Modern Warfare enthusiasts step aside for just one second, because this one is dedicated to the Cold War-set action thriller, known as Call of Duty: Black Ops.
Coming off of World at War, as good as this title was, it was no secret that following the release of Modern Warfare 2, developers Treyarch were quickly becoming overshadowed and needed their own form their own recipe for a sure-fire hit. Rather than continue the World at War storyline in the traditional sense, they instead chose to cleverly carry over a character arc in Gary Oldman’s Viktor Reznov while also moving the series from grounded history to sleeper agent fiction.
The game dramatically begins with players experiencing a torture scene (a regular occurrence during the height of the cold war) through the eyes of Alex Mason, an American special forces operative that unknowingly holds the key to ending the Soviet threat. Right from the off Black Ops is reaching a higher calibre of narrative, mystery, and intrigue previously unheard of within such a popular and action-based FPS series. Suddenly everything is much more secretive, and it works for the Cold War setting.
Black Ops’ core campaign then unfolds in the form of a series of flashback sequences, with Alex attempting to recollect his memories in order to provide his captors with the information they demand. Muffled voices bark at you continually, the screams for freedom fill the prison space, and it’s elements such as this allows players to feel just as confused as the protagonist. If the original Modern Warfare made the act of kicking ass unapologetically cinematic, Black Ops does the same for the act of feeling restrained and vulnerable.
Lest we forget, this was still a time before Treyarch’s underdog Black Ops sub-franchise felt the need to literally launch itself into a future warfare setting. This would come later as its sequel incorporated elements of the certain past and probable future. By the 1960’s in which this game was set, weapon technology had advanced far enough to allow Treyarch to blur the line between historic and contemporary artillery. Black Ops’ multiplayer portion didn’t suffer because it was just as fast-paced as the incoming Modern Warfare 3, something which couldn’t be said for both studio’s subsequent releases.
For many including myself, Black Ops represents the last bastion before the current period in which Call of Duty has lost sight of itself. What has now become an over saturated and arguably unfocused parody of the “bro shooter”, was once an innovator of the genre, and one that fleshed out its online game portion for the better.
Even I – one of the few who actually tends to prefer Call of Duty’s campaign efforts – can tell that the tide turned a long time ago, and it’s fair to say that a majority of the audience agrees when looking at declining sales of the series year upon year.
Black Ops was the series’ finest hour because of its narrative and multiplayer innovations yes, but also because this was the last time the franchise had fun with itself. The ever-popular Zombies portion was the most-refined it had ever been, and wholly unique game mode spins like “Gun game”, “One in the chamber”, and “Sticks and stones” all evolved COD’s multiplayer experience far beyond the simple “Team deathmatch” concept to something original and wildly inventive.
Combine these innovative gameplay concepts with Black Ops’ final Fight Club-esque twist of the narrative knife, and what we’ve got is to this day one of the very best first person shooters ever released. With the release of Black Ops 4, Activision look to be taking a step back from single player campaigns – a shame considering that it was this element, along with a refined zombies mode and fully-fledged multiplayer, that made the original Black Ops a FPS package for the ages.