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Call of Duty: Black Ops Single-Player Campaign Review

Herewith I present a review of the single player campaign in Call of Duty: Black Ops.  Note that there are some minor spoilers inside, so don’t read this if you like to start your campaigns completely unaware of what’s about to happen.

The Black Ops single player campaign starts off with a good deal of mystery and confusion. Who are you?  Who is the guy in the balcony interrogating you?  What are all those TVs showing? And what’s with all the @#$!! numbers??

(There’s a prior game introduction, too, which doesn’t have any initially obvious connection to the rest of the plot, but it sets the stage with a woman reading a number into a microphone.  Since this occurs before you select single player vs. multiplayer, it’s not technically part of the single-player campaign, but I thought I’d mention it anyway.  It certainly baffled me at first.)

For this play-through I chose Regular difficulty.  I didn’t want the game to be too easy (I’ve played a lot of FPS games before, including a couple of CoD campaigns), but I also didn’t want to spend forever trying to kill waves upon waves of invincible enemies, so Regular it was.  Then after that it was straight into the first mission.

First, I’ll cover the gameplay mechanics:

Weapons handling in this game is intuitive.  The controls are standard and feel well-tuned to the gameplay.  As you start the game, you won’t have any weapons right away, and this is true of several of the mission beginnings as well, but don’t worry – weapons are just around the corner.  You’ll be supplied with one by your comrades, or you’ll be allowed to draw the weapon
you were already carrying as the mission gets going.

General gameplay mechanics are also well tuned.  Injuries heal faster than in several other similar games, including Modern Warfare 2, and Halo.  This is a nice touch.  It’s always a bit tricky trying to balance the realism setting vs. videogame fun factor – in real life, it would take weeks to heal from a gunshot wound, if you’re lucky, but in this game, that whole process takes a couple of seconds at most.  This means you don’t have to spend a lot of time sitting back waiting for your wounds to heal while the action continues around you.  Recently, I spent quite a bit of time doing that in Rainbow Six Vegas on Realistic difficulty, so it was nice not to have to do so much waiting for a change.

To counterbalance the making-it-too-easy effect of healing faster, the game has a higher-than-usual knock-back effect when you get hit with a bullet.  Your aiming and sighting will be thrown way off when this happens.  This is a case where it’s definitely more realistic that way, but in a console game where you are at a built-in disadvantage to begin with trying to aim your weapon, I found this aspect a bit much.  It wasn’t impossible to deal with, but it was somewhat annoying.

At the Regular difficulty setting, it’s not too difficult to kill enemies with the weapons you’re given.  Two or three shots are generally enough to knock them down.  This is probably fairly realistic (give or take some interpretation of the location of the bullet hit), which is nice, and very different from some games such as Halo, where you have to keep shooting and shooting to get through the shields, and armor, and thick skin, etc.  Sometimes the opponents stay down, but other times they fire at you from the ground, or are only temporarily off balance and then get back up and keep firing, so you quickly learn to give them a couple of extra shots every time just to make sure.

Ammunition is plentiful.  I never needed to restock.  Of course, you can pick up weapons from fallen comrades or foes on the battlefield, but I didn’t do that either.  In some ways, it’s nice not to have to worry about ammunition.  On the other hand, my organizational mind got a big kick out of the way that Rainbow Six in particular handles weapons, ammunition, and restocking.  One of my favourite moments in those games is finding an ammo/weapon box, and being able to take a breath, restock grenades, change weapons, etc.  I miss that a bit in games that are more realistically oriented, like Black Ops, and don’t come equipped with weapon and ammo depots scattered about the landscape.

The “fog of war” effect is noticeable.  Other Call of Duty games (and other realistic-style war games, too) have this effect to some extent, and I always find it irritating, but I’m willing to put up with it in exchange for a more realistic war experience.  Fortunately, most of the missions make it fairly straightforward to figure out where you’re supposed to go, whom you’re supposed to be killing, and what you need to do when you get there.  But in some cases I found that I had to run around the map, get killed quite a few times and restart from checkpoints, and generally blunder about in a panic while trying to suss out the objective.  This would make more sense if the game didn’t make a regular point of telling you exactly where you needed to go and what you needed to do.  When it doesn’t, it feels out of place – more realistic, yes, but you have to change mental gears in a way that doesn’t make sense in the context of what you’ve done before.

