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Call of Duty: Black Ops (Xbox 360) artwork

Call of Duty: Black Ops (Xbox 360) review

"So there are a lot of explosions and people cuss a lot, sometimes a few times per line of dialogue, and then when the tone is properly established there's not really much profanity at all and the explosions don't really impress as much because when you've seen one Jeep go up in flames, you've seen 'em all. It's at that moment, when you've become desensitized to the napalm and the knife thrusts and the pistol blasts, that you realize something: Black Ops isn't a particularly competent single-player shooter."

I like to think that the game I buy today will still be enjoyable years from now, when publishers go out of business or server support disappears. For that reason, the game that I buy today needs to have a compelling single-player mode. It needs to make me sit up and take notice, even if (as my friends are so happy to tell me) "No one plays a Call of Duty game for the single-player mode." My friends are wrong. People do play for the single-player experience and I know this because I am one of those people. There are others, too. I've met them. Maybe you're one of those people.

So before I talk about the multi-player (which I will talk about, because it is excellent), I'd like to talk about the single-player part of the package. It is... less excellent.

This is the part of my review where I would like to give you a quick summary of the game's plot from memory. I'd like to tell you about the stuff I remember and the stuff I don't, except what I remember and what I don't is rather jumbled. Intentionally so, even. The game tells the story of several soldiers, but mostly it tells the story of a fellow named Mason who wakes up in an interrogation room of sorts. There are monitors and wires all around him. Beyond a pane of glass, there's a cloaked figure demanding insistently that Mason reveal what "the numbers" mean. This of course leads to Mason's surprisingly frank discussion with his apparent captors about the top secret missions in which he has played an integral role throughout the years.

It turns out that throughout the years, Mason has crossed paths with a lot of dangerous people and somehow, against all odds, he has lived up to this point to tell the tale. His tale includes a recounting of helicopter rides, boat raids, trips through Vietnam trenches and secret underground tunnels... all sorts of stuff, really. And as Mason talks about those things, you'll live them.

The single-player campaign does its very best to make sure that as you live through those intense moments, their intensity is not lost on you. So there are a lot of explosions and people cuss a lot, sometimes a few times per line of dialogue, and then when the tone is properly established there's not really much profanity at all and the explosions don't really impress as much because when you've seen one Jeep go up in flames, you've seen 'em all. It's at that moment, when you've become desensitized to the napalm and the knife thrusts and the pistol blasts, that you realize something: Black Ops isn't a particularly competent single-player shooter.

Strip away the glorious lighting effects and the stunning texture work and what you're left with are set pieces that lack the polish you'd expect from a Call of Duty game. There are one-time nuisances that I could point to here, a whole string of them, but a bigger concern is the problem that you experience nearly every time you run through a new checkpoint: the unknown sniper who is waiting in the trees or the group of men who will pour from a building without warning. Such soldiers can all be classified as "the guys who will kill you." Then you'll return to the checkpoint and you'll come up on the same buildings and this time you will kill them. Then you will move to the next checkpoint (hopefully) and just beyond it, someone else will shoot you from the middle of nowhere and it's back to the last checkpoint for another attempt.

Hopefully, I don't need to explain to you why such design is not fun. Someone should have explained the concept to Treyarch, though. The team members seem to think that intensity is enough to make a Call of Duty game. They're almost right. Almost. But Infinity Ward put something extra into its games, in the form of level design where you stood a chance at surviving for long periods of time even if you'd never been down that long hallway in your life. Call that something extra whatever you like. I choose to call it "good design," and Black Ops doesn't always have it. The result is a game that feels significantly inferior to the excellent Modern Warfare 2 right up until the moment when you say "Forget this single-player thing" and take the experience online, to Xbox Live.

Whoever was in charge of designing the multi-player experience did a fantastic job, I must say. All of that starts with the maps. There are a good variety of them, each using assets from different parts of the single-player campaign but to much better effect. There are cubbyholes where a wounded soldier can seek out shelter, long hallways with stone pillars behind which to hide, rooftops narrow trails behind buildings... the maps have everything that you might expect, thrown together in ways that should please both the players who like to run 'n gun (that's me) and the snipers who like to pick them off like rabbits. I haven't loved Call of Duty maps this much since I played the first Modern Warfare.

