The past 2 Call of Duty games weren’t really up to the standard that I’d come to expect from the franchise. Part of this can be attributed to Black Ops 3 being my favourite in the series, the multiplayer keeping me going for a good 150+ hours before I decided to call it quits. So my expectations were probably higher than they’d otherwise be for Black Ops 4, hoping to rekindle that love of the COD multiplayer which I’d lost for the last couple years. Whilst on one hand all the ingredients are there for that to happen again there’s been some glaring omissions and strange launch-day decisions that have marred what could’ve otherwise been yet another solid COD game from Treyarch.
This is typically where I’d give a brief synopsis of the initial plot for the game but since Black Ops 4 lacks a single player campaign I have none to give. Sure they’ve buried some meagre bits and pieces on the specialists training modes, giving you a brief cutscene here or there that speaks to why each of the character classes have their abilities, but that does not a single player campaign make. After it was announced that this was the case Treyarch confirmed unequivocally that they never intended to put a single player campaign in, citing the fact that most players simply jump straight into the multi. I have no reason to doubt that but out of the 3 Call of Duty developers they were always the ones who made the most interesting and engaging stories. Leaving that out seems like a missed opportunity, one that this reviewer certainly laments. Of course it wasn’t taken away for just any old reason as it was replaced with Blackout although whether or not the trade off was worth it will be entirely up to you. For me it certainly wasn’t (more on that later).
The Call of Duty games were never known for their cutting edge visuals, instead favouring higher performance to go along with the game’s rapid pace of combat. This trend continues with Black Ops 4 with the game striving to maintain a smooth, high frame rate experience over providing Crysis-like eye candy. There’s also less opportunity for level and set designers to showcase what the engine is capable of doing due to the game being multiplayer only. All things considered though the game looks perfectly fine for what it wants to be: a fast paced shooter. I will admit though that I figured that for the handful of cutscenes they created they would’ve spent a little more of their ridiculous budget on making them a little more cutting edge.
Black Ops 4 retains its 2 core game modes that most players will know, regular multiplayer and zombies, along with the new Battle Royal mode called Blackout. The base multiplayer games don’t deviate from the COD formula much, retaining the same Pick 10 system alongside a familiar cast of weapons. Some weapons now have the option of an Operator Mod which will significantly change the way the gun operates from simple things like massive rates of fire increases to strobe lights for one of the shotguns. Deviating from the last few titles as well is the lack of loot boxes with the only microtransactions in sight being used for buying different cosmetic skins for the specialists. Perhaps the biggest change though is the lack of automatically regenerating health, instead relegated to a piece of equipment which you’ll have you manually trigger to regenerate health. Most interesting of all is that the stim pack is actually a choice, you can replace it with another piece of gear if you so wish. For those who are really at the top of their game this gives them a very high risk/reward balance to play with, one I’ve seen used to both great and ill effect. Suffice to say the core of Black Ops 4 doesn’t deviate too much from the formula with the exception of Blackout.
To be completely open here I’m not the biggest fan of the Battle Royal format. I’ve played my share of PUBG, both on PC and mobile, and it can be enjoyable with a bunch of mates. However I like my FPS games fast and furious, something which the COD franchise has supported me with for many years. Battle Royal on the other hand is very much a slow and considered game, one that favours being patient and formulating a strategy if you want to win. Sure I could just parachute into a hot zone and likely die in the first couple minutes if I wanted to speed things up a bit but honestly, given that there’s a much more capable TDM and other modes available right there I’m far more likely to want to play that. Still in the interests of seeing everything that Black Ops 4 had to offer I figured I should give Blackout a try and, well, it’s pretty much as you’d expect: PUBG with COD weapons. I’ve heard from many that it’s a pretty great experience (which is likely given that Black Ops 4 has seen incredible sales) but for me, as a rusher type player in these kinds of games, it’s the antithesis of what I want from this kind of game. Your mileage may vary, though.
A good chunk of content for Black Ops 4 comes from 3 so right off the bat you’re going to be back in familiar territory. The same goes for the character classes with half of them being direct copy and pastes of their former selves. At first I was a little miffed at that, wanting a whole new experience, but I got over that relatively quickly as I realised it gave me a headstart on knowing the maps and which character classes I’d fit best into. A lot of the weapons have been changed around and there’s a much more wide variety of mods to choose from, making a great deal of the game’s weapons viable in PVP (so long as you can get the right unlocks done, of course). The starter classes are also well rounded as well, one of them coming with a fully kitted out gun that you won’t be able to get until level 50 or so. I’ve found the most success running with the Spitfire SMG, a bullet hose of a weapon that feels like a long range shotgun when you upgrade it with laser sights 2 and the extended mag. The ARs and shotguns were also somewhat viable depending on the map but SMGs felt like the better all round weapon if I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into.
