What it is
The first installment in Activision's popular series of war combat games to be set during the Cold War (rather than WWII or the present day), Call of Duty: Black Ops comes from Treyarch, the developer that created previous CoD titles Call of Duty: World at War and Call of Duty 3, but not last year's hit Modern Warfare 2. Released this week for the Xbox 360 90 and PlayStation 3 89, Black Ops is a first-person shooter that takes place in Vietnam, Cuba, and other Cold War hotspots during the 1960s.
The new game is also available for Wii, PC, and Nintendo DS, but since very few reviews have been published for those releases, the remainder of this article will address only the 360 and PS3 versions.
How it compares
Where it ranks
Though the early scores for Black Ops place it beneath the stellar Modern Warfare installments in the Call of Duty series, the new title is still one of the best-reviewed Call of Duty games to date, and places among the year's best games for both the 360 and PS3.
|1||Mass Effect 2||Electronic Arts||96||9.0|
|2||Red Dead Redemption||Rockstar Games||95||8.9|
|3||Rock Band 3||MTV Games||93||8.6|
|4||Super Street Fighter IV||Capcom||91||7.9|
|7||Super Meat Boy||Team Meat||90||7.9|
|8||Call of Duty: Black Ops||Activision||90||6.8|
|10||Need for Speed Hot Pursuit||Electronic Arts||90||tbd|
|1||Red Dead Redemption||Rockstar Games||95||8.2|
|2||God of War III||SCEA||92||8.6|
|3||Super Street Fighter IV||Capcom||92||8.1|
|4||Rock Band 3||MTV Games||91||6.7|
|5||MLB 10: The Show||SCEA||91||9.2|
|6||Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit||Electronic Arts||91||tbd|
|7||NBA 2K11||2K Sports||89||8.1|
|8||NHL 11||Electronic Arts||89||7.9|
|9||Call of Duty: Black Ops||Activision||89||6.1|
|10||FIFA Soccer 11||Electronic Arts||88||8.7|
|Title||Developer, Year||Releases||Average Metascore|| Average
|Call of Duty||Infinity Ward, 2003||PC||91||8.6|
|Call of Duty: Finest Hour||Spark Unlimited, 2004||PS2, Xbox, Cube||74||8.2|
|Call of Duty: United Offensive||Gray Matter, 2004||PC||87||8.8|
|Call of Duty 2||Infinity Ward, 2005||PC, 360||88||8.2|
|Call of Duty 2: Big Red One||Treyarch, 2005||PS2, Xbox, Cube||77||7.0|
|Call of Duty 3||Treyarch, 2006||PS3, 360, PS2, Xbox||82||7.3|
|Call of Duty 3||Exakt, 2006||Wii||69||6.9|
|Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare||Infinity Ward, 2007||PC, PS3, 360||93||8.7|
|Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare||n-Space, 2007||DS||75||7.7|
|Call of Duty: Roads to Victory||Amaze, 2007||PSP||64||8.8|
|Call of Duty: World at War||Treyarch, 2008||PC, PS3, 360, Wii||84||7.3|
|Call of Duty: World at War||n-Space, 2008||DS||75||9.3|
|Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2||Infinity Ward, 2009||PC, PS3, 360||91||5.1|
|Call of Duty: Modern Warfare:
|Call of Duty: Modern Warfare:
|Call of Duty: Black Ops||Treyarch, 2010||PS3, 360||90||6.5|
|Averages by developer:|
|Average for all Infinity Ward releases||86||7.0|
|Average for all Treyarch releases||82||7.2|
Differences and similarities to previous Call of Duty titles
The combat system will be familiar to players of previous Call of Duty releases -- so much so that Giant Bomb writes:
"The formula, as awesome as it can still be, is starting to wear thin. ... That's not to say that Black Ops doesn't have a lot of new tricks up its sleeve. The story found in the campaign feels like a solid departure from what's come before it."
Indeed, it is the setting (and corresponding story) that provides the biggest change from other CoD releases; otherwise, the game involves numerous tweaks and small improvements rather than any kind of reinvention of the franchise. For example, multiplayer mode now awards players currency ("CoD Points") that they can use to purchase perks, weapons, and other accessories. Though deathstreaks have been eliminated, a new Combat Training mode has been added to help beginners, and there's also more player customization than ever before, and a new emphasis on sharing video highlights of your games -- after you get a chance to edit them, of course -- with your friends via Black Ops' Theater Mode.
