In a series which has essentially become an annual celebration of war"s Greatest Hits of the West, it was only a matter of time before a Call Of Duty title turned its iron sights towards the paranoia-gripped Cold War era of the late 1960s. By doing so, Treyarch manages to cover off many of America"s ongoing obsessions in one fell swoop, embracing Vietnam, Cuba, crazy Russian megalomaniacs and even the Kennedy assassination. At the buffet of war, Black Ops demands an extra large plate. With such a scattershot approach, its perhaps inevitable that Black Ops" seven-hour campaign struggles to focus on anything for long enough for any sense of coherence to emerge from the mire of screeching plot twists and the imminent threat of Soviet chemical warfare. Played out in particularly shouty flashback, Special Forces operative Alex Mason finds himself under interrogation, endlessly grilled about a mysterious series of numbers that only he can apparently decode. While the fate of the United States hangs in the balance, we get to run through some of Mason"s and CIA Agent Jason Hudson"s key engagements in the years leading up to this moment as a means of getting closer to the truth. Despite Treyarch"s apparent determination to graft an immersive narrative onto its fourth Call Of Duty title, the basic run-and-gun gameplay template remains stubbornly rooted in familiar - and distressingly safe - territory. For the majority of the game"s 15 chapters, you"ll breeze through the usual linear procession of compact, well-signposted and highly-scripted levels. Taken at face value, though, Black Ops"s single-player experience delivers exactly what most would expect from a COD title. It"s a slick, highly polished blockbuster, and uncompromisingly relentless in its pursuit of giving players one highly charged action sequence after another. As usual, the basic shooting mechanics remain refined and near-flawless, aided enormously by the fluidity and responsiveness of its 60 frames-per-second technical prowess and the responsiveness of the controls. But having built the game on rock-solid foundations, Treyarch"s latest stab at a solo campaign remains frustratingly mired in old-school thinking for the majority of the game. Thinking for yourself is rarely an option in Black Ops as you move between one routine set-piece after another, dispatching obliging clusters of enemies that behave with the same depressing Whack-A-Mole predictability that has been an accepted part of the mainstream FPS formula for way too long. On the rare occasion when you feel like there"s another option available to you, the game smacks you down like an errant child, sometimes spewing out endless respawning enemies until you eventually figure out the prescribed solution. There are, of course, inevitable moments of variety that aim to add a much-needed degree of texture to the proceedings, but they feel like recycled props from other games. For the most part, Treyarch is content to simply retread the same well-worn path and repeat everything you"ve ever seen in a military shooter and vary the scenery. So, when you"ve had your fill of run and gun, the action invariably cranks up the explosive excitement with bursts of vehicular action, either putting you behind a mini-gun in a moving vehicle, be that a fleeing jeep, chopper or boat, or putting you in control of one of them. Of course, they"re pulled off with that trademark Call Of Duty intensity - that"s a given - but this far down the line it"s also safe and horribly formulaic. There"s rarely any sense of danger - the generosity of recharging health sees to that - and you"re left with that grinding sense of inevitability as you mow down yet more brain-dead enemies that haven"t worked out how to flank or remain in cover. It"s only when the game dares to stray outside of its own engrained habits that Black Ops fleetingly threatens to live up to its lofty billing. Its occasional use of stealth, for example, helps ratchet up the tension no end, though most of these sections appear designed primarily as a vehicle for showing off needlessly grisly death sequences.
Elsewhere, the game puts you in an eagle-eye scenario, ushering a squad of soldiers to safety from the air, before switching back to the perspective of the ground-based operatives. You"re left with the sense that with a bit more similarly creative-minded set pieces, the campaign could have played out substantially differently. As it stands, it"s an entirely unremarkable campaign. Bizarrely, matters take an unexpected turn for the better seconds after the credits have rolled, with a highly amusing Zombie-battle interlude unlocking. Starring none other than JFK himself, you battling it out alongside Fidel Castro, Richard Nixon and Robert Macnamara, fighting waves of undead as they bust their way into the Pentagon. Crafted with deft wit and panache, it makes you wish more shooters had the same self awareness of their own absurdity, and inspires hope that it"s a direction that Treyarch could explore in the future with great success. For those who last sampled the light-hearted Zombies mode in World At War, the formula remains a simple but highly effective one - especially when played in multiplayer alongside three friends. With the flesh-eating horde hammering down doors and windows on all sides of your enclosed environment, it"s a delicate balancing act to try and patch up your defences, while trying to take the fight to those who have broken through elsewhere. The key thing is, of course, teamwork, with your buddies able to not only cover your back during a surprise onslaught, but revive you when you inevitably succumb. The longer you keep going, though, the quicker and more concerted the attacks become, and the more you"ll have to rely on not only the help of others, but on more powerful weaponry. But with cash earned for every kill, and weapons dispensers allowing you to redeem your winnings, you"ll soon have the firepower to battle back. Eventually, you may even have enough cash left over to unlock a