The class abilities are a bit of a mixed bag given that they all seem to have rather lengthy cooldowns and can be real hit and miss affairs. The shock drone, radar beacon, assault pack and razor wire ones seem to be the most useful, having a direct impact on your performance in a match. Other ones like the cluster grenade and trip wire feel hit or miss, unlikely to provide a consistent boost to your ability to win matches. For some of the ultimate abilities you’ll be lucky to get 1 off per game (like the vision pulse one) whereas the other, less impactful ones (like Crash’s overheal) you’ll likely be able to get off 2~3 times easily. I’m sure this is going to be a boon for competitive teams as there’s a clear delineation between support and offensive ultimates, allowing them to fine tune team comps quite well. For pub players like me though it’ll just come down to whichever one feels best to you. I’ve standardised on Crash for the most part since that seems to help my team out the most.
I couldn’t do this review without talking about the current state of the multiplayer networking, specifically the 20hz server debacle. To put it simply the Black Ops 4’s server engine runs at 20hz, meaning all in-game events are updated 20 times per second. That sounds plenty fast enough however most modern games run at double or triple that and even Black Ops 4 itself ran at 60hz during its beta phase. The problem with this is that it leads to really inconsistent play with players able to one shot kill each other, seemingly land shots on you when you’re around a corner or, if you’re lucky, seemingly grant you super powers with the ability to kill anyone before they have a chance to react. This issue only seems to be amplify the host advantage problem as well, making some games an absolute nightmare for the opposing team. Treyarch has said that the limit on server tick rate was done to ensure that they could maintain the service during the initial rush and that it would eventually be put back up to 60hz. If they stay true to their word then Black Ops 4 might actually be a great game to pick up around the holiday season but for now, if you’re someone who’s interested in playing competitively, it may be best to give it a miss until 60hz makes a return.
The lack of single player and the 20hz servers might not sound like big issues but for someone like me, who really enjoyed Treyarch’s cerebral plots and glass smooth multi, they’re huge marks against the best Call of Duty game I’ve played in the last 3 years. To be sure I still feel that Treyarch is the one the others should follow but even this instalment feels like the weakest one from the developer to date. Perhaps I’ve begun to outgrow the series or maybe it’s taking a new direction that leads it away from me, I’m not sure, as all I really know is that the near unmitigated fun I found in previous titles has been gone for some time. Black Ops 4 has a potential redemption story ahead of it in the form of better multiplayer servers but I’ll still have that hole in my heart which only a Treyarch COD story can fill.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 retains the trademarks of the Treyarch style that, in my opinion, makes their version of the IP the best. The combat is still great, the various weapon options still a joy to fiddle with and the familiarity of old maps made the transition in that much smoother. Blackout is something that I personally could do without but it’s likely to be a drawcard for the numerous players out there who love the format and have tired of current offerings. The lack of a campaign is certainly disappointing and the inclusion of a token effort felt more insulting than if they had just left it out completely. The 20hz server issue is certainly annoying but I’m hopeful that it will be fixed as the player base declines from its launch highs. For what it’s worth I’m still enjoying the multi and I’ll probably put a few more good hours into it before I call it quits completely. Perhaps the residual hype from Black Ops 3 is what has doomed me here but I can’t help feeling that I wanted just a little bit more from Treyarch this time around.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $89.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 8 hours of play time.
The 3 year, 3 developer cycle that Call of Duty switched to has meant that it’s been a little longer between drinks for Treyarch, once considered the poor step child to Inifinity Ward. For players like me, who enjoyed Treyarch’s slightly more story oriented style for the single player, it’s been a bit of a wait but all hopes were that the extra polish would be worth it. After spending the last week with Call of Duty: Black Ops III I can definitely say the wait has been worth it, although Treyarch might need to come down from the giant ivory tower that they’ve crafted themselves.
The year is 2065 and you’ve been sent to rescue hostages from the NCR, the latest terrorist organisation to begin its war against the western world. You, along with your partner Hendricks, have been sent to Ethopia to rescue hostages and a VIP who’s been captured by this group. Whilst the extraction was a success you were left behind and mortally wounded by one of the NCR’s combat robots. You’re transported back to the Coalescence HQ for emergency medical treatment, bestowing upon you cybernetic abilities that elevate your combat capabilities far beyond that of any normal soldier. What follows is your exploits as a CIA black operative following a terrible conspiracy that goes all the way to the top.
Considering that Black Ops 3 was released on nearly all platforms (including 2 last gen ones) it’s great to see it able to use all the grunt of a modern PC to render some truly stunning graphics. On first release though this was unfortunately at the severe cost of performance as smoke and other particle heavy systems would drag an otherwise buttery smooth experience down to a slideshow. Thankfully this was a bug and was fixed in a patch last week, allowing me to once again ratchet all the settings up to maximum. Unlike other Call of Duty titles though you’ll rarely have any time to stop and take in the view as the game is all about action all the time (save for the last section which I’ll dive into more later).
