Pros: Good story, solid controls, varied gameplay, good multiplayer.
Cons: Keeps players on too tight a leash, has occasional control issues.
Is the best way to get information from someone to tie them to a chair surrounded by television screens flashing random numbers, torture them and speak to them in a distorted electronic voice? It is in the first person shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops, where an imprisoned soldier grudgingly tells his life story to an unknown interrogator.
The Story: Cold War Conspiracy
The prisoner, Alex Mason, begins with his attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs. Mason later gets assassination orders from John F. Kennedy and Robert McNamara. While the historical figures run out after that, the game hops around in time to tell its story, moving forward to 1968 (a level that begins, like seemingly every movie about 1960s Vietnam, with the song Fortunate Son) and back to 1945 Russia. The game always returns to Mason’s interrogation, as he is accused of lying, queried as to his actions and continually asked about “the numbers” while the prisoner argues and talks about a Russian friend determined to wreak vengeance on his enemies.
Black Ops is a bit of an oddity, with the sort of ridiculously paranoid plot that people could believe in the 1960s but would find ludicrous today. The game creates a massively powerful, devious super-villain version of Russia that never existed outside of movies, but tells the tale with such panache that you accept one ridiculous event after another.
I won’t say more than that about the story, because it’s interesting and has a couple of nice twists. It is one of those rare games that takes storytelling seriously, and while it isn’t a complete success, it is consistently engrossing and entertaining.
Gameplay: Shooting Guns ... and a Lot More
The gameplay offers the same solid shooting action the Call of Duty series is known for. Mason, and other characters you will play such as his friend Reznov travel with a few comrades, battling much larger numbers of the enemy. You are almost never alone in the game, and your companions will do a lot of killing for you, but they are never so skilled that they don’t leave a lot for you to do.
Black Ops offers a remarkable amount of variety in its missions. While most of the game involves running around shooting people with guns, crossbows and grenade launchers, you will also ride a motorcycle, drive a tank, swim through a river knifing enemy soldiers on boats, fire on soldiers hidden by a thick cloud of poisonous gas, engage in a tiny amount of stealth and navigate branching Viet Cong-made tunnels. At times the game is extremely clever, as when after a mission you play the same time and place as a different character or when you switch back and forth from commanding a squad from the air to playing as a member of that squad on the ground.
Black Ops is very entertaining but not perfect. The game is extremely linear. You always have a specific destination, and there is usually only one path to get there. At times you feel like you are on rails, nothing more than a game designer’s puppet. I also had consistent problems aiming stationary guns, which for some reason would get stuck and refuse to swivel to where I wanted to aim them. In a few places players have to run and jump, which was so difficult using the default control setup that I had to reconfigure it for those parts.
Beyond Single Player: Online and Undead
Besides the single player game, Black Ops also has multiplayer and zombie play. Multiplayer is well done, with interesting maps like a nuclear test zone made up of a suburban neighborhood populated by dummies in 1950s clothing or a sleepy downtown Havana. As you play the game lets you unlock further features, like greater choice in weaponry. While subjectively I preferred the multiplayer in GoldenEye 007, I think it’s fair to argue that Black Ops multiplayer is slightly better, if for no other reason than because it allows chatting.
Zombies mode is its own thing, a weird, old-school zombie shooting game in which you are faced with ever-deadlier zombies who tear through the walls and swarm at you. Killing zombies earns money that can be used for guns and to open doors that lead you to new locations with more zombies. You can play in either single player or multiplayer. Single player is way too frustrating; I always died in the first five minutes. It would be nice if you could change the difficulty level. I had more fun playing in online multiplayer, where your zombie-fighting teammates can revive you after a zombie has taken you out. It’s not really my type of gameplay, but it’s a cute little bonus mode for those who want it.
The Verdict: A Must for FPS Fans
After being disappointed by the modernized Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, I was happy to see the series return to its historic approach with Black Ops, a game I enjoyed even more than 2008’s excellent Call of Duty: World at War. It is fun to revisit the cold war, play deathmatch in the mock suburbs and hunt zombies in a decrepit mansion. A game that can do all that might be able to pull the life story out of a soldier with torture and television after all.