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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Call of Duty: Black Ops (Playstation 3)

Following up on the massive success of Modern Warfare 2 would probably be an unenviable task for any developer, but Treyarch has done a fine job. Call of Duty: Black Ops on the PS3 does an excellent matching the production polish and slick gameplay that made last year's title such a huge success. Interestingly, Treyarch has abandoned World War II for more recent conflicts, this time involving undercover missions during the Cold War period. There are many sequences in the single player game that feel incredibly dramatic and intense, along with some innovative and cool multiplayer features that let Black Ops stand on its own. The solo game's overall quality is slightly less than MW2 but, Black Ops delivers a solid multiplayer experience that mitigates a lot of these issues.

Taking an unexpected detour into clandestine military action, Call of Duty Black Ops puts players in the role of a secret military agent named Alex Mason who's been working undercover for the US in battlefields around the world for several decades. In an interesting twist on FPS conventions, most missions in the game take the form of flashbacks, which are revealed while the main character is being interrogated by unknown captors. These sequences are interesting and they slowly reveal an emerging conspiracy that unfolds as you play through the game. These intercessional points make for an interesting plot device that allows Black Ops to jump around the world during some seminal points and experience some pivotal events from a different perspective. These include historical events such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, a clandestine Russian base and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and more. However, in the fictional world of Black Ops, these events aren't quite as they seem and your agent's experience doesn't quite match the official history. This makes for an interesting back story that has some surprising twists. Unfortunately, the flashback sequences aren't quite as coherent as you'd like them to be, and between the grunts of the main character and the distorted voices of his interrogators, trying to follow Black Ops' story can be confusing at points. It's an odd decision for such a mainstream game, and the story sometimes seems like a watered-down Metal Gear Solid. Its conspiracy theories make the missions feel a little disjointed and its plot doesn't always come together coherently, but this doesn't really mar the main gameplay. Fortunately, you don't really need to know all the details during battle. After you get through the cut-scenes and you're on the field of battle, Black Ops mostly reverts back to the conventional play and traditional FPS mechanics you've come to expect.

Anyone who's experienced a recent Call of Duty title will feel right at home with Black Ops. The controls, conventions and mechanics haven't changed that much in this installment. You still have the trusty main firing mechanics where you fire with the R1 button and use the R2 to throw frag grenades. You'll find a good assortment of standard weapons during the game including machine guns, rifles and pistols that can be found in abundance. There are also more powerful items you can use such as grenade launchers, sniper rifles and even crossbows that can launch fiery arrows at the enemy. When enemies are at close range, you can also choose to use your knife to cut them down or hit them with the butt of your gun. In some sequences, you can also engage in some stealth maneuvers at certain points and attack guards from behind without alerting their foes. As usual, the game allows you to take control of several vehicles during the missions with jeeps, tanks and even motorcycles at your disposal. You can fire at enemies while driving, which makes for some pretty exciting combat sequences. The controls in these sequences are remarkably intuitive and most players will have little trouble performing these actions. Switching between weapons and using items such as grenade launchers and the crossbow are fairly straightforward as well, making the game very easy to play. Most of the missions unfold in a predictable way with a standard section of ground combat unfolding in the initial stages of battle. This makes for a game that, despite its new and improved graphics engine, feels very comfortable and familiar immediately. There should be little in the way of a learning curve for experienced players and even newcomers should be able to get the hang of things quickly.

You're usually fighting against a platoon consisting of standard soldiers who don't have very sophisticated AI and don't put up much of a fight. Their tactics and movements are quite predictable and even when they stray a bit from expectations, most players should be able to counter these moves with little effort. While there are some sections where they stream at you from all directions, most of them can be taken down by waiting for them to come into the open, making them easy targets. They occasionally throw grenades at you and you usually have to clear out an area completely before you can move on, but they usually don't pose much of a threat individually. Players can also wait for their squad mates to clear out most of a section or use other tactics to keep themselves safe during some of the game's more intense combat sequences. There are some fairly intense sections where you find yourself coming under attack from all directions, but you can usually survive by finding cover and waiting for them to make mistakes. When you take cover behind objects, its usually a good idea not to stand there too long, since the enemy can make quick work of you if they find out your location. When you get hit, the screen fills with blood splotches but the character can rejuvenate by taking cover in a safe area for a few moments. Your objective points are typically easy to find using your radar and you can also follow the other main soldier around which makes the missions much easier. In some ways, it feels a little bit too easy, since you don't have to do much exploring to find your next locations. The maps feel a little bit too linear in places. While the combat sequences in certain sections of the game can be intense, there are many areas where you feel like you're just shooting sitting ducks. It gets better if you play on the harder difficulty levels, but Black Ops still feels a little bit too linear.