Black Ops 3 is the definition of a corridor shooter, putting you in tight spaces with hordes of enemies that you’ll need to mow down in order to progress. Like Advanced Warfare before it though there’s a few extra mechanics thrown into the mix to keep things fresh, most of which come in the form of various powers granted to you by your cyber augments. Also, unlike most Call of Duty games where your load out is specified for you, Black Ops 3 gives you the option to build out your own kit for each mission. You’re even given a briefing panel which allows you to judge which kit would be best for each engagement. Apart from that (and the multiplayer, of course) there’s not much more to say about Black Ops 3 as it really does feel like Advanced Warfare with the trademark Treyarch psychological twist.
The buttery smooth, fast paced FPS combat that’s a hallmark of the Call of Duty series is back once again in Black Ops 3. The additional enhancements you’re given as part of your cybernetic upgrades goes a long way to alleviating some of the issues that plagued previous instalments in this series. Notably this includes things like target highlighting, “danger zones” shown on the floor to give you an idea of what might happen if you go there and the vast array of powers you have to devastate your enemy. However one piece of advice I’ll give is that, if you’re just looking to enjoy the single player, avoid the higher difficulties. Instead of making the enemies tougher it essentially makes you weaker with the hardest difficulty allowing any enemy to one shot you. Sure that does provide some form of challenge but, honestly, it’s just more tedious than anything.
For all its polish though there are still some rough bits in the single player. Quite often enemies will be able to shoot through or glitch through walls which, if you’re playing on anything above normal difficulty, will mean your instant demise. This became painfully clear on the final mission when you’re storming the last building and mechs, flying drones and anything else would just pass through terrain to get to you. I can handle getting nailed by unseen targets, that just means you need to be aware of where they are for next time around, but when you literally can’t do anything to stop them it really does grate on you.
The story retains Treyarch’s signature psychological thriller style, this time around with a sci-fi twist. To begin with it’s interesting as the characters deal with the implications of technology and the enhancements it brings them. Things start to come unstuck a bit as they dive deeper into the (highly predictable) conspiracy aspects of it and it comes completely unglued towards the end when the symbolism gets dialled up to 11. Probably the worst part about it though is that, if you read a couple specific things in game, the whole thing is basically naught anyway. In all honesty it started off strong before it tried to M. Night Shyamalan everything and completely disappeared up its own ass with that one piece of text.
The multiplayer is your mostly standard Call of Duty affair with levels, unlocks and customizations galore. It uses the familiar “choose 10” system, allowing you to create a character that fits your play style perfectly. The biggest change that comes with Black Ops 3 is the inclusion of “specialist” classes which are essentially base character models that come with abilities. These can be either a weapon, which can be incredibly devastating when used right, or an ability which usually gives you a tactical advantage over the enemy. This combined with Call of Duty’s typical huge array of weaponry makes for some incredibly varied combat, something which can be a bit overwhelming when you first start out.
Probably my only gripe is that the levelling is a bit too slow for casual-core players like myself. I’ve played about 4 hours at this point and my main weapon, the Kuda SMG, is no where near unlocking all the mods that I want to use. This means that, for nearly all of my current multiplayer time, I’ve been using the Vanguard starting class since it has a fully customized Kuda as part of the loadout. Treyarch is aware of this and is making up for it by making this weekend a double XP weekend but that feels like a bandaid solution on the problem honestly. Having a rested system or something similar would make the experience a lot better for players like myself as otherwise the longevity of the multiplayer will be severely limited.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III maintains the level of quality we’ve come to expect from the series, adding the Treyarch signature psychological thriller style to the future combat motif that has permeated the last few instalments. The single player is pretty much as you’d expect, maintaining the same fluid FPS experience even if it does overstay its welcome a little bit too long towards the end. The multiplayer, whilst suffering from a rather slow levelling system, is just as good as it ever was. As always the Call of Duty series might not be for everyone but for those of us who enjoy a spectacle, along with a few solid hours of multiplayer fun, then there’s really no other title to turn to right now other than Black Ops III.
Rating: 8.75 / 10
Call of Duty: Black Ops III is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $79, $59, $79, $59 and $79 respectively. Game was played on PC with a total of 43% of the achievements unlocked.
As any Call of Duty player will tell you there was always a good developer and a not-so-good developer behind their franchise of choice. Unquestionably everyone loved all of Infinity Ward’s releases and it’s not a long stretch to say that they are responsible for Call of Duty’s success, thanks almost entirely to the original Modern Warfare. Treyarch on the other hand was always second place to them with their games typically being considered the off years for the franchise with the sales figures reflecting that. Indeed when the original Black Ops was released many of the compliments to it felt backhanded, the best of which I recall as being “the best Call of Duty Treyarch has made” firmly segregating it away from its glorious Infinity Ward brethren.
