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Call of Duty: Black Ops
Score: 90%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1; 2 - 18 (Online)
Genre: First Person Shooter/ Action

Graphics & Sound:
I wasn't incredibly impressed with Treyarch's last outing in the Call of Duty universe, World at War, and followed their latest effort, Call of Duty: Black Ops with mere professional curiosity. Even after a closed-doors showing at E3 2010, I kept my distance.

As I see it, I owe Treyarch mad props. Though a bit derivative and lacking in serious upward movement, Call of Duty: Black Ops is a great entry in the series.

Though quality has, until now, ebbed based on developer, the Call of Duty franchise has never failed when it comes to offering a grand spectacle of lights and sounds. Black Ops absolutely dazzles when it comes to presentation. Characters look great; environments are varied and - gasp! - colorful... this is easily one of the series' more impressive offerings.

However, the one element that stands out above everything else is the animation. Facial modeling is realistic to the point of being creepy and helps to infuse just a little more emotion into scenes (now if only the same could be done for gameplay). I especially liked the improved enemy hit areas. Rather than drop to the default "leg hit" animation, reaction animations are based on where enemies were hit. Animations are still, as far as I can tell, canned, but shooting some in the knee looks different than shooting them in the upper leg.

Treyach drafted an all-star cast to fill out Black Ops' cast of characters. Sam Worthington dons an American accent to portray main character Alex Mason, while Gary Oldman once again jumps into the role of World at War's Viktor Reznov.

The non-star studded voices are just as good, but characters talk way too much during battle. Nearly everyone you're teamed up with is a Chatty Cathy. I could stand the excessive talking if it meant something, but often its just needless filler that, on occasion, overlaps over important information like what you're supposed to do next.

Music jumps between great and "meh." I loved the orchestral score running throughout the campaign, but could have done without "Fortunate Son" and "Sympathy for the Devil" showing up in certain areas. I get the concept, but the choices (at least "Fortunate Son"), by now, are almost cliché. Surely other songs came out during the era, right? At least you only hear it once.

Beginning in the 1960's, Call of Duty: Black Ops's campaign takes you through a good chunk of the Cold War as an elite operative trying to piece together a series of numbers that, ultimately, will help you solve a much larger puzzle. The story is told though a series of interrogations, which helps add context as well as serve as a way to shuttle you between locales including Cuba, Vietnam and Russia.

Though engaging and well-told, single-player is, without question, the weakest link in the chain. The interrogation angle isn't particularly original, but my main concerns are the missions. They're great at placing a bunch of scripted events in front of you to draw out some sort of dramatic tension (or at least offer a massive action set piece), but it was never enough to add conflict and choice-fueled tension that games excel at creating. The theme offers some intriguing spots to really explore some interesting narrative space, but is gun shy.

Level design is non-existent. You run down a corridor, enter a scripted firefight... it's the same throughout most of the experience. Frankly, the experience was too scripted; I never felt in control of anything and more times than not, I felt like I was simply going through an incredibly violent theme-park ride.

Despite the linearity, Black Ops deserves credit for mixing things up. Although you spend a huge hunk of the seven-hour campaign roaming hallways, there are opportunities to fly helicopters, drive motorcycles and even work in a little stealth action. These moments break the monotony of shooting, but also feel organic to the experience. There's a reason for doing everything, it's not just here because of some arbitrary "genre rule."

Though single-player will hold you as long as it takes to complete it, it's the additional play modes that will keep you playing for a long, long time.

Competitive multiplayer is, as always, Call of Duty: Black Ops's crown jewel. For the most part, gameplay is exactly the same as previous editions, but with a all-new Currency and Experience system, which we'll look at a little later. Needless to say, it changes up things just enough to keep matches interesting for even hardcore vets.

Multiplayer matches also toss in a number of play variants. The most interesting of the bunch is One in the Chamber, where you're given three lives and one bullet. The only way to receive another shot is to score a hit, setting up some incredibly tense situations. Another fun twist is Gun Game. Here, kill streaks are rewarded with better guns. The mode is a blast, though it does skew itself towards more experienced players.