However, Black Ops isn't all ground combat and there are several cinematic sequences on each level that help to break up the action. These usually involve the player taking over a fixed-position weapon or a large missile. Aiming the weapon at a 'boss' style foe such as a group of oncoming tanks or a guard tower allows you to take a bit of a breather and also leads to some of the game's most exciting and dramatic set-pieces. For example, there's one sequence where you have to aim a guided missile at a prototype missile and stop it before it launches that is quite breathtaking in its production values. Another area has you rappelling down a zipline to enact a dramatic rescue, which gives these end-of-level sequences quite an impact. The single player mode definitely has some impressive set-pieces as you traverse the storyline, but the unfortunate thing is that this mode is a bit short and can be completed on moderate difficulty in only a few hours. While the cinematic pacing and style is definitely impressive, there's not enough in terms of length to make this a truly satisfying long-term shooter. While there has been a long-term trend among developers to shorten the length of solo games to concentrate on making a better multiplayer mode, it's still hard not to feel shortchanged when its over. This is true despite the elaborate level design and decades-long, world-encompassing storyline. This is disappointing and the linear nature of the game's levels come back to haunt it since it undermines the motivation you might have to go back and replay the game once you've seen all its bells and whistles unfold.

While solo gamers might feel a little bit cheated by the game's short length, Black Ops effectively compensates for this with a robust online mode that's superbly executed. Its definitely as good or better in many areas than Modern Warfare's with a smooth, slick interface that makes logging on, setting up matches and fragging intuitive and quick. There's an array of options that allow you to play in a variety of modes. These include a versus mode where you attack any and all opponents you see on the field, a Team Deathmatch mode where teams of players face off against each other and an interesting Zombie mode where your team faces off against waves of zombies. In this mode, you have to kill as many as possible before you are over-run. It's definitely one of the most entertaining parts of the game and makes a nice change of pace from the usual combat modes. What makes the online play so addictive is the fact that you can earn upgrades and unlock additional abilities as you play through the game. The way the game builds on itself and rewards success makes it much more compelling. You earn weapons and player classes by winning matches, which can then be used in later matches to increase your score even more.

One of the more interesting aspects of this approach is that Black Ops' system allows players two distinct upgrade paths. The first involves earning experience points that you can use to upgrade your basic abilities. It increases slowly as you get into the game but you can add more quickly by beating opponents and surviving. The second way to unlock items is by earning money - which is then used to purchase additional items and upgrades. This is a new approach for Call of Duty and it works well to add another layer of motivation for the online player. Black Ops' currency system also allows a new gameplay mode - called Wager Matches to unfold. In these games, you can risk your accumulated money against other players, which allows you to earn a potentially great deal of money - or lose a lot at the same time. This makes for an addictive mode with very high replay value. A large part of the enjoyment in Black Ops' multiplayer mode comes in the fact that it matches the slick beautiful production values seen in the main game. Since multiplayer uses the same maps as the main game, this should come as no surprise. You can choose which of these to use and they offer a variety of tactical advantages and locations so the gameplay is both varied and challenging. It hasn't changed much from last year's edition, and Treyarch's implementation of it matches the quality of the game's online component. Despite some worries, Black Ops definitely keeps the high standard set in previous installments in the series intact while adding a few new twists and innovations of its own.

It's hard to make a real overall judgment on Black Ops without considering both experiences separately. The game's single player mode offers a cinematic tour de force with some truly memorable set-pieces that definitely showcase a powerful graphics engine. It's smooth HD visuals are quite impressive throughout and make you feel a visceral part of the action. A varied set of vividly detailed environments ranging from Vietnamese jungles to Russian tundra offers an incredible array of places to fight. Its character models look incredibly lifelike and the acting and plot are surprisingly sophisticated in many sections. However, the single player mode is a bit short and the story's pacing ranges from good to erratic depending on the situation. Its short length and somewhat superficial play in parts make the single player game somewhat of a disappointment. On the other hand, Black Ops also has a solid multiplayer experience that benefits from sharing the same robust graphics engine. The game's online mode offers plenty of replay value and incredible amount of depth and several innovative gameplay modes. The end result of all of this is that Black Ops is decidedly definitely geared more towards the multiplayer base. On this front, it successfully brings a new set of locations, weapons and modes to an already solid experience while not compromising on the basic mechanics and quality players have come to expect. This ends up being a somewhat mixed verdict - Black Ops' single player mode is exciting and entertaining but offers little motivation to play once completed while the robust online game is excellent and well worth your time. In the end, its superb production values and innovative features make Black Ops an excellent title, but the game's long term appeal is definitely tilted towards multiplayer.

- Michael Palisano

Grade: B+

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