Call of Duty: Black Ops Review

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Posted on November 9, 2010, Phil Hornshaw Call of Duty: Black Ops Review

Call of Duty: Black Ops makes me feel like Activision is ripping me off. Just a little.

That’s not to say that Black Ops, released almost one year to the day after its predecessor, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, isn’t an improved game, because it is in a lot of great ways. But it doesn’t feel like a new game. It tweaks things and packs in some great new additions, but it also plays almost exactly like MW2, especially when it comes the games’ multiplayer modes.

Call of Duty: Black Ops (PC [Reviewed], XBox360, PS3, Wii)
Developer: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: November 09, 2010
MSRP: $59.99

And while the single player campaigns of the two games offer some very different experiences, neither campaign is large enough or especially engaging enough to warrant your paying full price for both of them. So in that sense, Black Ops feels like the yearly update of a sports game franchise. Yes, there are some changes and on the whole, things in Black Ops are better — but are they $60 better? Probably not.

For its part, though, Treyarch has taken the reigns from Infinity Ward and made a game that hits a lot of points on the checklist to make it the best Call of Duty so far. For one, it’s freaking gorgeous, especially early on. Black Ops is absolutely rife with textured, lush environments, from the jungles of Cuba and Vietnam to a detritus-strewn Russian space program site, to an imposing and industrial Soviet work camp. Things thin out a little toward the back half of the game as far as eye candy, but there are quite a few levels that just look and feel stunning.

In fact, a lot can and should be said about Black Ops’ production values in general. Treyarch’s use of visual style has really helped sell the amped-up story in this CoD installment, and the company went all-out with its voice cast as well, bringing in the likes of Avatar star Sam Worthington to voice its protagonist, as well as Ed Harris for a key supporting character. The voice work in MW and MW2 was pretty great — in Black Ops, for the most part, it’s generally phenomenal. The one caveat to that is the auditory portrayal of JFK, who makes an early appearance in the game in what is probably Black Ops’ best scene. Unfortunately, the adage that no one can do a Massachusetts accent holds true here, and Mr. Kennedy sounds less presidential and more like Mayor “Diamond” Joe Quimby of The Simpsons. It’s a little bit painful, and luckily, it’s kept to a minimum.

Finally – a Story

Oh, yeah. Black Ops is set during the ’60s and hits key moments during the Cold War. Early in the game, we get a pretty palpable sense of the era and how the politics of the age affect the characters (also: there are characters in this CoD game, shocking though that may be). Things kind of take a hairy sci-fi turn before long and the setting becomes little more than an excuse to use old-style cars and Intel collectibles that are reel-to-reel magnetic tape rather than laptops. But at least for a while, it’s a nice shift from the “shapeless modern war” and “destroy all Nazis” cliches.

For once, a Call of Duty game actually tells a decent story, at least for a while, and not only are we able to keep the characters straight, but they seem to comprise drives and emotions rather than rattling off witty one-liners before being inevitably mangled by mortar fire. Black Ops doesn’t tell a particularly good story, or tell it particularly well — it still feels like a movie where all the transition bits of information that make things make sense are left out, like why one mission follows another or what happened during the several-year gulfs in between. But they do build some characters and they do put together a plot that at least follows from A to B without just throwing up its hands and saying, “You know that high-ranking official you’ve been dealing with as an ally all game? Yeah, he was actually behind all the evil, for no good reason.” I’m looking at you, MW2.

Treyarch’s plot does suffer from some pretty elementary problems, like a lack of villains we should actually care about stopping, or developing outside of cliches and hackneyed “twists” so tired we can guess the end of the game about an hour in. The whole thing is short, too, which is a letdown. Diligent and interested players will wrap the game up within about eight hours, although that can stretch considerably longer and become more frustrating if you work in playing on Veteran mode. The hardest difficulty mode is back to its old, stupidly difficult self, after being a bit of a pushover in the last CoD iteration.

The biggest issue with the campaign is the fact that Black Ops trades finally having something approaching a story for being spectacular. CoD games have always been summer blockbusters, not think pieces, but the medium Black Ops finds between both of those makes it neither. There’s one level that has the epic feel of the Battle of Stalingrad, but most of the game lacks the huge, awesome set pieces that the series is known for. Black Ops falls into old, predictable ruts early and often, as you push through each room and hallway, identify where the cover is, wait for the enemies hiding behind that cover to pop out, and then waste them. And enemies have all the same old animations, like crawling away wounded while firing a pistol, and they still wait in one place to be killed, or better yet, do a somersault into the open for no reason.

What big moments there are often don’t live up to the hype that goes with their set-up. One sequence in which you pilot a Russian Hind helicopter isn’t fun, it’s infuriating. You take the chopper up against other Hinds — two at one point — and get to have a helluva time trying to dogfight them. Your controls are simplified, with the game automatically adjusting your altitude for the environment around you. Meanwhile, enemy Hinds love to just float upward, out of the path of your rockets, while they continue to punish you from a position that makes them physically impossible to shoot. That was a standout awful moment, but most other vehicle combat events are underwhelming.

