When a franchise consistently delivers massively popular, high-quality games, each new entry in the series comes laden with expectation. Call of Duty: Black Ops has some big shoes to fill, but it does so admirably. The engrossing campaign is chock-full of exciting, varied gameplay and drips with intrigue and intensity. The excellent multiplayer boasts some invigorating new features, and the new combat training mode finally gives novices a way to enjoy the competitive action without suffering the slings and arrows of outrageously skilled veterans. Cooperative zombie killing and video editing tools help make Black Ops the most robustly featured game in the franchise, and though you may have expected it to be the case, this is undoubtedly one of the best shooters of the year.
The single-player campaign is set largely during the 1960s and takes you to Cold War hot spots like Cuba, Russia, and Vietnam. You are an elite covert operative, and your globe-trotting adventures form pieces of a puzzle--a puzzle that your mysterious captors are trying to put together by interrogating you. Each excursion into the field is a memory, and these missions slowly come together to build momentum as each interrogation cutscene puts another piece of the puzzle in place. It's not a very original mechanic, but it gives a coherent context to the action, and a few strong characters and dramatic moments give the story some genuine intrigue. The blurry edges of your consciousness conceal information that must come to light, and the erratic visual effects and eerie audio echoes that accompany your interrogations sometimes bleed into your mission memories, which creates a great tone of uncertainty that plays out in surprising and satisfying ways.
Your interrogation-fueled flashbacks are not beholden to the linear flow of time, allowing your missions cover a wide variety of geography and gameplay. A dramatic breakout from a brutal Soviet prison is one early highlight, and later missions feature frontline conflicts, urban firefights, and mountainous incursions. The environments are richly detailed, and though the campaign is not without a few technical hiccups (like occasionally problematic checkpoint markers and the odd teleporting ally), these moments aren't likely to hinder your enjoyment. In addition to the on-foot action, you use a number of vehicles to achieve your objectives. Some put you in the gunner's seat while others put you behind the wheel, and though the vehicle handling is unremarkable, the thrill of blowing stuff up and speeding through hostile terrain is undeniable. The core running-and-gunning mechanics remain as exciting as ever, and the gameplay variety throughout the campaign keeps the action moving at a great clip.
Though the campaign is a rip-roaring good time, it clocks in at a mere six hours long. The mode that will likely keep you coming back to Black Ops for months to come is, unsurprisingly, the competitive multiplayer. At its core, this is the familiar top-notch Call of Duty action that players have been enjoying for years. You earn experience for doing well in battle, and as you level up, you gain access to new and powerful ways to customize your loadouts. New weapons and maps freshen things up, and one of the new killstreak rewards--an explosive-laden remote-control car--is a delightfully deadly device that embodies the frantic, slightly goofy side of virtual online combat. The key new element, however, is currency. In addition to earning experience for your battlefield performance, you earn Call of Duty points, which you can then spend in a variety of ways. Most perks, weapon attachments, killstreaks, and equipment items are available early on, providing you shell out the points to equip them. Guns are still unlocked as you level up, but again, you have to pony up the points to put one in your loadout. Customization options like face paint, player card backgrounds, and the new create-your-own-icon tool are all accessed by spending points. Having to pay your way gives you more loadout options at lower required levels than in previous Call of Duty games, and the fact that points are so crucial to improving your arsenal makes them as just as sublimely satisfying to earn as experience points.
Call of Duty points also enable two cool new mechanics, the first of which is contracts. These are like the many multiplayer challenges that reward you with experience points for completing combat goals, only you have to pay to complete them. If you do so within the allotted time period, you receive a tidy payout. For example, if you pay 50 points for the stab-a-guy-in-the-back contract and make good, you'll earn 100 points for your troubles. If time expires before you get stabby, you're out 50 points. Tougher contracts cost more, but they also have bigger payouts (get five headshots without dying, cost: 250 points; payout: 3,500 points and 3,500 experience). You can have up to three contracts active at a time across three different categories, and the available contracts change regularly, potentially ensuring a good amount of variety as the weeks pass. Contracts offer a nicely incentivized version of challenges and can give you something fun to strive for if you get in a rut, but don't expect these small gambles to make you rich.
If contracts are gambling against the house, then wager matches are gambling against other players. In these matches, you pay an entrance fee of 10, 1,000, or 10,000 points, depending on how deep your pockets are, and then you get to play the most unique game modes that Black Ops has to offer. One mode gives you progressively better weapons for each kill you tally, while another gives you a pistol with one bullet and only three lives to live. At the end of the match, the pot is split proportionally among the top three finishers, and everyone else comes away empty handed. Wager matches are as exotic as Call of Duty multiplayer gets, and they offer a great change of pace to the familiar frantic firefights.
And for those who hanker for something completely different, the popular four-player cooperative zombie-killing mode that debuted in Call of Duty: World at War has returned. The fight to stay alive against wave after wave of shambling undead is still a tense and bizarre endeavor, and new maps and playable characters take the oddball humor of the situation to a whole new level. Nevertheless, at its core, this is the same frenzied action as found in its predecessor, and each play-through quickly begins to feel much like the last. This is the only proper cooperative mode in Call of Duty: Black Ops, supporting four players online.
There are two new modes that help make Black Ops the most fully featured Call of Duty game yet. Combat Training simulates a competitive multiplayer environment with AI opponents and allows you to set the enemy difficulty to match your skill level. You gain experience and unlock gear in the same way, and though this progress only applies within Combat Training, it's a great way to get the excitement and challenge of competitive multiplayer without submitting to the vicious predations of actual humans. The other new mode is the Theater, which lets you view replays of your games, take screenshots, and edit clips to share with the community. You can string together a number of different segements from a given game, and even render a video lasting up to 30 seconds for upload to the web, though the rendering feature is not fully functional at launch. Reliving moments--both glorious and shameful--is a lot of fun, and the community has already started cranking out content for your viewing pleasure. And though it may only apply to a small percentage of the population at this point, you can also play Call of Duty: Black Ops in stereoscopic 3D, providing you have the proper cables, required glasses, and a compatible monitor. The effect is novel and fairly intriguing, though it takes a significant mental adjustment and may not be comfortable for many players.
While it may not take the signature Call of Duty action to dizzying new heights, Black Ops is a thoroughly excellent game. New modes and mechanics give a jolt of energy to the lively competitive multiplayer, and the engrossing new campaign develops into one of the best in the series. Combat training allows anyone to enjoy the thrills of arena combat and the satisfaction of leveling up, and the opportunities for cooperative play, local competition, and community video creation provide even more outlets for entertainment. Call of Duty: Black Ops lives up to the top-notch pedigree that the series has earned, giving players an awesome new shooter to enjoy just in time for the holidays.