The most important aspect of Black Ops for anyone who didn't like either of Treyarch's previous installments in the series, however, is this: nearly every critic agrees that the developer has greatly improved on its past efforts this time out.
"Black Ops is the best game Treyarch has made, and a hell of a good time no matter how you slice it."
"I've considered myself a Call of Duty fan for many years, and I've held a deep-seated distrust of Treyarch since Call of Duty 3. No longer."
But don't expect a better game than Modern Warfare 2.
"Black Ops uses a lot of the key features from MW2 rather than delivering original ideas. As a result it feels more like a homage to Modern Warfare 2 than a full-blown sequel."
How it works as a story
Black Ops blends a few real events and people (good news for all you Robert McNamara fans out there) with fiction as it moves throughout the 1960s, with players taking on the role of a special forces soldier or a CIA agent working with him. And, while story and character are not the reasons anyone buys a Call of Duty title (it's the shooting, stupid), the latest installment shows a marked improvement on both counts, though there are some objections to the game's reliance on cliches.
"There isn't much character to latch onto in Mason, Hudson and company, and occasionally the game is so blatant about lifting things from spy stories and Vietnam films that you develop your own thousand-yard stare. Still, at least you understand who everyone is this time, and the final reveal is confident enough – even though you see it coming, the writers can't help ramming it home five times in a row, and it's been done before on numerous occasions."
"It's got a lot of great moments, but portions of the story feel cliched and hokey."
"The core plot isn’t nearly as original or as inventive as it could have been, relying as it does on several well worn twists “borrowed” from various movies, and it suffers from a few issues. Certain plot points are clumsily handled ... Still, it’s a solid effort overall whose tone and spirit adequately captures the culture of paranoia that resulted from the tense 60’s era cold war between the United States and Russia, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Vietnam War. "
"Although it's not quite the time-travelling psychedelic drug orgy some were expecting, there are several well-handled plot twists that make Modern Warfare's narrative battering ram look even more brutish and incoherent."
TVG, however, declares that Black Ops reaches Mad Men levels of attention to period detail:
"Military vehicles, weapons, and clothing have obviously been loyally recreated from the Cold War era, but it's the finer details that really stand out here - even the computer command consoles are unmistakably of their time and the voice-actor for JFK is spot-on the money."
And, overall, many critics are quick to point out that Black Ops has the most developed storyline of any game in the franchise.
"It's not just the typical action for action's sake type of game. The story has a well-written narrative that conspiracy buffs will surely love."
"It's not Shakespeare, sure, but - without spoiling anything - Black Ops could have been a great movie. Treyarch's obviously put a lot of effort in to the plot, and it leaves Modern Warfare 2 looking like a comparatively mindless shooting game."
Joystiq finds the new game darker in tone than Modern Warfare 2, while also taking a smaller scale approach to its settings:
"Where Modern Warfare 2 used common American settings to show off flashy battlefields, Black Ops is more concerned with the back alleys and byways of combat. But even with the smooth touches of crossed-out text to start each mission and some good point-of-view twists (along with a few sly winks at the slow-motion pistol finales of the previous games), Black Ops has all the subtlety of a gun butt to the head."
IGN notes that the story is inconsistent, but ends well and is ultimately a winner (though the actual concluding scenes strike other critics as lacking subtlety):
"There are twists, some of which work better than others, and the plot seems to get bogged down and slightly disjointed towards the middle. But unlike Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops does a wonderful job of cleaning everything up for the finale. ... I really enjoyed the story that the campaign presents and I think it's the best of the series. The characters are well-crafted and the plot rarely disappoints."
Games Radar agrees that the story proves strong despite inconsistencies, though it finds the characters unmemorable:
"The story – for my money – is better told here than in either Modern Warfare. ... [But] although the plot is more compelling in Black Ops, if we had to pick certain key characters out of a line-up we'd struggle."
Though Game Informer finds more story and character development than ever before in the CoD series, it also notes that the new game has less of an impact.
"The story is coherent, and the characters are more than cardboard cutouts. I wanted to keep playing to find out how the plot ends up, not just to see what crazy situation is around the next corner. On the other hand, as Black Ops makes gains in characterization and storytelling, it loses spectacle."
