To characterize Treyarch's Call of Duty: Black Ops as a merely competent chapter in the money-minting franchise's history would unfairly devalue the game's generally entertaining single-player story and superlative multiplayer suite; but calling the game brilliant or innovative would gloss over the unmistakeable feeling that we've seen this and been there too many times before. The series is in desperate need of another makeover, a la the original Modern Warfare.
Treyarch, formerly a sort of second-string provider of Call of Duty content, has swung for the fences this time around now that the creative force behind the series has exited Infinity Ward. Trading in spectacular set-pieces and a jigsaw puzzle story for a slightly more coherent narrative, Black Ops' single-player campaign is where the game has clearly tried to innovate and differentiate itself from earlier entries in the series.
In a break from past CoD titles, there is a central character around whom the story unfolds, spanning historical events in Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, and America. A few more vehicle driving sequences aside, the action is the typical run-and-gun fare we've come to expect from the series, though the locations are rendered with great attention to atmosphere and detail. Pacing is slightly less breakneck than that of the uber-frenetic Modern Warfare 2.
So, props to Treyarch for trying to weave a little bit more story through the usual CoD crazy quilt of disparate locations; unfortunately, the seven-hour single-player game is burdened by a cliche-heavy script and some licensed music choices that are less than inspired. "Ride of the Valkyries" in a Vietnam firefight? Not quite that obvious, but close. Voice work—some of it by big-time Hollywood talent—trumps the ham-fisted writing.
Opening with a torture sequence, unsurprisingly the game is a violent, M-rated tour through the hellish realms of war, with gore and severed limbs filling the screen at every turn. Graphically, Black Ops doesn't make any huge strides over its more recent relatives. While the level design is outstanding, and the lighting evocative, keeping the frame rate up has obviously taken precedence over gratuitous eye-candy or special effects.
Of course, in the fast and furious multiplayer modes, no one has time to take in the scenery anyway.
For most fans of Call of Duty, the online modes are why they queue up at the neighborhood Best Buy at midnight. No one will be disappointed in the generous—and generally unchanged—Modern Warfare-established selection of game modes, perks, unlocks, and extras, though the small tweaks this time around are generally improvements on the formula. Though you now have to spend money for perks and upgrades, they're all pretty much available at the start, ready to unlock in any order you want as long as you have the cash. Focus on a single weapon type, though, and you can be nearly maxed out midway up the 50-level ladder.
Though you can't gun through the single-player campaign with a buddy, co-op play returns in the popular Zombies mode. New to Black Ops is the Theater, where you can splice and dice gameplay footage into some incredible mini-movies. Contracts are challenges you can buy, which in turn earn added Achievements and currency.
Though it sold millions of copies on release, and it's an entertaining, entirely competent game, Call of Duty: Black Ops would benefit from a little more ambition and outside-the-killing box thinking. Will the entire franchise go the way of Tony Hawk or Guitar Hero, where irrelevant annual sequels are squeezed out to satisfy a diminishing, hardcore audience? Good as it is, let's hope Treyarch or Infinity Ward break the CoD template after this one, crack open the window, and let some good fresh air into the series.
Break out of that torture chair and give us your opinions on Black Ops. Is it everything you've been waiting for, or is it time for something new? Let us know on Twitter @gamers_hell