Call of Duty: Black Ops User Review
Bias. Since I first signed up here at PSXE, I have been one of the most vocal opponents of the Call of Duty series. I have never made it a secret that I had not, until now, played one of them and my disdain for it came more from the practices of the publishing company Activision, the very nature of the First Person Shooter format and the unparalleled, and in my mind absurd, popularity of the series. It is important to make note of this going into this review, as I carry an immense prejudice against the franchise. I’m not sure of the reasons behind my initial dislike of the series, but it has only grown over time. I can’t deny that I am against this series. However, I will try my hardest to not let my preconceived notions bleed into this review. As always, I will strive to present it to you as accurately and honestly as I can.
Call of Duty: Black Ops is a thrill ride at breakneck speed from start to finish, depositing you, as the player character Alex Mason, in numerous combat zones around the world as part of plot that skilfully blends together historical fiction with context for these battles. The quick pace of the story is allowed by being set primarily in flashbacks. The reasoning behind this is that Mason has been captured by unknown persons and is being interrogated to discover what he knows. Alongside this is Mason’s personal quest of revenge. While the background for this is present, it’s altogether underwhelming. You never really connect with the hatred that he supposedly feels. While elements of the plot shine, particularly when it comes to historical context, it really comes across as an overpaced, garbled mess. The secondary characters are constant, for the most part, and this helps you to connect with them, but they have no real personality beyond the dumb soldier. This is to be expected, as the single player aspect of Call of Duty is not the main purpose, but it wouldn’t hurt to expand upon it. Overall, the story is certainly interesting, but fails to live up to what could have been achieved because of the heavy focus on quick action.
But that quick action is what the entirety of the game is based on. Outside of the cutscenes, there are almost no slower moments to break down that speed, and this can be considered a good thing, as it keeps you immersed in the gameplay. If you are forced to focus on it, then how can your attention be dragged away, and this opens my eyes to the possibility of addiction to the multiplayer segment, especially considering that you are facing off against real people, as opposed to pre-programmed automatons.
Speaking of that gameplay, it’s standard fare for shooters: primarily corridor-based combat against waves of enemies as you progress from one point to the next, which features a regenerative health system. The Call of Duty series popularised this format, and carries it on with this iteration. If you go in expecting this, you can’t really be disappointed, however it does break this up with some sections with verticality, some that place you in the driver’s seat, or manning the turret of a vehicle and others that have you guiding missiles to destroy objectives. Though each of these breaks is short, it helps in keeping the game feeling fresh for the duration.
Also helping with this is a massive number of weapons to choose from, though many of them seem to be little more than skin changes, and are only available in certain sequences. However, there are automatic weapons, semiautomatics, pistols, revolvers, shotguns and grenade launchers, among even rarer finds. You may think that this would allow you to have any loadout that you desire, but that is far from the truth. You will almost never run across more than four different weapons (not including scope modifications) in any one level. I feel this brings the game down somewhat, as you aren’t allowed free reign over what you want to use. Of course, balancing the gameplay is important, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of player freedom and enjoyment. Also, you cannot carry more than two weapons at a time, which is standard fare nowadays.
The AI is difficult to gauge. Some of it seems quite good, but then you run across a flaw that makes it all seem so stupid. You see, you are almost always accompanied by team members, and while this isn’t bad, they will sometimes fall behind as you are being siphoned along a corridor, forcing you to take on the enemy swarms alone. This wouldn’t really be a problem, except that it seemed to me that they were on a timer. They had to spend a certain amount of time in a single area before moving forward. Not only that, but they can’t fall in battle. While this makes sense as they are a persistent part of the story, it does reduce the urgency, and allows you to simply sit back if things become too hectic. Worse than this is the enemy AI. Often they know where you are before you do. Their reflexes are impeccable, as they open fire as soon as you appear in range, and their aim is utterly incredible. I swear that they could shoot around corners. Finally, parts of the game run with a respawn system. Forward progression is essential, as the enemies will continue to reappear until you arrive at whatever checkpoint is set. This frustrates me no end whenever it is implemented in a game, as it reduces the need for tactics, and turns the game into a race. I prefer seeing enemies set up in positions, and with the intelligence to move, rather than simply swamping you with endless numbers. This second tact is also used, but more rarely and only in areas where the objective is to clear out a particular area or building.
