Unfairly or not, when it comes to Call Of Duty, Treyarch has long been seen as the stand-in developer for the franchise. As Activision's military shooter title shot to world stardom, Treyarch was called upon to pump out place-holder games while Infinity Ward toiled away on the next triple A COD release. The COD titles that Treyarch produced weren't bad – indeed, Call Of Duty: World At War was an engrossing and enjoyable shooter. But the Santa Monica-based developer's COD games were always considered by fans to the equivalent of straight-to-DVD movies when compared to Infinity Ward's blockbuster releases. With the release of Call Of Duty: Black Ops, those days are now well and truly over. To put it simply, Call Of Duty: Black Ops is superb. The experience of playing the game, thanks to the modified World At War engine, is comparable to the best in what the franchise has had to offer up until now. The meaty kick of the guns, the blistering pace of the action and the sterling soundtrack of explosions, gunshots and whistling bullets all serve to quicken the player's pulse and tighten their grip on the controller. Once again, introspective considerations and achievement concerns (at least on the initial playthrough) are dumped to one side as Black Ops' gameplay plugs directly into the player's primal need to make it out alive. The controls will be familiar to anyone who has ever played COD (millions of players by the last count) or indeed any shooter in the last ten or so years. The game also earns every ounce of its 18 rating with some particularly grisly violence, although this is confined to the single-player experience.
There is nothing gratuitous about the violence in the campaign, however. While it contains its fair share of graphically violent scenes, there is nothing on the level of the cheap theatrics of the 'No Russian' level of Modern Warfare 2. All the violence, however eye-watering it may be, is used at the service of the campaign's plot – and what a rip-roaring piece of work that happens to be. The player takes on the role of a soldier, who at the beginning of the game, is strapped to a chair in a makeshift torture chamber, with shadowy figures barking questions at him about his chequered past. The plots unfolds in flashback with the action moving around different theatres from the Cold War such as (amongst others) U.S.S.R., Vietnam and Cuba. The writers do just the right amount of drip-feeding plot details and twisting the narrative that the story maintains a lethal degree of intrigue and tension. When all is finally revealed, they're also deft enough tie up campaign, while not spoon-feeding the player by closing out every loose end. It's top notch stuff and it has the edge over Black Ops' predecessor in that it actually makes sense.
The level design matches the plot's strength neck and neck. Granted, awe-inspiring set pieces have always been Call Of Duty's stock in trade as a franchise, but Black Ops ramps up the intensity while tossing in a lot of variation. Beyond the overwhelming, chaotic action in the game's major gun battles – during a charge up a hill in Vietnam or a frantic rooftop chase in Hong Kong – Black Ops offers a slow crawl through corpse-filled foxhole in Laos and a stealthy infiltration of a substation in the snow-capped steppes in which the slowdown in action is compensated for by nail-shredding tension and creepy atmosphere. There are also a couple of vehicle sections; one standout moment involves laying waste to enemy positions along a river in a helicopter gunship. Throughout the campaign, Black Ops offers an engrossing plot with epic shooter action to match. The only downside to the campaign – as has almost become standard in COD games – is that it's rather short. On easiest setting, most players will blaze through it in around 6 to 8 hours. However, many consumers won't be too bothered by this aspect, because they'll be purchasing Black Ops for the online multiplayer mode and it's here that Treyarch's hard work and creativity truly pays off.
The multiplayer is just as robust as its predecessor, with the only shortfall being that the 20 killstreak rewards have been reduced to 15 and the deathstreaks, which gave the less skilled online players a bit of help, have gone completely. To compensate for this latter omission, Black Ops contains a mode called Combat Training which pits the players again the game's AI in multiplayer maps and match-types. This can be played solo or with friends (in local and online co-op) and the difficulty level can be toggled according the player's skill level. It doesn't completely replicate the experience of online – the AI doesn't camp for example – but over all this mode should give players a good introduction to the style of play in the multiplayer, and make them confident enough to test their mettle against human opponents.
