Hey, so it turns out war might actually be kinda a bad thing. Call Of Duty: Black Ops asserts this fifth-grader-level thesis statement throughout its seven-hour campaign, though it gets muddied by its glorification of how brutally you can kill animals, your fellow man, and eventually Fidel Castro. Breaking with the series’ tradition of planting you in the combat boots of different soldiers from different countries, Black Ops focuses solely on a single man: Alex Mason, perhaps America’s most resilient Cold War soldier. You’ll take him through Cuba, Vietnam, and the Soviet Republic, even taking a direct order from President Kennedy. Somewhere in there, unbeknownst to anyone, Mason gets brainwashed. And although some of the story’s twists and turns feel plucked straight out of Screenwriting For Dummies, how it all comes together in the end is blindsidingly clever.
And whereas specific battles are painstakingly recreated, like the hellish Battle of Khe Sanh, with its trench and hilltop sites being peppered by artillery, mortar, and rocket attacks, the realism is sapped by the occasionally dumb-as-dirt AI on both sides. Since this is a videogame, your brothers in arms are to a certain extent meant to be like movie extras: They’ll shoot around a bit and take cover, but you’re the only one who’s going to keep the mission moving along. But charging in, guns blazing, doesn’t feel particularly heroic when your fellow soldiers, left to their own devices, will take cover behind an abandoned vehicle and then unload rounds… into that vehicle’s passenger-side door.
That just leaves all the more for you to do in Black Ops’ most memorable moments, like guiding a missile toward a launched experimental rocket, or making your way through a nerve-gas-ravaged city while fighting off enemy soldiers through an infrared scope. Everyone’s much more accountable in multiplayer, which this time has evolved to include a currency system that smartly lets you unlock and customize your loadout specifically to echo the preferences honed in last year’s Modern Warfare 2.
When the super-seriousness about the ravages of war or the jerks in multiplayer start to yield diminishing returns, Black Ops offers a ton more by way of entire not-so-hidden extra games: Zork, the Smash TV-esque Dead Ops, and the ever-popular Zombie Mode. The latter, thankfully, doesn’t even try to take itself seriously, allowing you to blast at zombies as President Kennedy, who quips stupid-funny one-liners like “Er, uh, inaugurate this, glass-eyes!” Really, what more do you need from a videogame?