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Call of Duty: Black Ops Review

Review; Jan. 1, 2011; Channels: Video Games; By Jenner David Cauton
Console and PC versions don't match in quality

(Editor's Note: for the PC version score, please see the second half of the article)

Call of Duty, the king of war shooters, is back in its seventh iteration: Black Ops. Activision has once again turned the tables to Treyarch, who formerly made World at War. Black Ops has made many changes to the franchise, some mild, and some heavy.

Instead of a traditional main menu with a background, the menu itself is in-game, with your character struggling in an electric chair. A shadowy figure behind glass starts asking you questions. Within the first few seconds of starting the game, you'll realize Treyarch has definitely upped the ante with the storyline.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Screenshots
Click the image to view screenshots

This is actually a sequel to World at War, COD's fifth game. You'll meet a few familiar faces, and even a few real ones. (And yes, the real ones are integral to the story.) COD has always been known for fantastic action set pieces, and while those are still here, the storyline as a whole has gotten a lot of attention and simply dominates all of the other COD games. This time, it's simply more than just "crazed third-world country dictator with different beliefs wants to destroy America." They even went as far as (drum roll) making your character talk, something that should be considered a standard if developers bother to voice everyone else. Though the story does seems to drag for a while in the middle, by the end you'll be at the edge of your seat. (Yes, the main characters say a few one liners in MW2, but only when you are controlling someone else.)

Prior to the game's release, rumors spread that the campaign involved time travel. The concept was certainly an interesting one, and being able to pull off such a storyline successfully may have been nice. But while you will be playing in different time periods, the gap between those times isn't very big, and the whole DeLorean thing probably didn't cut it....at least not this time.


"Hey Doc! Those...'Box' guys are on the phone..."

Simply put, the game is heavily based in the Cold War, primarily in Vietnam. The selection of weaponry reflects this, so obviously guns that were invented more recently aren't here. Modern Warfare fans shouldn't fret, though, as this is the 1960s, not the 1940s, when fully automatic assault rifles with attached grenade launchers weren't exactly mainstream. They're still here, just not as ... sexy. Also, for the first time in the series, the game will sometimes pull back from your character's viewpoint and actually show the environment in a third person perspective, if only to better present what's around you.

The game's soundtrack is a mix of dramatic war themes and one really awesome (though out of place with the game's time period) metal and techno song in the middle. Also included are a few licensed tracks, including Clearance Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" during one of the Vietnam missions, more than likely a reference to scenes from Forrest Gump. The guns, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. The gun volume finally doesn't overpower everything else (even with SFX maxed out; it's the first COD to actually have individual volume meters), which is a nice change, but the actual gun shots don't sound up to par when compared to previous games. In fact, a lot of them sound like tin cans.

Zombie mode makes a return once again and serves as the game's co-op mode. Like the previous game, you'll be blasting zombies, gaining money to buy advanced weaponry, and reconstructing barricades to prevent the swarm from getting too big. The only problem is this game mode only has a mere two (though large) maps to play in, which when compared to MW2's Special Ops' 15 or so levels, is a bit of a downer. While I do enjoy zombie mode's non-linear style, I'd would have preferred the latter for the sake of more variety.

You can't have Call of Duty without having multiplayer, and it returns as we have all loved it with a few new twists, items, and rebalancing fixes. One of the greatest gripes from many players was that many kill streak rewards were too easy to use, setting off a chain reaction to activate even more kill streaks, crippling the other team in a short time period. Black Ops changes this, as the game no longer rewards kills that credit toward another kill streak, so you'll have to do it the old-fashioned way. The perks have also been reworked, mainly blue perks now defining what your character looks like. The Second Chance perk (Last Stand) isn't as useless as it was before as the pro version now allows any player (even one without the perk equipped) to revive you if you're still bleeding away. Some items that were considered cheap, such as the personal radar and matyrdom, have also been removed. (Though enemies in the campaign randomly set up grenades with their last dying breath.) 

Probably the biggest change to multiplayer is, in addition to XP, you now also gain COD points, which act as currency to unlock items. Previous COD games had you level up to unlock new guns and ammo, and unlocking the attachments required a certain amount of kills with other attachments. Now, whenever you unlock a gun, all attachments are instantly available for that gun, requiring only COD points to "buy" them. The same goes for the perks, kill streaks, and special equipment. This gives the player the ability to upgrade his character exactly how he wants.

You can also use COD points to personalize the look of your gun's reticule and character. COD points will buy player emblems instead of unlocking them in a certain order (you'll still have to unlock them in tiers, though), as well as purchase symbols to make a personal player icon.

Activision seems to have taken an, albeit late, hint from Bungie. Online matches are now automatically recorded and uploaded to the network. Want to get better, see if a person is cheating, or simply savor the moment? Just go to your recent game list and download the replay. The list will show the game's map, as well as where all deaths took place, highlighting yours in particular. The replay can be played from start to finish (you can even view the session before you joined if you came in mid-game) and can be viewed in first or third person of any player, or simply as a free-fly camera.

New to the franchise are the multiplayer bots. If you don't feel like diving headfirst into the online scene, or simply just don't want to bother with online mishaps, you can set up a game for yourself and play against computer controlled bots. During my first time with the bots, I noticed they all had regular Internet-like names -- even a clan name called [3arc] -- until I noticed a lot of the names were actually familiar. By default, the bots will use the names of anyone on your Xbox Live/PSN/Steam friend lists, so while the bots don't talk (a definite plus for a certain degree of the community), at least the names will look familiar.

There was a lot of concern before and various reports claiming (as a feature, in fact) one can play against bots and then hop online with whatever the player has unlocked, but the idea (if it was even Treyarch's intention) was officially dropped. Online play, bots, and local games are all separate affairs.

