Call of Duty: Black Ops box art

SEB Reviews “Call of Duty: Black Ops” for the PC.

[amazon_link id="B003JVF728" target="_blank" ]Call of Duty: Black Ops[/amazon_link] Call of Duty: Black Ops
Published by: Activision
Developed by: Treyarch
Price: [amazon_link id="B003JVF728" target="_blank" ]$49.99[/amazon_link]
Rating: 5/5

I’ve mentioned more than once that I’m a huge fan of the Call of Duty franchise ever since the first game came out. I was also rather disappointed with the last CoD game, Modern Warfare 2, because of a number of decisions regarding the multiplayer half of the game which I felt marred an otherwise excellent game. Needless to say I was rather concerned that Black Ops would follow in its predecessor’s footsteps and end up being another fan unfriendly game. I’m happy to report a lot of those bad decisions did not follow through to BO.

So, for those of you who don’t care about the details and just want to know whether it’s worth your hard-earned cash, here’s the short review: It’s a definite buy.

Campaign Mode

Pic from Call of Duty: Black Ops

I'll hold your legs while you reach down and gra... oops!

The story is set during the Cold War and it opens on February 25th, 1968 with the main protagonist — Alex Mason — strapped to a chair in an interrogation room. He’s being questioned by shadowy figures for what he may know about a number station that’s been broadcasting out of the Soviet Union. Almost the entire campaign is a series of flashbacks to various covert operations Mason has been a part of. A clever storytelling technique which allows the designers to skip around in time and setting at will. Some of the missions will take place in Russia, some in Vietnam, etc. and the variety keeps the game interesting. Before you get to the end you’ll deal with nerve gas, meet President Kennedy, take a quick side-trip to World War II, pilot a Hemi gunship down a river blasting the hell out of everything in sight, and possibly be brainwashed.

I don’t want to delve too far into the story because it’s quite enjoyable and worth playing through without knowing too much about it ahead of time. However I will say that if you’ve played through Treyarch’s Call of Duty: World at War then you’ll recognize at least one of the Russian characters in Black Ops which I thought was pretty cool. It’ll take you around eight or so hours to play through depending on your skill and which difficulty level you choose. That’s a bit longer than some other FPS games as of late. It maintains the feel of a good action movie throughout and is arguably one of the best stories in the franchise’s history.

Multiplayer Mode

Of course we all know the main reason we buy FPS games is for the multiplayer mode and Black Ops has a lot to live up to given its heritage. Among CoD fans Treyarch has often been treated like the proverbial red-headed stepchild or a pretender to the throne held by Infinity Ward, which created the franchise and was never all that happy that Activision allowed Treyarch onto its turf. Most folks seem to feel there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with Treyarch’s versions of the game, but they didn’t really add any innovations the way Infinity Ward did. In my review of World at War I mentioned that the multiplayer was fun enough, but it felt like all they did was take Call of Duty 4 and change the settings and weapons to the World War II setting. The XP system, perks, and killstreaks were all more or less the same with some minor adjustments for setting. The one innovation they did include was a 4 player co-op Zombie Mode which was a fun diversion from traditional multiplayer.

Screenshot from Call of Duty: Black Ops

It was about this time that Joe realized no one was amused by his dancing chicken routine.

Given the recent drama that took place between Activision and the founders of Infinity Ward there’s a good chance the future of the franchise may fall to Treyarch, which may have some long-time fans who weren’t overly impressed by Call of Duty 3 and World at War to worry. I can only assume Treyarch realized this as well as they seemed to have been hellbent to prove that they can add innovation just as well as anybody with all the stuff they squeezed into Black Ops.

At first glance it looks quite a bit like the multiplayer from Modern Warfare 2 as the experience point system and level-based weapon unlocks that have been standard since CoD 4 are present and accounted for. However Treyarch has added in a new monetary system called Call of Duty Points which adds a whole new dimension to the game. Now in addition to gaining XP for kills and completing objectives and achievements you also accumulate CoD points. What do you use CoD points for? For shopping, of course!

