Review by tpolimen

"Treyarch Finally Measures Up Against It's Infinity Ward Cousin"

Call of Duty: Black Ops really does stand far above the other creations that Treyarch has deposited upon the world of gaming. The real question, however, was not how it stood up to it's bloodline predecessors but, instead, how it stacks up against Infinity Ward's monster franchise enhancing juggernaut, Modern Warfare 2. The answer to this question is, in short, Black Ops 100% stands toe to toe with MW2, and even surpasses it in some regards.

Now, before I go on with the review of Black Ops, it is important to acknowledge its biggest handicap, which, ironically, is its biggest boon, Modern Warfare 2. Having time to tweak components of their own game, while cooperating with Infinity Ward's own resources, Treyarch was able to model their own creation on one of the biggest FPS titles ever while avoiding some of MW2's own pitfalls. The drawback to this advantage is, however, that Black Ops lacks much of the freshness or originality and technical leap that MW2 enjoyed. It certainly does earn the moniker "Modern Warfare 2.5", but most of that patronizing nickname is derived from the graphics and general mechanics of the game (though most FPS are generic in their control set up).

The single player offering from Black Ops is an interesting one and, honestly, followed a path I did not see coming. While I applaud its mechanic, which will become obvious as you embark on your various Black Ops around the world, it seems as if this is one facet where Treyarch tried to hard to mimic the Modern Warfare formula and not improve on it. In a storyline that has an almost forced tie to World At War, you trek across the glove as an operator on various Black Ops combating communism. The campaign is all we have come to expect from Infinity Ward but now can expect from Treyarch as well. Dynamic, graphically enthralling, and loaded with impeccable voice acting. It also keeps with the tradition of being rather short, 8-10 hours on Hardened or Veteran, but very satisfying.

Single player, however, like many of the iterations before Black Ops, is not the bread and butter of this game. As we all know it is the blockbuster and densely populated multiplayer offering made famous by the original Modern Warfare that has the masses clamoring. Expanded significantly in Modern Warfare 2, Treyarch had some gigantic shoes to fill.That being said, Black Ops, for me, has bested its cousin.

The introduction of the monetary system puts the responsibility on the player's own thrifty or gratuitous nature to determine what their arsenal includes. In many cases, you have the interesting conversation, especially early on in the levels where cash is scarce, where you will be consulting with friends on which gun is worth buying and what attachments make it even more deadly. Also, the purchase system, while it still depends on "grinding" or leveling up to unlock the ability to purchase items, has completely eliminated the need to grind WITHIN a gun.

What I mean to say is you don't have to get 60 kills with the ACOG to unlock the Thermal scope, which is a very welcomed change, on your favorite sniper rifle. Instead, save up, unlock the gun, then buy the thermal and you are good to go. There is no bothersome or needless "grinding" with guns to get the attachments you want.

Staying with the subject that, invariably, is the most important facet of any first person shooter are the weapons. Black Ops does a fantastic job in making most of the weapons enjoy a nice, even balance, for the most part. Level design has somewhat handicapped the Sniper rifles in Black Ops, which lacks any real wide open maps or significant vantage points that are not bullet magnets.

Along those same lines, sub machine guns, a less popular class in MW2, has emerged as one of the two premier classes in Black Ops (along with assault rifles). It's hard to explain but it seems like the maps in Black Ops have many more corners and smaller spaces where the fire rate and mobility of the sub machine gun classes are ideal. So much so that, really, the only gun that I could peg as overpowered in the game is the AK-74u, a sub machine gun. As always, the heavy handed Light Machine guns are lurking around the corner and have their place in objective based games or more defensive minded players.

Rounding out the primary weapon classes is an aggressive move from Treyarch to make Shotguns a primary, instead of secondary, weapon. Unlike the Sniper rifles, who's niche seems to have been replaced in favor of the more flexible semi automatic rifles (FN FAL and M14), Shotguns can thrive as a specialized weapon and a skilled player with a shotgun can hold a strategic house or location rather well on most maps.

The introduction of the monetary system in Black Ops, while early on compared as a catch up tactic to Halo:Reach's own currency, far surpasses that game in the impact that it has on the title. The currency system has, effectively, eliminated boosting, since many of the higher emblem and playercard unlocks are based off of level, not arbitrary challenges. However, instead of scrapping challenges, Treyarch ingeniously kept them in the game as both passive and active iterations.

What I mean by that is there are challenges, as there have been in the game since the original Modern Warfare, that give experience point bonuses (300 kills with the M16, 5 kills with the Ballistic Knife, etc) that just accumulate as players engage in matches. However, Treyarch has also added a feature called "Contracts", where players use their hard earn currency to take on challenges that have an in game time limit on them. This can range from as simple as "Knife an enemy in the back" to "Get 16 Headshots with a Sniper Rifle" to "Be the Highest Scoring Player in Domination 3 times". Obviously, the harder the challenge, the more expensive to purchase and the bigger the pay out. While this is similar to Halo:Reach's challenges, instead of being dictated by Treyarch like Reach is dictated by Bungie, the player's decide what they want to shoot for and the contracts can either be of the once a day variety or refresh in as quick as an hour. It is a nice and subtle touch that makes the game all the more engaging.

