Call of Duty: Black Ops Review
Posted by Jon Wahlgren
Back in black
The Call of Duty series has come a long way from its humble origins as a Medal of Honor competitor, now standing as a world-conquering video game superpower able to clear release calendars with the mere threat of its presence in a month. On HD platforms, that is, with Nintendo's little white box relegated to answering the call in a much more limited fashion.
But oh, how far Wii've come from the barebones launch port of Call of Duty 3, with each successive entry bridging the feature gap. World at War brought a limited online multiplayer component, and Modern Warfare Reflex fleshed it out for an admirably close port... two years after the game originally released elsewhere and on the day its direct sequel came out (still waiting on that one, by the way).
This time around, Treyarch has topped Reflex in feature parity with the Wii version of Black Ops, plopping the most robust multiplayer suite the Wii has yet seen in a shooter with virtually every feature intact in some capacity. And yes, that includes zombie Nazis.
Regardless of platform, Black Ops is Treyarch's chance to rid itself of the Call of Duty "off-year" label it's been stuck with, and it does so splendidly by way of one of, if not the, best campaign stories the series has ever had and clever new additions to the franchise's stagnating multiplayer formula.
Black Ops is set against the backdrop of the Cold War, starting with an American assassination attempt on Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs and a subsequent tour through the Vietnam War among other locales. Unlike past games where the story weaved between American, British and Russian forces, Black Ops largely focuses on one man: special forces operative Alex Mason. The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks as Mason is interrogated by unknown persons, mostly following his exploits as well as a handful of supporting characters. While the action is still fairly bombastic, Treyarch does a better job than Infinity Ward at creating a believable action movie plot — especially after the ridiculous black holes of Modern Warfare 2's script. The entire single-player package buys into the setting wholesale; even the little things, like intel collected in stages to restore text redacted from classified documents, do a lot to sell the story.
Series veterans will find that Black Ops plays by and large just like every other Call of Duty game, with tons of scripted events and action sequences that play out in the way for which the series is known and copied. The biggest addition to the campaign is a helicopter that appears during the Vietnam section, so if you've tired of Call of Duty gameplay and brand of action then you'll not find much new here to convince you otherwise. If you're not, you'll find plenty to love.
And if you're here for the multiplayer (which, let's face it, you probably are), you'll likely find something new to love among the wealth of additions. The biggest fundamental change is related to unlocking weapons, perks and equipment: the new CoD Point currency. Instead of being automatically added to your arsenal at specific stages, items are now made available at certain levels and must be purchased with CoD Points for use. This allows you to buy only what you want to use and build up a character suitable to your own play style much quicker than before, but on the flipside it kills some of the incentive to level up further once you're able to buy the equipment you want. Better weapons and perks unlock the higher you go, but if you don't have your heart set on them then you might peak equipment-wise earlier than you otherwise would. For those in need of some practise and tips for multiplayer, there's a separate training mode to help you learn the ropes and not get crushed online if this is your first Call of Duty game.
Apart from normal gameplay, you can boost your CoD Point earnings through Contracts or Wager Matches. Contracts are a great way to add a little extra excitement to your matches: each contract costs a certain amount of Points and if you complete the given task in the time limit given (say, get 25 kills with a certain weapon in 40 minutes of in-match time) you're rewarded with many more Points and even an XP bonus depending on the contract. If you fail to complete the task, then you've lost those Points you invested. Available contracts cycle every few hours so there's usually something new for you to attempt. Wager Matches are new buy-in match types that reward winners with extra Points. Our favourite is One in the Chamber, an intense six-player game of three lives and one-shot kills — the twist is that every player gets a pistol with one bullet, and to get more ammo you need to kill another player.
If you're more of the cooperative type then you can head online (or play offline by yourself) for the popular four-player Zombies mode making its first appearance on Wii. Here you'll need to work together to take out never-ending waves of time-travelling undead Nazis while buying new weapons, rebuilding barricades and generally shooting a lot of things. While welcome, it's a bit disappointing that Wii gamers only get one Zombies map on the disc, but Treyarch's promise of downloadable content through the Wii Shop Channel means that more may come down the line.
Another nice thing about the online modes is that they essentially sidestep all of the things that have given Wii multiplayer a bad name. Friend requests can be made in lobbies without having to send Ally Codes, and you don't have to punch in a 12-digit number to talk to anyone if you use the new Headbanger Headset. Wii Speak owners are out of luck, though, as Black Ops doesn't support that mic. In short, the online experience on Wii is as close as can be to other platforms.
That being said, not all is equal. There are still no killcams, and matches being limited to five on five means that some of the maps feel much too large. A handful of new killstreaks were nixed, as were custom emblems on weapons. Treyarch put in Classic Controller support, and it feels for the most part just the same using a pad scheme on other consoles, although button layout isn't entirely 1:1 due to the lack of clickable analogue sticks — sprint and jump share a button and melee replaces weapon switching, which is now done on the D-Pad. It's still perfectly playable once you're used to it, and pointer players will be happy to learn that those controls feel rock solid with the same degree of customisation as before.
Weapons and explosions sound powerful, and the voice cast puts in generally strong performances. Alex Mason is voiced by Sam Worthington and sounds pretty much like every other role Worthington has ever played. Modern Warfare Reflex did an admirable job downscaling the HD game to the Wii's lesser hardware, and Black Ops is a further step above. Shading and particle effects seem to have gotten a boost and the world looks quite nice running on Wii hardware, although the framerate dips a bit during certain scenes. There are some noticeable cut corners here and there, but nothing that detracts too much. It doesn't look as good as GoldenEye 007, but then again Black Ops wasn't developed with the Wii's strengths in mind.
Thanks to an excessively robust feature suite and developers not treating the console with kid gloves, you're not going to find a finer online multiplayer shooter on Wii than Call of Duty: Black Ops. Solo players looking for an action-packed romp with a strong story will have a grand ol' time digging in to the game's eight-ish hour campaign, and anyone in between will lose hours cracking zombies over the head. Black Ops on Wii may not be the best version of the game out there, but for the console it is unparalleled.