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Call of Duty: Black Ops
Graphics: 8.7
Gameplay: 8.4
Sound: 9.1
Control: 9
Replay Value: 8.6
Rating: 8.8

After playing Call of Duty: Black Ops yesterday and most of today, I – quite literally – found myself pacing back and forth, trying to figure out if the game is worthy of a 9.0+, a score range we reserve for the elite titles. By all rights, it should haul down a solid 9. Given all the good, given the amount of effort and resources dumped into this production, given the multiple times when I said to myself, “holy sh**, that was awesome;” the answer should’ve been obvious. But in the end, I just couldn’t in good conscience reward a game that frustrated me once too often, that suffers from technical glitches that absolutely should not exist, that leaves me with an “oh man, what if” feeling. The bottom line is that with the tremendous multiplayer, surprisingly solid storyline, and super insane over-the-top intensity throughout, this should’ve held the 9.5, automatic shooter of the year status. But am I just supposed to turn a blind eye…?

Much has been made about the graphics, about how they don’t quite live up to expectations. But while the intro paragraph might indicate that I’m one of those disappointed people, my complaints lie primarily with the gameplay; I actually think the visuals are quite impressive. The sheer amount of stuff on screen at any given time, the nicely detailed characters, the great animations, and overall fluidity of movement is all very much appreciated. Granted, they aren’t as sharp and are even “cartoon-y” in some areas (and in fact, have already been eclipsed by the Killzone 3 beta), but Treyarch really gives us a fantastic atmosphere. Every environment is just alive; there’s no better way to explain it. We get good coloring – especially for a shooter – solid effects, and the attention paid to smaller details; i.e., bullet casings flying out of a submachine gun, is another big plus.

As is typically the case with this franchise, the sound is a major highlight. Punctuated by crisp, realistic weapon fire, bolstered by explosive effects, helped by great voiceover performances, and put over the top thanks to a kickin’ soundtrack, Black Ops will wreck your speakers…in a good way. The music really is fitting and seems to rise to the occasion in all the right spots, and the ambient effects are sweet. The cries of allies and enemies, constant war-oriented audio, and in-your-face weapon blasts keep you pinned to the edge of your seat. My only complaint is that the voices during gameplay don’t always jive with the action, in that your buddies will say something well after the fact. But that’s another symptom of the game’s instability. Overall, with wonderful work by Gary Oldman and Ed Harris (and I could’ve sworn I kept hearing Ice Cube), this one is almost worth playing for the sound alone.  That's not an exaggeration.

You play as Mason, who is being interrogated for unknown reasons. There seem to be a bunch of random numbers in your head, and certain important people are in a “need to know” position. They force you into several flashbacks that constitute various time periods, where you will battle the Vietnamese and Russians in different types of battles and situations. Mason has seen more action than any human alive and each engagement is almost too insane to be believed, but hey, that’s part of the appeal. You will sample dozens of distinct weapons, traverse the globe, face everything from tanks to trench warfare to hot zones swarming with bogeys in every possible direction and in general, survive the most intense experiences on the planet. The control is vintage CoD, in that it’s extremely smooth and always reliable, each vista is loaded with the aforementioned stuff, and for the most part, it’s fun.

Let’s start with all those good elements that – almost – set Black Ops apart. Firstly, there’s the diversity of gameplay that, although too infested with enemies in my eyes, keeps one playing throughout. You always want to see where you’ll go next and you’ll always be impressed by your surroundings. It’s all about survival and pushing through some of the most dangerous areas possible; one minute you’ll be part of a brave and downright ballsy prison break and the next, you’ll be running along a trench, peeking over the edge to see legions of Vietnamese descending upon you. You’ll mark targets for air support, encounter slow-mo sections that reach a Hollywood level of sweetness, and unravel the story’s mystery. My favorite moment was when I broke through a window off a zip-line, entered that slow-mo mode, and took down everyone in the room.

Yep, that last event was one of those “holy sh**” moments I mentioned earlier. The point is, the game always keeps you involved. It grabs hold from the first minute and never lets go, a trait to which few games can attest. When your Spaz 12 shotgun literally dismembers an unfortunate enemy and leaves him with the bloody stump of an arm, or when you make a mad dash through hundreds of bullets in an effort to follow your teammates, you will be smiling. I can almost promise that. In a game where they went out of their way to capture the likeness and voice of President John F. Kennedy (you are granted a personal interview at one point), one can feel the ridiculous amount of expended effort. It just oozes with blockbuster-style entertainment and there’s no doubt that the single-player campaign is a very rewarding experience.

And then there’s the multiplayer, which many will call the true (and perhaps only) appeal of Call of Duty. This one doesn’t disappoint, either. Perhaps the biggest upgrade here is the CoD Point system, which wasn’t part of the Modern Warfare 2 structure. Earning EXP isn’t just limited to your character; you can unlock custom class slots and even whole new modes of play. With more experience – and hence, more CoD Points – you will also have access to more weapons and perks, and this is the #1 reason to keep jumping online. Perhaps the #2 reason is the new oft-discussed Wager Mode, which is sorta what it sounds like- you bet that which is most important to you, and you can bet almost as much as you desire. If you win, big-time score. If not…well, you gambled, right? Plus, there’s more variety here than you might think; Gun Game is an example of a departure from the same ol’, same ‘ol, so give it a try.

