Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Review: Call Of Duty Black Ops

It would seem that with every annual Call Of Duty release, the unrelenting tidal wave of hype becomes ever more all-encompassing than the year before. Initial scraps of information blossom into vast marketing campaigns, feverous excitement surrounds the latest glimpse of gameplay footage, culminating in ever more elaborate midnight release events the world over.

From its humble beginnings in the trenches of World War 2 through the franchise-defining leap into the modern era, it's safe to say that Call Of Duty is now a global phenomenon. Of course with the accompanying furore that engulfs every new instalment comes the daunting prospect of living up to expectations. With the dust still in the air post Infinity Ward’s rather public battle with Activision, Treyarch once again take the reigns, and the responsibility.

We’re thrust into the clandestine world of Alex Mason, as he is imprisoned and interrogated by a silhouetted figure. The campaign’s narrative and mission structure operates via Mason’s flashbacks, instigating the adrenaline fuelled bursts of Hollywood drama that we’ve become accustomed to of late. Whilst the nature of Black Op’s story means you’ll be initially confused, the chronological progression means that you’ll eventually be bought into the present day more or less up to speed with events that have effectuated Mason’s current predicament.

Sam Worthington, Ed Harris, Gary Oldman and O Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson all offer their vocal talents to proceedings, resulting in some expectedly gritty interaction. Although the plot here is hardly staking a claim as the most original (the West being targeted by a chemical weapon strike is the underlying plot device), it is by far preferable to the distorted pretentiousness that drove Modern Warfare 2’s campaign. Grainy old news footage plays in the background during the interrogation sequences, adding a degree of plausibility to Black Op’s shady Cold War theme. By and large, in terms of storytelling and script writing it’s a single player experience that ranks up there with the best of the Call Of Duty series, although if that’s really a praiseworthy statement is subjective to opinion.

As soon as you take to the helm in Cuba during the Bay Of Pigs invasion, familiarity firmly cements itself on proceedings. The control scheme is rightly unchanged and remains satisfying, with the cover, aim, shoot mechanic repeatedly called in to use throughout the relative linearity of each mission. It's customarily Call Of Duty. The action is melodramatically cinematic; vast explosions, constant reams of gunfire and an occasionally enormous on screen enemy count keep the pace at a frenetic level. If you weren’t a fan of Modern Warfare 2’s relentlessly visceral bombardment then you’ll be once again out of your depth with Black Ops. However, those of us who revelled in MW2’s action packed eccentricity will be back in their element this time around.

There may be a fine line between epic, and ludicrously over the top, but Black Ops (although not entirely consistently) by and large manages to walk it and with entertaining results. One of the earlier missions requires you to guide a remote controlled rocket into a launching missile with expectedly explosive consequences. Later on you’ll be guiding a boat down a Vietnamese river, firing rockets while The Rolling Stone’s Sympathy For The Devil blares out in the background; an obvious Apocalypse Now inspired moment. The breathless pace rarely lets up, but this in itself poses some issues. Friendly AI can often hinder rather than help, assuming the most advantageous cover positions and leaving you exposed. On the lower difficulty setting this isn’t a problem, but anything from hardened up, and the frustrating hitch of your invincible allies hijacking the best areas often presents itself. In the chaos that constantly surrounds you, these niggles are irritatingly accentuated.

Enemy AI often suffers from the same problem. It’s the bizarre hybrid of blind stupidity and insane accuracy that will grate. Enemies often run straight past your passive cohorts will the sole mission of killing you and you alone; sometimes merely poking your head out will result in being peppered with a tirade of bullets. Admittedly these frustrations will really only come into play on Veteran, so they’re certainly not game breaking issues, yet many players will settle for nothing less than attempting Black Ops on the hardest setting.

Complaints and mutterings of discontent were aired at the relatively relaxed nature of MW2’s veteran campaign, but with Treyarch back in charge expect nothing less a painful grind from checkpoint to checkpoint. Thankfully the ridiculous grenade spamming of World at War has been toned down drastically, yet this is still an unforgiving challenge at times. There are sections where infinite enemy respawns (yes, like the hellish Heart Of The Reich) present themselves, and attempting to fight your way through the hordes to the next, occasionally harshly placed checkpoint becomes an exercise in sustained patience and reliance on luck.

