If you didn’t jump into the “Call of Duty” pool back when “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” was released in 2007, you might find the annual series’ latest entry, “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” a little daunting. Prospective initiates into the church of “CoD” could be forgiven for deciding that being called profane names by 14-year-old kids isn’t for them.
But as a busy skeptic who’s largely missed the “Call of Duty” series until now, I can report that Treyarch’s latest offering serves as a great refresher course or introduction for anyone who’s skipped Infinity Ward’s “Modern Warfare” games or Treyarch and IW’s earlier, World War II-themed fare.
The single-player campaign in “Black Ops” (rated M, $60 for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, $50 for Wii) revolves around Alex Mason, a Marine who’s part of the government’s classified Studies and Operations Group. For nearly all of “Black Ops,” Mason’s strapped to a chair in an interrogation room, reliving a top-secret past that includes an attempt to kill Fidel Castro, an escape from a Russian prison and covert operations in Laos during the Vietnam War.
The story, told in level-long flashbacks bridged by in-game movies that revolve around the interrogation, boasts Hollywood-level production values. The game features terrific voice acting from the likes of Gary Oldman, Ed Harris and Ice Cube, plus some of the best visuals you’ll find in a game not optimized for a particular console.
As a lifelong keyboard-clacker, I have a tough time empathizing with the gruff, macho soldiers who save the day in most military-themed shooters, but I found myself looking forward to my “Black Ops” sessions so that I could find out exactly what happened to Mason, who was interrogating him and what their motives were. Though the ending was a bit of a letdown, the seven-hour journey was worth it.
It’s a shame, then, that “Black Ops’” level design doesn’t live up to its storytelling savvy. While there’s fun to be had, particularly in portions that have you piloting a helicopter or gunboat and blowing up everything in sight, each level is more or less a linear path from point A to point B, during which your job consists of killing everything that moves.
The gameplay is so lather-rinse-repeat that on the rare occasion you’re tasked with doing something different, it’s confusing. I literally wasted 40 minutes trying to run and gun through one early level that required me to kick some barrels of napalm into a trench to advance. Judging from a quick straw poll of other gamers, I’m not the only one who had trouble with that spot.
That said, “Black Ops” is the gaming equivalent of a summer popcorn movie. It’s packed with big, explosive moments and looks and sounds fantastic. The interrogation/flashback storytelling vehicle is a fresh wrinkle that’s executed with aplomb. As long as you don’t scrutinize “Black Ops’” gameplay closely, you’ll have a lot of fun.
For most “Call of Duty” diehards, the meat of “Black Ops” is its deep multiplayer, which boasts eight familiar game types, including solo and team deathmatch, capture the flag and demolition. It also features a follow-up to “Call of Duty: World at War’s” popular zombies mode. In this mode, playable solo or with friends, you fight off waves of zombies. Initially, only one map, a theater, is available. But once players finish the campaign, they’ll unlock the surreal “Five,” which features playable John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro, Richard Nixon and Robert McNamara protecting the Pentagon.
As in recent “Call of Duty” games, players of the multiplayer portions will earn points used to unlock additional weapons, equipment and perks for use in online play. This can unbalance the game a little bit against newer players, making getting acclimated to “Black Ops’” multiplayer a little intimidating. Fortunately, in a first for the series, Treyarch has included a Combat Training mode, in which gamers can play the deathmatch modes against computer-controlled bots.
Combat Training is a fantastic addition to the series and helps prove that Treyarch, long regarded as the series’ B team, can innovate in the absence of Infinity Ward’s departed studio heads, who put “Call of Duty” on the map. Instead of getting shot and killed, over and over again by a bunch of skilled players with faster reflexes who’ve memorized the maps, less experienced players can use Combat Training to learn the maps, experiment with weapon/equipment/perk loadouts and hone their skills against the computer. People who like playing online with one or two friends but not half a dozen strangers can team up against the computer and cut out the smack talk.
While it’s too bad Treyarch hasn’t programmed bots for some of the more complicated modes, such as demolition and capture the flag, some Combat Training is better than none, and hopefully the studio can upgrade its bot programming for a future title update or the inevitable next “Call of Duty.”
When that next “Call of Duty” game arrives, I’m hoping whoever fills the void at Infinity Ward develops levels and enemy artificial intelligence to match the game’s top-notch production values. Like a good popcorn flick, “Black Ops” is unlikely to end up as my favorite game of the year, but it was a hell of a ride.