Still it’s not like they made atrocious games, indeed whilst the original Black Ops might not have held a candle to Modern Warfare 2 it still managed to rake in over a billion dollars in 6 weeks, an accomplishment that not many game developers can boast. It’s still somewhat slower than Infinity Ward who was able to accomplish the same thing in about a third of the time. However after playing through Black Ops II I really felt that the overall quality of Treyarch’s recent release was at least on par if not exceeding that of its predecessors, even those from Infinity Ward. I posited the idea to a couple of my friends that it was possible that Treyarch might take the crown as the better Call of Duty developer and it looks like they might be on track to accomplish that:
Activision may have skipped its annual five-day totaling of Call of Duty sales, but the publisher announced this morning the latest installment, Black Ops 2, grossed $1 billion in 15 days.
The publisher announced shortly after Call of Duty Black Ops 2‘s launch the annual blockbuster made $500 million in 24 hours at retail, eclipsing Modern Warfare 3’s record of $400 million the year prior. The lack of a five-day total, which the company had done for three years running, gave some analysts “cause for concern” that Black Ops 2 wasn’t selling as well as previous installments.
Going from 6 weeks to 15 days to achieve the same target is a pretty impressive feat in the space of only a couple years. You could attribute this to the popularity of the Call of Duty franchise but, coming from someone who’s played all of their recent titles, Black Ops II really is that much better than the rest of them. Indeed checking out the sales stats since then for each of the respective platforms shows (apart from PC still being very much in the minority at around 4%) that it’s on track to outsell all of its predecessors in the space of about 2 to 3 months on each of its respective platforms. Should that happen it wouldn’t be the first Treyarch title to outsell Infinity Ward, but it would certainly cement their position as equal developers.
The question then becomes what this will mean for the Treyarch/Infinity Ward developer duality in the Call of Duty franchise. In all honesty I don’t think it’ll mean much overall, indeed each iteration of Call of Duty for the past couple generations has outsold the last, but the fervour at which fans adopted this most recent title was definitely a surprise for me even if I thought the quality was a definite jump up from Treyarch’s previous games. Indeed as long as the series keeps making money and breaking sales records I don’t think we’ll see any major changes in the franchise, either from an actual game play or developer perspective. For me it’s just interesting to see how the perceptions have changed over the past couple years as I’ve witness the back and forth between the two developers behind the biggest game franchise in the world and how a perceived duality in quality has, in essence, simply disappeared.
One of the things I really like about reviewing games is going back over my reviews when a sequel or another instalment in a franchise comes out. The Call of Duty series takes the top prize for being my most reviewed franchise with not 1, not 2 but 3 previous reviews which I can draw on directly for comparisons. For someone who used to avoid any game that was based around one war or another it’s interesting to see how quickly I came around once I started playing the Call of Duty series, being hooked after a single game. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is the latest instalment in the franchise from Treyarch and I must say that they’ve really outdone themselves this time, firmly placing themselves on the same level as Infinity Ward.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II takes place in the not too distant future of the USA in 2025. The story centres around David Mason, son of Alex Mason the main protagonist from the original Black Ops, who’s tracking down a known terrorist called Raul Menendez. Much of the story is recounted in flashbacks from an ageing Frank Woods who David Mason consult with to try and find out where Menedez is and what he might be up to. It’s through these flash backs that you start to make sense of some of the events of your past and understand why things certain things have happened and why you’re still alive to see them.
For a primarily console game I wasn’t expecting a major update in graphics from any of its predecessors as I believe they were tapping out the capabilities of the Xbox360 some time ago. Compared to Modern Warfare 3 this seems to be largely true with them both having similar levels of graphical detail. However if you compare it to Treyarch’s previous release there’s most definitely a step up which they’re to be commended for. If I’m honest whilst the graphics aren’t a massive improvement over Modern Warfare 3 they are a hell of a lot more smooth, especially when there’s a lot of action going on. For a game that is almost entirely fast paced action this is a very welcome improvement, especially when it comes to multiplayer (which I’ll touch on later).
If you’ve played any of the Call of Duty series you’ll know the basic breakdown of the game play that I’m about to give you. It’s a First Person Shooter and so you’ll spend the vast majority of your time running around, letting bullets loose at varying arrays of enemies and utilizing your additional equipment (like grenades, flash bangs and remote C4) to tip the scales in your favour. Thanks to the ability to customize your load out before starting a mission you can also tailor your experience somewhat by say favouring sniper rifles over close range spray ‘n’ pray type weapons. For what its worth I usually played with assault rifles and SMGs, preferring to run carelessly into battle while unleashing torrents of bullets at my foes.
Black Ops II, like nearly all other titles in the Call of Duty franchise, has their trademark FPS experience that’s so well polished that it just flows with an effortless grace. All the actions (running, jumping, shooting) just plain work like you expect them to. Whilst many other FPS type games will draw my ire for one core game play issue or another I really do find it hard to find fault with the fundamentals of any Call of Duty game. Arguably this is due to the ongoing success of the series which has been allowed to refine every element over the course of so many games but it still doesn’t fail to impress me, even after seeing it for the 4th time in as many years.