Many of the new match types tie into Wager Matches. Before the match, players can bet (with points) on how well they'll do in the match. At the end, scores are tallied and the top three players get their cut of the pot. I can see Wager Matches becoming the next "big thing" for players with something to prove. If not, I'll be really disappointed with the usually mouthy multiplayer community.

For players who want to show off even more, there's Theater, which lets you piece together videos of your games and upload them to the web.

Black Ops also offers a four-player co-op zombie mode similar to the one found in World at War. As with the previous version, the idea is to team up with friends and survive waves of zombies. Between my friends, this was easily the favorite mode of the bunch and enough to push me to purchase the 360 version just so I'd be able to play with my 360-owning friends. If that doesn't serve as a ringing endorsement, I don't know what else could.

Finally, there's Arcade Mode, a power-up based topdown shooter mode. Honestly, I had more fun here than I did with single-player and place it second only to Zombies for outright fun factor.

Mutliplayer is such a big part of the Call of Duty: Black Ops experience, that I would hesitate to recommend players purchase it if they don't intend to at least give one of the multiplayer modes a chance. However, the multiplayer experience can be an incredibly intimidating experience - particularly for newcomers. Combat Training is meant to help offset the intimidation factor and hopefully reduce the barrier of entry for new players. The mode is set up similar to multiplayer matches, but replaces human opponents with A.I. opponents set at various skill levels.

Though A.I. opponents don't quite match up to what human opponents will throw at you, the mode is a great starter option. As you progress through the mode, you earn experience and unlock new items. Although restricted to Combat Training only, the unlocks serve as a nice gateway drug and, hopefully, should get more people to give online play a shot.

Single-player is tricky, but unless you're attempting to tackle the game in Veteran or Hardened, it isn't incredibly difficult. I was able to blast through the game on Regular with only a handful of deaths, most of which were attributed to just trying to figure out what to do or attempting to snag a Trophy.

Game Mechanics:
Getting back to the new multiplayer mechanics, Currency adds a different spin on the usual way of earning guns for your pre-game loadout. Experience is still awarded for every kill as well as other on-field achievements. As you level up, you'll still gain levels, opening up new weapon tiers and other ways to customize your multiplayer arsenal. Currency changes things up a bit by requiring you to purchase unlocked items if you want to add them to your loadout.

At first, the setup sounds incredibly cheap and against the spirit of doing well in multiplayer matches. However, the idea is to give players access to better loadout options at lower levels, as well as offering some freedom in what they get. Instead of earning a bunch of guns, perks and other items you'll never use, you're able to only pick up what you want. The better you do in matches, the more points you'll have to spend. Points are incredibly cool and carry over into other match types. They're what you wager during Wager Matches (which is why I expect the mode to explode in the community), but also add a new type of in-game mechanic, Contracts.

Contracts come in three types (Mercenary, Operations, and Specialist) and are selected from a rotating list every day. During matches, you can pay for the "right" to chase down a certain goal, such as getting X number of kills with a particular weapon. You can have up to three active at any time and completing them earns a massive payout.

Contracts are incredibly addictive once you begin to see the points roll in. They hit the same competitive nerve center as Trophies (or even Facebook games, if you want to go that far), but offer something tangible in return. It's also great to see how well integrated they are across the entire experience. They also help to encourage players to actually play the game rather than camping.

Treyarch has evened the playfield even more by changing up certain Perks and adding more parity to weapons selection. As of yet, there's no super weapon or ultimate loadout that everyone is gunning for. Instead, there's a bit more variety, adding something new to multiplayer matches. Even some of the more powerful Kill Streak Rewards have been scaled back.

Maybe the methodical distance I kept from the game had something to do with it, but I had more fun with Call of Duty: Black Ops than I originally expected. Though I was more interested in the peripheral modes than the core campaign, even that was something I wanted to go back to until I completed it.

Overall, Call of Duty: Black Ops is a more than competent shooter with enough to it that, despite its linearity, still offers a fantastic experience that will keep you busy for a while.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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