From the word go, “Call of Duty: Black Ops” is interested in only one thing—cramming as much testosterone on screen as possible. It’s as if the game were developed with the intent that it be played by an NFL team that was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Spartans from “300.” Five minutes into the game and you’re ready to rip someone’s head clean off. A white knuckle, visceral assault on the boundaries of good taste and quality, “Black Ops” eschews coherence in favor of explosions, gunfights, and Tony Scott-style AVID farts. Noticeably missing from all of this are two things—a sense of fun, and a reason to play this game.
I’ve blown through the campaign and hindsight is kind to a single mission. The second section of the game features your character, Mason, escaping from a Russian prison in the middle of Siberia. This sequence crackles with energy. Right from the start when you only have your hands to the “Great Escape”-inspired motorcycle finale, the prison break is easily the highlight of the game because it gets everything right. You have a purpose to the mission (escape), you have a clearly-defined friend who you want to survive (Reznov, voiced by Gary Oldman channeling his Russian villain from “Air Force One” and clearly having the most fun of anyone in the game), you have a number of obstacles to overcome, and ultimately catharsis as you reach your goal in a genuinely exciting manner.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game’s focus dissipates immediately after. Mason is taken before several of the era’s political heavyweights, including President Kennedy, and given orders to hunt down a particular Russian bad guy aligned with Castro. Shortly after this meeting, Mason finds himself hip-deep in the jungles of 1968 Vietnam where the bulk of the game takes place. Developer Treyarch seems more intent on letting players experience the confusion and insanity of the Vietnam conflict than in having fun. It’s all well and good for about a mission or two but is not something that is sustainable. What’s really stunning is how a game this tightly wound can ultimately feel so unfocused. Maybe it’s the bad script that steals every cliché from every ‘Nam flick ever, or maybe it’s the inclusion of all number of subplots (sleeper agents, brainwashing, ex-Nazis, etc.) that never quite gel. But one thing is certain about Black Ops—there is a hell of a lot happening on the screen at any given moment.
It’s just that Treyarch forgot to include a reason why any one should care.
The gameplay itself is more run-and-gun of the same variety we’ve played since this series debuted. The beauty of the “Call of Duty” franchise over all of its competition is the seamless and meticulously detailed sense of immersion from the storytelling, scenarios, and sound effects. Muddle those up as thoroughly as Treyarch has in “Black Ops” and the result is a mess of single player game that’s a shell of its namesake with a carbon copy of strong multiplayer bolted on. I think this picture succinctly summarizes my criticism of this game. Levels feel large in the sense that you can see from one horizon to the other, but the amount of space in which you actually maneuver is extremely constricted. In between running down halls and across enclosed fields, as opposed to exploring the great big world with all the cool things going on in the background, you are constantly stopped by in-game cut scenes that break up the momentum. Then, once you get going again, you’re yanked out of the game entirely and forced to endure cut scenes set in a dungeon.
Players are in for a shock as the game starts in the dungeon from, well, any one of the “Saw” films actually—take your pick. Mason is strapped to a chair, disoriented, and routinely shocked by his off-screen interrogators who demand to know what he knows and what he thinks he knows because, why, they want to know it too! Apparently there are numbers 4-8-15-16-23-42 that are critically important to them, and to Mason. The game then leapfrogs to various events showing what happened and when.
But a funny thing happened on the way to “Black Ops” becoming the macho epic it so clearly believes itself to be. Instead of using seamless transitions between events in levels, the game wrenches you out of a level and drops you back in the dungeon for brief interludes before sending you back to that same level to finish off the mission. There’s little warning to when these in-game cinematics happen, but they’re never less than catastrophic in disrupting the sense of seamless immersion which was the hallmark of previous “Call of Duty” titles.
Players will find themselves in a solid groove, accomplish a series of objectives, and feel like they have the goal line in sight. Whoops! Cut scene back in the dungeon for a few minutes. Couple this with the already incoherent nature of the storyline (which is truly a feat considering it rips off the first “Modern Warfare” almost to a T), poorly sketched characters, and assaulting nature of the rapid-fire editing and the game becomes painful to watch let alone play.