Related to the “fog of war” is the difficulty in distinguishing friend from foe.  Because your squad mates may charge off ahead of you, and because you’re frequently engaged in guerrilla warfare with very little in the way of uniforms to distinguish your side from the enemy, I found it quite challenging at times to figure out whom I was supposed to shoot at.  You get unambiguous information about this from your reticule (when you’re not aiming down the sight), but it takes a second or two to lock on.  Occasionally I fired at allies by accident and was told to stop doing that!  I think only one of them was actually killed when I fired at him, so I didn’t do my own side too much damage this way.

Like previous CoD installments, the action is frequently quite hectic.  Some missions have infinite waves of enemies, which goes completely against my preferred play style of picking the opponents off one by one (preferably from a safe distance) and then leisurely making my way through the scenery, enjoying the digital modeling and animation work as I go, but most of the missions work well if you take out the enemies first, at your own pace, and then proceed.  It may be possible to use a charge-through playing style for some of these; I didn’t try that if I could possibly help it!

Checkpoints are well placed.  Some games have checkpoints spaced far apart (that would be Rainbow Six Vegas again) and no way to save at other times, making it very frustrating to try to get past a difficult section involving multiple challenges.  This game has frequent checkpoints, like Halo 3, and sometimes you pass several checkpoint locations without firing a shot.  I’d rather have it that way than not enough!  Checkpoints also fix up any damage you may have incurred, so you don’t have to worry about hitting a checkpoint just as you’re about to die.  Not because that won’t happen, but because you’ll be restored to a usable state if it does – not to simply die right away over and over.

The visuals are very good overall, and in at least one location, I was reminded very strongly
of Uncharted 2.  This is a good thing – Uncharted 2 has wonderful visuals, and so does Black Ops.  Now in some places, it’s quite dark and difficult to see where you’re going, but there aren’t very many of these.  The rest is a treat to watch.  I especially enjoyed the facial animation of one character in a close-up scripted scene.  My wife happened to be watching at this point and she couldn’t believe how realistic this CG face looked either.

The AI companions are quite good in this game (the AI enemies much less so, which I generally like, at least at the lower difficulty settings!)  Your squad members are fairly good shots, and are willing to charge in and attack, not just leave all the heavy work to you.  They won’t get too far ahead, and, in most cases, won’t do all the work for you, but occasionally they will end up doing the majority of the killing if you stay behind them long enough.  I liked that a lot.  It felt a lot more realistic than the typical squad-based game in which you, the squad leader, have to do pretty much all of the work, and your squad mates are just there as cannon fodder.

The gore level in this game is fairly high.  I had to avert my eyes in a couple of places.  Not just because of blood spurting out of enemies when they are hit, but when a knife is jammed into someone’s throat at close range, and viciously twisted, with blood everywhere, that can be a bit much for me.  Those less squeamish might not mind too much.

One minor complaint I have about the mechanics of moving about on foot is that the ladders in the levels are much too easy to fall off of.  Ladders have been done often enough in videogames now that you would think it’s not too difficult to figure out how to implement ladder mechanics, but quite a lot of games still get it totally wrong.  Here’s a hint for game designers: if you’re near a ladder, make it really easy to get onto it; and if you’re on a ladder, and not at the bottom or the top, make it really difficult to get off it!  Oh yes, and if you’re at the top, make it really difficult to get off the open side (thereby falling to your death)!  In Black Ops, if you nudge the controller sideways by accident while you are climbing or descending, you will fall off.  Really, now?!  You want me to believe that my highly trained military operative of a character spontaneously forgot that he was on a vertical ascent/descent device and just randomly decided to move sideways instead, only to plunge to his death?  Really??  In other parts of the game, it won’t let you fall off a high balcony or cliff, which some types of games do let you do, so it’s even more odd that you can fall off a ladder so easily.

(Here’s a related gameplay hint: when you’re doing a belay on a rope, don’t forget to brake frequently… the game won’t tell you that ahead of time, and the consequences of not doing this are extremely painful!)

