Behind Enemy Lines in ‘Black Ops’

Photo Courtesy of Activision

Since its formation as a franchise, the “Call of Duty” titles were renowned for their depiction of World War II and for enhancing the interactive experience in the first-person shooter genre of video games.

In more recent years, the franchise’s producer, Infinity Ward, offered the franchise a departure from the Nazi-opposing forces of World War II, delivering to the gaming community an edgier and grittier gaming experience with “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” and its successor, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.”

The “Call of Duty” franchise has conscripted Treyarch Studios to take us almost half a century back in time (and then some) to the Cold War in their latest installment to the genre, “Call of Duty: Black Ops.”

From the offset, “Black Ops” is visually and thematically dark. While the name certainly implies this, there is a stark departure in the delivery of the game’s narrative that is unseen in any of the previous titles.

Fragmented flashbacks and pseudo-psychedelic freak-out moments accent the delivery of the game’s story with not only the tight, action-packed feel one would expect from a first-person shooter, but also the anxiousness of a mind-tripping survival horror game like “Resident Evil.”

These survival horror moments (while rare) kept me on the edge of my seat. While some games would break every suspenseful moment with a startling climactic event, “Black Ops” seems to toy with the player, like sometimes having a Vietcong jump out from the shadows to skewer one of your unwitting NPC (non-player character) teammates.

In addition to the survival horror elements of the game, the game is visually stunning, as it seems to have a mastery of lighting effects. Star bursts, light refractions and shadows all appear to have a new and unique form of representation without being too exaggerated. For example, while you can look at a sunset and see objects around you turn dark with the lighting effects, it never seems to get in the way of me shooting at a Northern Vietnamese soldier or navigating through a map while trying to evade some Russian prison guards.

The actual character models themselves have improved as well. In “Black Ops,” there are some moments where you can see the sweat on a character’s forehead reflect light off a fire in a musty Vietcong cave. Also, the realism of NPC facial expressions and reactions has noticeably improved in the beautifully shot cutscenes that you view through first-person.

In some instances, however, “Black Ops” chooses to have more cinematic cutscenes, in which the frame of the screen will suddenly change to a third-person perspective without your consent. In some contexts within the game, this is a very cool effect. But in others, breaking the first-person experience made me very aware that I was playing a game and took me out of the experience of suspending disbelief.

Another pet peeve about the game is that some parts lack interactivity, which in a game is paramount. While few and far between, there were moments between gunfights where your character is forced to look here and there in order to (presumably) give pace on how certain events are unraveled. Again, these are moments that made me very aware and removed me from the immersive experience of playing a first-person video game.

In spite of this, “Black Ops” offers many unique and varying firefights. From the thick jungles of Vietnam to the open terrain of the Arctic Circle, you’ll be taken to many varying environments, each of which offers a unique way of fighting your enemies.

In one particularly difficult scenario, you find yourself in a sinking ship that’s being bombarded by explosions, making it difficult to keep your hands steady while aiming. Another takes place in a Vietcong cave, where your flashlight is the only source of light for you and your teammates, creating a very anxiety-ridden experience, especially when you can choose to turn the light on and off, giving you the ability to blind opponents and then disappear in the dark.

This varied experience crosses over to the multiplayer mode nicely, as dozens of weapons and a large array of maps will be sure to keep the more competitive players busy for a while. In addition to the game modes from previous games, new wage matches allow for people to bet on their performance in order to more quickly accrue COD points, a currency within the game that allows for players to buy guns, attachments, perks, camouflage as well as many other things.

COD points, while being a very unique addition to the gameplay, don’t come easily. You may find yourself short on money quickly in the early parts of the game. And even then, when there’s money to spend, you may find it hard to find things to spend money on, as (similar to previous games) you not only have to wait until a certain rank to unlock a weapon, but also buy it.

Many of the customizations to your character and emblem are also inaccessible at early levels, leaving you with little to spend money on in the early stages of your online career.

Despite this, the online gameplay is still fast-paced, frantic and much more strategy based, so don’t expect to be a one-man army “pwning noobs” left and right. The guns are balanced, and the game-play fast, so you’ll have to rely on teammates to help you through some of the firefights in order to stay alive and win the match.

Overall, “Call of Duty: Black Ops” has its weak points, primarily its cinematic compromises to the first-person gaming experience as well as some disappointments about the game mechanic of the COD points. However, the campaign’s storytelling, as well as a more balanced online gameplay, definitely make up for those shortcomings. While not perfect, playing this game was fast, streamlined, intriguing, terrifying and most importantly, fun.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5