The festive season is approaching, so it looks like it’s time to fight the Russians, Nazis or near-future permutations of these timeless enemies of the West, perhaps with a dash of radicalised goat herders from some generic Middle Eastern setting. That’s because another Call of Duty game has just arrived and been ravenously devoured by the millions seeking a blend of digital machismo and masochism. To work out which of these three foes you will be fighting it is necessary to look at whether the year is even or odd. If it’s Odd then Infinity Ward will be cranking out a Modern Warfare sequel. If it’s even then Treyarch is behind the wheel, sticking its head in the sands of history looking for tasty factual morsels to distort in an attempt at flag-waving bravura where West is Best and waterboarding is seen as the standard way to ask your spouse where they’ve left your glasses. I’ve checked my calendar, and it’s 2010, so Call of Duty: Black Ops falls into the remit of the latter developer.
It’s easy for a woolly liberal or a non-American to take issue with the plot of most CoD games made since 2007, but I think that would ultimately be missing the point a little. These are fantasies, not historical documentaries, and taking offense at the misrepresentation of the facts would ignore that, regardless of story progression, your ultimate goal is to kill thousands of soldiers from many different backgrounds, which has a kind of nihilistic equality to it. At one point in Black Ops you are even required to kill Russians and Brits who are in turn trying to kill each other, which is proof, if any were needed, that the violent first-person gameplay doesn’t really want you to take any side other than your own.
I thought CoD 4: Modern Warfare was excellent, with varied missions and set pieces which pushed the boundaries of interactive gaming. I didn’t get to play Treyarch’s last effort, World at War, but I did play Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2 last year, and I was still playing the multiplayer until last week. Although Modern Warfare 2 was not seen as the pinnacle of the series in some circles I found the single player campaign to be one of the most exhilarating and frankly gorgeous experiences of the franchise to date, with a plot that courted controversy and got very silly at points but still ultimately hung together with likeable characters.
Call of Duty: Black Ops is not so successful in this respect. Set at several points during the Cold War, it is told via flashbacks extrapolated from protagonist Alex Mason as he is undergoing electroshock torture at the hands of faceless captors. The goal is to get the brainwashed Mason to translate a series of seemingly random numbers before some deadline. While the flashback mechanic allows different time periods and playable characters to become available, the developer has failed to pull together these disparate strands of combat in any meaningful way. This is jarring because at times you are not playing a grunt but a group leader, and to have your subordinates yelling instructions at you to help guide your progress really damages the immersion.
You are led through Black Ops with a noose around your neck. The linear structure of previous CoD games has been what makes them so exhilarating, but here the nannying is excessive. Every five minutes you will have the controls wrestled from your grasp as the game makes you look at something it thinks is cool or perform some action which would not be possible in normal play. A well designed game will let you discover where to go, what to see and who to kill without directly impinging on the process. If Half Life 2 is a picture you paint yourself with the tools supplied by Valve, then Black Ops is a join-the-dots image which Treyarch asks you to complete while frequently grabbing your hand when it gets impatient with your progress.
Another area in which Black Ops feels like a step backwards is its visual presentation. The audio is top notch throughout, and definitely worth experiencing with headphones on, but the graphics fail to match the clout of last year’s MW2, despite the fact that the same engine is being used. While there are some great moments, there are also a few drab levels, with generic labs and boring bunkers lacking the fidelity, clarity and realistic clutter of the preceding game.
This problem is redoubled online. I played the single player campaign and multiplayer option with everything maxed, and while it runs smoothly there is just a lack of aesthetic punch. There is also more of a disconnect between controls and actions in multiplayer that means that kills are not quite as meaty or satisfying as in MW2. This leaves the guns feeling impotent at times, which is why I find myself seeking the hardcore match types where reactions count for more than clip size and bullet penetration. This is quite a fastidious criticism, but I feel that there is legitimate cause to do so given the strong pedigree of this title.
A lot of people bang on about how much value for money is packed into Black Ops, and I don’t disagree on this point, although I would say that the extra value added by the zombie mode, arcade games and multiplayer is only as rich as you make it. The arcade titles are a mild distraction, the zombie defence idea is funny thanks to a setup I won’t reveal here, but ultimately the joke is over in a minute and the mode made me wish I was playing Left 4 Dead 2 instead. The multiplayer is a definite boon, with a progressive implementation of the XP system that now incorporates CoD points as well as experience, allowing you to buy upgrades rather than earning them arbitrarily as you head through the ranks. The CoD points can also be used in wager matches where you get paid if you enter the top 3 in six player free-for-alls but lose out if you can’t compete. This adds incentive to playing online in an intelligent manner, and I was pleased to see the implementation of Gun Game in an official capacity. But again the maps lack the personality or diversity of those from the MW series.
Now despite the glut of criticisms to which I’ve subjected Call of Duty: Black Ops, I still think it is worth getting, if only to take part in the biggest gaming experience of 2010. People will be playing this online for at least a year, and once you have acclimatised to its nuances then pwning n00bs will be second nature. But the single player is not something I’ll return to with any haste. I await your hate mail with morbid glee.