Call of Duty: Black Ops

Review

posted 1/17/2011 by Sean Colleli
other articles by Sean Colleli
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.

Your AI teammates haven’t changed much since CoD4. They’ll still advance and follow the level design about 90% of the time, but again they’ll only move forward when you do. As in Vorkuta, sometimes the story and level design disguise these AI problems better than previous games did, but seeing your ally take sustained fire for three seconds, stagger unrealistically and then empty a mag right back will get tiresome. I could ignore the dumb AI in CoD4 because the overall crafting of the experience was novel and overwhelming; now, after seeing the same issues for the last four years, I just roll my eyes. Squad-based commands would have been a huge improvement over the linear scripted AI; Star Wars Republic Commando pulled it off years ago on the Xbox, and in a similarly linear, scripted story mode. Why are CoD teammates still so static and stunted?

Most irritating of all, however, is that Treyarch hasn’t advanced the core gameplay beyond tedious attrition firefights. No matter how many clever scripted sequences they sprinkle throughout the campaign, most levels still degenerate into the tiresome routine of take cover, shoot, advance ten inches, take cover, lather rinse repeat. I was expecting something different from a game called Black Ops—espionage, wetwork, the kind of morally ambiguous MKULTRA Cold War stuff that makes the CIA really wish Wikileaks would shut the hell up. The flavor is definitely there in the story, but the gameplay is disappointingly typical CoD fare in comparison.

I commend Treyarch from trying to mix things up with a few changes, but these new kinds of gameplay aren’t terribly well integrated and come off as awkward. The biggest example was the late-game mission on Rebirth Island. The battlefield is flooded with the game’s Macguffin, the lethal Nova 6 toxin and your team quickly dons gas masks. As you take fire your faceplate cracks, and after a certain number of hits you suffocate from the toxin. With the blurry haze all around you it’s impossible to see five feet in front of your face, and all you have to spot the enemy is your rifle’s tiny infrared scope. So you’re stuck with limited, non-regenerating health for the first time in the game and a severely weakened ability to spot the enemy, avoid their fire or return fire. The level combines bad visibility with a fixed health system, effectively breaking the standard CoD gameplay without giving you any alternative strategies.

Other instances aren’t quite as controller-through-window frustrating but still, I’m surprised these short sequences weren’t integrated better. The SR-71 recon sequence, something I was really looking forward to, tries to replicate CoD4’s “Death from Above” mission and integrate it with simultaneous on-foot action. It’s a very cool concept but the execution involves a lot of trial and error, and I was glad to be done with it after the level was over. A subsequent rappelling sequence didn’t offer very clear instructions and had me splatting four times on the canyon below before I got the hang of the controls. Black Ops throws several of these split-second gear-changes at you but doesn’t plug them seamlessly into the gameplay flow, resulting in a lot of aggravating do-overs.

Of course, about half the people who play CoD don’t much care about the solo story. It’s all about the multiplayer, and the one in Black Ops is surprisingly competent for a Wii game. The only problem is there are better multiplayer FPS games on the Wii, and if you can get Black Ops on another console you probably won’t want to bother with the Wii version anyway.
I don’t want to unfairly knock the Wii version’s multi component. The meat of the experience is mostly intact, including the standard modes, the new COD point cash system and the accompanying Wager matches, the leveling system and the solo-oriented Combat Training. You can build your class with COD point purchases just like in the other versions, and yes it still borks the leveling system a little bit. The One in the Chamber and Gun Game modes are the highlights of the additions, but I’m sure longtime fans will continue to debate whether Black Ops is a superior multi experience to the ones in the Modern Warfare titles. In any case it’s very impressive that Treyarch could replicate so much of the experience on the Wii hardware, including voice chat no less.

The kicker is that there are a number of cuts—nothing game-ruining, of course—but enough to make the Wii version slightly inferior. For one you can only have 12 players max in each level. “What’s the problem?” you ask. “The Conduit had that player cap and Conduit 2 will have it too. Heck, GoldenEye has even fewer with 8 max players, and it’s a great multiplayer game!” I’d be inclined to agree with you, except that those games and their maps in particular were designed for those player limits. Black Ops ports the exact same maps, built for 24-36 player matches, over to the Wii, resulting in battles that are stretched a little thin. While GoldenEye and Conduit are hectic and fast-paced, Black Ops can seem almost plodding at times. The maps are all great, they’re just way too big for only 12 players. If you have a longer gaming memory, you’ll remember that this happened to the first Halo when Microsoft commandeered the previously-PC and Mac exclusive-shooter and had Bungie port it to the as-yet-online incapable Xbox, resulting in 4 player splitscreen-only matches in stupidly gigantic maps.

Speaking of split-screen, oddly enough you won’t get it in the Wii version. I know, it’s strange that the other online-centric versions still contain this social-contract-encumbered mode when the real draw is being an enormous jerk on Xbox Live, consequence-free, while the more split-screen friendly and socially conscious Wii goes without. One of the main advantages of, say, split-screen GoldenEye as opposed to online CoD is that you can still slug your friend in the shoulder when he’s being a total jackass, enforcing a modicum of civility and etiquette long since extinct on Xbox Live, but I digress.
My biggest disappointment with the multiplayer was the glaring cuts made to zombie mode. The much-hyped addition in the other versions, the Pentagon level and its four iconic characters, is completely missing from the Wii. This means no Kennedy, Nixon, Castro and McNamara cracking wise as they defend the pentagon from ghouls. I understand time was tight on this project, but really, they cut zombie pentagon? Aside from Zork this was the game’s big easter egg. Leaving the Pentagon out of the Wii version but still including the rest of the zombie mode feels hollow, insulting. Hopefully the rumors of the Pentagon as free, upcoming makeup DLC are true…

Both single and multiplayer Black Ops on Wii sport the blockbuster production values you’ve come to expect from the CoD series, with the obvious concessions for the Wii’s weaker hardware. The music and sound effects are just about the same as what you find in the other versions, aside from the lack of Dolby Digital support. Gary Oldman gets to ham it up as Resnov again, and while I think they take the character a little too over the top this time, Oldman still obviously had fun with the part and delivers a solid performance. Sam Worthington as Alex Mason is a bit more of a mixed bag—Worthington is indisputably talented, but as we’ve seen in many of his film performances, sometimes his Australian accent sneaks out at inopportune times. It’s just a little funny to hear all-American hero Mason slip into an Aussie accent while hunting for Fidel Castro. Maybe it’s the result of all that brainwashing?