That publication also voices complaints about the game's "realistic gore" and graphic scenes of torture:
"I realize that Treyarch isn’t trying to put on a morality play here, but Black Ops pushes the lines of good taste."
How it plays
Do you only play Call of Duty titles for the multiplayer? Black Ops probably won't change that, according to reviewers, who find the short single-player campaign mode "surprisingly competent" (GamePro) but also uninspired, derivative, and lacking variety. That said, it might be one of the better -- if not the best -- single-player campaigns in the series.
" The action ... is fairly standard. There are a lot of guys to shoot, and all that shooting gets broken up by a few larger set-pieces."
"Whether it's due to focus testing or marketing meddling or something else, the new and distinct elements are often accompanied by instances of Treyarch either sticking to a safe formula or imitating Infinity Ward."
"The campaign's pacing is as uneven as it is thuggish -- gameplay segments sometimes end before it seems they're meant to, and there's one particular segment that will make you wonder if the developers ever playtested it themselves ... The action supporting the story isn't particularly innovative (there are still "enemy wells" and some messy AI), but it's varied enough to hold attention for the duration."
"At 6-8 hours in length depending on your skill level, Black Ops' campaign is actually quite hearty compared to its immediate peers (i.e. Modern Warfare, Medal of Honor etc.). Where it does fall down a little, though, is with its variation in gameplay."
"This is the biggest disappointment with Black Ops – it plays it too safe with tried and tested mission structures of old."
"You'd be a fool not to love the campaign - our favourite in the series so far."
For some reviewers, the campaign gets better as it progresses, and shows Treyarch upping its game from previous installments:
"Black Ops' 15-level campaign takes a fair while to heat up - with some rote corridor-blasting exemplifying the initial stages - but it's also blistering hot when it hits its stride. ... Still, many of the sections which stand out the most about Treyarch's latest campaign are its slower moments. ... Magnificent explosions are all well and good, and Black Ops certainly has its fair share of those, but there's a pleasing nuance here that Treyarch's previous work somewhat lacked. "
And GameSpot has nothing but praise for the campaign mode:
"The core running-and-gunning mechanics remain as exciting as ever, and the gameplay variety throughout the campaign keeps the action moving at a great clip."
Eurogamer admires how the game consistently guides players to their next move (with one exception: a particular battle that frustrated nearly every reviewer thanks to misleading guidance), and notes that the game succeeds at what it sets out to do, even if its goals aren't all that ambitious.
Some reviewers, however, note flaws in the computer-controlled characters:
"While the campaign is little more than a very nicely decorated corridor, there are lots of fun things to do inside it. ... Call of Duty is about shooting fast, dying often and watching a good-looking set-piece, and on that level Black Ops unquestionably delivers."
"The artificial intelligence of both your friendly soldiers and the enemies you face is pretty poor. Both friendly and enemy soldiers behave like fools for most of the campaign"
The latter publication -- and others -- are particularly disappointed by the reliance on infinitely spawning enemies throughout the game. And other publications like The Guardian complain about the game's strictly linear story that doesn't allow for any exploration or deviation from the script.
"Disappointingly, the single-player campaign is beset by the exact same problem we complained about in the previous three Call of Duty installments; namely, unspectacular enemy AI. Just like in Modern Warfare and, perhaps worse so, World at War, you'll often feel like you're fighting against sheer numbers rather than actual intelligent opponents."
"Navigational options are kept to an absolute minimum, a straitjacket that feels almost suffocating at times, especially when we're shown astoundingly rich and detailed environments like Vietnamese jungles and the inner chambers of the Pentagon only to be told we can't go anywhere. But this is the CoD way, and operating within the constraints of the series, Black Ops is a master work."
There's nothing to fear here: Call of Duty: Black Ops still excels at competitive multiplayer, according to critics. In fact, most of the modes present in MW2 are here again in Black Ops, and there are so many different modes and so much content included in the game that more than one reviewer stresses that the game was easily worth its purchase price. And Eurogamer notes that Treyarch has improved its approach to multiplayer since World at War, even if Black Ops isn't drastically different from what has come before.
"The multiplayer modes are a mixture of smart tweaks to working formulas."
