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Call of Duty: Black Ops (Xbox 360) artwork

Call of Duty: Black Ops (Xbox 360) review

"In Call of Duty: Black Ops, you play an Australian actor named Sam Worthington doing a bad American accent while the serial killer from Saw forces him to yell stuff about the exposition, with occasional breaks to play through overloud overscripted overblown shooting galleries in which you get captured no fewer than three and a half times."

As is the case with many shooters these days, Call of Duty: Black Ops has a few separate things in the box. So Activisionís latest goose-laid golden egg gets three reviews today. Letís get started.

Review One:

In Call of Duty: Black Ops, you play an Australian actor named Sam Worthington doing a bad American accent while the serial killer from Saw forces him to yell stuff about the exposition, with occasional breaks to play through overloud overscripted overblown shooting galleries in which you get captured no fewer than three and a half times. Because itís a Cold War setting, you start off killing Castro, just like you did in the Godfather game, except that -- psyche! -- you didnít. A bunch of wacky Russians bring you along for a spirited prison break that plays a bit like an elaborate fraternity prank, after which you take a tram ride, minus the tram, through the Pentagon where you see the first ever female character in a Call of Duty game. Your character gives her a long leering once-over. Because, you know, a girl. She never shows up again. Thereís fighting through the jungle hallways of Vietnam against soldiers with detachable legs that come off when you shoot them and a tunnel scene and Hue city and charred hillside defenses and various other stuff that will remind you that Vietcong was a really good game way back when. The obligatory ship level happens a couple of times.

As far as storytelling [sic], the folks at Treyarch have certainly done their homework, which consists of having seen Apocalypse Now and even The Deer Hunter. Or at least having been told about particular scenes in those movies. The numbers from Lost make an appearance. Along the way, youíre treated to a Rolling Stones video in which they use the wrong Rolling Stones song and then an Eminem song plays over the credits and Jimmy Kimmel and Kobe Bryant show up in the commercial. Wait, where was I? Actually, thatís a pretty accurate description of the game: Wait, where was I? From fighting Russians in Vietnam one minute, to Nazis in the Arctic the next, to playing the Kane and Lynch Asian slum levels, to wait, where was I?

Some might argue that the six-hour single-player campaign is too short. Iíd argue that itís about six hours too long. Itís all terrible, bloated, incomprehensible, and exactly what weíve come to expect from Activisionís Calls of Duty. Bleh. Urk. Yawn. I give it a D.

Review Two:

Call of Duty is finally getting there! Itís still not quite there, but itís closer than itís ever been. Although this iteration of that classic gratifying Call of Duty multiplayer gets so many important new things mostly right, I still have the sense that theyíre willfully leaving out important stuff.

For instance, bots are a long overdue feature, and in Black Ops, they give the game a whole new dimension. You can earn experience points and unlock stuff while playing against bots, which lets you explore all the cool gadgets and weapons without having to deal with the multiplayer communityís skill level. In fact, by dialing down the bots to easy difficulty, Black Ops is a wonderfully fast-paced tour through all the cool unlockable content, and itís even good practice in terms of letting you get comfortable with different loadouts without having actual people shooting at you. You can even bring your friends along to enjoy it in multiplayer. If youíve got the game on a console system, you can play splitscreen or system link matches with everything already unlocked, although there are no bots in this mode.

(In one of the many ways this is a half-assed port for the PC, there is no equivalent mode for LAN play. On a related note, this has to be one of the lousiest instances of Steam integration Iíve ever seen in a PC game. What happened there? It looks like Valve has decided to compromise their standards when it comes to a really popular franchise like Call of Duty.)

Unfortunately, the developers at Treyarch stopped short of making this feel like the complete package. There are too few options to configure matches with bots, and you can only play splitscreen bot matches with two players on console systems. If you opt for four-player splitscreen, you donít get bots, but you do get an option with everything unlocked. Why canít you combine the two? Why not get bots and everything unlocked? Why so few options? Why so few game customization options in these situations?

This is particularly mystifying, because Treyarchís contribution to the traditional Call of Duty multiplayer is partly to make it more like Halo. For private matches online, you can set any number of variables, and even save and share the game modes. The new replay option is a welcome tool not just for sharing snatches of gameplay, but for learning the game, analyzing matches, and studying maps.

But whatever. Seriously, whatever. For all the complaints I can make about what Black Ops didnít do that it should have done, the bottom line is that thereís a reason Call of Duty is so popular online: itís great stuff and itís a lot more accessible than Halo. Even if youíre not very good -- Iím rocking a 1:2 kill death ratio, thankyouverymuch -- thereís plenty of opportunity to jump into team games and ride the coattails of the good players, getting plenty of kills and xp in the process. Your skill level affects how quickly you earn points. But no matter what, when you play a match, you will earn points.

One of the best new tweaks in Black Ops is that you can unlock perks and kill streak rewards in whatever order you want. Weapons are still gated by your level, but thereís a lot of flexibility otherwise, thanks to Call of Duty Bucks. Yeah, thatís what theyíre called. Call of Duty Bucks. You earn these by some sort of voodoo math, and then you spend them to unlock perks, kill streak rewards, weapons, attachments, and even gadgets that go into a new equipment slot. Call of Duty Bucks are like a separate track of advancement, independent of experience points.

Itís a stupid name, but itís a great concept for how it offers a different sense of stakes. The Call of Duty Bucks tie into wager matches, where you stand to actually lose something. Most games are afraid to do this, but Black Ops lets you opt into loss if you want higher stakes. Set a wager and jump into a game with other high rollers. If youíre too timid to lay out your hard-earned bucks, you can take out contracts, which are a lower-stakes type of gambling. These let you set specific goals to direct how you play, rewarding you for doing things like winning certain types of matches, using certain types of weapons, or getting certain types of kills.

With Black Ops, Activision is dangerously close to achieving their goal of marrying an online shooter to a World of Warcraft style of addictive online multiplayer. Beware. Itís insidiously effective. Itís dangerous. Itís wonderful. I give it an A.

Review Three:

Activision stumbled onto something special with the zombie mode in Call of Duty: World at War. It started as a lark. You hole up against waves of zombies. You repair barricades and spend your zombie bucks buying better weapons. It went over like gangbusters. At least in my house. Evidently, this was true elsewhere, since we got additional maps with gruesome traps, special weapons, a coveted random goodie box that drove the action, and special perk machines. It even did its best to grasp at Left 4 Deadís personality by having the characters deliver occasional one-liners. Activision is no Valve, but not for lack of trying, and they deserve credit for at least recreating one of the ultimate barricade-yourself-against-the-slow-zombies experiences, which is sadly underrepresented in the wide array of zombie videogames.

The basic zombie map in Black Ops is pretty disappointing for being yet another Nazi setting. But if you endure the single-player game, youíll unlock a rare and glorious bit of playfulness in the form of another map with a Cold War theme. I understand the Extra Expensive Edition of Black Ops included two additional maps, which I presume us lesser Black Ops customers will get to buy at some point in the future.

Itís a bit disappointing that there isnít more or more different content. But even more of the same is still pretty good. The option to buy special ammo from each gun station is pretty nifty. And I believe this is the first time the game has scaled according to the number of players. Itís still not viable as a solo game, at least if Iím the solo player. But at least it doesnít punish those of us with fewer than three friends interested in playing zombie mode at any given time. So I give the new zombie mode a B.

Okay, letís do some math. We average out the three scores, weighted by how much of the game they represent, and according to some very scientific algorithms, the final grade for Call of Duty: Black Ops is...drum roll please...

tomchick's avatar
Freelance review by Tom Chick (December 21, 2011)

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