Call Of Duty: Black Ops Review

Format: 360 (version tested), PC, PS3
Release: Out now
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch

Screenshot gallery

Playing a new Call Of Duty can feel a little like Groundhog Day. Activision banks on it. The increasingly familiar hype campaign is launched, record pre-orders follow, and this year’s update waltzes to the top of the Christmas charts. But Black Ops has an extra importance as the first Treyarch game since the Infinity Ward unpleasantness, and the narrative arc fed to the press is simple: this is going to be the B-team stepping up and knocking it for six. Like all action blockbusters, Black Ops should be a feel-good story.

The ambitious campaign focuses largely on a special forces operative named Alex Mason, an unlucky soul whose life consists of being shot at, being tortured or breaking down. One rare cutscene combines all three. It’s a setup for short and snappy singleplayer missions, a connecting thread that Treyarch uses to flit between time periods and perspectives on what’s going on.

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It’s a neat idea, shuttling you between humid jungles, Arctic bunkers and vehicle sections. Unfortunately, the mission design fails to do it justice. Black Ops takes the ‘action blockbuster’ label literally: Mason is frequently led through ‘stealth’ sections by an unyielding (though beautifully animated) NPC, and deviating from The Path That Is Decreed means instant mission failure. It’s cinematic, and you’re ostensibly in control, but it’s not much of a game. There are many firstperson interludes that build anticipation but lead nowhere. At one point you climb into the cockpit of what looks like a stealth bomber and simply have to hold the trigger to take off, an experience that inevitably leaves you feeling a bit empty.

The enemies are the same mob of dummies seen in many CODs before. The environments have changed but the furniture remains present, and battles are still a matter of shooting and then moving across the invisible line to trigger the next scripted sequence. On Veteran difficulty, it’s the same old tin-can shoot, a process of learning positions as you die, over and over.

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As ever, it’s the spectacle that makes it worthwhile. Black Ops is beautiful at times, and transtitions from painstaking detail to breathtaking vista within the same level, often riffing on familiar depictions of war to great effect. In one standout sequence, driving a gunboat down a river in a certain place to a certain song, Black Ops channels a cinematic moment to create an interactive one, something so obvious it has to be surrendered to with a big smile. The boat’s handling is lousy, and shooting the respawning enemies soon palls, but just for a moment it’s a brilliant pop-culture fusion.

That aside, this is no Modern Warfare experience. The narrative hammers home its ripped-off twist clumsily, Mason feels like a nonentity, and certain sequences wouldn’t look out of place in Ghost Squad. This is also the most gratuitously violent COD yet, and often ludicrous – one mission begins with a man being force-fed glass before being punched repeatedly on the jaw, after which the victim leads the player through the level while shouting. Such absurdity is Black Ops in a nutshell.

PRESIDENT EVIL The saving grace of World At War was Nazi Zombies, a fourplayer co-op mode that tasked a team with defending a location from an undead horde. Black Ops adds plenty more to the mix, as well as indulging in a scenario that sees JFK, Nixon, Castro and Secretary of State McNamara besieged in the Pentagon. With a few friends it’s a riot, the soundbites are hilarious, and exploring every corner of the locations becomes an objective in itself. The only bum note is shared with the original Nazi Zombies: things don’t heat up until the fifth wave, so the first five minutes of every game are a dull trudge.


GeeLW's picture

^And who shoved glass into the writer's mouth before he was shot?

Just checking...

And Whaaaaaat? Nothing in the review about the goofy Easter Eggs accessed from the main menu? Hell, ZORK deserves a mention as does that fun top-down Zombies arcade game. They're not THAT hard to unlock, y'know...

metalmutl3y's picture

It was the infinite enemy respawns that upset me about the single player campaign. I practically gave up after the rocket took off on veteran as a result - not sure if I'll go back...

lupinsensei's picture

The respawns are insulting. It's lazy development and feels like a huge step back. I'm not a huge fan of mw2 but they at least listened to the feedback regarding COD4s flaws and took that feature out. The absence of spec ops (the only feature that has kept me playing MW2 to this day) is galling. In it's place we have a novelty game which becomes very old very fast.

I'm still perplexed though as to why the campaign itself wasn't playable in coop. Every level I've played so far contains at least one NPC who faffs about, runs into scenery and generally does nothing of any use. Treyarch have stated the campaign is our own personal blockbuster in which we (the solo players) are the stars. Then why is my supporting cast a bunch of people who failed the Hollyoaks audition? It's as if they designed it for coop, pulled the plug at the last minute and stuffed the levels with these fools.

greedo1980's picture

Multiplayer feels very similar to MW series from the weapon handling and physics right down to the ridiculous waddling running animations. But I guess that is more tactically correct as soldiers stopped running and started waddling around battlefields post WW2 :-P

I miss the weightier, cruder feel of WaW and this feels like a very conscious move to please the Infinity Ward lovers and fill the boots that may, or may not, be empty now.