Veteran can really detract from the enjoyment of an otherwise fun campaign, so in that respect it’s a wise move to play on hardened or regular from the start, and replay it on veteran if your seeking a stern test of your ability.

For many of course, the single player element of Black Ops is more or less irrelevant, and they’ll skip straight past Mason’s recollecting exploits into the multiplayer. COD online can often be an unforgiving playground, where the uninitiated will receive zero mercy. Thankfully, Treyarch has implemented a combat simulator, where you can enter in to free-for-alls and team deathmatches against bots of varying abilities; from the woeful recruit to the punishing veteran.

Combat training is a welcome addition as it allows novice players to get to grips with the ins and outs of multiplayer without constantly becoming cannon fodder for experienced human opponents. The levelling up and unlocking systems are fully integrated in combat training, although progress here will not be carried over into its competitive counterpart. It’s a nice inclusion to the package, utilizing a user friendly approach rather than throwing new players in at the daunting deep end. Once rusty skills have been honed and sharpened or the basic ropes learned, the real business then begins.

Fans will be pleased to here that competitive multiplayer is as addictive as ever. Varying degrees of XP can be earned, more so for completing the seemingly endless lists of challenges that are specific to weapons or game types - all very familiar so far. However, a new feature; COD points makes its debut.

COD points are earned along side XP and are effectively Black Op’s currency. Whilst weapons are unlocked as you level up, you’ll then have to purchase those weapons and their enhancements with your hard earned points. What makes this process all the more addictive is the greatly improved depth of customisation options in the latest instalment. Camouflages, attachments, reticules, clan tags and emblems can all be added to weapons, resulting in a more personal feel to your gun of choice. Face paints can even be applied as you ascend through the ranks, although additions such as this are purely for showmanship rather than offering a genuine advantage in battle.

Whilst the standard deathmatch and objective based modes return, there are a few new inclusions to freshen up proceedings. Wager matches add a new level of competitiveness to the already tense gameplay, as you’ll have to gamble your own COD points as 'buy in' fee in order to compete for the top three cash prize spots.

What’s already an intriguing mechanic is complimented by the game types available under the larger ‘wager match’ umbrella. The most notable of these for sheer adrenaline fuelled anarchy is the simply, yet aptly titled 'Gun Game'. Players ascend through twenty tiers of weaponry, from initially tame peashooters, through assault rifles, snipers and culminating in an explosive finale. Gun Game remains well balanced as players tend to struggle in the sniper rifle section whilst those slow off the mark play catch-up, resulting in a rocket fuelled crescendo as everyone involved struggles for top spot.

The much bemoaned boost instigating Nuke from MW2 has been sidelined altogether with the maximum killstreak reward capped at 11; the universally feared attack dogs making a bone tearing return to the fray. Throw in the return of the popular zombies mode (the two main protagonists being JFK and Fidel Castro, showing that amidst the often gratuitous violence Treyarch still has a sense of humour) and the 'hall of bragging rights' theatre, and Black Op’s multiplayer is content wise, very healthy indeed.

The integral basics of what makes online Call Of Duty so addictive remain, yet some intuitive inclusions to the established formula mean we’re not simply playing a clone of Infinity Ward’s previous effort. Only time will tell, but all indications so far would suggest that Black Op’s multiplayer staying power could well outlast its phenomenally successful predecessor.

Call Of Duty fans will not need to be told whether or not they should invest in the series’ latest outing. The campaign is a big, brash action packed slice of entertainment (albeit with some frustrating niggles on harder settings), whilst not offering a great deal in the way of depth. In other words it’s a standard single player COD experience; its ultimately just a bit of fun, but then again the real money lies elsewhere.

Most Call Of Duty players will pay the asking price for the multiplayer content alone. Thankfully then, Treyarch has worked hard to deliver the goods in that department which will undoubtedly be reflected when the first online statistics emerge. Until the first snippets of the next annual Call Of Duty game surfaces and the cogs of the hype machine are once again set in motion, Black Ops will no doubt keep the masses content.