For Treyarch, Call Of Duty: Black Ops must have seemed like an absurdly daunting task. Not only were the Californian dev team superseding one of the most popular videogames in the medium’s brief history, but the impulse to self-consciously ape the flamboyant style of Infinity Ward – surely felt both by Treyarch and their parent publisher – must have been overwhelming. Treyarch have always done things very differently to their recently disbanded former comrades, and now, with the entire gaming world watching closely, they’ve quite obviously had to make a fundamental, and fundamentally difficult, series of creative choices.
And thankfully, they’ve made all of the right ones. If Infinity Ward specialised in both the cinematic and the bombastic, then Treyarch have always been masters of realism and level-headed pacing; and Black Ops sees them playing to their proven strengths. In direct comparison to Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops may not be blessed with that wonderful Hans Zimmer musical score, and it may not serve up spectacular set-pieces anywhere near as regularly, but it’s a much more serious and more carefully measured piece of work. If Modern Warfare 2’s job was to exhaust you in the best possible way, then Black Ops primarily tasks itself with ensuring that you’re fully involved before it gets its bludgeon on.
Black Ops’ campaign opens with a rather dank and grim scene of torture, and skips around its timeline from that point with real invention and flair. There are a couple of plot twists that might actually surprise you, and the way in which it deals with its central relationship – between the game’s lead character and an enigmatic Russian named Reznov – is genuinely nervy and fresh. As is standard practice with Treyarch, you’ll find yourself dropped in the middle of some impeccably re-enacted real-life events – like the opening days of the Vietnam war, or the notorious Bay Of Pigs invasion – and you’ll directly encounter a small selection of prominent historical figures too.
But peppered very liberally (albeit carefully) throughout the game are the same kind of ludicrous set-pieces that made Modern Warfare 2 so special. One sequence in particular – an initially covert siege on a desolate missile silo – could have been ripped straight out of a James Bond flick; but because of its brevity it feels like an action movie-style plot surge rather than a sell-out moment of abject daftness. The narrative may be more convoluted than Modern Warfare 2’s was (and it is a truly switched-on gamer who manages to follow its second half to the note on their first playthrough) but it’s also more absorbing; frequently buoyed by the tantalising mystery of that central relationship.
So it’s definitely worth avoiding spoilers where possible if you want to get maximum enjoyment out of it. To pep up some of the more familiar action sequences, bullet-time slo-mo is deployed very effectively, in a similar fashion to how it was used during the ‘breach’ sections in Modern Warfare 2. But it’s one thing to storm into a room in slow motion, and quite another to zip-line into one through a plate-glass window. Weaponry is varied and quite clearly historically accurate, although one new addition – an explosive crossbow – is completely fantastical but also very, very welcome. Especially in multiplayer.
And so, to the multiplayer. There isn’t much that’s left to be said about it, except that it’s a lightning-fast, horrendously compulsive little unit that doesn’t currently have any equal. The new maps appear to be as thoughtfully designed as you’d expect, with one of them – a tiny, Rust-sized area called Nuketown – destined for status as a true, hardcore fan favourite. The Horde/Firefight-style Zombies mode (last seen in World At War) makes a return, and it continues to make for a classic co-op experience. The theatre mode – at last! – may have been a long time coming, but has been more than worth the wait, and is every bit as elegant and easy-to-use as the one featured in the last two Halo games.
But the multiplayer’s real triumph is Wager match mode. An entirely self-contained game-type, Wager matches are a series of ingenious little games that you are encouraged to gamble on. Although (obviously) that cash isn’t real, it does offer a very small amount of the same adrenaline kick offered by a short spell of high-stakes gambling. If that sounds ridiculous, all you need to do is witness a handful of people playing a multiplayer ‘One In The Chamber’ Wager mode match. Everyone has one bullet. You score a hit, and you’re in the money, and you earn an extra bullet. If you miss, you’re down to only your melee weapon. Being forced to run around like a bunch of headless chickens, all haphazardly swinging your blades around, shouldn’t be this tense. It’s truly amazing what a small pot of imaginary dough can do.
And so, on the biggest possible stage, Treyarch have crafted what is surely their finest game yet. The single player campaign – lengthier and much more ambitious as it is – doesn’t offer the constant stream of jaw-dropping set-pieces that Modern Warfare 2 did, but for veteran Call Of Duty fans, that can only be seen as a good thing. What can’t be argued is that the multiplayer component is the best it has ever been – faster, more balanced, and featuring the best selection of gameplay modes yet conceived. Put simply, if you’ve ever enjoyed a bout, you’d be mad not to re-join the fray here. The campaign is superior stuff to be sure, but the multiplayer is still nothing less than untouchable, and makes Black Ops an absolute must-buy all on its own.
Watch the Call Of Duty: Black Ops trailer here: