Call of Duty: Black Ops is your typical big-budget sequel, and that’s generally a good thing. Boasting superb graphics, frenzied firefights, and myriad online modes, Treyarch’s latest installment in the long-running franchise is a sturdy piece of mainstream gaming mayhem, and one that—gasp!—features a campaign narrative that’s actually engaging. Given the currently dire state of first-person-shooter storytelling, the fact that Black Ops’s cutscenes are worth sitting through is reason enough to elevate it above most of the year’s FPS crop, including last month’s direct competitor from EA, Medal of Honor. Yet even if its scripting was a complete snooze, Treyarch’s heavily hyped release, taking a break from the franchise’s contemporary Modern Warfare and setting the action in the Cold War ’60s, would still be a top-flight work of trigger-finger carnage, offering during its single-player campaign a thrilling stream of massive few-against-many clashes, and delivering through its online components an amazing plethora of multiplayer options, be they traditional or—taking a cue from Call of Duty: World at War—zombified.
That supernatural gameplay mode, in which you battle (alone, or with friends) waves of Nazi zombies, is the most humorous aspect of Black Ops, which otherwise delivers stylishly gritty tactical warfare. The main quest is framed as a succession of flashbacks, as covert operative Alex Mason is interrogated by mysterious men about an even more mysterious sequence of numbers they claim holds the key to preventing world war. Thus, one is thrust into Mason’s shoes as he relives his efforts in Cuba, Russia, and Vietnam endeavoring to put a bullet in the head of a Soviet super-villain, a story (voiced by Sam Worthington, Gary Oldman, Ed Harris, and Ice Cube, among others) that mainly succeeds because of its clear structure. Unlike so many Call of Duty titles, your character’s globe-hopping is lucidly laid out as a natural feature of his saga. It’s too bad that the geopolitical issues at hand share no relationship to the game’s mechanics themselves; for all its blather, Black Ops’s tale is really just an excuse to have you “kill them all,” as Mason succinctly sums up his motives. As far as window dressing goes, though, Mason’s around-the-world mission is a reasonably well told one, providing just enough context to make one feel that they’re partaking in a larger adventure, rather than merely an episodic series of standalone skirmishes.
In terms of gameplay, Black Ops is as generic and straightforward as they come, yet throughout there’s a sense of real weight—to one’s footsteps, to the feel of the guns as they recoil in your hands, to the rattle and boom of nearby explosions—that makes the game feel solid and muscular in the best way possible. And while the main campaign is relatively short (approximately six-to-eight hours), it’s marked by fantastic set pieces, most of which involving navigating diverse indoor and outdoor landscapes awash in enemies and gunfire to a degree that’s borderline bewildering. If Treyarch’s game has a serious shortcoming, it’s that the sheer amount of fighting going on, coupled with each level’s (usually well-integrated) mini-cutscenes, creates a moderate sense of being detached from the proceedings, as if one’s own actions aren’t completely affecting the ongoing battles’ outcome. It’s an infrequent impression, but one furthered by a few faux-interactive moments; for example, you’re told at one point to move your thumbstick to start a plane, but even if you don’t, the plane moves. Still, there’s simply so much hectic, breakneck madness surrounding your every move that immersion is ably achieved.
Of course, many Black Ops players will treat the primary mission as a secondary concern; the real meat will be multiplayer, and Treyarch doesn’t disappoint. The usual avalanche of game modes is present, and most of the levels are expansive enough, and boast enough winding routes and hiding spots, to satisfy even the most professional multiplayer pro (the Hanoi setting is a personal favorite). Even better is a point system that allows you to level up and, consequently, add new abilities and weapons, which adds an extra layer of depth to an already fully stocked online arena. Enhancing one’s avatar unlocks an amazing variety of elements, and it’s in this respect that Black Ops demonstrates its real, lasting value. However, for pure entertainment, the game’s white-knucklehead death matches, contract missions, and team-based clashes are equaled by the Zombie Mode, which has one combat the undead’s assault while taking charge of either JFK, Robert McNamara, Fidel Castro, or Richard Nixon, a twist that’s as ludicrous as it is amusing, and one that provides a suitably cartoonish counterpoint to Black Ops’s otherwise dead-serious period-piece action.