Treyarch has recognized that simply running from point A to point B and shooting everything along the way does get a little boring after a while and has included many different distractions along the way to break up the repetition. Shown above is just one of the many little set pieces they include (this one was actually fairly early on in the game) which was an extremely fun way to start the mission off. They have also included a second mission type called Strike Force which is very different from the usual missions and is more akin to a game like Natural Selection, blending RTS elements with FPS game play.
The Strike Force missions put you in control of a squad of marines, robots and flying drones that you will use to accomplish a mission. They’re all different, ranging from a defend the objective to rescuing and escorting someone out, and whilst you can treat it like a regular mission by taking control of one of the units directly you’ll need to issue orders to the other AIs constantly if you want to finish it successfully. If I’m honest I didn’t enjoy them that much at the start but after a while I really started to get into them, employing varying tactics and just loving being able to play with reckless abandon.
After all this praise I feel its appropriate to mention the few minor issues with Black Ops II that can lead to you having a bad time. Like nearly all FPS games that lump you with AI friends to help you out they are, for the most part, completely useless and will likely cause your death more often than they’ll save it. For instance I’ve seen my AI buddies run around corner and proceeded to think it was completely safe however since most of the other AIs won’t target them, only you, this can often mean that there’s someone hiding around the corner but they won’t trigger until you run into their line of sight. This is in addition to them getting in your way every so often which can cause your death when you’re trying to take cover or, more comically, fail a mission when they put their head in front of your sniper rifle (“Friendly fire will not be tolerated!” apparently).
I also had an issue with some of the triggers not going off, causing the game to get stuck at a particular point. The one I can remember clearly was when I was in the bunker just before the Celerium device. I walked in and reprogrammed an ASD to fight for me but after doing so my crew just sort of stood around, not doing anything. Try as I might to get them to move I simply couldn’t and since there’s no “restart from last checkpoint” option in the menu I opted for the tried and true jump on my own grenade to get back to my last checkpoint. After that everything worked as expected but it wasn’t an isolated incident and its something that’s been present in previous Call of Duty titles.
In a very surprising change to the Call of Duty formula you actually have quite a bit of agency in Black Ops II with the game playing out very differently should you make different choices at different times. They are, for the most part, unfortunately binary but there are other softer choices like completing the Strike Missions which will have an influence on how the last hours of the game plays out. The Black Ops II wiki page (SPOILER WARNING on that link) informs me that there’s no less than 5 separate endings available to you which is far more than you average FPS. That, combined with the fact that they’re not presented to you in Endotron 3000 style means that Black Ops II is quite a step up in terms of story.
The story in and of itself is quite enthralling too, even if the beginning confused me somewhat (although that’s somewhat typical for me in Call of Duty games, if I’m honest). I was nicely surprised by how progressive it seemed as well with many characters being female, including the President, and subtle references to current social ideals like the 99% vs the 1% and so on. After my good mate’s take down of the last Call of Duty’s story and lack of agency I had a much more critical eye on Black Ops II’s story than I have for any other game in the series and it makes me very happy to say that they’ve stepped up their game and my expectations were more than met.
The multi-player is pretty much what I’ve come to expect from Call of Duty games bringing back all the classic match up modes along side the newer ideas like Kill Confirmed. Unlike the original Black Ops which allowed you to choose a server Black Ops II instead uses the same match making system that Modern Warfare 3 did. Usually I’d make a note here about how this sucks (and there are still reasons why it does) but since it works and can usually find me a game in under a minute it’s hard to complain about it. Treyarch has also brought back the much loved Nuketown map which has been revamped for the modern era. They also took it away which led to quite the uproar from the community (many of whom preordered just to get said map) but they’ve since brought it back so kudos to them for listening.
There’s really not a lot that’s new or inventive about the multi-player in Black Ops II that I’ve seen yet with the experience system, upgrades and challenges all being very reminiscent of both Modern Warfare 3 and the original Black Ops. It’s kind of hard to improve on that formula since it works so well but those who are looking for a wholly new multiplayer experience ala Battlefield 3 will find themselves disappointed. However for those like me who love the fast paced, spammy action that maps like Nuketown bring you it’s more the same thing we’ve come to love and I still can’t get enough of it.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II catapults Teryarch up from the doldrums of being Infinity Ward’s poor cousin and firmly places them right at their side, showing that they’re quite capable of delivering a game that’s every bit as epic and enjoyable. The graphics are a great step up, the game play smooth and polished and the story is very fulfilling, a rarity in the FPS genre. The multiplayer might not be much different from its predecessors but it works well and is just as addictive as its predecessors which will see me spending many more hours on it. I thoroughly enjoyed my time both in the single and multi player parts of this game and should you be in the market for some top notch, AAA FPS action then you really can’t go past Black Ops II.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is available on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox360 right now for $89.99, $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on Veteran difficulty with 7.3 hours in single player unlocking 71% of the achievements and 2 hours in multiplayer. A review copy of the game was provided to The Refined Geek from Activision for the purposes of reviewing.