Ah, but more fool me. Of course, the enemies do move about their bounds, and this can make for some fun times, as they duck in and out of cover, and roll like Spetsnaz soldiers. Sometimes they rush forward, and in those moments it’s best to have a shotgun handy, or a simple tap of the melee button is usually enough to drop them. The animation work is to be commended, however it also has its drawbacks. The biggest of these, in my opinion, is the canned death animations. Yes, there are quite a number of them but that doesn’t change the fact that a game that is, more or less, about killing people should have some sort of physics system to handle this aspect, rather than having an NPC pop out of whatever action they were previously doing to fall to their knees. They can also be a tad stiff at times but it’s rare to see a game really nail the fluidity of human movement, so I’m not taking points off for that.
Each of the main character models have a decent amount of detail to them, though the forgettable nature of their personalities bleeds also into the design. Even beyond midway through the game, I was having trouble distinguishing one character from the other, though this is perhaps more due to the writing than the design ethics. The facial animation in cutscenes is decent, but seems very stiff outside of the essential movements, and lacks the polish of some other titles but nor is it really necessary, as emotional impact is minimal in Black Ops. However the abysmal lipsynching is unforgivable. There are several different enemy designs for each ‘chapter’ of the game, and each fit the environmental context, such as the Russian prison guards, or the members of the NVA. I feel that this is, necessarily, downplayed as they are simply targets, though it is a nice touch.
Moving into the environments, they are thankfully diverse, offering a wide variety of backdrops. They range from burnt-out forests to military bases and a city with others that I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. Beyond simply being just backdrops, each of them has a unique design layout, and I must say that I really enjoyed the way that certain levels are designed. Treyarch has done a great job in giving the player a number of very different playgrounds. However, the game suffers from the usual drawback of shooters in that there is a general lack of brightness in the colours. There are some beautiful scenes, I won’t deny that, but they seem muted. Again, it has to do with the intended tone. You aren’t supposed to have your breath taken away by a stunning vista, but by the set piece moments, and these usually succeed. It could have done with a bit more detail, and I felt that parts of the levels were reused at irregular intervals, but it’s quite the good job all around, if you can overlook the general lack of polish that contrasts against a stronger focus on this part of the game as seen in Enslaved or Final Fantasy XIII.
Moving from the visual presentation to the auditory one, and the only thing that I have to complain about is the voice work. Mason is overly gruff, the words of the interrogators are barely discernible due to the vocoder effect and the only standout from the rest of the characters is Reznov, if only because of his Russian accent. This is, again, attributable to the aforementioned lack of characterisation, so I’ll leave it at that.
Underpinning most of the frequent action scenes is a very good soundtrack, carrying songs ranging from heavy techno beats to something that sounds suspiciously like ‘O Fortuna’ and really helps to focus the player. I found it to be quite engrossing and while it takes a definite backseat against the shouts, explosions and gunfire it remains delightfully present. The gunfire for each weapon does sound slightly different, which helps you to get a feel for the strength of them, and it is very faithful to reality, but as always lacks the punch of a real weapon. However, like the comment on human movement above, few games get that sound balance right and if it did each shot would be deafening, so it’s not worth taking points off. The sound of explosions does have that punch, and is almost always accompanied by a ringing sound, which emulates reality in an unexpected way, and helps to draw you further into the game. Another thing that many games fail to capture is ambience. I was quite surprised near the end of the game to come to a stop amidst a forest scene and hear the calls of wild birds from afar. It may only be a small, relatively simple touch, but it separates this game from most all competition. This certainly is the best aspect of the game.