But while it’s familiar and, at this point, kind of old, Black Ops’ gameplay isn’t necessarily bad. It’s no worse than that of MW2, anyway, and both games are fun to play. It’s just that we’ve been battling these same enemies with these same tactics, who are defeated using the same play book of actions, for years now. Black Ops isn’t bad in this regard, but again, it comes down to that question of what the price of a brand new game should buy you.

Still Great Multiplayer

However, Black Ops does earn your money everywhere other than its somewhat-lackluster campaign. Multiplayer mode, for one, has all the highlights of MW2′s great system, while adding some new features that can make it even better. Playing Black Ops online is filled with player rewards, in the form of experience points used to rank up and unlock more content, and points you can spend on new weapons and attachments, among other things. It seems Treyarch has taken what was most fun about Modern Warfare and MW2′s multiplayer systems — namely, unlocking a lot of stuff, all the time — and made it even more customizable and added more things to do.

In addition to lots of holdovers from the last CoD, like challenges you can complete in multiplayer that ask you to play a certain way to unlock further rewards, Black Ops incorporates Contracts. These time-limited challenges ask you to perform a certain task, such as killing a certain number of foes with a specific weapon or a specific tactic, and hit you with some pretty big rewards for success, while costing you if you fail. The mode has potential to keep the game from getting stale even for seasoned players, and that’s especially great because apart from unlocking all new stuff, hardcore fans aren’t going to find a ton of new things here.

If there’s a downside to Contracts, it comes from the splintered nature of the MW2 online community. Playing online often amounts to being a nameless addition to a team whose only loyalty to you comes from the fact that you’re all wearing the same shirt within the game. Lots of MW2 games go on without any players saying a word and never cooperating. Contracts has the potential to worsen that experience — imagine trying to take an enemy position and your nearest teammate refuses to carry anything but a knife until he fulfills some kind of stabbing-people requirement. It could be pretty infuriating, although that should have the side-effect of getting more players into games with friends and building teams, which would help make the game more cooperation-centric on the whole. That’s a development that can only improve CoD.

Also in keeping with Treyarch’s betting theme with its currency points is the Wager mode. This is a six-player free-for-all deathmatch, which always comes with specific, game-shaping rules, like a mandate on weapons. The idea is to create something more akin to high-stakes gladiator combat for CoD, and players actually wager their currency points when they get into the game, like a poker tournament. Top-placing players take home a cut of the cash, while everyone else loses more than their pride. Again, it’s Treyarch idea that adds new dimensions to an already deep and engaging multiplayer experience.

Beyond the standard CoD stuff, Black Ops includes the four-player co-op Zombie mode that players were able to unlock in Call of Duty: World at War, which offers two different maps. This is playable right out of the box, although the second, more awesome map has to be unlocked by completing the campaign. A lot of players really get into Zombies — the mode has you defending a room from wave after wave of incoming undead, who will bust through repairable barricades to invade the room — and it’ll be a good time with additional players. Zombies becomes proportionately more enjoyable with each player that’s in a game, however, so don’t expect to want to tackle it yourself.

There are other hidden unlockables as well. Entering the code “doa” in the game’s opening menu (figuring out just how to do that is up to you) unlocks a top-down two-stick zombie shooter that gets addicting in a hurry. There are probably a few other things hidden in the game for players to find, too. It’s little extras like these, the hidden minigames and the out-of-the-box Zombie mode, that elevate Black Ops above its predecessor.

Final Thoughts

Fans of Call of Duty won’t be disappointed by shelling out for this new installment. Black Ops does Call of Duty just as well as any other game in the series, and with a really high degree of polish. It also pushes the single-player campaign to a place it never has been able to reach before, and that definitely says something about the potential of future CoD titles and the kinds of engaging stories they could tell, in addition to being brilliant online slugfests. Black Ops is that, too, having tuned up its predecessor’s already great multiplayer with some promising expansions.

But they’re not really “improvements” over Modern Warfare 2. Hopefully the next time Activision rolls out a new Call of Duty game, they’ll take a little longer between installments so we feel like we got our money’s worth the last time around. Minor changes to a great series every year might fly over in the Madden camp, but the next CoD game needs something substantially new to help keep this marquis FPS series at the top of the heap and impressing its players.


  • Some awesome production values and truly beautiful visuals
  • Great new additions to an already deep multiplayer system from Modern Warfare 2
  • Same strong, stylish gameplay series fans know and love
  • Zombie mode right out of the box, plus other unlockables
  • Veteran mode that’s as difficult as it should be
  • Interesting characters whose names you’ll remember
  • Finally, a halfway decent story in a CoD game


  • A little too similar to MW2 to feel like its own, fully formed and worthy game
  • Lacks amazing set piece moments that CoD games are known for
  • Story falls off in the middle, and CoD storytelling requires more development
  • Single player can get a little repetitive, and it’s a little short

Final Score: 80/100

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