As a franchise, Call of Duty is an interesting animal. It started out as a bold response to the increasingly stagnant Medal of Honor series, designed by former MoH developers who wanted to show that a lot more was possible in a WW2 game. Ever since Modern Warfare, the development rivalry between Treyarch and Infinity Ward, and the ugly dismissal of Infinity Ward’s founders, CoD has been wholly taken over by Activision and CEO Bobby Kotick’s plan for the franchise. What is his plan? Annual releases in the CoD series.
Most any game journalist will tell you this is a bad idea, but we’ll all have to wait and see how a new CoD every year turns out. The most recent entry, CoD Black Ops, is Treyarch’s first entry as the main developer of the series; Treyarch is in charge now, and it’s up to them to put a brand new CoD on each console annually, and that includes the Wii.
Black Ops is the second simultaneous release on Wii, after the admittedly impressive World at War a couple years ago. To be honest Black Ops is a commendable achievement on the Wii’s hardware, and under what must have been a crushing timetable at that. Treyarch must have a difficult time delivering a new CoD every year on multiple platforms, but that aside, Black Ops must be judged on its basic gameplay merits first.
As with all other versions you play (mostly) as Alex Mason, an amnesiac black ops agent who wakes up tied to a chair and is subsequently tortured by shadowy interrogators. The guys zapping Mason’s nether-regions apparently have a keen interest in his past Cold War era exploits, which involve everything from an attempted Fidel Castro assassination to SAM-ing a Soyuz launch and an elaborate prison escape in Russia. Early on Viktor Reznov shows up, with Gary Oldman reprising his scenery-chewing role from World at War. The whole story revolves around a bio-weapon conspiracy and a decades-long mind control experiment, and it’s obvious early on that Mason might not be seeing everything accurately.
The story is only slightly less ridiculous than the 24-ripoff plot in Modern Warfare 2, but it does hold together a lot better and the characters and locations are more interesting. It has MW2’s tiring habit of trying to one-up itself, with crazier and more action-packed levels stretching suspension of disbelief to a thin film by the end of the game. At least you can follow what’s going on and your character doesn’t die and get replaced by yet another faceless soldier every other level. Fans looking forward to another “No Russian” style exercise in bad taste might be disappointed, but there’s plenty of grisly Cold War torture to grind in the grit and make more squeamish players uncomfortable.
The only problem here is that the CoD gameplay is just being used as a vehicle for increasingly outlandish stories. What was groundbreaking FPS gameplay in the original Modern Warfare has become routine; it still works but after three games the mechanics are starting to feel pretty stale. The Halo-mandated two gun limit is still alive and well, as are the now standard aim-down-sights shooting, grenade toss-backs and limited stealth/melee kills. The locations are slightly more interesting—for example this is the first time we’ve seen the Vietnam War in CoD, but Black Ops doesn’t spend nearly enough time with it.
The escape from the Vorkuta prison is conversely engaging and fun; it takes the highly linear CoD formula but applies it in a creative way and to a situation the series hasn’t tackled before. This mission actually disguises a lot of the aging formula’s problems through good level design, but the rest of the levels present many of the same old issues.
The most obvious flaw is that there is still a complete lack of dedicated cover mechanics. As usual you can cower behind just about anything until the blood melts off of your screen, but sustaining a firefight from cover is still clunky. Ducking in and out from under a chest-high-wall is awkward and there is no way to lean out and take quick shots; basically, you still can’t “stick” to cover and use it tactically. The lack of dedicated cover mechanics is particularly glaring on Wii because the recent GoldenEye remake implemented very simple cover improvements that made the gunplay night and day when compared to CoD. Without GoldenEye’s modest tweaks the tedious grinding gunfights are just irritating now, no matter how impressive the setpieces or how many explosions are going off.
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