I’ve already mentioned the two-weapon loadout system, and this is a choice that I don’t like. However, that is a personal qualm, and so will be dealt with in my overview, which is to be posted as soon as possible after the approval of this review. If only that was my only issue with the control scheme. I found the camera controls to be overly sensitive, even when turned down to the minimum setting. Perhaps this is because I’m not used to first-person shooters, but I feel that it is a reasonable issue. There are a large number of control options to choose from in the menu, and this should satisfy most players, however I chose to leave it on the default setting, and I must say that I had some trouble acclimatising to it. I chose this option, as none of the others seemed to match my favoured layout, but again, that’s an annoyance stemming from my preferences . When it comes to character control, I must say that I’m not a fan of the disconnected feeling. Your character acts as if he’s sliding on glass and it just doesn’t feel right. Again, maybe I’m just overly familiar with third person games, but this really threw me off.
With the default settings, movement and camera control are mapped to the analogue sticks in the usual way. L1 is used to look down the iron sights and R1 to shoot. I shouldn’t have to mention that it isn’t necessary to use the iron sights, but I found it preferable in most cases. L2 throws a tactical grenade (smoke, flash bang, etc.), while R2 throws a frag and you can hold them down to cook the weapons, making the explosion come sooner after leaving your hand. Also, you can toss a thrown grenade back at an enemy if you manage to reach it in time with R2. Pressing left on the D-Pad switches between your primary and alternate fire modes (if the weapon has one). The right button is used to call in an air-strike in one scene, but little else besides, while up and down seem to have no purpose. Tapping L3 sets you sprinting, and this effect lasts until you either stop moving, or your character grows tired. The second of these almost never happens due to the frequency of enemy encounters. And R3 is the melee attack.
Which brings me to the face buttons. Tapping Triangle switches between whatever two weapons you have equipped, and takes a second, so you should make sure that you have the most useful before progressing, so that you aren’t taken at unawares and trying to switch in the face of oncoming fire. You can usually dodge this by running towards any nearby cover and pressing Circle, which forces you into a crouch. This also improves your accuracy slightly, so it’s certainly a worthwhile inclusion. Holding down the same button drops you to a crawl, which further improves your accuracy, but I found to be mostly useless, except to avoid incoming fire while stuck in position waiting for an exchange between NPCs to conclude. X is the jump button, also allowing you to clamber onto ledges and tables, or climb through windows or other such low barriers. Finally, Square reloads your weapon, and when held is for context, such as exchanging your weapons, opening doors and planting explosive changes.
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, all standard fare for shooters. And this mentality also extends to the length of the game. They are traditionally known to be shorter than most other game types, and Black Ops upholds this, with the campaign lasting me just shy of nine hours on Hardened difficulty, no doubt inflated by my frequent and numerous deaths. However, for the solo player, there is more. From the main menu, you have the option of tackling a Zombie mode, in which you must complete certain objectives while taking out swarms of the undead. It is an interesting inclusion, certainly adding replay value, and better yet, supports up to four player split-screen if you have a few buddies and extra controllers lying around. With another player, it is immense fun working out the best strategy for working out who’s going to do what, and getting into arguments about whose is better. But that’s couch gaming for you.
All in all, the quality of this game is undeniable, but as I always expected, I didn’t find myself enjoying it as much as others seem to. I just can’t stand the quick, brainless action that makes up the majority of the experience. I prefer being able to take time out and set traps for enemies, or get in an enviable position and snipe away from a distance. Being forced into close combat against foes simply doesn’t tickle my fun button (no, I don’t have one of those. I’m a bloke, but I’m using it figuratively.). However, I can certainly appreciate it, and see myself going back to play over zombie mode, or even the campaign time and again when I desire that fix (or I would if I owned the game). Don’t let my personal thoughts put you off this game. It really is of an extremely high calibre, and if you can enjoy a film like Transformers or The Expendables, there’s no real reason not to like Call of Duty: Black Ops.
Thankyou for your time and I hope that you found my words to be both informative and helpful. Until next time PSXE, Peace and Law be with you.
This user review does not reflect the views of the PSX Extreme Staff.