But the new game modes are nice so spot on review.

I also think that the plot/Mason character has been heavily inspired by the Sympathy for the Devil lyrics!! Not literally, but the idea of an anonymous being influencing a number of important moments in history. Which is a nice idea.

MattyBoy's picture

"...but Black Ops repackages one of the best multiplayer shooters around."

No it doesn't. You can't polish a turd.

ArronC07's picture

Oh it got a [KillZone 2].

Axe99's picture

That's a pretty funny comment - and highlights the inconsistency of Edge's reviews. KZ2 is a more accomplished game than CoD:BO by some margin (and almost two years older, without the iterative base the CoD games have).

ArronC07's picture

Killzone 2 had odd controls, no plot, little innovation and no variety and its multiplayer was a bit unbalanced. The only thing it did really well were its graphics but a game isn't just about the graphics. I think the 7 it got was a fair score and an EDGE 7 is an 8-9 everywhere else and is certainly worth checking out.

StealthBadger's picture

*Obligatory StealthBadger loves Killzone post*

hahnchen's picture

Modern Warfare 2 felt like a yearly update. A linear chicken shoot, which threw out all narrative discipline, and even fucked up the pacing - which made the campaign significantly worst than the first.

There were points in the second game, where you would just get fatigued by the constant popup shooting you had to do. You'd finish one campaign in Brazil, just constantly shooting, only to be immediately followed by constant shooting in another part of the world. It was functionally broken, it was poor design - listen to the Half-Life commentaries, pacing is fundamental.

And yet, here is a game, which follows the Modern Warfare conceit as closely as MW2 did. It does it with as much technical skill, and arguably more panache than MW2 ever did. It does it without the poorly executed exhortations of self importance that blighted MW2.

And yet, you've dismissed this as a yearly update, while proclaiming MW2 to be a classic. In closing your MW2 review, you stated "Its sheer assuredness in mechanics, spectacle and often situation are unlikely to be surpassed for some time." Even ignoring that its assuredness in mechanics was a failing, "some time" only turned out to be a year. Infinity Ward became the B team before they imploded, they became the B team when they ran out of ideas, they became the B team when they released MW2.

Axe99's picture

Not sure how much time the reviewer put into the multiplayer, but the subtle changes, for me, pushed the online game over the edge from atrocious (MW2 was great for teens who turned their brain off at the door, but for anyone looking for an experience with an ounce of depth it was a complete waste) to solid. Sure, it's not great, but it's a far cry from IW's last flawed outing. The slightly slower pace of play, the removal of Commando and the structure of the Perks (which perk is in which slot).

Pretty solid review of the single-player campaign though - much better quality than I'm used to around here - there's hope for you yet. Like many Edge reviews though, you've completely missed one feature of the game - the Zombies mode. Sure, it's not huge, but it's significant, and quite a bit of fun. I don't drop by here that often, but it looks like your reviews are still more aimed at editorial and drawing hits than providing a balanced view of games (as leaving out whole game features is hardly helping buyers make an informed choice).

Alex Wiltshire's picture

Ah. You've just highlighted a problem with our redesign that we'd completely missed! We do indeed talk about Zombies mode, but in a separate box which is mysteriously not appearing. Big apologies for this. We'll try and fix this as early next week as we can. Until then, I've placed the text of the box at the end of the review.

Mooks's picture

It was only a matter of days before I started seeing people dual wielding with the sprint perk running around like loonies - it's put me off completely.

lupinsensei's picture

About 2 hours into the campaign and it's practically on rails. During one encounter, simply backing up about 20 metres to reload behind a bit of cover forced a mission failed message. Being attached via an invisible tether to an ever present NPC with a bright yellow 'Follow' sign hovering over his head feels unbelievably restrictive. MW2 never had the freedom to approach encounters in the same way as Halo, but it did allow at least some choice as to which (funnelled) route to take. Very dissapointing campaign so far.

JOHN LEIGH's picture

activision piss me off. i recon ill wait it out for GT5, that announcement came in the nick of time-if its on time that is!

jacobpbarker's picture

I don't own MW2 so will probably buy this as I've not played COD online since MW1.


char_aznable's picture

So no better or worse than it's predecessor which inexplicably got a 9?

hahnchen's picture

The 9 can be explained. They felt guilty for not reviewing the original, game changing, classic which was Modern Warfare. They owed IW, so they had to give that annual update a 9, while expressing their true feelings with Treyarch's offerings.

Mooks's picture

They did review the original, it also got a 9.

hahnchen's picture

Which issue was that in? There's no trace of it on Metacritic/Gamerankings. I've been subscribing to Edge since way pre-MW and don't recall seeing it. I can't actually check though, because I don't have any mags that old at my current flat.