Unfortunately the Wii version’s graphics don’t fare as well as the audio. There’s a very noticeable downgrade in both polygon counts and texture resolution, and while this is to be expected it isn’t pulled off as gracefully as in other Wii ports. When the action is moving fast you can kind of ignore it, but the extremely muddy textures and jagged characters will get distracting only a couple of levels in. That said it is cool that Treyarch could mimic all of the Michael Bay-esque action at a reasonable framerate—most every level is faithfully recreated with the trademark CoD chaos with very little slowdown.

We’ve seen some very well done FPS graphics on Wii this year from GoldenEye, but the difference is that GoldenEye was built for the platform from the ground up, while Black Ops was obviously ported in a hurry. The most blatant downgrade comes from the pre-rendered cinematics. They use the graphics and models from the HD version, which is a pretty stark contrast to the in-game visuals, but they’re also poorly compressed and marred by heavy artifacting. This is particularly obvious in the grainy, pixelated intro movie that plays every time you boot up the game.

I can forgive bad graphics in a Wii game but Black Ops’ performance issues don’t end with smeary textures or occasional framerate hiccups. I ran into several bugs on my play-through; the game crashed rather often, mostly at the end of those pre-rendered cutscenes, but once simply because I paused the game. I had to replay a couple of levels just because they locked up on me and didn’t save my checkpoint. I’ve heard that Black Ops had some pretty serious technical issues across all platforms, particularly the PC and PS3 (it took a friend a month of patching and tweaking before the game would run on his beefy gaming rig), and these issues are obviously the result of such a tight schedule. Maybe Bobby Kotick and Activision will re-evaluate the wisdom of rushing a new CoD out the door every year.

In the end, that’s probably my biggest problem with Black Ops. It’s not the low-tech Wii port, the cuts or intermittent crashes. It’s just another damn Call of Duty. What was excusable a few years back in light of the whole experience is really obvious and irritating now, and many times I found myself asking, “why haven’t they fixed this yet?” Why haven’t they added cover mechanics, or squad-based tactics and AI that can take orders? Short answer: they don’t have to.

Nothing I say in this review will stop future CoD games from selling millions and millions of copies. Treyarch could drastically improve the CoD gameplay with numerous, obvious upgrades, but with an annual deadline for a new release, do they really have the time? Most of the effort is apparently going into crafting more elaborate stories and the ludicrous, over the top setpieces that go with them—CoD will continue to be a gorgeous, cinematic, but essentially linear and highly scripted experience. And can I blame Treyarch? Why work so hard to make a truly rich and varied FPS, when more explosions and goofy military conspiracy plots will sell just as well? I bet half the players just buy CoD every year for the incremental multiplayer upgrades, something that could be just as easily implemented in a $20 DLC pack.

And therein lays the rub. There is no incentive for improvement; the CoD audience at large doesn’t really want or expect any. Simply put, CoD is starting to feel like Guitar Hero, or Madden. Why sell inexpensive track packs, roster updates or map bundles when you can release a whole new $60 game every year, and your audience will obediently fork over that 60 every Veteran’s Day like clockwork? CoD players are quickly hitting the willful diminishing returns that the Madden crowd have been eating for the past several years.

Until some other publisher comes along with a CoD killer and forces Activision and Treyarch to innovate, we’re going to get less and less for our money as the years wear on. Is Black Ops better than Modern Warfare 2? Yes, to a degree, but mostly because the story stays barely coherent and is slightly better written. Everything else—the gameplay, the meat of the experience—is largely unchanged, and the additions to multiplayer are only a mild variation on what has come before.

The big question still lingers—should Wii owners get Black Ops? It depends. If you’re desperate for CoD, plan on playing a lot of multiplayer and the Wii is the only console you own, by all means yes. If you can ignore the bugs and muddy graphics, the Wii version is essentially the same thing you’ll find on the other platforms. If you just want a good Wii fps with a great multipayer, pass on Black Ops and get GoldenEye, and wait until February for Conduit 2. GoldenEye has a more engaging single player with some genuine stealth, and despite the lack of voice chat the multiplayer is a much tighter experience. Conduit 2 looks more promising every month, and both Conduit 2 and GoldenEye were crafted as Wii exclusives so they’re both more stable than the hastily ported Black Ops. If you still want Black Ops and can get it for another console, do it—the Wii version is slightly buggier, lower res and just has less to offer, so sadly it’s the inferior choice if you can get your CoD Black Ops fix somewhere else.




* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.

C
Call of Duty Black Ops is a disappointment on Wii, but not for most of the reasons you're thinking. Yes, it has the typical inferior graphics, glitches and framerate issues, but the core gameplay is as solid as on the other consoles. Rather, the problem is that it's the same old Call of Duty--no innovation, no gameplay improvements, just a slightly better story and a few multiplayer additions. Unless you're desperate for CoD and only own a Wii, pass on Black Ops or get it for a different console. Discerning Wii owners looking for a good FPS should get GoldenEye, and start saving for Conduit 2.