If there’s one thing Call of Duty: Black Ops keeps trying to tell me, I think it’s this: War is awesome.
Real war, of course, is far from that, but Treyarch’s latest work isn’t interested in painting any solemn pictures of the realities of battle. Instead, it uses American war history as the canvas for a wild experience that warms itself in the fires of explosive action-movie theatrics.
Much of the game’s success will be driven by the franchise’s signature multiplayer experience, but the best parts of the show lie in the game’s solo campaign, which hurls balls of intensity with fierce, dramatic velocity and strikes the player with much more impact than what I thought was a glitzy, stunted effort in Modern Warfare 2.
The key to the experience was how Treyarch weaved in its characters and story into the historical fabric of the Cold War and Vietnam, an era of conflict that hadn’t been explored nearly as much as World War II, once the favorite war playground for gaming. There’s a special tone with Black Ops, one that attempts to balance the natural urge to entertain with the sense of respect and awareness for history.
Treyarch touched on this before with Call of Duty: World at War, but this latest effort feels more emboldened, attacking its subject material with an endearing recklessness that is entertaining if not a touch abrasive. After all, one of the first things you do is attempt to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. You eventually get your orders to take out the game’s main villain from none other than President John F. Kennedy.
The game’s plot focuses on the mind of Alex Mason (voiced by “Avatar” star Sam Worthington), who spends most of the game strapped to a chair and questioned by a faceless interrogator. The inquiries zero in on a window of time between 1961 and 1968, when Mason was a member of an elite black ops unit. We learn that Mason was a busy man, with missions starting in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs invasion (the Castro mission) and tearing through parts of Russia, Vietnam and Laos.
As you can imagine, this is pretty heavy stuff for Mason to recollect, and Worthington nails him, giving the character touches of battle-hardened fire and borderline insanity. The game also expertly throws in missions from other perspectives, such as CIA operative Jason Hudson (voiced by Ed Harris) and Russian soldier Viktor Reznov (Gary Oldman, in an inspired performance).
The Call of Duty franchise usually does a good job of keeping the action fresh, but “Black Ops” seems to take it to a different level, which is partially helped by the time period.
Many players will point to the commandeering of a Russian gunship as the game’s high-action point, but my personal favorite was a cruise down the Mekong River in a gunboat, wiping out enemy forces and blowing stuff up while the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” bellowed over the radio. You will not get anything close to that in either a modernized-warfare game or another WWII title.
The game’s overall action carries a sense of hectic power, free of overly techie frills: no nifty radar systems, no satellite conference calls, no laser cannons with digital readouts.
Instead, we get “Rambo” weaponry: M16s with grenade launchers, belt-fed M60 machine guns and crossbows that fire explosive arrows. You also have shotguns that light enemies on fire. The most high-tech you get is perhaps the SR71 Blackbird, where you have to look down from the sky and direct Hudson and his team to the right spots without getting them killed.
The game’s overall scenery was impressive. I enjoyed taking in the colors and detail whether I was wading through the jungles of Vietnam or the concrete urban fog of a decimated Hue city. The game also plays with a lot with elements designed to enhance the player’s perspective, such as a few seconds of slow motion after crashing through a door or window to allow you to clear the room. You’ll also be forced into pitch-black darkness as you dig your way out of a collapsing tunnel in Vietnam.
There are, however, some goofy design flaws. Your computer-controlled teammates as well as your AI enemies aren’t bright. At all. I’ve witnessed my AI compatriots run past gun-wielding enemies, leaving me to clean up the mess or to take a shot in the head that I wasn’t expecting.
There were also a few points during the Khe Sanh mission where I had no clear idea where to go or what to do, so I just wandered a bit until I essentially stumbled into the solution (“oh, I have to KICK the barrels?”).
I bounced around for few nights in multiplayer and found myself reveling in the concept of being rewarded for killstreaks and taking advantage of a points system that gave me more control over how I wanted to upgrade my online alter-ego. Old favorites like airstrikes (napalm), and attack choppers have cut me down online, and I also found myself running away from exploding remote-controlled cars.
I thoroughly enjoyed Call of Duty: Black Ops on the strength of its single-player mission. Without spoiling too much, it weaves in some of that classic war movie flavor with nifty elements, like the concept of mind control and mental programming. I hope this attention to story is maintained in future installments of the franchise instead of being ignored for the sake of multiplayer. That would be, in a word, awesome.
Call of Duty: Black Ops
Activision / Treyarch
Multiple platforms, PC
Rated M for Mature