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Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops
by Tom Acres

Following on from last year's ridiculously huge hit, Modern Warfare 2, was never going to be easy. That difficulty is only accentuated when Treyarch, the developer behind Black Ops, doesn't have a great deal of popularity within the Call of Duty fanbase. Many see the company as the second-fiddle developer; the guys playing the bit part role, a mere elf to Infinity Ward's Santa (to use a festive metaphor). Yet, critically and commercially, both Call of Duty 3 and World at War from Treyarch have done commendably well.

Despite all that, Treyarch found themselves in a familiar position leading up to the release of Black Ops. Fans cried foul. "Oh, it hasn't got 'modern' in the title! Oh, it hasn't got Spec Ops! There's no Soap or Price!" Well shame on you impatient, judgemental fans, because Call of Duty: Black Ops doesn't just live up to series expectations; it exceeds them, and then some.

Let's start off with Black Ops' campaign, which - in terms of its story and how it's told - is remarkably different from what's come before. The story is intriguing, which is a nice change; it's full of twists, mysteries and is far more clever than the rather brain-dead summer-blockbuster-style yarn in last year's Modern Warfare 2. Rather than criss-cross through the viewpoints of stupid numbers of characters, Black Ops sees you step into the shoes of Alex Mason (not to be confused with Red Faction Guerilla's Alec Mason), apart from a few select missions.

Mason isn't the most fascinating character in the world but his backstory is rather interesting. The whole story is told in flashbacks whilst Mason is interrogated by unknown dudes with gruff scary voices in a torture chamber in a place that we don't know. Of course, eventually everything becomes clear but for obvious reasons I won't be spoiling it. What I will say is the way in which you get to the ending and uncover various mysteries is done really well, with locations varying from Cuba to Russia, and plenty of cool characters including the return of Gary Oldman's superb Victor Reznov. The story is most definitely not the standard Cold War premise you might have been expecting; it's far more than that and is pretty damn good.

Whilst the story is different and a nice change of pace, the way you play through the campaign is quite familiar in that it's full of linear pathways with frenetic gunfights leading you from one set-piece to another. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that it's not fun and exciting, because it most certainly is, but like Halo: Reach the Call of Duty formula might need a bit of a tweak next year to keep it relevant and fresh. For the time being though, Black Ops' campaign is an awesome ride with some truly memorable sequences. The highlights include taking direct control of an attack helicopter, sneaking through a Soviet base in the snow and making your way through a sinking ship in the game's epic finale. Available to help you fight your way through these encounters is a wide array of weaponry and gadgets, including the M16, FAMAS, AK47 and Skorpion machine pistol. Treyarch has also delved into the Cold War archives to find some fascinating contemporary guns, however, including the powerful but slow H510 shotgun. There aren't any P90's to be found, but this is still a varied and powerful arsenal.

Black Ops' campaign is a really fun, well paced ride, but like its predecessors you shouldn't expect more than eight or so hours of action on the standard difficulty settings. Play through it on Veteran like I did and you could probably spend upwards of 10 hours playing, and that's not including the incessant screaming, controller-throwing, jumping up and down, running downstairs, and plentiful declarations of "I'm never playing this piece of shit again!" that I went through. I don't mean it of course, but crikey, it's tough.

Of course, everyone knows by now that you don't really come to the Call of Duty party to play through the campaign and then get rid of it; you come to shoot annoying 11-year-old Americans in the face. Not literally of course - that would be bad - but in the famous online campaign. As you'd expect, all the classic modes are here with much the same mechanics, such as perks, kill-streaks and custom classes. The way in which you rank up has changed a bit: you still earn XP to gain levels, but you also earn 'CoD Points' which are used to buy the aforementioned weapons, perks and kill-streaks. This is a somewhat neat addition since you don't have to waste time unlocking guns you're never going to use, but at the same time the sense of accomplishment disappears a bit quicker than you may expect since you might end up with your weapon of choice fairly early on, meaning that gaining the rest of the ranks becomes a bit irrelevant. Despite that, people were still prestiging left, right and centre within hours of release, so clearly there's still something to be said for having a cool little badge next to your name.

Amid the collection of classic game types, the new 'wager matches' - which let you use the aforementioned 'CoD Points' to bet on the outcome matches - are the stars of the show. These matches are exclusive to four new modes: 'Gun Game' and 'Sharp Shooter' are both gripping variations on an entertaining theme, where you get players to use as many different weapons as possible within a single match. In the former, you're given a better gun after each kill, and the action ends when one player succeeds with all 20; in the latter, each player is given the same weapon type, and this is swapped randomly every 45 seconds. The result, especially when a bunch of players find themselves in an enclosed space just as the weapon type changes to rocket launcher, can be both hilarious and downright exciting. The other modes, 'One In The Chamber' and 'Sticks and Stones', are proving to be the most popular. The first gives you a pistol with one bullet and a knife, and the only way to reload is by getting a kill. The latter gives you a crossbow, tomahawk and a ballistic knife and is particularly frantic and devilish. All are no doubt fun, but probably won't usurp the old favourites as the modes of choice for most players. They are good to play with friends though, no doubt about that.

Rounding off Black Ops' impressive multitude of features is the welcome return of the Zombies from World at War. Not much has changed: it's still just as addicting, memorable and unpredictable as ever. There are only two maps, but they're both excellently designed with multiple tiers and plenty of excellent new weapons exclusive to the mode. One of the maps is especially entertaining, allowing you to take on the role of the likes of JFK and Castro as they fight off the undead horde in the White House. It's awesome fun.

Perhaps what sums up Black Ops' superb value for money offerings more than anything else is the Dead Ops Arcade. This surprisingly brilliant top-down, dual-stick shooter is basically Zombies in the style of Geometry Wars. It's as addicting as anything else in the game, and could easily be sold as a £10 XBLA or PSN title, but it's a mere extra in Black Ops. Don't be surprised if you lose hours to this mode alone.

All of this awesomeness is wrapped up in a stunning audio-visual package. The sound effects are plucked straight from the era, with hit songs from the time period used at key points (which feels both contrived and brilliant at the same time). The epic military score doesn't hit the heights of Hans Zimmer's majestic score for Modern Warfare 2, but it does the job. The voice acting from Sam Worthington in the lead role is quite terrible, but by his exceedingly low standards I guess it could be classed as reasonable. As mentioned earlier, Gary Oldman is superb as Reznov and the rest of the cast is great as well. Also, whoever it is playing JFK is clearly hamming it up and having a blast: he is awesome.

The graphics are great too, with the exceptional lighting and animation we've come to expect. The new motion-capture technology is used to fantastic effect, with facial features and movements being eerily realistic. Explosions are plentiful, blood and gore effects are brilliantly brutal, and overall this is up there with the best looking games of the year. It's also worth noting that the game can be played in 3D, and whilst it can look stunning at points, the 60fps framerate that the series is known for takes a serious hit when played in this way. It might be worth looking at to show off your 3DTV to your mates, but you really don't want to take the fight online when playing in 3D.

Call of Duty: Black Ops is not going to change your mind if you simply don't like Call of Duty, but anyone else who has become a fan of the refined, fast-paced gameplay, the authentic weaponry, the superb online modes and the incredible visuals of this franchise will no doubt be impressed. As an overall package, this is probably the best shooter of the year.

9/10 [?]

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- Tom Acres

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