‘Crude’; that’s the word we’d probably use to describe Call of Duty: Black Ops if we were forced to limit ourselves, lengthening to ‘brutish’ and ‘clunky’ if allowed. Also, ‘quite a lot of fun’.
It’s odd, really, because Call of Duty: Black Ops (or CODBLOPS, if you prefer) is far more fun than it really has any right to be. The singleplayer campaign especially is clichéd to the point of parody, and so poorly run together that even at its highest points it’s still stuck firmly in the Valley of M’eh. But we somehow can't bring ourselves to hate it. It’s hokey and over-hammed, but it was just pleasant enough to hold our attention for the five hours needed to complete it.
Grand Murder Auto
The story this time around is set around US super-spy Alex Mason, who frames each mission as a flashback while strapped to a torturer's chair in an unknown location. Mason begins by recounting his involvement in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, then pushes on through sequences set in Russian labour camps, secret soviet bases and the Vietnam war - there's even one WW2 mission for old time's sake. Other characters occasionally step in, but Mason’s quest to kill a Russian general and his cronies is ever the focal point.
Unfortunately, while Treyarch should be commended for trying something new with the Call of Duty franchise’s storytelling techniques, it’s evident that the designers got a bit carried away with it, both in terms of content and execution. The motive and identity of Mason’s interrogators is plainly obvious long before you reach the halfway point, and as the script stumbles along with all the charisma of a nude, drunken grandfather it’s impossible not to become weary of the overhammed exposition. Missions are regularly interrupted by migraine-inducing flashes of light and the pestering of Mason’s torturers – a technique which moves from being merely annoying to a compelling reason to play something else.
This is part of what we mean when we say that Call of Duty: Black Ops is a crudely implemented game. There’s absolutely no subtlety to the way it's put together, and the twists are all insultingly obvious. Treyarch is apparently oblivious to the obviousness of these impending plot twists, and only just manages to stop short of having a ‘ta-da!’ sound clip play. Where Modern Warfare 2 was carved with scalpels, Black Ops has been bashed into shape with sledgehammers.
This crudity extends deeper than just the plot, however; it saturates the game so much that it’s even manifested in level design and weapon titles. At the end of the second level, which has Mason breaking out from a Russian labour camp, you are ordered to grab a gun from the armoury. The gun you are told to take is a mini-gun called ‘Death Machine’ and the armoury is really just a shrine to it, with light shining down from above to highlight the gun's supposed awesomeness.
Balancing and pacing have been similarly mauled by the mugfisted approach and unusual devotion to gun-porn. AK-47s with ludicrous under-barrel flamethrowers allow you to breeze through some levels regardless of difficulty, while one mission in particular forces you to use a Dragon’s Breath and then skews the balancing so that you can snipe with it at ease. This is a lazy alternative to designing the map to match the weaponry.