Call of Duty: Black Ops campaign mode review

I’ve just completed the Black Ops campaign mode and here’s a review of my experiences. This review focuses entirely on the single player aspect of the game as played on the Xbox 360.

Black Ops is developed by Treyarch who are I tend to think of as the B-team of CoD development. So far they’ve delivered CoD3, CoD WaW and a number of Wii ports of the Inifinity Ward titles. With Black Ops they seem to have made a particular effort to deliver a first-class CoD experience, especially with the storyline of the single player mode. The framework of the story is clever – your character is seemingly being interrogated and asked to provide information on various events that took place in the American Cold War campaign to contain the spread of Communism across the globe.

The game starts with a very small introductory mission in Cuba. You battle through a street and then dive into a car to escape. The car controls are bizarre – you appear to control forward and reverse movements but not the steering. This heavily scripted scene feels jarring – wouldn’t it have been more believable if the player character had simply jumped into a passenger seat rather half-controlling the car?

The first half of the game feels particularly weak to me. The missions are dull and rely almost entirely on frenetic pace to provide excitement. Khe Sanh in particular is a bad mission. The gameplay is tedious and the colour scheme makes the visuals look badly dated – it reminded me very much of CoD 3 graphically. A big issue with Khe Sanh currently being discussed in various forums on the web is that you need to kick some barrels of napalm, but the game doesn’t prompt you properly to do this. Given the highly linear nature of CoD games and lack of interactivity with the environment, I think this is a very valid criticism. Unaware of what I had to do, my solution was to run like hell and get shot up badly, but eventually I made it to a checkpoint that triggered the next part of the mission.

As I reached the half-way mark in the game, every mission had been a big disappointment. It was so rare that any kind of strategy element was brought into play. You are bombarded by unrealistic numbers of enemies, but they are all spectacularly dumb. To add to this, the turkey shoot is ruined by your computer-controlled allies almost always running ahead and getting in the way of your firing line. They often occupy the only decent cover points as well, leaving me to regularly lurk behind them in a cowardly manner – which isn’t in keeping with the way the game portrays your character as something of a badass!

Just as things looked dire, I embarked upon a mission that flashed back to end of the Second World War, base on the memories of the Victor Reznov character. At this point my experiences of the game improved dramatically. The snowy colour scheme of the Arctic circle setting really lifts the visuals and the smaller (but more open) playing area with lots of cover is fun to sneak through. The references to Nazis and the presence of V2 rockets at the site really adds a historical weight to the story. It gets even better as the second part of the mission involves repelling an attack from the British Secret Service. Pitted against their snipers I had to pick up a sniper rifle myself, a welcome relief from the close range combat of the rest of the game.

A particular highlight of the later parts of the game for me are two helicopter control missions, which are far from gimmicky sub-games – the helicopter control is nice and the destruction you can wreak makes for lots of fun. The final mission which involves an assault on a ship (and more which I won’t ruin the surprise of) is also excellent stuff, and features the return of the helicopter.

The final twist in the in the plot is signposted in the last few missions, and then rammed home really hard in the final scenes. It draws upon the plot of a number of films (Fight Club is a primary example) but works reasonably well.

This applies to all of the CoD games I’ve played, but I would much rather have a smaller but more intelligent set of opponents in every standoff. A room of six intelligent, well dug-in opponents would have been far more tense and enjoyable than a constant barrage of enemies arriving from a respawn point. Consider Halo where the computer controller characters will change from attacking to retreating if you switch to a particularly devastating weapon – that type of intelligence is desperately needed in CoD.

Compared to a title like Halo Reach, I found the visuals very disappointing in places, and almost certainly a backwards step from Modern Warfare 2. The notable exception is the character animation in cutscenes – face renderings are excellent.

The Call of Duty franchise has become a series of fairly average games which are overhyped to a point where they are purchased regardless of quality. I’d like to see a minor reboot of the franchise to become a more intelligent and strategic game, with more genuine tension.

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