In CoD 4 and MW2 you had to achieve particular levels before certain features and weapons would be available. You had to reach level 4 to unlock the Create a Class ability that allowed you to chose how you wanted to outfit your avatar, but the weapons, perks, equipment, and attachments you could choose from were limited until you hit higher levels. The Dragunov sniper rifle, for example, required you to reach level 22 before it was available and the Slight of Hand perk (which allows for very fast weapon reloading) required level 20 and Claymores required you to hit level 23. If you wanted to use Claymores before level 23, well, no such luck.

In Black Ops many of the weapons and some of the features (such as challenges) still require you to hit a particular level before they are available and, additionally, you have to use CoD Points to buy a weapon once it is unlocked. However, all Perks, Grenades, and Equipment are unlocked, along with Create a Class, at level 4 and can be purchased so long as you have an adequate amount of CoD Points. If you’re as big a fan of Claymores as I am you only have to get to level 4 and have the 3,000 CoD Points it costs to purchase them. Attachments are unlocked when you purchase a particular weapon and can be purchased in whatever order you like. So if you want a silencer for that shiny new MP5 submachine gun you just unlocked you can just buy it rather than have to complete achievements to unlock it.

CoD Points are one hell of an innovation that opens up a lot more choice for the player and it applies to just about everything in multiplayer including the enormous amount of customization options you have to chose from. You can spend them to customize your weapon by adding your clan logo and emblem to it, you can purchase different lens reticles for the Red Dot Sight and customize the reticles’ color and the lens color, you can buy different camouflages for each weapon, and you can buy a huge assortment of face paints for your avatar. Then there is the Player Card, which is your in-game ID badge that allows people to know who just fragged them and which contains a wealth of information about you, can also be customized with a shit load of background images and the ability to purchase up to 12 layers and hundreds of symbols to create a custom clan logo that’s displayed on the card and, if you pay for it, your weapons.  There are so many things you can spend your CoD Points on that by the time you reach max level (50) chances are you won’t have unlocked even a third of it all.

You earn CoD Points at the rate of 10% of your XP. If you rack up 3,000 XP during a match then you’ll earn 300 CoD Points. You also earn 1,000 points when you level up on odd levels and 2,500 points on even levels. Plus completing achievements and challenges in the game (e.g. Win 3 Domination matches with a score at least 70 points more than the opposition) will net you some points. Not enough ways to get your points? How about taking on some “Contracts” which are challenges you can purchase. The more expensive the Contract the more XP and CoD Points it’ll give you and the harder it’ll be to complete. A 50 point Contract might be something like: Get 15 kills in Team Death Match within 40 minutes or Capture the Flag 3 times in 1 hour. Complete that and you’ll earn 150 points and 1500 XP. A 250 point Contract might be get 50 kills with the AK47 in 40 minutes and will net you considerably more of a reward.

Still not enough? How about a Wager Match? This is a new game mode made possible by the monetary system. It’ll cost you 500 points to join and you have to finish in the top 3 to win anything back. Third place nets you 600 points, second 900, and third is 1,500. Wager matches come in 4 types: Sticks and Stones, Gun Game, One in the Chamber, and Sharpshooter.

In Sticks and Stones every player is given a crossbow (one of the new weapons, it has explosive tipped bolts), a ballistic knife (another new weapon, a knife that can be shot out like a gun for a one-hit kill), and a Tomahawk (more or less the same as MW2′s throwing knife). You get 100 XP for a ballistic or crossbow kill, 25 XP for a melee knife kill, and only 10XP for a Tomahawk kill. However a Tomahawk kill resets the victim’s score back to zero so can be a big game changer.

Gun Game starts everyone with a Python (pistol) and a speed reloader. Score a kill and you get the next weapon in a chain of 20 ranging throughout the arsenal. Melee knife kills don’t move you up a weapon, but does knock your victim back down the chain by one and as such can be useful when someone is close to winning.