The graphics are serviceable, but not anything worth writing home about. The character animations are stiff, the mouths sometimes move in conjunction with what the character’s saying, and you even get to watch as friends and enemies alike disappear then reappear right in front of you! It’s almost like magic! The environments appear to have received the bulk of the graphical polish because they look terrific. Then things start exploding everywhere, the game starts slowing down even before you get hit with the over-used shellshock sensation, and Ed Harris’ character just glares at you. After hearing his non-performance, I’m convinced the artists rendered him exactly as he appeared in the voice-over booth, which is to say he looks and acts like an emotionless robot.
Wii players have more options than on other consoles. You can utilize the standard nunchuk-Wiimote combination, or use a myriad of other add-ons available. I could see the Wii Zapper and the Classic Controller as being the most helpful because waving the nunchuk and Wiimote around while under heavy enemy fire is rather taxing. I’m not complaining about my inability to maintain a comfortable couch potato slouch whilst dispatching of Commies in the jungles of ‘Nam, but, wait… no, that’s exactly what I’m complaining about. No one ever said that defending America from digitally rendered freedom haters was easy. I did, however, keep expecting a collectible in the form of a gold watch to appear.
Actually, it was easier for me to play while standing and aiming at the screen. This style of gameplay doesn’t lend itself well to 10 hour-plus marathon sessions, which is fine considering the game can quickly be finished. None of the “Call of Duty” games are long slogs, and “Black Ops” can be completed in five to six hours at the most. Once the single player is complete, gamers can then turn to the multiplayer component which, let’s not kid ourselves, is what a heck of a lot of players were gunning for in the first place. The franchise has justifiably become a premier source of online action and even the Wii version provides an accomplished multiplayer component. For those who want to throw some undead into the mix, Treyarch resurrects their “World at War” component “Zombies.” It’s survival in a single room where you hold out as long as possible against the horde. It’d be exciting if this scenario wasn’t so overdone by this point.
Slight digression: Zombies have, in the humble view of this writer, begun to overstay their welcome. People of my generation have been conditioned for years to shoot and kill three things on sight: 1) Stormtroopers, 2) Nazis, and 3) Zombies. But did we really need a whole campaign devoted to the undead in a Western?” How many zombie undead hordes can you slaughter in a WWII game, even if they’re Nazi undead hordes (thereby yielding double point)? How about mowing them down in malls and casinos? At this point, the schoolyard is about the last bastion of safety from the zombie hordes… until the next “Resident Evil” is crossed with “Red Dawn” and they invade a high school. You heard it here first.
Jumping into a multiplayer game is quick and easy. Again, I recommend the use of the Wii Zapper or the Classic Controller because waving the Wiimote around while under heavy fire will get you killed repeatedly. The new MP features a point system akin to previous titles, but with a twist. Apparently this time, instead of leveling up and snagging as many perks and weapons as you want, you have to choose… but choose wisely. The idea here is to tailor your character to your own idiosyncratic play style versus being able to have and do everything like everyone else. The default modes of Team Deathmatch, Domination, and Headquarters are all available. Players can also access Wager Match which lets them gamble against other players, and can use their points to trick out everything from their clan tag to how their weapons and characters look.
Overall, I wasn’t impressed by “Call of Duty: Black Ops.” Some people may paint me as a cynic but I approach each game with a fresh set of eyes. If I like it, I become evangelical about it. But this game is an epic fail start to finish. It’s storyline is terrible, the graphics are mediocre at best, the voice acting ranges from bad to worse (with Oldman the lone actor who must have used his imagination while recording his lines), the Wii’s native controls aren’t exactly cut out for this kind of rapid action, there’s little to no reason given as to why to play the game (which isn’t very fun), and the in-game cut scenes are terrible. But the multiplayer is pretty stout as one would expect of a game with this lineage.
It’s a shame that everything else about “Call of Duty: Black Ops” is simply awful.