Call of Duty: Black Ops was released at midnight last night. Seventh in the hugely popular Call Of Duty series, Black Ops is a first-person shooter set during the Cold War. Players can take part in missions to Vietnam, Cuba and even join in the 1980 storming of the Iranian Embassy in London.
Call of Duty: Black Ops is expected to become the fastest and biggest-selling title in history racking up over one million sales in the first week alone. The previous installment, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, has generated more than one billion dollars (£620 million) in sales.
According to guardian.co.uk reviews: It’s right about the time you’re shooting a well-known communist leader in the head that it all clicks into place. Here we are in Call of Duty land again, where insane Boy’s Own battle action and precise historical detail weirdly conjoin. This long-running series of million-selling military shooters is essentially the Inglourious Basterds of the gaming world – a strange, ridiculous, entertaining, fanciful and bloody celebration of man’s interest in violence. And it still works. By some considerable margin, Black Ops works.
For the campaign mode, you play almost exclusively as Alex Mason – a special operations veteran caught up in the Bay of Pigs invasion and then cast into a covert war that quickly descends into a fraught psychological odyssey. As the action ping-pongs between Cuba, Vietnam and Russia, an interesting tale plays out concerning dodgy CIA dealings, Nazi experiments and communist expansionism, all bubbling beneath the accepted “facts” of the era. It’s similar to the Modern Warfare titles in that it actually boils down to a classic manhunt in the end, but while some elements get lost in the rush, this is easily the most cogent and well-constructed story we’ve seen from this franchise in a number of years. 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.
Splattered across the game’s expansive Cold War canvas is a very familiar Call of Duty experience. Once again, we’re shooting our way along linear paths, more often than not following a lone indestructible character as he barks out orders. 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. Whether you’re busting out of a hellish Russian prison camp or creeping through Viet Cong tunnels with just a flashlight and a revolver, Treyarch knows how to grapple the drama and spectacle out of every choreographed encounter. What this game is, in fact, is a ceaseless barrage of brain-pulverising set-pieces. There is Hue City on fire, with US choppers strafing overhead like monstrous dragon flies; there is the raid on the Russian launch site, its towering rocket looming beneath a sickly orange sky; and there is the shootout on the rooftops of Kowloon city, with jumbo jets scorching close overhead as bullets fly. Black Ops doesn’t so much capture your attention as bludgeon it into bruised acquiescence.
Within the cacophony of each mission, you will find the usual buffet table of interesting weapons. There are the faithful regulars of course, including the M16, the FAMAS, AK47 and Skorpion machine pistol, but Treyarch has also trawled the archives to find some fascinating contemporary rarities, including the box-like G11 and the powerful but slow H510 shotgun. Enemy AI is decent, too, especially the Russian spec-ops forces who roll and leap around the screen like circus athletes – but circus athletes with semi-automatic rifles. If they get close enough, they’ll rush at you with savage speed and purpose, a rare behaviour for computer-controlled fighters and a welcome respite from the usual peeking-out-from-behind-cover behaviours.
Part of the success of the game, though, has nothing to do with its relentless action: the comparatively authentic characterisation is vital. None of the people in Black Ops are as interesting as Modern Warfare’s astoundingly moustached Captain John Price, but at least the lines are punchily delivered and sometimes even move beyond gritty military doublespeak. Treyarch has also made agenda-setting use of full performance capture (when an actor provides motion capture, facial capture and dialogue simultaneously), to provide genuinely expressive virtual thesps capable of glowering with anger or cowering in fear with something approaching humanity. We’re not out of the uncanny valley yet, but we can at least occasionally glimpse the upper slopes on the other side.
At the same time, this game is chock full of cinematic references – which, as Rockstar discovered via GTA’s endless pop culture recycling, adds bags of credibility to the script. Our first experience of Vietnam is so fecund with clichés – from the topless soldiers laying out body bags in the sun to the trippy southern rock soundtrack – it’s like mainlining every ‘Nam movie ever made in one three-minute mega-fix. And then we get more precise allusions to the likes of Apocalypse Now, Platoon and The Deer Hunter, the latter skilfully pastiched in a nightmarish Russian roulette sequence. There are also references to Lost, 24 and countless other conspiracy dramas. Most importantly, the writers have learned from TV structure, constantly reminding players where they are and what they’re doing in this savage globetrotting adventure; and that’s what Infinity Ward failed to do with its at times incomprehensible Modern Warfare sequel.
Largely, apart from an overly simplistic Lockheed Blackbird sequence, the title’s forays into alternative game mechanics are successful. There’s a brief air combat sequence in which you pilot a Huey as it blasts ground forces before taking on a couple of Russian copters; there’s also a decent enough boat section, where you whiz down a jungle river, shooting stuff up. The controls are pretty cumbersome and the effect rather shallow and inconsequential, but these asides add a little variety and certainly don’t outstay their welcome. Indeed, with the whole campaign coming in at around six to eight hours of gameplay, nothing outstays its welcome – though Black Ops does at least put up more of a fight than the spectacularly brief Medal of Honor.
The multiplayer component is, as you would expect from this series, skilfully constructed and breathtakingly expansive. There are 14 maps, designed to explore and support a range of playing styles. The standouts, at least in terms of visual style, are “Jungle”, with its winding paths, tree houses and hanging vines, and the brilliant, “Nuketown”, designed to resemble one of those simulated neighbourhoods constructed in remote locations by the US military to test the effects of nuclear weapons. There are eerily authentic fifties houses and vehicles, and the streets are lined with spooky shop window dummies. The level was apparently inspired by the nuclear explosion scene in Indiana Jones 4 – though it also feels a lot like the scary test zone featured in Alexandre Aja’s Hills Have Eyes remake. [more read]
Call of Duty: Black Ops details and price:
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Wii, DS
Price: $59.99 ($49.99 on Wii and $29.99 on DS)
Release date: Nov. 9
Buy Call of Duty: Black Ops from Amazon here.