One in the Chamber gives everyone a pistol with a single bullet and the melee knife. One kill nets you one more bullet and you can knife people to stockpile a maximum of 3 bullets. Each player only has three lives and if you miss with your one bullet you’re left with just your knife until you get a kill.

Sharpshooter gives everyone the same weapon chosen at random from the arsenal and then changes it every 45 seconds. Every kill nets you a perk starting with Sleight of Hand Pro for the first kill, Lightweight Pro for the second, and Steady Aim Pro for the third as well as score multipliers.

All wager matches require at least 6 people to start and sometimes you may be waiting for enough people to join. Instead of just sitting around the game will put you in a Free For All mode where you can run around killing each other until there’s enough people to start the match. You don’t gain any XP or CoD points in the pre-match game and it’ll only last a few minutes before it times out and switches the map. I’ve played Gun Game a few times and it’s really quite the challenge and a lot of fun even if you don’t win.

Another returning feature from WaW is the co-op zombie multiplayer mode.  It’s similar to the Invasion mods for Unreal Tournament except instead of endless waves of aliens you face off against wave after wave of zombies. Like the WaW version, you start off with just a pistol with limited ammunition and you earn money for each kill you rack up. You also earn money for repairing barriers that the zombies break through which you do by standing in front of the hole and holding the F key down. In each room of the map there’s a couple of weapon outlines on the wall which, if you have enough money, will unlock more powerful weapons and allow you to purchase more ammo for them when you run out. There are also doors into other rooms you can open, if you have enough cash, which have the potential to offer even better weapons or other power ups. Power ups can also drop at random from a zombie kill and will range from instant ammo replenishment for the entire group to money multipliers, a skull which gives you one-shot kills, or a bomb which will destroy all zombies in the immediate area.

It’s clear that Treyarch put an impressive amount of effort into the zombie mode as it improves and expands upon the mode from WaW in many ways. There are vending machines that can restore health or dispense perks and traps you can activate such as automated turrets, though each will cost you some of your hard earned cash and, in some cases, will require you to restore power to them before you can use them.  There’s only three maps for this mode and the third one of them is actually a top-down shooter in the style of classic 8-bit arcade games of old which you have to unlock in an interesting way. The first map is set in the 1940s and features the classic Nazi zombies from WaW. The second map, “Five”, requires you to finish the campaign mode of Black Ops to unlock it and it’s probably my favorite map because it puts you in the role of one of four of the most important men in history: President John F. Kennedy, Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro, Vietnam War architect Robert MacNamara, and President Richard Nixon. The four men are holding a secret conference in the Pentagon when zombies start breaking down the doors. With no Secret Service men in sight, the leaders take matters into their own hands while spouting some of the most hilarious quips and one-liners. As the waves progress the number of zombies and their speed increases and the goal is to see how many waves you can get through before being overwhelmed. Fans of this mode will be happy to know that the Mystery Box also returns. Opening it is like playing the slots except the prize is a random weapon. If you’re really lucky you’ll get the Ray Gun which is devastating to zombies and doesn’t run out of ammo. If nothing else the zombie mode makes for a nice distraction when you get bored of the standard multiplayer modes.

Not enough innovation for you? You say the zombie mode doesn’t count because they’ve done it before? Fair enough, so how about this: Combat Training mode. Aimed at newbies in particular, but still useful even for veterans, Combat Training mode allows you to practice Free For All and Team Deathmatch gameplay against computer controlled opponents. It’s a great way to practice multiplayer to learn the maps and get a feel for the different load outs and perks. It works just like the standard multiplayer — you earn XP and CoD points, can unlock weapons and challenges, etc. — but without a bunch of veteran players screaming at you for being a total idiot. You can even have friends join you to practice team tactics against the bots.

