to. One place that this did bug me, however, was the control of vehicles, namely the SR-71 and the Hind chopper sequences. As cool and engaging as these scenes are, it totally breaks the illusion when you try to do something (that may or may not involve totally destroying the vehicle) and you just can't.
The overall level design is good, but one place in particular that had me really frustrated was the Khe San area, where you are supposed to “drive the enemy back.” The way this section was outlined was totally misleading, and the way to get past it was almost abstract. So if you are stuck on a level involving a bunch of Viet-Cong in white jumpsuits, and seem to just kill wave after wave to no avail, *spoiler alert*
STAB THE FUCKING BARRELS. Other than this one hang up I didn't experience any game-stopping bugs or really unbalanced areas of play, other than the CoD-trademarked retarded AI. Seriously, at some point the game designers are going to have to give the friendly and enemy AI something above a 3rd-grade, home-school, “A for effort”-level education. If I had a nickel for every time I watched one of my friendlies shoot the dirt, I'd have at least 4 bucks.
One thing I will say about the story, as far-fetched as it may seem overall, when you're immersed in it, the individual events seem pretty believable. I honestly felt a little bit of panic watching hundreds of enemy soldiers flood over the top of a hill in Vietnam. I cringed just a bit when you see the layers of exposed neck on an enemy soldier when you jump out of a river and slit his throat. The “bullet time” effect popularized in more and more games since the Matrix movies made it a staple of all things action breaks the reality a bit, but by now we've come to expect it, so it's not a big deal.
All single-player quirks aside, the multiplayer still shines as strongly as in previous installments in the franchise. It's fast paced, matches are easy to get into, and the new game types offer some extra variety to the already familiar interface. You have to think about leveling a little differently, though, since you don't automatically unlock weapons, add-ons, or customizations for your character anymore. You gather CoD points as you level up and complete specific objectives, which can be spent on everything from camo for your guns to face paint for your character. I think this is a cool change, since it adds a bit of complexity to the leveling part of the game, but at the same time casual players might not be as happy with the added dimension.
Now, one of the huge drawbacks for newcomers to CoD or people that just generally suck at FPS games is the thought of getting mercilessly gang-raped by pre-pubescent griefers with nothing better to do than crush your soul with their high-pitched shit talking and better hand/eye coordination. Luckily, CoD: Black Ops introduces a much more in-depth “practice mode” called Combat Arena, where you can compete with AI opponents in multiplayer-style matches. The same leveling and upgrade system that is used in the multiplayer is also used in combat arena, but don't expect your levels and credits to carry over from one to the other. Bottom line, if you suck hard at CoD and are too much of a p*ssy to play against other human beings, there's a way to work up to it, but in my opinion you should just man up and improve your game through sheer dogged persistence in the normal multiplayer.
Another mode Treyarch managed to slip into this game is zombie mode, which fans of “World at War” will be well familiar with. Anyone who lives in the U.S. and speaks English hopefully managed to see at least little bit of “The Walking Dead” show that recently premiered on AMC, so hopefully you have as much of an appetite to kill zombies as I do. I'm sorry, did I mention that they're *Nazi* zombies? Yeah, that's right. I'm glad they brought this mode back, because killing zombies is f*cking great. Nazi zombies even greater. I don't care how many of you nerds out there complain “Oh, it's just another Gears of War: Horde rip off.” Fuck you. Survival-based games are pretty damn simple, and it's a formula that works, and this CoD stuck it. Besides, if you ever get tired of games in which you kill zombies you've lost your capacity for joy, and you should probably just slit your wrists.
Overall, Call of Duty: Black Ops is a fun game. Its story is engaging, the action is fast paced, frenetic, and sometimes a bit overwhelming. The multiplayer is as solid as any CoD game to date, and some of the added game types and character customizations make it worth the time it takes to get to higher levels. The graphics and sound design are most likely the best in the series, and the Hollywood cast makes (some) of the characters a bit cooler. So is it the best CoD game yet? Totally. Unfortunately, the fact that there is nothing in this game that makes it stand out from the growing pack of CoD titles really holds this title back. There's a big part of me that thinks a lot of this content qualifies more as expansion pack material. I'm a sucker for new stuff, though, and Black Ops delivers just enough to keep me from thinking I wasted my cash. If you want to have a great time blowing up a ton of shit, learn some really horrible lessons on Cold War history, and nab yourself an aneurysm from late-night zombie killfests, grab this game.
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