I genuinely cannot believe that it’s almost been 6 years since Call of Duty Black Ops was introduced to the world. The game still (in my mindset at least) feels like it was just announced yesterday, with it’s weird mid-60’s era warfare being quite new and revelatory for the time. But alas, here we are 6 years later, and with myself having never given the game a go. For someone that was a fan of the series (I specifically asked for COD 2 for christmas one year, loving the series that much), I was never that interested in the concept of Black Ops. Maybe it was because, to me at least, the series was trying too hard. Modern Warfare was astounding, and it’s follow up, Modern Warfare 2 was just as good, so I suppose I just couldn’t be bothered with what felt like a stand in for a fully fledged game between games. But in dismissing Black Ops as an off-shoot, did I miss anything? Yes and No. Let me elaborate.
Black ops makes sure you know it’s trying to tell it’s own story, and is trying to create characters you fall in love with (just like the whole world did with Captain Price). From the offset you’re given a mysterious premise to the game, that there’s numbers that need decrypting, and it’s up to mason to crawl back through his memories to find out what they mean. This mystery takes you from one place to another, and is actually a good way to explain why Black Ops takes place in such a variety of places.
You fight in the jungles of Vietnam, the island of Cuba, the harsh winters of Russia, and even see the Pentagon during your travels, and whilst Black Ops’ graphics is certainly starting to show its age, I for one enjoyed the attention to detail given to each locale. My only gripe is the Call of duty engine itself, which not only makes shooting enemies feel hollow (I can’t count the amount of times I wasn’t sure whether my shot landed or not), but also does a bad job of lighting environments, resulting in characters looking “plastic-ey”, especially when you’re up close to them during intense story moments.
Those moments are few and far between, because for the most part you’re going to be mowing down countless amounts of enemies as they swarm towards you in open areas. The typical COD action is present throughout, with the ante constantly being upped whilst more and more enemies swarm your way. One advantage Black Ops had over other titles in the series is it’s ability to give narrative as to why you’re in all these different circumstances. Underground fighting Vietcong? There’s plans under there which lead back to the soviets and their Weapon of Mass Destruction. In a Lockheed Blackbird guiding troops through Russia? There’s a plant nearby that manufacturers deadly gas. It all ties together quite nicely to be honest. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few moments which felt like tropes (the guiding of people from a Lockheed was one of them), but overall Black Ops done a good job of explaining why you were in each location.
The gunplay as ever was entertaining and constant. Any downtime between gunfights was great for receiving narrative relating to the story, but overall the variety of weapons to use and abuse was staggering, and enjoyable for the most part. As I mentioned before, the game engine was annoying in so-far as not communicating to the player whether an enemy was hurt or killed, but overall I enjoyed mowing down thousands of enemies with different weapons. There’s a reason players keep coming back to COD after all these years, and the gunplay is certainly the main one.
It should be noted here that on PC, the gamepad was not an enjoyable controller to use in Black Ops. I for one prefer using a controller on PC games (call me a peasant all you want, to each their own I say), but found it impossible to do so in Black ops. It just felt wrong, no matter how much I changed up the settings, each and every kill just felt weird or lucky, never as though I had any skill. Half way through the campaign I switched to keyboard and mouse and felt a hell of a lot better for doing so. Take heed if you’re like me and prefer controllers, Black Ops may say it supports gamepads, but it does not feel nice at all.
I spoke of the story/mystery earlier on in this review, so how does it play out? Overall Black Ops does a genuinely good job of intriguing the player, and introducing enough likeable characters that you feel bad should they be hurt. The cold war setting is a point rarely explored in games, so to see key figures from the era (like Kennedy) rendered within the engine was a delight. Plot points come frequently, and whilst the main twist in the campaign was predictable from a mile off, it still done a good job of upping the ante throughout the campaign. The conclusion is also satisfying, albeit with the caveat that you can’t help but think the developers left the franchise open to a sequel in two years time.
A big gripe I do have with the PC version is it’s lack of extra settings to truly use the power of the platform. The graphics engine is clearly made for consoles, and it’s a shame that my PC could easily run the game at over 140fps, especially given the fact Treyarch (the developers) have experience with PC gaming in the past.
Oh, and before I come to the summary, I’m glad Treyarch brought the Zombies mode back for Black Ops. Whilst I didn’t give it a go on PC too much (it’s more of a co-operative mode), I’m glad it exists; I have so many fond memories of killing zombies whilst trying to survive with Uni friends.
So in conclusion, 6 years on I can see why Black Ops was actually seen as the one true competitor to Infinity Wards behemoth Modern Warfare series. They set up some memorable characters, and some plot points that truly standout compared to the stories of other Call of Duty games, and all whilst maintaining the fantastic 60fps gameplay everyone knows and loves. Just be warned if you now wish to play the game since reading this review: Activision RARELY reduce the price of their games. The only reason I have Black Ops 1 and 2 on PC is because of a Steam summer sale. If you still want to give the game a go, get it from amazon; it’s still $40 on Steam.