Of course, all the expected content is still there. Team Deathmatch has always been my favorite but I started to warm up to Headquarters after a while, which is actually a little surprising. Perhaps the only downside is that with such a heavy emphasis on that Wager Mode and the new CoD Points setup, fans of MW2 will feel as if what they used to adore has been overshadowed. And we can’t really ignore the hitches and glitches that can easily be found in the online play, although we should remember that with incoming patches, the online experience will just get more stable and more enjoyable over time. Obviously, we’re talking about a big highlight, here, despite some changes in focus that may or may not go over well with the CoD loyalists. Let’s just say the multiplayer is immensely popular for a reason...a very good reason, too.

I wish I could leave it at this. I really, really do. It almost feels wrong to deprive this game of elite glory because the production essentially steps up and says, “yeah, I’m bad-ass, what of it?” Yeah, well, the cocky always have a few weaknesses and unfortunately, such drawbacks are painfully evident throughout the single-player (and parts of the multiplayer). Let’s start with the erratic ally AI. Sometimes, they’ll actually do something really helpful; other times, they’ll stand and fire at a wall for half a minute, or get stuck running in a doorway (if you shoot them, they’ll recover…haha). They just can’t seem to take down one lone enemy hunkered down in a hallway, and their long-range aim blows big time. Combine this with the always flawless aim of the computer, and we reach that frustration of which I spoke earlier.

Bullets will just somehow find you. All the time. I saw several come through what I could’ve sworn was a solid platform, and some dude with an Uzi about a hundred and fifty yards away can nail you if you stick your nose around a corner. This is wrong. It has always been wrong and it has always been annoying. Then there’s the overall instability and here are a few examples: the game almost froze entirely about ten times during the single-player campaign, due to earning a Trophy, picking up Intel, or a big, flashy event. At one point, I was supposed to jump down to a ledge. I did so and died…after I died, the message came up, “You have to sprint to make the jump.” Thanks, could’ve used that info a bit earlier. On the rooftops, tiny little gaps between buildings mean you can step to the left and just fall to your death, which doesn’t really have a place in this game.

Here are a few more obscure ones- I have a 3D HDTV and every time I play Black Ops, it automatically turns on the 3D option. To turn it off, I have to go into the menu and restart the game. Also, the auto-save function almost screwed me several times; once, it saved when a guy with a shotgun was about three feet from my face. And I’m not even counting the well-documented game-ending glitches; I’m not counting them because they didn’t happen to me, but all the above certainly happened, and certainly can’t be ignored. Oh, and there was one time when I accidentally dropped a grenade launcher I needed for a particular plot point (destroying 3 tanks), and it disappeared when I dropped it. Now, all this being said, don’t you think the game would have to be pretty unbelievable to keep me playing? See, that’s the good news: I did want to keep playing, despite all this.

It’s just too bad the problems have to exist at all. Like I said, clean this up, and it becomes what it should be- a AAA Game of the Year contender. But the beta of Killzone 3 - the freakin’ beta – is more technically sound on almost all fronts, and that’s an issue in my eyes. Yes, Black Ops offers all sorts of amazing moments, and there are almost too many good points to count. There’s the engaging element that keeps you fixed on the screen, the almost unparalleled atmosphere and intensity, the hugely robust and satisfying multiplayer, the cool characters, the excellent voice acting and profound effects, the silky smooth and rock-solid control, the pacing, etc, etc, etc. Seriously, all that quality is here and all of it smacks you upside the head from the get-go. Anybody who says it doesn’t exist either hasn’t played it or is dead-set against CoD for their own biased reasons.

At the same time, the technical hangups and instability hold it back. It’s just so disappointing because I know what it could have been; the “what if” scenario is never far from my thoughts when playing. I just couldn’t make it thirty minutes without frowning at something, whether it was a near-freeze, another enemy hitting me from a mile away with a shotgun, a lack of direction, or the over-emphasis on Treyarch’s insistence on a shooting gallery. Call of Duty: Black Ops is undoubtedly a great game but we just can’t keep turning a deaf ear to such glaring shortcomings. Even the stellar multiplayer isn’t free of little issues like lag (although it’s not severe, from what I saw).

But in the end, the product perseveres on the strength of its "oomph" alone and in short, it’s not everything it could’ve been but nevertheless, the entire experience is one well worth your time.

The Good: Almost unparalleled atmosphere. Great control. Awesome sound and voice acting. Large number of weapons. Good pacing and campaign variety. More than a few memorable moments. Decent story. Multiplayer that’s fulfilling in every way.

The Bad: Erratic (sometimes poor) ally AI. Flawless-aiming opponents. Over-emphasis on endless gunfights. Technical problems and overall instability.

The Ugly: Please don’t freeze now…oh please oh please oh please…not now…

11/10/2010   Ben Dutka