Mooks's picture

It was issue 183. The Edge forum has a nice sticky thread called The Mega Index, which includes a useful reviews database. I can't remember much of the review itself except the score and had to look up the issue number on the database, but I do remember it was only one of the shorter half page reviews. I think it was just seen as the new Call of Duty game, bearing in mind that at that point it had been a solid if unremarkable WWII FPS series, so it came out to relatively little in the way of fanfare.

EDIT: Just had a quick look on metacritic and they've only got it recorded on the PS3 page. I imagine that must have been the version Edge tested, but metacritic normally puts Edge reviews in all relevant categories so I assume it's an oversight on their part, unless there's a specific reason they've done it that way.

Alex Walker's picture

It's actually a full page review. It does indicates that the PS3 one was the version tested.

Given that the games that get a 2 page spread are Uncharted, Assassins Creed, Crysis and Mass Effect and Mario Galaxy got a whopping 4 pages, I can see why COD 4 only merited a single page.

jb1's picture

That was arguably the best couple of months for videogames ever :)

lupinsensei's picture

It was good. Arguably its only rival period being the Ocarina Of Time month which also saw Half Life and Toca 2 hit shelves at the same time.

Alex Walker's picture

That was the three [10]'s in 3 months wasn't it?

jb1's picture

I think it was and there were a few nines as well. It cost me a fortune :)

Mooks's picture

Indeed, Edge does always indicate which version was tested in such games, but Metacritic usually realises that Edge is a multi-format publication and enters its reviews accordingly. Wonder why they have done things differently in this case, just a slip up I guess.

I did mean that it was a one page review sorry. That was badly phrased, I should have said half spread not half page. Also, I wasn't querying the length of the review. I meant that there wasn't much in the way of previews and hype (relatively speaking) compared to the subsequent games, or even those you quote above, which may be why it didn't register with hahnchen when it was released.

Having said that, I think the batch games you quote above does call into question the fact that it only got a one page review, given that it was better received than nearly all of those, in general. But then that gets me back to my original point that, just before it was released it was seen as just another of the solid but unremarkable CoD games. Whereas those other games were all exciting new IPs (plus a new Mario platform game) that demanded greater hype/previews etc - hence MW released to relatively little fanfare, e.g. not much in the way of previews and (only?) a one page review deep into the reviews section. Compare that to all the hype leading up to the release of MW2 and the review section of issue 209, where MW2 gets a two page review and comes first (and ahead of ACII, which was much better received than its prequel that had come before MW in issue 183, also with a longer review).

Alex Walker's picture

Wasn't suggesting you were, just noting that for anyone who doesn't have that issue.

But yeah, there was excitement buzzing around all of the mentioned titles, COD 4 was lumped in with the likes of Need For Speed, which managed just a half page review. I think World At War only got a page as well, but then that was rubbish.

Mooks's picture

Haha I never played World at War so thanks for the heads up in case I ever consider it!

Root_Kabal's picture


"one mission begins with Mason forcing a shard of glass into a man’s mouth and then punching him repeatedly in the jaw, after which the victim leads the player through the level while shouting"

No it doesn't, its Weaver that does that.

Root_Kabal's picture

FAIL! Actually, its Hudson, with weaver watching. I suck, even at being pedantic.

As for my review of the review - this feels a bit like a response to the backlash Edge got for giving MW2 such a glowing review. For me campaign & multiplayer are superior to MW2 so it credits more like an 8, but with a docked point to satisfy COD haters.

jimontoast's picture

Surely Edge can supply an opinion regarding the way the game feels and plays without it having to be a response to a reader 'backlash'? I'm not sure their priority in an editorial is appeasing miffed fans of a genre or franchise.
I've invested in pretty much all of the COD games (bar World at War after the demo annoyed the heck out of me), but Black Ops just hasn't sparked one iota of excitement within me. Call it update or sequel, but I'm failing to see what this can offer me that MW2 didn't. Or maybe I'm missing something?
Incidentally, I am rather excited about the release of NFS Hot Pursuit later this month. But maybe that can offer nothing new over the Burnout Paradise Cops and Robbers DLC....
(Jeez I'm negative)

Root_Kabal's picture

Yeah, its true Edge are big boys and capable of not bowing to popular opinion, BUT... being a very cynical person and given the massive hoo-hah directed at nearly all reviews, I detect a sense of not wanting to get burned twice. Edge prides itself on being a bit different from the rest so the fact that this 'uns been given another spate of 9's by all and sundry just heightens my suspicions.

My opinions on the game are a bit compromised though as I've had the priviledge of playing it in 3D, which combined with the non-stop, no brains action rollercoaster style has made the campaign something really special.

Alex Wiltshire's picture

Fail or not, that's vital intel - thanks. We've edited the story and shot the writer accordingly.