Still not enough innovation? Damn, you’re hard to please. OK, how about Theater Mode? As if they hadn’t already squeezed in enough stuff, the folks at Treyarch included a feature that records the entirety of the matches as you play them allowing you to call them up later and watch them from the point of view of any player or with a free-flying camera. Manage to pull off some ridiculous kill yesterday? Call it up and export a YouTube video of it without using any extra software at all. Can’t figure out how that one guy was kicking your ass across the map? Call it up and watch it from his point of view. I’ve not explored this feature extensively, but what little I have played with it it appears to hold an impressive number of games and there are plenty of YouTube videos of ridiculous tomahawk kills to know that it’s a popular addition. You can see an example of the theater mode playback in the video to the left. Now when you tell your friends about that ridiculously lucky kill you got off you can provide them with visual proof.

You have to admit, that’s quite a bit of innovation on Treyarch’s part. The rest of the multiplayer is pretty much what you’d expect given the previous titles though there have been some tweaks to smooth things out. First off, the Killstreak rewards (also purchased using CoD Points) no long count toward your kills for the next reward. So if you take out 3 people using the new Explosive RC car that doesn’t put you three kills closer to the next killstreak. This makes Black Ops less of a killstreak fest than what CoD4 and, especially, MW2 were. Killstreaks have also been reigned in a bit — the game ending Nuke reward is gone — and includes some launcher weapons that can only be gotten via killstreak. The highest killstreak reward requires 11 kills and will net you a fully controllable Hind gunship which you can pilot around the map blasting the living shit out of everything in sight. Some folks think the Hind is overpowered and I can kind of see where they are coming from as on smaller maps it can be very difficult to survive long enough to pull out a rocket launcher to try and take it out and it takes at least two attempts to hit it as it will release chaff on the first attempt. On larger maps where spawn points are spread out a bit more it’s less of an issue. The rest of the killstreaks are pretty reasonable to deal with and include returning favorites such as the attack dogs from World at War. Also Prestige mode is back so when you hit max level you can reset and start over again with a shiny new medal to indicate how awesome you are. Completing multiple Prestige modes will also unlock additional Create a Class slots and graphics for your player card.

In the end, it’s damned impressive how much Treyarch has jammed into this game. So much so that when it first launched on the PC there were some serious bugs including a server browser that was seriously broken and major lag. A few patches later and it’s running pretty damn smooth with a working browser. Given this glowing review you may be wondering if there is anything I don’t like about this game. Yes there is. While I’m thrilled that dedicated servers return with BO, that thrill is tempered by the fact that you have to rent them from GameServers.com. There is no option to set up and run your own private server on your own equipment nor can you install and run mods. The reason for this is simple: They want to be able to sell you map packs in the future and if you have the ability to produce your own mods and maps you won’t have any reason to buy their map packs.

That’s annoying, but it’s not a deal breaker for me. I enjoy the game enough that I’m more than willing to shell out the cash for the map packs. At least with dedicated servers two of the biggest problems I had with MW2 are gone or highly reduced. First, finding a game with a decent ping is no longer a problem. You don’t have to hope that the host you’re connecting to is nearby only to find they’re in Bombay and haven’t opened any of the ports on their firewall. Also the host doesn’t have an unfair advantage by virtue of being the host. Secondly, the problem of cheaters is GREATLY reduced. Just like with MW2, there were plenty of hacks available as soon as the game launched, but it’s not hard to find a server free of cheaters because the folks renting the server have the option of kicking and banning anyone they feel like so if they feel they have good reason to assume you’re cheating then you’re gone.

If you’ve stuck with this review this far, and this is probably the longest review I’ve ever written, then it’s probably pretty clear that I feel you should rush out and buy this game. That’s assuming, of course, that you’re not part of the horde that has already bought the game in record numbers — sales topped $1 billion within a month and a half of its release. If you’ve been waiting to hear what I had to say about it, and I can’t imagine why you would, then your wait is over. [amazon_link id="B003JVF728" target="_blank" ]Go get it[/amazon_link] and look me up in Steam when you do.

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