Veterans might view with Combat Training as a fun, if disposable exercise. However, the wealth of content in the multiplayer is sure to set their tongues wagging – and not just because Black Ops's multiplayer has dedicated servers. First off, the customisation options are mind-boggling. Players can customise nearly every aspect of their in-game avatars, build their own character classes (picking out weapons, tools and perks), design their own clan-tags and emblems and even customise the appearance of their weapons. Fancy having your clan name scratched into your gun with a purple smiley face on the reticule of your sights? Well now you can; and in the kill cam, every one of your victims will know it was you that tagged them. There's also Theater (sic) mode in which players can play back matches they've taken part in, chop together a highlight reel and share moments from their greatest battles online.
Players have a large selection to choose from in the arsenal in Black Ops, which is era-specific to the Cold War, and there are some new perks and killstreaks (some which make returns from previous games with new names). There's also some new equipment in the game which mixes up the gameplay a bit – camera spikes act as a localised radar when deployed, and SAM turrets mean you don't need to carry a rocket launcher to take down attack helicopters. There's a lengthy list of match-types which will be familiar to COD veterans and the maps themselves offer and the selection of maps offer varied environments to shoot mates in, while ticking the usual boxes for COD games – narrow streets, sniping points and rooms with multiple entries..
Black Ops has the same levelling up system as previous COD instalments, but this time round, experience points (XP) are augmented by COD Points (CP). Players gain both in every multiplayer match they play and while XP unlocks weapons, perks, skins and equipment CP offers them the option of buying them. Players have a second option to earn CP in the brand new Wager Matches, in which players all ante up CP and compete for a pot in a selection of match types. The players who end up in the first three positions will take home a share of the pot, while the rest get nothing. To prevent players from cheating, all of the Wager matches are free-for-alls, so players can't charge in with a couple of mates and farm CP.
There are four Wager match-types and all of them offer very different, if equally thrilling experiences. The first is One In The Chamber, in which players are given a handgun, one bullet and a knife. If they kill another player, they receive another bullet, although each player can only carry one bullet at a time. These are tense, exciting affairs made all the more nail-biting due to the sums of CP involved. The second match type is Sticks & Stones in which players are armed with a tomahawk, a spring-loaded knife which fires blades, a crossbow and a couple of exploding bolts. Players win the match by dispatching foes over a set time limit. However, adding a little spice to the match is the fact that if a player manages to hit an opponent with their tomahawk, they bankrupt the player in question of all their CP. Third up is Gun Game, an absolutely ridiculous match in which players are handed a succession of increasingly powerful weapons with each kill. The winner is the player who either scores the most kills or manages to cycle through all of the weapons on offer. Fourth and last, there's Sharpshooter, in which players start off with the same weapons, and then their guns are cycled at random intervals. There's a certain manic energy to all of the Wager Matches and they're by far and away one of the most satisfying aspect of Black Ops.
Finally, fans of World At War will be pleased to hear that the zombies are back. This time, players take on the roles of John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Robert McNamara, and Fidel Castro who have come under attack at the pentagon. Up to four players can take part in online battles, while two can play together in local split-screen co-op. It's a zany entertaining mode in which players dash madly around a series of rooms, blasting the stumbling undead who are trying to break into the map at four entrance points. As they rack up kills, players can spend points to unlock more weapons scattered around the map, and also barricade entry points to staunch the never-ending flow of zombies. It never stops being silly, infectious fun.
If Treyarch felt they had something to prove with Call Of Duty: Black Ops, then the developer can give itself a well-deserved pat on the back. They've really hit one out of the park with Black Ops; this COD entry is easily the gold standard for this franchise now. This is a game that will silence any naysayers and beat off any competition. Activision will doubtless be pleased, although any other developers tasked with following Black Ops will probably be wondering how they can improve on Treyarch's work here. Call Of Duty: Black Ops will be a tough act to follow as it's easily one of the best games of this, or any year.
It is even, dare we say it, better than Modern Warfare 2.