Today’s post comes to you courtesy of one of my long time friends and former blogger, David Wright. I’ve always been a fan of his writing for it’s impassioned, no holds barred style that reflects his real world self to a tee. Below he tackles a game I myself reviewed just a week ago, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. That’s all the introduction I’ll give as the article stands on its own and makes for some damn good reading.
Enter Dave W…
I got into an argument when MW3 came out with my friend, most notable Dave K who is generously posting this. I made the claim that knowing the trajectory of the series and the background for the companies who were designing and building the game precluded it of ever having a chance of it being any good. Dave countered with the simple fact I had not played the game. Fair call.
I decided to play through the whole single player and draw judgement then as from what I could tell the single player clocked in around the 4 hour mark if you had a pulse. I… ahem… acquired a copy and sat down on a Friday night resolute that I was going in with a clear mind, determined to just experience the game for what it was.
Brief backstory on the development behind the game because as much as I would try, I had made my original argument based on the history of the game franchise so I will try to quickly sum up. Call of Duty was a massive game franchise which is owned by Activision. It has been traded around their stable of devs teams for a while until the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was made by the company Infinity Ward. It was huge, suddenly Activision had another massive hit on their hands and in traditional Activision style they had to have a Call of Duty release each year. So Treyarch becomes the B team for Modern Warfare. They trade back and forth then at the end of MW2 some shenanigans go down over at Activision. The heads of Infinity Ward get called into a meeting with Activision while some heavies go and lock down their offices. They are fired. Before most people heard about this I assumed John Riccitiello, the head of EA, had a blank check and stupid grin on his face ready to go.
So the heads of IW leave to form a company with EA and start poaching everyone they want from IW. Now I am not saying what was left was the dregs but:
They stripped that company bare.
Every design lead? Almost half of the design team, primary art lead, both animation leads and pretty much the entire writing staff. Things did not look good for Infinity Ward. Add in the fact they have Activisions “You WILL ship a game on this deadline even though company morale does not exist.” Not enough staff? Fine, they bring in Sledgehammer games to help out which is a company that had not shipped a game yet. Through all this you have the rivalry of Treyarch always having to play second fiddle and now almost drooling, hoping IW slips up so Treyarch can take the MW crown.
With all this in the back of my mind I went in to Modern Warfare almost grimly determined to give the game a fair shake.
Keep in mind I have not finished either MW1 nor 2. So as to the story I had a shaky grasp of what was going on but did not know the finer points. Well neither did MW3 apparently. Thrown in to the start of the game and we are chasing after an Evil (with a capital E) Russian man who seems to completely elude us. There is a massive war raging through the United States and you get to flit between multiple characters to globe trot.
As the game starts out I am amazed at how good the engine looks. Everything looks busy and real, the battlefields feel alive and frantic. You cannot go more than a few check points before a building is hit by rockets and smashes to the road or tanks come out of nowhere and start messing with your day. There is always something going on.
Add in the fact the gun play and control is seriously second to none. Every shooter I have ever played gets held up to the gold standard of Counter Strike. I honestly put MW3’s control right up there easily level with CS. Everything feels responsive, there is the unconscious snap, the perfect recoil that you learn to counter act and it all feels right.
Okay, but what about the game itself? Well it seems to be full of tough men doing tough jobs. I know this because I get to see them work all the time. My character? They barely trust me to not kill myself. It was a few levels in and something had been niggling at the back of my mind since the beginning. I couldn’t put my finger on it until we fought our way to the top of a building to blow up a jamming radar tower. Fair enough. We get to the top and sure enough there is the tower. I run up to it and, nothing. I have no known way of destroying it. I shoot at it, nothing. Another enemy jumps out at me and I nail him in the head.
“Quick lay the charges!” shouts my mentally challenged leader.
Charges? I don’t have… I do now. My weapon has disappeared and I am holding a package of explosives. The glowing silhouette of the explosives is helpfully put on the tower. I run up and press my use key and I place them, now I have a detonator in my hand.
“Blow it!” Delivers the same deranged man.
Really? What happens if I don’t? Do I get a say in this? Do I get to actually participate in this game? I wander around the roof top for a while with the detonator in my hand while my squad leader repeats his two lines about blowing it up over and over. Finally putting the poor man out of his misery, thinking he should really lie down for a nap somewhere, I blow it up. The next scene triggers. Men come running out on the roof top next to us. A never ending stream of guys and I now magically have access to a guided missile system.
Does it matter if I kill them? Does the game care? Like a petulant child I go sit in the corner and ignore the strained cries from the men. An enemy helicopter shows up and I am told to blow it up. This advances to the next section and off we go.
I started to notice it then. That feeling I had since the beginning. I had nothing to do with this game. Everyone else was amazing; I was there to clean up after them. Everywhere you go you have Price or Soap or any of the other interchangeable burly men with, literally, the word “Follow” hovering above their heads in case you forget how to walk. It just got worse as the game went on.