The character upgrades system is similarly excellent. It's an easy matter to rank up a few times within an hour or two of play, and doing so makes it possible to create custom character classes. You can then modify primary and secondary weapons, as well as purchase accessories and perks. Though a lot of premium gear only becomes available for purchase as you continue to gain ranks, for a long while there's something new to try pretty much every time you finish a round. You no longer have to wait until you've played for weeks to get that super sweet scope, or to get a gun that you can actually balance on your hip as you run to avoid ridiculous recoil. The game lets you play against other players in the manner that you see fit and it lets you do that sooner than you ever could before.

Something else that Black Ops has working in its favor is a "Zombies" mode. Perhaps you were introduced to undead soldiers when playing Call of Duty: World at War. Zombie Nazis went on to become that game's primary talking point and now they're back for more.

When the full package is considered, then, Call of Duty: Black Ops becomes a difficult game to rate. On the one hand, its single-player campaign is made up of six rather disappointing hours that I doubt I'll ever play through again. On the other hand, the multi-player mode (which is also available locally if you don't mind sharing a screen with a friend) feels like the perfect step forward for the series. It's a total blast and I can imagine myself playing it for weeks, if time permits. I just don't know that I'll get the same fun out of the game two or three years from now, and that's the thing that saddens me. Black Ops is a great game and a recommended purchase right now, but its future is a big fat question mark.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (November 15, 2010)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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Masters posted November 15, 2010:

Good review Venter. Your thoughts pretty much mirror my own, though I'd say the weak single player would drop my score to a 7, say. But yeah. Also, the lack of a spec ops split screen mode hurt the package as well in my eyes. Ah well, thank God for Nuketown.
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Masters posted November 15, 2010:

Why isn't this focus windowed?
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EmP posted November 15, 2010:

You focus window it.

I'm always doing the focus window while everyone in Canada slacks. No more!
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Masters posted November 15, 2010:

Awesome job, Emp. =D

Watch the hits roll in now! Or something...
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overdrive posted November 15, 2010:

I'm another gamer who needs a good single-player campaign to consider a game worth more than a rental. This isn't the first review of this game I've read TODAY on a site you own, Jason, that really makes me think that unless I decide to become a huge "multiplayer is the only thing that matters" gamer, I'd get little enjoyment out of this one.

I understand the popularity and importance of multiplayer, but I wish more emphasis was placed on making single-player more awesome. Then again, my best friend and I have spent much of our time bitching about how, for a long time, Madden would be doing all this online or multiplayer stuff while not tightening up the numbers attributed to game-generated draft picks (so you could get a guy with 99 speed and mid-50s acceleration or some other really wacky, unrealistic combination of numbers), so I've long been easily annoyed by anything I consider to be "too much" emphasis given to anything that's not pure single-player.
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EmP posted November 15, 2010:

I just played my first multiplayer Black Ops match. And won comfortably.

I may end up liking this game.
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honestgamer posted November 15, 2010:

I really do enjoy the multi-player and I wanted to be sure to communicate that in my review, but the single-player really was a disappointment for me. I'm glad that I seem to have communicated that appropriately. I didn't want to focus the review myself in case someone else had plans for the time slot, so I created focus window artwork just in case (to make it easier for anyone who might decide to focus it) and left it at that. I have to say... seeing my review in the focus window without putting it there myself is nice! ;-)
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Masters posted November 15, 2010:

Emp, what did you play, Team Deathmatch? What is 'winning comfortably?'

Also, are you on PSN or XBL?
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Masters posted November 15, 2010:

And OD, yeah: stay the fuck away.
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SamildanachEmrys posted November 16, 2010:

Although I enjoyed the single player campaign a lot more than honestgamer evidently did, the review makes a very good point: my favourite games, the ones I still play today after sometimes as long as twenty years, have been (due to their pre-internet age, frequently) unaffected by changes in community, developer collapse or withdrawal of support. This just isn't going to be true of any Call of Duty. Play CoD 3 today - there's no one online. And the campaign, though decent, just doesn't keep me coming back. so I acknowledge that, however much I liked the campaign in Black Ops, I won't still be playing it in a year, never mind ten.

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