Call of Duty: Black Ops review

Let's not kid ourselves. If you were gung-ho enough to buy Call of Duty: Black Ops, you've already done it by now. You've already sprinted your way through the single-player campaign, had a quick run at the revamped Zombies mode, and you're probably only reading this while taking a breather from multiplayer. You already have an opinion, good or bad.

But that still leaves a lot of people who haven't jumped on the biggest bandwagon in gaming. Some might not have had the time yet while some will be weighing other options, and we all know people who felt let down by Modern Warfare 2, and so aren't willing to pony up for another instalment. If you fit into any of those categories, then you probably want to know if the latest Call of Duty is any cop.

Well, the answer is a big, fat “yes”, though a “yes” with some qualifications. Black Op's developer Treyarch has had a lot of stick in the past for producing lesser Call of Duty games to fill in between Infinity Ward's proper episodes. Well, Call of Duty: World at War wasn't perfect, but there were levels that demonstrated Treyarch was capable of more, and Black Ops pretty much proves that it can create single-player content to match Infinity Ward's best. We wouldn't say that Black Ops is as good as Modern Warfare, but it's certainly on a par with Modern Warfare 2.

The whole structure of the single-player campaign helps. Told mainly through flashbacks, it covers events during the cold war from the perspective of Mason, a member of the Studies and Observations Group, an early black ops unit working for the US Government during the late-1960s. The flashbacks take you from Cuba to the Russian gulags, then Vietnam, Cambodia and the Ural mountains. While there are some secondary playable characters involved, the storyline has less to and fro than in previous Call of Duty titles, and this helps give it the tighter feel of a modern thriller. In fact, it's the first Call of Duty we can remember where the plot is as engaging as the action.

And the action is certainly engaging. If Treyarch does anything well, it's bombast, and Black Ops is bombastic to the max. The flashback structure allows Black Ops to jettison pretty much anything that isn't a set-piece, and the resulting game is relentlessly noisy, consistently spectacular and never less than action-packed. Gun battle follows gun battle follows gun battle. We get motorcycle chase sequences, full-scale assaults, buildings getting demolished, helicopters crashing, frantic trench warfare and rooftop chase sequences at a rate that makes other games look anaemic. Black Ops also seems to cram just about every character, scene and cliché you've ever seen in a Vietnam movie - not to mention chunks from contemporary action flicks - into its lean 6 hour running time. While you're in the game's zone, it's incredibly exciting stuff.

That said, we need to put all the praise in context. Beneath all that sound and fury, Black Ops is a very linear, heavily scripted tunnel shooter, and one that's awfully similar to the other linear, heavily scripted tunnel shooters of recent years, including the previous three Call of Duty games and EA's Medal of Honor reboot. The big scenes are bigger and occasionally better than what we've seen before, but we're still talking about variations on a theme of “follow this bloke, press the action button when the game suggests, duck behind cover when your health gets low and shoot anything that gets in your way”. If you're after something new or more intelligent, you won't find it here. Black Ops doesn't talk you into liking it, it pounds you until you submit.

For all the brilliant bits where you're rappelling down the side of a Russian base and bursting through the windows, or nervously exploring Vietcong tunnels in search of soviet operatives, there's still a lot of generic duck-and-cover blasting, with a predictable AI that can only cope with the old “pop up, pause, shoot, pop down” routine or an all-out rush. Sure, an Apocalypse Now-esque sojourn down a Vietcong infested river is astounding, but it's the exception rather than the norm. It's hardly Treyarch's fault, but even some of the set-pieces - the chases, the infiltration missions, the last-ditch defences - seem to have been pulled almost wholesale from previous instalments. With repetition, Call of Duty is losing its ability to surprise.

Yet, strangely enough, this isn't a disaster. If Black Ops doesn't do anything that new or different, then at least it does what it does with grace, power and flawless production values. Visually it's one notch up from Modern Warfare 2, and the addition of motion captured facial animation systems does give the cutscenes a more genuinely cinematic feel. The music, sound design and vocal performances are top notch, and the gameplay is consistently challenging with only one truly hideous spike (Google "Black Ops Vietnam Barrels" when you come across it). Some of the close-up violence is tough-going, with certain sections having a scarily sadistic edge, but all in all the game's darker tone and breathless pacing work well. If you want a bombastic, violent, vaguely mindless military shooter, then Black Ops is one of the best. If you want something smarter, less predictable and more interesting then, well, there's always Battlefield: Bad Company 2.

And, of course, all the objections slip away once we move to multiplayer. It's hard for Black Ops to actually improve on Modern Warfare and its sequel for online action, but it just about manages it, with a great selection of varied and interesting maps, a revamped levelling and perks system (now based on CoD points) and probably the finest and most balanced section of killstreak rewards in the series. Newbies get a new training mode where they can practice the maps and modes against AI controlled opponents - a good idea given that Call of Duty multiplayer is arguably the most hardcore online game in town - while more experienced players can join in wager matches, betting their hard-earned CoD points against each other in a range of free-for-all matches with specific weapon sets. If you're already a Call of Duty maniac, then you'll find this the best one yet. Even if not, it's hard to deny how slick and well-executed the game has become.

Better still, World at War's Zombie's mode, where four players team up against wave after wave of the zombie menace, has been revamped and enhanced, with three new levels and a handful of new weapons. It's hard to say how it compares to Horde mode in Gears of War 2 or Firefight in Halo: Reach, but it's brilliantly twisted and hideously entertaining, and an excellent option for those of us who find the straight multiplayer option a little too fiercely competitive to get involved in.

Verdict

Even without the multiplayer options, Black Ops would be a decent, albeit short-lived, entry in the Call of Duty series, sitting somewhere between Modern Warfare 2 and Modern Warfare in quality. Despite its huge set-piece moments and improved storytelling, there's a feeling that it doesn't do anything that new or different, but your senses will be so busy dealing with the overkill that your brain won't really care. Multiplayer, however, turns Black Ops into another must-have. This might not be the best FPS of the year, but the overall package is as strong as ever.