In recent years, the Call of Duty series has produced some of the best shooters on the Wii, establishing a high standard for competitors to match. The latest entry, Black Ops, clears that bar with room to spare, thanks in no small part to the Classic Controller support that the series has long been without. Yet regardless of whether you embrace the new control scheme or stick with your trusty Wii Remote and Nunchuk, the engrossing campaign is sure to entertain you with exciting, varied gameplay and grim narrative intrigue. The excellent multiplayer boasts some invigorating new features, and the new combat training mode gives novices a way to ease into the intense competitive action. Cooperative zombie killing and new online communication architecture help make Black Ops the most robustly featured game in the franchise, and though you may lament the lack of split-screen play, this is 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 sometimes seems too visually ambitious for its own good, the occasionally lackluster textures 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 Wii Remote and Nunchuk controls still work very well and are extensively customizable, but the addition of Classic Controller support opens up a whole new kind of precision. Instead of pointing your arm and wrist, a small flick of the thumb is all that you need to acquire a target. This option makes Black Ops more accessible to players who have experience with shooters on other consoles, and skilled players can still be very effective with their console-specific control scheme.
In addition to the expanded control options, another key new element 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. 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 three headshots without dying, cost: 150 points; payout: 1,300 points and 1,300 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, Black Ops also features a four-player cooperative zombie-killing mode. You and up to three other online players start off in a small room armed with a pistol. Zombies tear down barricades and attack you in waves, and you must kill them to survive. Repairing barriers and killing zombies earns you points, which you can use to buy new guns, refill ammo, or open up new rooms that hide new goodies (and more zombies). The fight to stay alive against wave after wave of shambling undead is a tense and bizarre endeavor, and though the frenzied action can be a whole lot of fun, each play-through quickly begins to feel much like the last. This is the only proper cooperative mode in Call of Duty: Black Ops, as the two-player campaign mode from previous entries in the series has been scrapped.
One final new mode helps make Black Ops the most fully featured Call of Duty game yet. Combat Training mode 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. Competitive multiplayer, Zombies, and Combat Training modes all require you to connect to the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, but many people are currently having trouble doing so. Wireless connections generally seem to work fine, but wired connections through LAN adapters are sometimes problematic. Changing your profile name may smooth things over, and the developers are working on remedying the issue, but these nagging issues are still causing problems.
Black Ops also features robust online communication architecture, allowing you to see recent players and send them ally requests. Allies can join each other's matches and exchange text messages, and all players can communicate via voice chat if they have the compatible Headbanger headset. These features make it much easier to play with friends and to meet new potential squadmates. Though it has no split-screen play and some of the online elements are slightly scaled back, Call of Duty: Black Ops on the Wii is almost every bit as excellent as its HD console counterparts. New modes and mechanics give a jolt of energy to the lively competitive multiplayer; the engrossing new campaign is one of the best in the series; Combat Training mode allows anyone to enjoy the thrills of arena combat; and Zombies mode provides a goofy, gory diversion. 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.