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Critical Reception: Treyarch's Call of Duty: Black Ops

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Treyarch's Call of Duty: Black Ops, which reviews describe as "a hell of a good time no matter how you slice it."
This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Treyarch's Call of Duty: Black Ops, which reviews describe as "a hell of a good time no matter how you slice it." Black Ops currently earns a score of 90 out of 100 at Metacritic.com. 1UP.com's Thierry Nguyen gives Black Ops an A- grade. "Historically, Call of Duty has followed a sort of Star Trek movie rule, with development studio Infinity Ward basking in praise for the original and the even-numbered installments while Treyarch toils away at titles like Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, COD3, and Call of Duty: World at War," he explains. "However, when examining this seventh (and therefore odd-numbered) Treyarch installment beside the studio's history, it's apparent that not only does Black Ops show how much Treyarch has grown as a developer, but that it's easily their best title yet." Nguyen continues: "Like World at War, rather than create a fictionalized take on modern combat, Treyarch portrays a fictional story within the confines of real-world history. As the title suggests, the campaign focuses on a series of black operations (secret CIA missions) throughout the '60s -- starting with Havana in 1961, and threading through events such as the battle of Khe Sanh in early 1968, and locales like Kowloon and Mount Yamantau, before culminating in the frame narrative's setting: an interrogation room in late 1968." The game's unique story focus results in a fresh experience. "Treyarch has finally created a game with its own distinct feel that's different than previous, 'let's be like Infinity Ward' installments," Nguyen praises. "It comes from little things, like selectable ammunition for shotguns and crossbows, and being unapologetically gory." In addition: "There are missions that break away from the traditional COD formula into something memorable for more than pyrotechnics. There's a fantastic segment where you explore an abandoned ship armed with only a flashlight and a pistol -- sure, it gives that 'why am I playing a survival horror game?' vibe at first, but at the very least it feels wholly distinct and novel. And then there's a bizarre moment of Mason grappling with the effects of psychological warfare by literally racing through a tunnel made up of glowing numbers." "It's admirable to see just how much stuff there is in Call of Duty: Black Ops," Nguyen writes. "Despite the removal of campaign co-op or a mode comparable to MW2's Spec Ops mode, the sheer amount of content is almost staggering. In addition to the campaign, all the regular multiplayer modes, the Wager Match mode, the Theater, character and weapon customization, splitscreen multiplayer options, and Zombies, Treyarch even threw in a full working version of the original Zork. "Call of Duty games are [...] about moments, and there're a whole lot of moments, player and developer generated, in this game. It's easy to say that this is Treyarch's best game...when it's not just trying to imitate Infinity Ward." Adam Biessener at Game Informer scores Black Ops at 9 out of 10. "You can't keep Black Ops out from under the microscope after the high-profile departure of the creative minds that drove the Call of Duty franchise at Infinity Ward earlier this year," he admits. "Can Treyarch come through with a blockbuster hit in the vein of Modern Warfare, not just a by-the-numbers off-year title like the studio has churned out in the past? Yes and no, but Black Ops is the best game Treyarch has made, and a hell of a good time no matter how you slice it." Biessener finds the single-player mode's story to be hit-or-miss. "The story is coherent, and the characters are more than cardboard cutouts. I wanted to keep playing to find out how the plot ends up, not just to see what crazy situation is around the next corner," he praises. "On the other hand, as Black Ops makes gains in characterization and storytelling, it loses spectacle. Outside of the excellent prison break level, the 'wow' moments fall flat. Even blowing up what appeared to be half of Vietnam with an attack chopper failed to elicit much of a response from me beyond making me swear at the controls." Multiplayer remains a standout, however. "For my money, Treyarch has crafted the finest Call of Duty multiplayer game to date," Biessener says. "The maps are fantastic and offer great variety in size, aesthetics, verticality, and paths. The core design is largely unchanged; it features the same modes, perks, and a similar arsenal to Modern Warfare. The action is as responsive, technically impressive, and engrossing as it has been since Infinity Ward pioneered it three years ago. "However, Treyarch has made a ton of improvements in the margins," Biessener continues. "Wager matches exist parallel to the standard XP-based progression. These lethal six-player free-for-all matches are throwbacks to the old days of Quake deathmatches in a lot of ways. All of the game types (each of which has unusual rules that work exceptionally well, like forced weapon cycling or one-shot kills with extremely limited ammo) put a huge emphasis on each kill. This breeds an intensity I haven't felt since playing free-for-all railgun-only Quake." The popular Zombies mode also returns, though Biessener is unimpressed with its implementation. "It works well enough, but Zombies is far down on my co-op FPS list," he writes. "The objectives and strategies are so far removed from making intuitive sense that I can't get into it, though segments of the community obviously feel differently. I do love the secret zombie-themed minigame –- Geometry Wars with zombies, more or less -– and its four-player online co-op, though." "Call of Duty remains the smoothest, most approachable first-person shooter out there, and I had a blast playing it," Biessener notes in summary. "On the other hand, it's disappointing that Treyarch's much-hyped huge-budget entry in the franchise feels like Modern Warfare 2.5. Activision hasn't Tony Hawked Call of Duty yet, though, and I'm happy to get a refined update. This year, anyway." Giant Bomb's Jeff Gerstmann gives Black Ops 4 out of 5 stars. "This is now the fourth game out of Activision that has used the same style of combat to power its campaign and multiplayer," he begins. "The formula, as awesome as it can still be, is starting to wear thin." "That's not to say that Black Ops doesn't have a lot of new tricks up its sleeve," Gerstmann continues. "The story found in the campaign feels like a solid departure from what's come before it. Set in the same universe as Treyarch's Call of Duty: World At War, Black Ops doesn't spend much time weaving different playable characters together into a single narrative." "The action, meanwhile, is fairly standard," Gerstmann says. "There are a lot of guys to shoot, and all that shooting gets broken up by a few larger set-pieces, including one where the game sort of turns into a real-time strategy game for a few minutes as you order a squad around from the cockpit of an SR-71." Gerstmann finds that Black Ops has a lot to offer in terms of multiplayer. "Most of the killstreaks, perks, and equipment you'd expect to find in a Call of Duty game appear in Black Ops, though there are some notable changes," he writes. "On the killstreak side, nukes are out and dogs (boo!) are in. There's also a new remote control car killstreak bonus that lets you control a little buggy with the aim of driving it up to a foe and making him and the car blow up. It's kind of annoying and it only requires three kills, so those little things are liable to be everywhere. Deathstreaks are completely gone. Perks are definitely present, but the pro versions of the perks take more work to unlock." "A lot of the changes to how the multiplayer functions takes place outside of the game," Gerstmann notes. "The player progression has been broken into two pieces. Now, leveling up merely unlocks the ability to purchase additional weapons, perks, equipment, attachments, and, well, just about everything else. You'll have to spend your 'COD points' to actually use any of that stuff. "On one hand, this is nice because it lets you skip the items that don't fit with the way you play," Gerstmann observes. "The downside to this is that you don't feel the same thrill when you gain a level. By the time I was level 20 or so, I felt like I had unlocked just about everything to make my class function the way I like, leaving me with a lot less to look forward to." "Do you want to play more Call of Duty? I'm guessing the answer is yes, and by all means, Black Ops is worth playing," Gerstmann concludes. "But for all its ambitious steps to set itself apart from the previous games, it flounders in a few too many of those areas to be a total success. Even with those flaws, though, the heart of the series -- its competitive multiplayer -- lives on quite well, which should be enough to satisfy most fans of the franchise."

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