Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first. Black Ops is another Call of Duty game. If you've played any of the previous incarnations you know what this means. The gameplay is stellar, probably the best in the FPS genre. The action is fast and incredibly chaotic. Some new period specific and period theoretical weapons make welcome appearances, but for the most part you will see the same standard weapons and loadouts that you have used in the past. The graphics and sound are very good, although I don't think that have improved appreciably since the first Modern Warfare which was, at the time, incredible. Now, sadly, they are simply standard. Because of the popularity and cash-cow that these games have become, the developers can afford an excellent cast. This time around Sam Worthington, Ed Harris, and Gary Oldman have lent their considerable talents, which is nice...
The story follows the exploits of one Alex Mason during the Cold War in the mid to late 1960's. It begins as Mason awakes, strapped to a chair and heavily drugged. A blur is demanding to know "the source of the numbers!" Mason is under interrogation to learn the source of a signal, one that can trigger an international incident. At this point in history, for those of you who are either too young to remember or don't pay attention in class, that meant nuclear war and global annihilation. But in Black Ops, it turns out there is a chemical threat in the form of the Nova-6 weapon, a horror of Nazi scientists, that is just as bad, if not worse. Told mostly as flashbacks spanning all the way back to the end of WWII, Mason's story spans decades. As they probe the depths of his mind, he "relives" his previous covert missions hunting the threat. This is where you take over... you'll find yourself globetrotting from Cuba, to Russia, to being smack dab in the middle of the Vietnam War as your memories are plumbed to learn the secret location. The story branches out in several directions as you take control of more characters involved in the plot.
It's not until a bit into the game that you realize that Black Ops is actually a sequel to CoD: WaW. Our old friend Viktor Reznov returns; the mad Russian himself! I liked how this linked the two games together. Infinity Ward had Lt. Price to bridge the gap between the Modern Warfare games, and Treyarch has their own talisman with Reznov. It doesn't hurt that Gary Oldman reprises his role as the voice the vengeful Russian, he's just awesome and one of my favorite actors!
I liked that Black Ops had a much more cohesive story that drove the action rather than simply provided segways between over-the-top action sequences. The cutscenes are longer and more detailed, as are the motivations of the key players. That said, I don't like the way it was told. There are enough visual flashes and screen switches to give an epileptic fits. I know Mason is under the influence of mind altering drugs and that you are bearing witness to the interrogation through his eyes, but I found it distracting to the point that I missed stuff. Oh, and I won't spoil the twist beyond saying it was WAY too obvious... the ending isn't quite as ludicrous as CoD:MW2, but it's not far off either.
While I liked the story more than the last couple of CoD games, Black Ops still has the same issues that have plagued the series. In typical CoD fashion, the set pieces you control by prompts aren't very well explained. I fell off a cliff four times before I figured out what they meant when they were prompting me to repel. It's intuitive enough, but I always seem to have to suicide myself a half a dozen times before I pick up on what is supposedly obvious. When they work these moments are brilliant, but when they don't they are incredibly frustrating.
Along the same lines, there are still a lot of "Huh, what?" moments in Black Ops. The chaos of battle can sometimes leave you wondering where to go or what to do. At one point I spent 45 minutes straight killing wave after wave of Viet Cong only to finally figure out that there were some exploding barrels I had to knife and kick down into the trenches to stop the enemy from continually respawning. This has always been an issue with this series in general for me, and they still haven't gotten it right. Most of the time the objectives are clear, but I still feel they could do a better job of pointing you in the right direction.
Another CoD standby of breaking up the action is with vehicle control sections. But I thought these moments in Black Ops were the worst in the series to date. Piloting the SR-71 Blackbird, or the C-130 3.0 as I call it, was cool but surprisingly short. The controls for piloting the Hind helicopter in Vietnam were just awful. These sequences seemed almost rushed or tacked on, and as a result didn't work at all for me.
CoD games are also known for their brutal, graphic violence. There are a couple of dire scenes in Black Ops, but personally I didn't think they were near as bad as the "Russian Airport" level from CoD: MW2. That didn't bother me much either, but that's just me. You've been warned...
One major thing that Treyarch addressed that I am super happy about (mostly because it means that I wasn't the only one who bitched about it in CoD: MW2) is the blood splatter factor. When you get shot blood splatters across the screen to, um, drive the point home. But especially in CoD:MW2, it was far too inhibitive, completely obscuring your vision and leading to a lot of quick deaths because you couldn't see what was going on, let alone find cover to regenerate health and clear the screen. In Black Ops this is still a bit of an issue, but it's not nearly as oppressive.
I'm also ecstatic that Nazi Zombies, or rather just Zombies, makes it's triumphant return! Yay, and there was much rejoicing... I loved this mode in CoD: WaW. It's great for late night drunken fun, even if there was no way to win. I like the changes to the, ahem, cast in this one... I won't spoil it for you, but it is a fun distraction, that's for sure.
Okay, here we go again (I'm tempted to just copy and paste my lack of online multiplayer experience from my other CoD reviews here) but I'll do it anyway... I don't play games online. But going on what I've heard, Black Ops has once again nailed it. If that's your cup of tea, then this is not to be missed... although if this sort of thing is your cup of tea you've probably already got the game and are playing it right now.
As I've been writing these reviews for a while now, I've found it's difficult to rationalize scoring a game with my system for the single player campaign alone, especially one so short. There is no denying that much of the lure and addictiveness of Black Ops lies in online multiplayer. It seems like most people, or at least people I've talked to, don't even bother with the campaign but rather jump straight online. But seeing as that's not an issue for me, the point is moot. I will say that I enjoyed the single player campaign in Black Ops more than any version since the original Modern Warfare. It was good fun, but ultimately is just more of the same Call of Duty, just with a different coat of paint.
Score = 8.6 / 10