Earlier this year, gamers everywhere bemoaned the apparent nasty divorce of Infinity Ward and Activision, thinking that surely the Call of Duty series was bound to wither on the vine. Treyarch had served as an “off year” developer for the Call of Duty games, but Infinity Ward was always the king. So went the theory, anyway. Considerable angst thus surrounded the development and release of Call of Duty: Black Ops, which was always slated to be a Treyarch-developed title, but now seemed even more subject to scrutiny. With Infinity Ward seemingly out of the picture, Black Ops would potentially be Treyarch’s moment to shine, to prove to hardcore gamers that the studio was more than just a substitute for off years, and to show that even if Infinity Ward never came back, the COD franchise would be left in good hands.
Treyarch took that opportunity and ran with it.
As with all previous Call of Duty games, Black Ops relies heavily on huge set pieces, scripted moments, checkpoint-triggered waves of enemies and gorgeous graphics. You kind of know what you’re getting here, and in those respects, Black Ops delivers. Yet Black Ops breaks from the Call of Duty mold in several instances, each of which is a fantastic departure in this reviewer’s opinion. The first change is a focus on narrative and plot, which you get from the very beginning of the game. The second change is a frantic pace that outruns every previous COD game and helps Black Ops stand apart from the arguably overcrowded FPS genre. The third change is the addition of new multiplayer elements, a surprising gamble for a franchise known for its multiplayer battles — but a gamble that pays off in a big way.
To say that Call of Duty Black Ops has a strong plot isn’t to take away from previous COD outings, but the earlier games had great sets and gameplay experiences that just so happened to fall in line with the story. With Black Ops, Treyarch has taken a different approach, fitting the gameplay elements and set pieces into the story and plot. The change in approach is just enough to make you notice a difference, particularly since the gameplay is fast-paced to the point of schizophrenia.
Black Ops follows the tale of Alex Mason, a U.S. Special Forces soldier whose memory has been lost during the course of his battles. After opening the game in an uncomfortably first-person torture device, gamers play through Mason’s previous missions via flashbacks while the trapped soldier in the “current day” struggles to remember his past and, in the process, figure out the meaning behind his visual and audio “hallucinations.” As the levels progress, Mason eventually pieces together how he got where he is, how and why he was involved in so many history-changing missions, and what his future might hold based on the picture his interrogators are “helping” him paint about his life and capabilities. Along the way, gamers will encounter and interact with many historical figures, including Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy, lending an extra level of credibility — however fabricated it may be — to the story and gravity of the situation.
Modern Warfare and other COD games certainly had their memorable moments (gunship, anyone?), but by and large the gameplay was the same. Walk into an area, clear it of enemies, pass a checkpoint to make the waves of foes magically stop, and rinse/repeat until the end. Although this sounds boring, the Call of Duty games have largely mastered this formula to make each scenario compelling and fun. Black Ops throws that formula by the wayside to a certain degree, with a flat-out frantic pace that never lets up. One moment you’re running through a field dodging bullets and shooting from behind cover. The next moment you’re planting mines, right before hopping into a motorcycle, then grabbing a chaingun to mow down enemies in the street, hopping into and then immediately out of an airplane …. you get the idea. Not only to diverging objectives that surface mid-mission require quick reflexes, the gameplay itself change so rapidly and frequently that you’re quite literally left out of breath at times. The result is a fun, exhilarating shooter, but it’s definitely a change for the franchise, and some people may find the pace a bit too frantic.
The theme of “change” continues in the scenery, environments and weapons, though, as the flashback structure of Black Ops enables Treyarch to put players in a different locale and historical battle each and every time. No longer do location and weapon changes require switching sides (and protagonists) in the battle. In Black Ops, you simply find yourself fighting in Mason’s shoes in another battle somewhere else around the world.
What’s likely the biggest change for Black Ops, though, and also the gutsiest for the franchise as a whole, is Treyarch’s tinkering with the multiplayer formula in Black Ops. The new Points system is pretty straightforward, as it basically amounts to XP that players accumulate while playing online. Yet Points can be accumulated by players purchasing and completing “contracts” in a multiplayer game. A contract is basically a specific goal, such as getting a certain number of kills with a specific weapon, that must be achieved within a certain time limit. Contracts cost Points, but if players complete them, the players’ Point total shoots through the roof.
The second big multiplayer addition, Wagers, involves predefined multiplayer matches that use a specific set of rules. Players wager their Points in each match a la a poker bet, and the top three players at the end of the round split the pot. Although not technically complex, this addition really gives the multiplayer aspects a “put your money where your mouth is” vibe, and it increases your emotional investment in the outcome of each and every multiplayer match.
Not all of Treyarch’s multiplayer changes actually involve multiple players, though. The addition of Combat Training, which is reminiscent of a mode from Goldeneye or Time Splitters, re-creates the multiplayer experience but using AI opponents. This lets new COD players or online naysayers earn experience and gear just like they would by playing online, but in the comfort of their own private game. To avoid expert gamers racking up kills and equipment against AI opponents, anything that’s accumulated or earned in Combat Training is only available in that mode. Just having this mode in general, though, is a nice touch because it lets gamers of all skill levels really have fun with a multiplayer game even if there’s just one person playing. Taking Call of Duty online has long been a bit intimidating for some people; Combat Training makes the thought of a multiplayer fragfest more amenable for those folks.
Call of Duty Black Ops sold more units in its launch week than any game before it, but to think it’s now in the hands of everyone who’ll play it is total fallacy. Treyarch took a franchise that was already great and injected some risky but rewarding tweaks to the formula. The narrative and plot, though not always Oscar worthy, provide a nice change and a bit more “thinking man” intrigue, while the fast-paced and fast-changing gameplay provides the Yin to the plot’s Yang. The multiplayer enhancements, meanwhile, provide good additions for Xbox Live and PSN addicts while giving novice COD players an entree into the world of “online” gaming. Call of Duty Black Ops may have sold a ton already, but with these nice updates to an already-great model, Black Ops could very well be the shooter that transcends the traditional demographic for this type of game.
Platform reviewed: PlayStation 3
— Jonas Allen