A short section later I was following, Price I believe, sneaking along with silenced guns. A guard crosses our path so I nail him in the head “BHWWWAAMMMMmmmm Game over!” Shit, okay maybe I have to let him walk past without noticing us? I reload the game, same guard walks out I don’t shoot him, then Price steps up and runs through a takedown animation killing the guy. Ohh I was not supposed to kill him because only the NPC’s get to do any of the real work.
Another section as Price and I were sneaking into a castle for reasons mostly unknown to me and I was literally told when to walk, crawl, stop, sneak, stop again, take that guy out. This was around half way through the game and it was not so much holding my hand as keeping me on a choker leash, watching me like I was about to make a mess on the carpet.
The game has some amazing sections, running along and the world is falling apart around you. Speeding along in an inflatable boat escaping from a Russian submarine where you just launched all its missiles on their own fleet. But it never lets you actually DO anything. The game is just a point to point exercise where you are constantly being funnelled, herded and yelled at down the path being dictated to you as you get to watch everyone else do all the fun stuff.
With all this you have the, well it’s not bad story telling so much as mindless and incoherent. Why did we end up in this mine? Why is the Russians president’s daughter here? Wait, who am I playing as this time? There is a pathetic attempt at the old double cross where one of the main characters dies (I think he dies, maybe I just wished him dead) he informs the other grizzly hero, Price, that Yuri (the useless git you happen to be controlling at that point) knew the big Evil guy. Gasp! Price punches you out, which again as soon as it starts you lose all character control. Yuri then goes on to tell a one minute story.
“Ohh the Evil guy that everyone hates and wants to kill? Yeah I totally used to work for him! I didn’t tell you because I have a strange and debilitating disease that you also share because you are going to believe everything I am now saying.”
I am not sure if I should feel insulted that someone somewhere got paid to write this or that I am supposed to find this interesting.
As for people dying, as if sensing that it was as bad as it really was, MW3 tries for some poignant moments or at least moments where you are supposed to feel something. However each of these interactions seem to be written by an alien who was sent to study human culture and learnt about emotions from reading scripts of rejected 70’s cop drama’s.
How do they try to make you feel shock and fear at a terrorist gas attack? By putting you in control of a white human male filming his adorably white small girl child and his equally adorably white wife on their apparently fun trip to the city. While filming, the wife and child run up to a truck and turn and wave, calling for you to come closer. The game will just keep calling at you, it will not let you do anything else, there is nothing else for you to do but walk forward triggering the explosion and the lingering glimpse of your family being killed. It is so ham fisted and terrible, the game has not earned the gravitas, it has not earned the tone. It just feels pathetic.
So as the story line lurches to its conclusion and you are put into body after body with the word “Follow” forever floating in your sights, I pushed on. I got to see Price stealth kill people left and right, I got to see Soap take out entire battalions and dictate my every move. Near the end, during one of the briefings I learnt that, yes, YES! I was going to play as one of the big guys. Me! They were letting the beast off the chain; I could do what I wanted. I spawned, eager to lead my squad to glorious victory or hellish defeat, either way it was finally my call.
Instead, there stood Yuri, the ball less wonder who I always had to play as, always forced to follow along like a chastised puppy. I swear the git was grinning, what was that I could see?
A glowing sign floating above his head?
There’s really only one thing that stops me from playing most of the Call of Duty series on the day of their release and that’s simply the price. Whilst the games will more than pay for themselves in terms of hours played vs hours worked to acquire them I’m still never happy shelling out $80+ for the game on Steam when it costs a whole lot less in another country. For Call of Duty: Black Ops then I simply waited long enough until it went on sale for half off before grabbing it which I was much happier to shell out, even if the overseas store also received it at half price. Still I had had enough people bugging me to get into this game ever since its release that I figured there had to be something good about it and strangely enough I’ve also been suckered into the multiplayer, something I usually avoid with these kinds of games.
Call of Duty: Black Ops takes place during the cold war with the vast majority of the missions being recounted in flash backs by the main character, Alex Mason. At the beginning you awake in an interrogation room, strapped into a chair and wired to an electric shock device. Your captures then start questioning you about the location of a numbers station and attempt to jog your memory by running you through past events and occasionally jolting you. If I’m honest I really don’t like having stories retold in flash backs as too often its used as an easy way to patch together a plot that’s made up of otherwise incongruent elements. It’s still serviceable however and if we’re honest with ourselves here no one is buying this game based solely on the plot of the single player campaign.
The cold war setting does make for some extremely interesting environments for the story to play out in. Whilst there’s no gratuitous space scenes like its predecessor there are an incredible amount of what I called “treat” scenes that just seemed to be in there to wow the player with eye candy and action hero style antics. The screenshot above is one of these such scenes where Mason is tasked with stopping the Soviet Union from launching Soyuz 1 and 2 with the mission culminating in shooting a prototype missile at the already launched craft. That’s not even the most ludicrous scene that plays out in Call of Duty: Black Ops but it was one of my most guilty pleasures in the game.