"While Black Ops' campaign hits and misses, its multiplayer is just great. Headquarters, Domination, and all of the other Modern Warfare modes are implemented well and just as addictive and rewarding as ever."
"The good news is that the game is absolutely worth the investment, and even if you find yourself disagreeing with some of the changes Treyarch instituted or you run into a bunch of morons who are hell bent on ruining a particular mode for you, you have plenty of other options to keep you engaged for a good long time."
"Black Ops really is stocked with content that's been intelligently dished out, allowing gamers to play precisely how and with whom they want. You really have to look to the likes of Halo: Reach for another shooter that's just as well-stocked with options and modes."
"For my money, Treyarch has crafted the finest Call of Duty multiplayer game to date. The maps are fantastic and offer great variety in size, aesthetics, verticality, and paths. ... The action is as responsive, technically impressive, and engrossing as it has been since Infinity Ward pioneered it three years ago. However, Treyarch has made a ton of improvements in the margins."
The new CoD Points system also appears to be a success:
"This game is jam-packed with content ... the multiplayer has a shelf life that will likely outlast the console it's played on. In all honesty, the multiplayer component is so well thought-out that it could have been released as a stand-alone experience."
That publication, however, isn't as fond of the new wager mode that comes along with the currency system, though others are:
"The system itself is overwhelming at first, especially if you're totally new to Call of Duty, but once you get your head around the CoD Points mechanic it's actually pretty cool."
"My biggest issue with the multiplayer is that the new Wager Matches, while fun in their own right, don't compare favorably to the high-quality and addictive leveling system and game modes from Modern Warfare 1 and 2."
"While the prospect of spending CPs on weapons feels like a random extra step to an established system, the Wager Match modes feel like legitimately new (and fantastic) features."
"Wager matches are bloody good fun regardless of your lust for these new types of stat."
Out of all of the competitive modes, though, it's the zombie mode (a holdover from Treyarch's World at War title) that seems to be the most divisive.
"I really didn't like the zombie mode in World At War, and it's not much better here. All it does here is make me miss the Spec Ops mode found in Modern Warfare 2, which I found to be a much more exciting cooperative mode."
"It's preferable to Activision charging for this content as DLC later, but a little more polish could have made [Zombie mode] something great rather than just something to fill the kitchen sink."
"It works well enough, but Zombies is far down on my co-op FPS list. The objectives and strategies are so far removed from making intuitive sense that I can’t get into it, though segments of the community obviously feel differently."
"[Zombie mode] never stops being silly, infectious fun."
How it looks and sounds
Reviews of the game's technical aspects are mixed, with some occasional framerate problems and other issues noted.
"Moments of Black Ops look fantastic, and Treyarch's signature fire technology shines yet again, whether you're using a barrel-mounted flamethrower or just blowing things up. You'll find some sharp lighting in spots, and much of the character animation is solid. A few textures here and there look a little grungy, but it's easy to forgive some of its shortcomings when you consider the game's solid, smooth frame rate."
"Unfortunately, Black Ops doesn't seem as technically sound as some other titles in the series -- the framerate would occasionally drop, and lag was sometimes a problem."
Several reviewers note that the visuals suffer when switching into the optional 3D mode, and, as a result, they recommend not bothering with 3D.
"The game has some decent looking graphics but is hindered by poorly rendered two-dimensional textures."
"The 3D technology cuts the visual quality by quite a bit and the framerate takes a sizeable hit as well."
The game's vocal cast includes Gary Oldman, Sam Worthington, Ed Harris, and Ice Cube. Oldman is drawing the most raves for his work, while most of the other actors turn in solid performances, with one possible exception:
"Worthington ... voices Alex Mason in such an awful, inconsistent way that by the end I was wondering if Mason (said to be a native of Alaska in the game's backstory) was Australian. "
While critics find the game's sound effects to be strong, Black Ops also utilizes licensed music from the era, in a fashion that is perhaps a bit too obvious.
"At one point, you're traveling down a river, blasting 'Sympathy For The Devil' by the Rolling Stones. I just sort of rolled my eyes at this point. "
What do you think?
What do you think of Black Ops, and how do you think it compares to previous Call of Duty titles and to other games released this year? Let us know in the discussion section below.