door to a new part of the map, and before long you"ll discover all manner of secrets to uncover. Despite its apparent simplicity, Zombies has a moreish appeal that"s hard to put down, and with the long-awaited return of two-player split-screen, it"s likely to pick up a great deal more attention this time around. It"s a shame that the original four maps from World Of War will only be available in the limited edition version, however. But however much fun you"ll have blasting Zombies into attractive chunks, it"s fair to say that it"s a mere undead side salad to the main multiplayer dish. And the good news is that the disappointment of the campaign is swept aside in some style, thanks to a clutch of extremely promising new modes, alongside excellent new customisation options that freshen up the package impressively. One of the best ideas of all, though, is the new Combat Training mode, which allows the uninitiated to indulge in a crash course before they take their skills out on to the often intimidating lair of real-world online battles. Only true masochists enjoys being cannon fodder for the elite, and Combat Training not only lets you get familiar with the lie of the land at a difficulty of your choice, but allows players to rank up independently of online play. Better still, you don"t even have to play exclusively against AI bots, and can play alongside friends in local or online co-op. It all adds up to a very welcome safe haven, and helps iron out the perennial learning curve you tend to experience when you first enter the realm of online warfare. Once you"re ready for action, the game"s expanded suite of competitive and team-based multiplayer modes represent a dramatic improvement over World At War, and demonstrate where much of the effort has been expended this time. Perhaps the key new feature within Black Ops is the concept of CoD points. Designed as essentially the game"s currency, it grants players the ability to buy new weapons, attachments, camouflage, perks, and other customisations rather than simply rely on ranking up. Alongside the new CoD points system is a series of six player Wager Matches, where players can compete on the outcome of a match, with cash dished out for those finishing in the top three. If you"re feeling confident, you can choose to up your stake and, therefore, win bigger. But have a stinker, and you"ll lose all your hard-earned currency.
Undoubtedly the most keenly contested Wager Match during the review sessions was Gun Game, a finely balanced Free-For-All mode where each player starts on a pistol, and moves onto the next weapon once they kill an opponent. Once a player makes a kill using the elusive ballistic knife at rank 20, the match ends, but in between you"ll find a tense power shift, as players find themselves ranking up quickly, only to find themselves struggling on later weapons. Suffer the humiliation of being knifed, however, and you"ll actually be stripped a rank entirely - doubly harsh if you"ve just spent several minutes getting your first pistol kill. Several other new modes prove to be equally enticing prospects, such as the teeth-grindingly tense One In The Chamber - another free-for-all mode where each player is armed with nothing but a pistol with one bullet in it. Shoot and miss and you"re forced to scrabble around with only a knife, but down your opponent with dead-eyed accuracy and you get rewarded with not only knocking that opponent out of the round, but an extra bullet to allow you to continue your killing spree. This mode, in particular, morphs the gameplay into something almost unrecognisable from the usual frantic spray-and-pray tactics of a regular deathmatch, because everyone knows that they absolutely have to make the shot count. Elsewhere, Sharp Shooter adopts a similar level of fair play to the noble matter of shooting each other in the face, with each player starting the match with the same randomly selected weapon, and weapons cycling throughout the match after a set amount of time. Rather than matches being based on players" knowledge of where weapons spawn, it comes down to raw skill with each weapon, which is, after all, a much better barometer of skill. As a side benefit, Sharp Shooter"s random weapon-cycling premise also ensures that players gradually get used to using weapons that they might otherwise pass up, and arguably helps make them better players over time. Another popular new Free-For-All mode to make the cut is Sticks And Stones, where each of the six players in the match comes armed with a Tomahawk (throwing knife), a crossbow and a ballistic knife. The real kicker with this one is that if you"re unlucky enough to be killed by a Tomahawk, your points tally is reduced to a big fat zero - especially fun if you"re approaching a match-winning tally.
All told, Wager matches add much-needed spice to the multiplayer arena, with the ever-present drama always dragging you back for more even when things aren"t going your way. Once you get good, of course, the added customisation features of Create-A-Class 2.0 will really open up. Now, clearly none of us had the time to get anywhere near ranking up to level 50, but having had a chance to meddle with some of the unlocked content on offer revealed an array of exceptionally cool personalisation and customisation options that provide excellent rewards for long-term players. Outside of the new and exciting, an impressive list of existing array of standard modes ensure that all tastes are catered for, with the roll-call now comprised of Team Deathmatch, Search And Destroy (with hardcore variants of each), as well as Capture The Flag, Demolition, Domination, Headquarters and Sabotage. 14 maps make the cut this time around, but you can expect plenty more once the downloadable content bandwagon rolls into town post-release. From our limited play-testing it"s fair to say we didn"t have the chance to get as intimate with them as we"d have preferred, but even after a handful of hours each and every one felt refined, balanced and intricate.