Coming back to Multiplayer, Treyarch took the same purchase mentality to the Perks in Black Ops while overhauling some of the more overpowered. Pro versions of the Perks are accomplished by achieving three separate (challenges) which will then unlock the Pro version, available for purchase of course.

Other subtle moves were made of course, like moving claymores from replacements for grenades to an equipment slot access by hitting up on the D-pad. Not only was this change made, but you can actually pick up your deployed claymore if you are moving from location to location, a nice strategic touch. The killstreaks, now also up for purchase at any point no longer their own separate arbitrary level unlock, are well balanced but, most importantly, do not stack.

This change, alone in my mind, makes Black Ops superior to Modern Warfare 2. While they are, no doubt, key in winning many a match, the fact that the killstreaks do not stack means you no longer have everyone running around with a Predator Missile, Harriers, and Chopper Gunner. It gives players the freedom to choose their killstreaks and then concentrate, not on amassing 5 kills and then camping to climb toward their lofty killstreak goal, but on getting kills with their weapon. It has, in my opinion, made the online gameplay much more engaging and, along with the lack of good fields of fire, has severely limited the most hated of all FPS strategies, camping.

The lack of stacking also made Treyarch limit the killstreaks more attainable, dropping the highest kill count required (without Hardline, of course) from 25 (the now defunct and boost loving Nuke) to 11 (Attack Dogs, coming out of the kennel from World At War and the piloted Attack Helicopter).

Probably the second most important facet of any FPS are the maps that it boasts and Black Ops is no slouch, but neither is it really a game changer. For the most part, the maps seem a bit tighter and busier than Modern Warfare 2. As I mentioned earlier, no favors are done to our peers who favor the sniper rifle. The maps do allow for some epic pitched battles to take place, especially in Domination or Sabotage games. Spawn trapping also seems to have been eliminated, or at least greatly reduced. Unfortunately, Treyarch's solution to stop spawn trapping seems to be sporadic, seemingly random spawning which can lead to quick kills from enemies who weren't behind you one second but were lucky enough to pop in just in time to pop you.

While there are no maps as of yet (barring Nuketown on Demolition, which is too small for that game type and lends itself to an all out softball game of frag grenades) that have horrendous spawns or obvious spawn trap points.(one should remember Crash, where getting trapped in A was a veritable loss or Bog from the original Modern Warfare where no one crossed that invisible line marked by the yellow school bus). The game also has some interesting environment interactions that can lead to some interesting stratagems (opening a missile hatch on Radiation for example, where the B flag in domination rests peacefully). All that being said, Black Ops is more of the same from the Call of Duty franchise, serviceable multiplayer maps that contain the excellently crafted multiplayer.

As far as customization is concerned, Black Ops definitely has pushed the envelope as far as the COD franchise has. Enabling players to create their own, extremely intricate emblems is an entertaining, and potentially time consuming, diversion as well as choosing one's playercard background. With a multitude of attachments, camo, and the ability to scratch in your clan tag and emblem, no gun in Black Ops may look the same.

However, where weapon customization excels, character customization is a bit lacking. Granted, it is a calling to our vanity that we are concerned about what our character looks like in a FPS but, nonetheless, that impulse is there. Instead of being determined by what gun the player carries (a la MW2), the way your character will look to your friends and enemies in Black Ops comes from your first perk. It's variable enough but the amount of weapon customization compared to character is laughably one sided.

The last component of Multiplayer I'll discuss are the Wager matches. Again, enabled by the currency system, Treyarch has put in game types that should finally help video game and gambling addicts merge wonderfully. Though the game types get dull fast, they quickly become frantic once the stakes are raised. Hardly worth a glance at its bottom tier, a paltry 10 credit buy in, that "boring" Sticks and Stones game becomes a completely different animal with a 10,000 credit buy in. Once more, a nice, unique, and welcomed diversion from the main, well done, but clearly tried and tested Multiplayer.

All in all, Black Ops is a very welcomed addition to the COD pedigree. Boasting what I believe to be the franchise's best multiplayer, it has a balance that is very hard to find in FPS. The currency system will lead to a revolution in triple A First Person Shooters and, for now, Black Ops is the pinnacle of its utilization. Where as Reach's currency focus is more of a badge of honor, allowing you to don coveted and expensive gear, tactically, it has no effect on the game. This is the polar opposite of Black Ops, where your purchases determine how you play the game. While not as buggy as Modern Warfare 2 at launch, Black Ops is still want of dedicated servers, is prone to exaggerated lag and glitches. One can only wonder why open beta has still eluding the COD franchise but, maybe, they are saving that ace up their sleeve for Modern Warfare 3 which, if it takes its cues from Black Ops and avoids its shortcomings, may be the best FPS ever.

+ The loved Modern Warfare formula with a lack of its glitches, bugs, and overpowered implements
+ Satisfying Single Player Campaign despite the somewhat forced World at War connection
+ Weapon Balance
+ Superb sound design and voice acting
+ Weapon Customization

- Snipers will have a tough time in Black Ops
- In following the Infinity Ward formula, Treyarch may have missed some areas of improvement and compromise quality for originality
-No dedicated Servers

Overall: 9/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 11/18/10

Game Release: Call of Duty: Black Ops (US, 11/09/10)

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