Trying to detect deep meaning in Call of Duty: Black Ops (Activision/Treyarch ESRB: Mature 17+), which smashed industry records early this week by generating $360-million (U.S.) in its first 24 hours of sales in the United States and the U.K., is like searching for a subtle theme in a Michael Bay film. Regardless of how many bodies and bullet casings you sift through, you're bound to come up empty.
But while I missed the emotional resonance of earlier Call of Duty games – I still well up thinking about Canadian forces storming in to save the day in the franchise's third entry, which was set during the Second World War – there is no denying the visceral thrills of this Cold War-era shooter from publisher Activision and developer Treyarch. As pure entertainment, it's a runaway success.
The story sets a breakneck pace from its opening assassination attempt on Fidel Castro circa 1961, which involves a tense Cuban villa firefight and a narrow airplane escape. The action escalates from there, with each new mission trumping the last. I encountered everything from an Apocalypse Now-inspired boating sequence with the Rolling Stones blaring in the background to a race to outrun a Russian avalanche that ends with a BASE jump to a decidedly Deer Hunter-esque game of Russian roulette between prisoners of war.
This non-stop barrage of set pieces and dramatic moments pushes the limits of plausibility, but a clever narrative conceit offers the audience some traction: Everything we experience is a memory being recounted by an American soldier undergoing interrogation – played to screaming, profanity-laden perfection by Hollywood's current go-to soldier boy Sam Worthington – and it's made clear that the veracity of this man's recollections is suspect.
Saying more would ruin this fun and twisty race-against-time thriller. Most players will have a pretty good inkling of what's going on near the close of the second act, when they drop into a maze of Vietnamese tunnels only to find themselves in the company of a man who shouldn't be there, but the story still plays out to satisfying effect.
- The Goods Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PC The good: Frenetically paced campaign will leave you gasping for breath. Countless challenges, perks, and customization options make for an extraordinarily deep online experience. New Wager and Combat Training modes should appeal to veterans and rookies, respectively. Killing zombies as a quick-quipping President Kennedy is awesome. Loads of hidden extras. The bad: Campaign doesn’t quite pack the same emotional punch as Treyarch’s previous Call of Duty games. Technical hiccups need to be ironed out in order for online play to fully flourish. The verdict: Treyarch’s new Cold War-themed shooter does the Call of Duty brand proud with a thrill-a-minute campaign and the franchise’s most expansive online package to date
And when it's finished, the franchise's famed multiplayer arena awaits.
Like its predecessors, Black Ops' live play boasts bar-setting depth. Closer in flavour to 2008's Call of Duty: World at War than last year's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (which was made by a different developer), online play lets devoted fans wiggle their thumbs and click their mice through months worth of addictive challenges as they unlock all of the game's weapons and gear, slowly climb in rank, and customize the look of their avatars. Cockier players can put the virtual money they earn where their mouths are in new "Wager" matches while rookies can get their feet wet in Combat Training, a safe place to experiment and formulate strategies.
Then there's the zombie game extra has players taking on the roles of historical figures such as John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon as they defend the Pentagon from Nazi undead, quipping in character all the while. It's inspired zaniness.
As usual for a game of this magnitude, some post-release bugs have crawled out – particularly in the PC edition where gamers have reported lag issues in single and multiplayer games. Plus, servers for all platforms appear to be struggling a little under the sudden weight of millions of players. These are issues that Treyarch will need to iron out sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, Call of Duty: Black Ops clearly upholds the franchise's reputation as the video game world's top dog of war.