Sunday, November 21, 2010

Black Ops: more explosive than a jug of dynamite

Genre: First Person Shooter
Xbox 360/PS3/Wii

If you're used to seeing music reviews here, you may wonder why I'm doing a game review.

My original plan for this blog was to include regular video game reviews alongside the music reviews. As I got further into music reviewing, I noticed that game reviews didn't fit in very well.

But every now and then if there's a major blockbuster game, I may just take a little time to give my thoughts on it.

So here we have Call of Duty: Black Ops, the followup to one of the most successful titles in gaming history, Modern Warfare 2. Is it worth the wait? Modern Warfare 2, despite its massive success, faced considerable backlash for both its single player campaign and the glitchiness of the multiplayer.

Will Activison's latest installment restore a little lost luster, or will Black Ops leave the series with a black eye?

Call of Duty: Black Ops doesn't bring much new to the table, but it features explosive single-player, a deep multiplayer experience designed to suck your life away, and also adds in Treyarch's zany sense of humor - zombie style.

Dragovich. Kravchenko. Steiner. All must die.

Perhaps the single biggest upgrade that Black Ops delivers is it its single player campaign. Modern Warfare 2's campaign had its memorable moments, but I couldn't help thinking that it felt a little tacked on. No such worries here. For once, gamers get the chance to experience a first person shooter that actually places focus on a solid storyline with a memorable cast.

As you may have heard, this game takes place during the Vietnam War. However, very little of the game takes place in Vietnam or has anything to do with the conflict itself, which I found a little disappointing.

The overall premise of the storyline is nothing special, but there's a very interesting storytelling mechanic. When the campaign begins, your character is strapped to a chair, being brutally shocked and questioned by unknown interrogators about a mysterious set of numbers. As the story progresses, you slowly realize the horrific ramifications of the situation.

There are some pretty great moments in the campaign. Getting to wind your way through a dark cave, knowing the Vietcong could leap out at you any moment is pretty intense.

You'll also be gunning your way through the streets of Cuba, trying to take out Castro, and busting out of prison in the Soviet wilderness. You even get to meet with President Kennedy at the Pentagon.

And as far as the cast goes, let me say that Viktor Resnov is one of the most dynamic characters to appear in a first person shooter in a long time. He's a crazy liberal Russian who urges your character on in his quest to stop the Soviet masterminds Dragovich, Kravchenko, and Steiner.

Overall, the campaign is a major step up from Modern Warfare 2. It seems they actually cared about trying to make a memorable experience this time. Though it isn't up there with the Call of Duty 4 campaign, you can't deny the building sense of intensity as Black Ops storyline races toward its dramatic conclusion.

Multiplayer packed to the brim with vitriol

But let's level with one another here. The main reason most people have for buying an FPS these days is the mulitplayer. And the Black Ops multiplayer is startlingly similar to Modern Warfare 2.

The new big addition is Wager Mode, which allows you to gamble your Call of Duty experience points in a series of rousing gameplay modes. My favorite mode was "Gun Game."

There are 20 weapons, each placed into its own tier. You kill someone with that weapon, you move on to the next one. The first player to get a kill with all 20 weapons wins. And if you get melee attacked, you get demoted to the previous weapon.

I found the idea refreshing, and it was fun to try to see how far I could get before somebody won. I also liked "Sharpshooter," where your weapons keep chaining every 45 seconds, forcing you to have to be a great all around player.

Another new feature is the combat training mode, which allows you to play any of the normal multiplayer modes, but with computer controlled bots. It's a lot like the combat simulator from Perfect Dark.

Outside that, the multiplayer is fun, fast paced, and proves to be a terrific way to waste ungodly amounts of time. You still unlock new weapons, classes, and game modes as you level up. Getting sweet perks for racking up killstreaks is a real treat. Driving around a motorized explosive car to blow people up is one of the most awesome things I have ever done in an FPS.

The new maps are pretty solid. Nuketown is quickly becoming a fan favorite. It has a retro 50s vibe, and consists of two houses with a moving truck in the middle. It's a very very small map, which makes for a frenetic environment and gives you the opportunity to rack up absurd killcounts.

You also get a theater mode, which lets you capture your greatest moments and upload them for all to see. You can even splice parts of videos together to create your own highlight reel. And all without having to have advanced knowledge of video editing software!

Glitches and hacks were one thing that dragged down the multiplayer in Modern Warfare 2. Although it's still early, I didn't notice any real problems in Black Ops. It seemed like I was getting connection errors a lot more frequently than I did in other games, which did get annoying after a while.

Zombie Mode: In times like these, our capacity to retaliate must be and has to be massive

Call of Duty: World at War, Treyarch's last entry in the series, had a wacky mode known as zombie mode, which was a major hit with many gamers. Zombie mode makes its triumphant return, in Black Ops, and it's even zanier than before.

Like before, the goal is to fight off hordes of creepy zombies for as long as you can. You earn points which you can use to buy new weapons, activate traps, and open doors to new parts of the level.

But the awesome part is that you get to play as President Kennedy fighting off waves of zombies inside the Pentagon. There's a cutscene where Kennedy, McNamara, Castro, and Nixon all have a discussion about blasting zombies.

It's a fun little distraction, but my favorite part is the hidden zombie arcade game, Dead Ops. It plays like a ripoff of Zombie Apocalypse, but if you don't have friends to play with it's probably more fun than the regular zombie maps.

For kicks, Treyarch also included Zork, a 80s text based adventure game, which you can access on a hidden terminal. The zombie mode and the hidden extras inject a great sense of humor into the game, something that was almost wholly absent from Modern Warfare 2.

Sound, graphics, and final assessment

Treyarch did a good job of completing the package with great graphics and a solid soundtrack. I thought the graphics were a slight upgrade from Modern Warfare 2, but if you aren't looking closely you might not notice.

The score is action packed and cinematic, but also does a good job of not distracting you in the middle of a firefight. It suits its background perfectly.

The first time you land in Vietnam you hear Creedence Clearwater Revivial's "Fortunate Son," the stereotypical song included in practically every game or movie dealing with Vietnam, but whatever.

You also get Rolling Stones's "Sympathy for the Devil" and Eminem's "Won't Back Down," which are on the complete opposite end of the sonic spectrum from one another, but both fit in really well.

Black Ops is a solid game, and I enjoyed my time with it. My main criticism is that it's really not that much different from the previous games in the series. If you've played all the older Call of Duty games religiously, there honestly isn't much of a reason to play this game extensively.

Except, I guess, for the fact that a large chunk of the Modern Warfare 2 playerbase will be migrating to this game, and to say you've got the hot new game that all the kiddies want. It also seems like a major time sink, which is another thing that turns me away from it. I'm a busy man.

However, if you're looking for a game with massive replay value, you should already be playing this. The electric campaign is a major plus and the customizable character classes and killstreaks will have you coming back to the multiplayer time and time again.

Thanks to the efforts of Treyarch, the Call of Duty franchise should be safe for at least another year.

Score: 81/100

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