Hype is a double edged sword; one that can build expectations of any given product to staggering heights and just as quickly bring them crashing down. Video games fall prey to the trappings of the hype machine perhaps more than any other, and in the case of Call of Duty: Black Ops you get the feeling it was never going to live up to Activision’s multi-million marketing campaign.
As the seventh title in the Call of Duty series it was up to Treyarch to once again deliver the goods and produce another multi-million seller. Unfortunately for the developer, they already had a huge hill to climb before development even began as many had – somewhat unfairly – written off their previous attempts as second-rate next to Infinity Ward’s efforts. It is a moot point however because, if we’re honest, the COD series has never really been that great a singleplayer experience; more a selection of exciting moments in an otherwise run-of-the-mill action game. In those terms, Treyarch have never failed to deliver.
This time our story is set around elite special operative Alex Mason, with each mission unfolding through a series of flashbacks whilst he’s strapped to an electric chair in an unknown location and interrogated by a shadowy assailant. As Mason recounts his involvement in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, his consequent capture, his escape from a Russian labour camp, then various other missions across the Vietnam War and Soviet Russia, it all begins to feel like a bad trip from a Steven Segal movie. Missions are regularly interrupted by migraine-inducing flashes of light; randomly jerking you in and out of the action without warning as the plot twists and weaves through a relentless assault of explosions and gunfire.
They even make space for a bizarre trip back in time as you take up the role of a Russian solider during the closing chapters of the Second World War. By the second half of the game you’ll have already worked out who Mason’s tormentors are and will have a pretty good idea of the closing punchline. Such ham-fisted, clumsy storytelling is par for the course in most video games (indeed some of the best games ever produced contain some of the weakest of plots), but when thrust into a game that’s trying to convey the horror of war and the corruption of the foreign powers involved it’s much harder to swallow.
And as with previous efforts, AI is questionable on both sides, with perhaps the most annoying moments happening when your own comrades push you out of cover and into the line of fire as they move along their scripted pathways. The major downside of this (other than ending up out in the open under a hail of bullets), is that the sense of immersion of being in a crack team of soldiers often gets broken, leaving you feeling like the fifth wheel as you sit back and wait for everyone to move into their allotted positions before you can actually make your own way forward.
Brushing these negatives briefly to one side for a moment there is a lot to like about Black Ops. There’s the multiplayer of course (which we’ll cover in further detail at a later date); it looks positively stunning; and of course those ever-popular set pieces are as bold and as we’ve come to expect. Another aspect that CoD has consistently delivered on over the years is its ability to convey the mayhem of war, and Black Ops is no exception to that rule. True to the series, battles are intense, frantic, bloody and incredibly engaging. Getting your hands on a SPAZ-12 with incendiary rounds or tearing chunks out of walls with a minigun aptly named ‘Death Machine’ is as twisted as it is satisfying. Deep down you know that there is something innately wrong with such unashamed glorification, but in the same breath you can’t help but be thoroughly entertained by it.
Unlike Modern Warfare 2 before it, Black Ops also offers up a much more diverse stage on which it plays out its theatre of war, and its here that Treyarch trumps Infinity Ward’s efforts. Instead of snow and desert levels interspersed with the occasional stint into overcrowded slums and city streets, Treyarch treats its audience to battles through tropical jungles, wastelands, frozen tundras, night-blanketed roof tops and even beneath the ocean. Of these settings Vietnam is unquestionably the highlight as the bodies, bullets and bombs mount up in a sea of smoke and gunfire, whilst the unforgiving barrage of explosions and hellfire provide a stark backdrop.
Shocking and unrelenting in its delivery, the Vietnam setting is a visceral attack on the senses, and one that will leave you reeling from arguably the most competent effort yet to convey the brutality of war in a videogame. Sadly thereafter, the momentum is lost as the game slips back into its comfort zone and takes up its familiar, steady pace leaving you hungry for more of the chaos. There are still a few highlights along the way, and while events are entertaining enough to pull the game along to its final conclusion, the rest of the game fails to reach those dizzying heights of gritty realism and intensity.
In fairness, Black Ops was never going to live up the hype surrounding it, but to lay the blame at the feet of its developer is wholly unjustified and unfair. With this new iteration in the series, Treyarch has finally stepped out from under Infinity Ward’s shadow and delivered a product worthy of carrying the Call of Duty moniker, and for that reason alone they should be applauded.