The bots aren't pushovers either. You can set them to difficulties ranging from recruit to veteran, and the difficulty jump between these is significant. Regardless of the settings, however, you will notice one thing: The bots are cheating, cheap little bastards. Their aim, is suffice to say, perfect. These guys do not miss (unless you hit them, causing them to recoil high), as you'll be able to witness from their kill-cams. You'll cry bull when you see a bot toss a grenade 15 or so feet away like a Major League baseball player and have it land "exactly" at your feet. Every time. (And even more so when the grenade uses wall bouncing to do so.) The bots also have a tendency to aim right at a wall mere milliseconds before you even emerge from it, or even do a one 180 turn and fire when you weren't even in their peripheral vision. The bots don't benefit from spy planes and aren't hindered by radar jams, as they'll know where you are at all times. And don't forget: This isn't online, so there's no lag compensation, either.

They're not impossible to beat, though. What makes the bots easy or difficult is their reaction speed. A recruit bot will take a significantly longer time to actually fire than a veteran bot even when it already has you under the iron. The bots also do stupid things such as get all clumped together making for an easy multi-kill; they also can't seem to do their ace-pitching skills without standing completely still out in the open; and, my personal favorite, half the time they will completely ignore you if you're able to be revived and no enemies are around. (Though I have noticed shooting them in the kneecaps while you sit on the ground tends to get their attention).

Unfortunately, bots can only be played in Deathmatch or Team Deathmatch. Treyarch has said the bots aren't advanced enough to play with them in more tactical game types, but they may be so in a future sequel. Still, the bots are a great addition to Black Ops. The best part? The bots don't see any correlation of your gaming skills as references to your personal life, personal preferences, your mom, or whatever floats your boat. But hey, if they do, at least they won't tell you.

PC Version

The PC version of the game doesn't exactly fare as well as its console versions. This version was highly anticipated with the announcement of the return of dedicated servers and mod support, two features the PC version of Modern Warfare 2 did not include. The removal of these features, especially the lack of dedicated servers, led to a widespread boycott of the game, but then ended up getting more than 100,000 signatures. Of course, this didn't stop Infinity Ward, and the release was still a success even with severely limited copies sold on the PC platform. Treyarch was determined to make a "proper PC game." Treyarch kept its word. Dedicated servers are back in, and modding support is ... promised in a future patch. Unfortunately, with the announcement that servers from Gameservers.com would be the only supported rental service, another boycott occurred. (Are we surprised?)

Despite many complaints, the questionable quality of Gameservers (not from this review) soon become the least of many players' concerns. The performance of the game upon launch was simply horrific. Seemingly random crashes, unresponsive menu interfaces, high latency, a broken "join friend's game" option, random disconnects, random player rank scale backs, and above all, the top two were low framerates and/or constant game hitching either every 5 or so seconds or whenever there was gunfire (i.e., all the friggin' time). And these were all results on machines that were more than powerful enough to run the game.

A large part of many forums for Black Ops were dedicated to tech support, and third party fixes such as editing .ini files, adjusting priorities in the task manager, disabling Steam, updating drivers of all types, and various other fixes. Some have worked, but not for everyone. The results of these fixes were quite random, varying from case to case.

To this day, there have been three game patches released to fix the issues. Most have been repaired, but for some players, the overall performance issues still remain. On a middle-of-the-road gaming rig that surpasses the recommended system requirements, my personal experience has fortunately been better than most, with each patch making the game better. But only one person's good experience doesn't excuse it from getting a bad rep.

The horrid performance of the PC version is, once again, the deciding factor for gamers who own both a console and a gaming PC. You might get your trusty mouse, but unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a standard way of telling if this game will run well on anyone's machine. To put it in perspective, some machines with better hardware have actually run the game worse than machines with worse hardware, such as my own. It's true that hardware configuration testing is a pain, but considering that Black Ops runs on a ... modified ... version of World at War's engine -- a game that's more than two-and-a-half years old and reportedly ran well on PCs then -- there shouldn't be any excuse. The graphical improvement is not as dramatic from previous games, so why this version doesn't run so well is questionable.

Regardless, Black Ops is a worthy title of the franchise. With its excellent story presentation, tweaked multi-player, the return of zombie mode and the inclusion of bots for practice, Black Ops, for better or worse, is recommended. The PC version has become somewhat stable, but it's hard to tell how well it will perform for any given setup. If you really must play Black Ops on the PC, you'll have to just dive in and pray. And keep praying that whatever team is in charge for the next installment will get its act together.

Presentation - 9

Mostly the same as in past games, all told in first person, but Black Ops gets a thumbs up for including a main character voice (who talks often) some third person camera cutscenes, and a rather unique main menu interface. (Complete with secrets too ...)

Story - 9

Never has a Call of Duty game's story been this interesting. Seriously, it hasn't. This installment breaks the mold.

Graphics - 8

About the same as Modern Warfare 2, you be the judge.

Sound - 8

Great soundtrack, great explosions, guns ... eh ... 

Gameplay - 9

Aim and shoot. You're not going to need a manual. (And apparently, Treyarch didn't think you would either; the manual is less than 10 pages.)

Current Stability - 9/5

Console versions, on the Xbox at least, fared much better than their PC counterparts, but were not without their share of problems. But the PC problems are game-breaking. I know it says current stability, but the problems for the PC version have left a sour taste in many player's mouths, and the general consensus of performance today has yet to be determined.

Lasting Appeal - 8/5

If you like COD, then, well, there ya go. At the very least, the bots will still be there for you when the game old. The lasting appeal of the PC version will be how much patience you have. 

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PC Score - 7.6

Comments

Review Score
8.6

Mature

Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.

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