The Call of Duty series has done extremely well with creating a game experience where you feel both like the hero and part of something much greater all at the same time. Whilst I’m not adversed to being the lone hero in games I’ve found myself enjoying games that make you feel like a part of a bigger picture. The first game to get this feeling just right was Freelancer where in one of the later missions you join up with a large fleet as part of the final series of missions. Black Ops manages to recreate this feeling consistently with you almost never being alone and in many cases being surrounded by your fellow men, powering forward towards your goal.
The game play itself is nothing revolutionary but Treyarch have done their best to make sure that all of Black Ops isn’t just one long cover based shooter. Whilst you will be spending the vast majority of your time ducking in and out of cover in order to take out an inordinate amount of resistance there are several sections where you’ll be doing something out of the ordinary. Such things range from flinging explosives from hand made catapults to guiding soldiers on the ground from the cockpit of a SR-71 Blackbird. For the most part they’re welcome breaks from the almost constant combat that takes place but some proved to be more progression blockers than anything, especially if you missed the cue to do something out of the ordinary.
One such event was a section of the Vietnam missions where you’re fighting your way down an embankment. The actual goal of this particular section was to kick barrels of napalm in order to clear out the section up ahead. However if you’re like me you would have thought that it was just another run and gun section so I instantly made a break for a machine gun nest so that I could cover the rest of my team mates. Doing so took me out of ear shot of my companion who was instructing me to kick the barrels and thus I spent about 30 mins wondering why the game would put in a section with practically unlimited enemies in it. I eventually came within earshot and figured it out, but it still felt like there should have been an on screen prompt for those like me who might have been a bit too keen to man the guns.
Unlike it’s predecessor though I didn’t feel the same level of immersion with Call of Duty: Black Ops. I think this can be put down to the way the story was presented as each section stood pretty well on its own so that the breaks between them with the interviews felt like good places to stop if I felt even the slightest bit bored with it. Couple that with the epicness fatigue (I.E. after everything being so epic for so long you just don’t feel it anymore) you’ll undoubtedly suffer and the single player mission in Black Ops is best enjoyed in shorter bursts of 1~2 hours. That being said you’ll more than likely be done with the entire game in 5 sittings in doing that, so it’s not the worst thing in the world.
Once the single player is over however many of Call of Duty: Black Ops’ players will spend many more hours in the multi-player, and rightly so. Realistically the single player of any Call of Duty game is the hook with which to draw people into multi as that’s where the player base spends the vast majority of its time. Coming into a multi-player game this late in it’s release was something I wasn’t looking forward to, thinking that I’d do a couple hours just for the review and then be done with it before I raged like I used to back in my Counter Strike days. Strangely enough though I found myself quite enjoying the multi-player experience, to the point of playing it for as long as I had played the single player.
If you’ve played any Call of Duty (or any multi-player FPS for that matter) the game modes that are available in Black Ops will be familiar to you. Indeed not much about it differs from previous Call of Duty games with the persistent levels and ability to customize your class being the main hooks that keep people coming back. I knew this getting into it, figuring that I’d be slaughtered for the couple hours I dared touch multi. However even with an uncustomized class I found myself being quite competitive and it didn’t take me long to get the required levels to unlock some decent kit and create my own class. By the end I felt I was nigh unstoppable with my character being almost grenade proof, able to take out enemies both near and far and even topping the servers a few times. I still find myself going back for a round or two every so often when I’ve got some time spare, and I think I will keep doing so for a while to come.
The question I keep asking myself is: was it worth missing out on this for so long just to save $40? Considering I had so many other games to play at the time I didn’t really miss playing Call of Duty: Black Ops but suffice to say those who were pestering me to play this game gave up long before I bought it and I haven’t seen one of them playing it since. Still despite that the game was very enjoyable and even managed to reverse my stance of not bothering with the multi-player in these kinds of games. In hindsight it would’ve been worth the cost of admission had I got it on day dot but I guess when principles and my wallet are both hit at the same time it’s enough to override my other impulses, no matter how strong they are.
Call of Duty: Black Ops might not break any new gaming ground or try very hard at being original but it’s still a blast to play, especially when you play it online. It’s not often that a game makes it into my bag of titles that I’ll come back to when I just want to blow an hour or two on something fun but I feel like Black Ops will be there for a while now, at least until the next one comes out. So if you’re a long time fan of the Call of Duty series or just FPSs in general you won’t go wrong with Black Ops and even if you’re not there’s still a good 8 hours of single player to be had, more than enough for gamers in today’s market.
Call of Duty: Black Ops is available right now on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 for $79, $68 and $68 respectively. Game was played on the second hardest difficulty setting with around 8 hours of total game time. Mutliplayer was played on multiple Australian servers with my most favored game mode being Team Deathmatch on Nuketown with around 6 hours of total play time and reaching level 18.