The new demo of Call of Duty: Black Ops that Activision is showing here at Gamescom 2010 doesn't quite start off with a bang. In fact, it's more of that gurgling sound you hear when certain objects start sinking underwater. That's not a bad thing, because we're not talking in metaphors here--you literally start the level trapped inside a downed helicopter sinking to the bottom of the Huong River. It's a tense sequence that sees you making a desperate escape while swimming through murky water with more than a few dead bodies in it.
If the sight of those bodies sinking to the bottom of the river while you're trying to swim to the top of it doesn't grab you, then the level's roller-coaster pacing will. The whole level, dubbed Victor Charlie, is one great big crescendo that starts off slow and methodical, explodes in the middle, and then slows back down for a bit toward the end. To give you an idea of how it builds up, let's go back to the beginning. Once you get out of that river, you make your way through some waterfront huts and meet up with your squadmates, those grizzled deniable ops supersoldiers who operate with vicious efficiency and sport some pretty awesome tattoos to boot. With them at your side you slowly and silently creep into an enemy hut while one of the bad guys, asleep on the job, is taking a nap.
What happens next isn't for the faint of heart, but the gist is that you cover his mouth and sink your knife quickly and silently into his throat in a grim scene of surgical violence. OK, so maybe that's not so much the gist as precisely what happens. At any rate, you continue along at a similar pace to get through this dangerous area unseen while dispatching a few more foes and taking another dip or two into the river (complete with first-person swimming) before getting to a village a bit farther inland. And that, well, that's when things get really hot. The mission requires you to plant some C4 on a target building, and that explosion obviously attracts a lot of attention. The transition from all that sneaking about to this swarming bee's nest of a shoot-out is something else and definitely seems like it will keep a lot of players on their toes.
The firefight is a bit more of that classic Call of Duty, with fast-paced gun combat and more than a few explosions. A few of the highlights we noticed were the ways those wooden houses explode in a flurry of debris when you hit them with your M16's underslung grenade launcher, and those handful of desperate enemies who come charging out of nowhere with a clear desire to skill you not with a gun, but with a gentlemanly knife to the chest. After that you hop into a dim, claustrophobic tunnel in a sequence that has you crawling through some pretty creepy scenery while encountering a few grim surprises along the way.
After Victor Charlie wrapped up, we had the chance to see the helicopter level that Treyarch demoed during Microsoft's E3 2010 press conference a couple of months ago. Named Payback, this level takes the aircraft sequences we've seen from time to time in previous Call of Duty games and lets you actually pilot the thing (while still operating the guns, of course). After sneaking up on a group of soldiers guarding a Russian Hind helicopter and taking them out, you hop into the attack chopper and fly through a river canyon shooting down on-foot enemies, armored trucks, helicopters, and entire bridges. You can read our initial impressions from the press conference demo for more details, but suffice it to say that this level managed to put a new spin on the type of vehicle moments the Call of Duty series has previously been known for.
All told, Call of Duty: Black Ops is looking quite good. That's not exactly a surprise for a series that has garnered plenty of glowing reviews over the years, but it's good to see that Treyarch has been able to jump into a new timeline--Cold War-era conflicts--without missing a step. Expect to see more coverage on Black Ops before the game is released on November 9.