Now, on to the missions in the actual campaign:

The campaign story is quite well written.  I found the scripted interludes fun to watch, and to try to puzzle out.  There’s a lovely twist near the end, which I won’t give away, and those more attuned to plot twists than I am may be able to spot it coming.  But I sure didn’t.

On the negative side (and there aren’t very many negatives to this game), I found the missions, overall, to be somewhat disjointed.  Because the story is set as a series of flashbacks, and not always to the same character’s memories, there is no direct need to make everything a coherent storyline, and it isn’t.  In some ways this is a good thing – if you don’t like crawling through the Vietnamese jungle, just wait until the next mission, which will be in the Russian tundra in winter, or a Cuban stronghold in the summer.  Fair enough, but that also means that it is difficult to build up a coherent mental map of where you’ve been, and where you’re going, and how long it’s likely to take you to get there. 

This is especially true if you are not playing the game straight through in one shot.  It took me about 10-12 hours to get through it, and I’m not doing that in one day, and being of an organizational bent, I like to have at least some vague idea of the story arc as I go – it gives me more of a sense of accomplishment and progress towards a well-defined goal as I complete each mission.  So the overall shape of the story wasn’t very clear at the beginning, and it didn’t have an obvious single climactic moment at the end.  Rather it had a couple of mid-sized climaxes followed by a slightly bigger one.  This is not that bad of a design – but I would have preferred a more coherent and obvious linkage from each event to the next.

One of the early missions involves a major prison breakout.  Unlike some prison breakout scenarios I’ve played, this one didn’t feel like just a couple of guys trying to escape – the breakout had obviously been planned by a large number of prisoners for quite some time, to the point that they had memorized the steps of the plan and would chant them in a sort of stylized code at the slightest opportunity.  Each step is written out as one of your objectives, just as the Russians are chanting it (in accented English, but we’ll spot them that). This was a very well written mission and one of the most engaging I’ve ever played, for that reason.

The Vietnam mission was just like back in ‘Nam.  (I’ve always wanted to be able to say that.)

One of the missions pits the Russians against the Germans.  This mission was set to some uplifting and patriotic Russian music, which I absolutely loved.  Give me more of that Russian music!  Another mission was set to “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones.  I’m not a big fan of that song, but it worked very well in this mission.

There was also a mission that pits the Russians (I think; it could have been the Germans this time) against the British.  As a descendant of British expatriates, it definitely felt treasonous to be fighting them!  I should have been on their side! But I wasn’t given the option to defect, unfortunately.

The variety of mission scenarios is exceptionally wide.  Most of the time you are fighting on foot, on the ground, in either medium-sized open spaces or indoors.  But other missions require crawling through rat tunnels, operating attack helicopters, guiding a squad from a Blackbird eye-in-the-sky at 60,000 feet (and you get to launch the Blackbird off the runway too – I’ve always wanted to be able to do that!), and driving cars, tanks, and light attack vehicles.  These alternatives to foot fighting are sufficiently polished that they feel like a natural part of the story, and not just tacked on to provide variety. 

They could of course be improved – compared to the realism level involved in fighting on the ground, the helicopter feels like a Commodore 64 arcade game, and the armored attack vehicles not much better.  But since those aren’t the main focus of the game, it may be acceptable to have less realism than a flight simulator when flying, or a driving simulator when driving.  One possible improvement that could remain within the existing game parameters would be to allow a choice of seating position in vehicular combat.  For instance, in games like Halo, you can choose whether to be a driver, turret operator, or a standing infantry soldier along for the ride.  In Black Ops you are told which position you are going to occupy and you had better like it.

That brings the review to a close, so, finally, we have a summary of the pros and cons:

Cons: Difficult in a few places to determine the tactical objective; ladders tricky to use; vehicular action could be more realistic; replayability may be a bit low due to forced decisions on squad roles taken and routes to follow.

Pros: Intuitive, standard gameplay; excellent visuals; good frame rates; a coherent and engaging storyline; NPCs that can hold their own; enough challenge to keep you busy, but not so much that you give up; smooth transitions from playing to scripted sequences; decent background music; and overall just the right length.  An outstanding addition to the Call of Duty franchise.

In the end, it’s all about the numbers….