Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops

Dear Readers,

In response to some confusion on the part of our audience regarding The Escapist‘s policy of awarding review scores solely on the basis of the single-player experience, we’ve done some soul-searching and decided to review that policy. (Here’s a detailed explanation of how we review games.)

At The Escapist, we award review scores based on the experience of playing the game not a set of arbitrary technical guidelines. As a result, we find it is often difficult for us to accurately rate a multiplayer game. Multiplayer play can be chaotic and inconsistent. One’s enjoyment of a multiplayer experience can vary depending on factors outside of one’s control. As a result, the same player – or reviewer – may have a vastly different experience from moment to moment when playing the same game.

It is for this reason that we will occasionally cover a game’s multiplayer experience separately form the single-player portion. Unfortunately this policy has the unintended side-effect of creating a situation where we award a review score based on only part of a game, as opposed to the whole. Considering games like Call of Duty: Black Ops, in which the multiplayer component is a prime selling point, we recognize that this can be unfair.

We have therefore decided to change our policy moving forward – and retroactively in the case of Call of Duty: Black Ops. From now on, even when we cover the single-player and multiplayer portions of a game separately, The Escapist‘s review score will be based on both portions. If the two portions are being reviewed by separate editors (as in this case) then those editors will have to come to an agreement as to what score is most appropriate.

For Call of Duty: Black Ops therefore, Games Editor John Funk and I put our heads together and decided to increase our review score from two stars to three stars, based solely on the fact that the multiplayer portion of the game is strong enough to elevate the single-player portion, which, as you’ll read below, kind of sucks.

We hope this clears up any confusion, and we, as a team, believe this change in policy will allow us to better present our opinions of each game and will ultimately do a better job of helping you decide what games to buy. Which, all other factors aside, is kind of the point.

– Russ Pitts, Editor-in-Chief


If you’re a big fan of online multiplayer shooters and are simply looking for the next, new hotness as far as that goes, then you’re probably already planning to buy this game. But if you’re on the fence about the multiplayer attributes, then John Funk has you covered on that score. (Hint: he likes the multiplayer.)

This review, however, will cover the worthiness of Call of Duty Black Ops for your single-player dollars, although our final review score reflects both portions.

But first, allow me to tell you a bit about a theatrical convention whereby bright, white lights are flashed outward into the audience as a distraction. Believe it or not, the technical term for this is “audience blinding.” You see it most often at musical concerts. The band will come to the climax of a raucous number, flash pots will go off, cue the audience blinders – OMG YOU CAN’T SEE! Then, just as your vision begins to un-blur, you can just faintly make out that the band has left the stage – NO WAIT! They’re being suspended in mid-air inside of a cage filled with snakes! HOW DID THEY GET UP THERE?!?

The answer is: While you were blinded, people did stuff behind the scenes they didn’t want you to see. The cage was assembled around the band as they stood on a platform that was already there. A wire was dropped from the ceiling. Snakes were wrangled. A hydraulic lift was engaged. Presto! It’s not magic, it’s theater. A trick executed before your very eyes by people you will never clearly see and even if you know how it’s done, it’s still impressive.

Why does this matter? Because in Call of Duty Black Ops, audience blinding is in full effect. The set up is that you’re a prisoner of some sort, strapped to a chair and being interrogated in a darkened room filled with television screens. Every level is interrupted at some point by a blinding, white flash, screeching horror-movie-like nails-on-chalkboard music and jittery visual effects. And most cutscenes (of which there are many) are blurred, twisted, filtered and audience-blinded into near incomprehensibility.

The question you may be asking is, does this make for an interesting game? And the answer to that question is no. The question you should be asking here is: Why, in a videogame, when ethereal visions can be created out of nothing by inserting lines of code, would anyone need to perform such a rude and rudimentary trick of lighting in order to make things look other than they are? What could they possibly feel the need to hide in a videogame? I would argue they’re hiding the game itself, because it looks – to steal a line from the game’s own script – like hammered shit.

Take the Pentagon cutscene, part of which you can see in the embedded video supplement. Was this game made in 2010? Judging from the quality of the graphics, it’s hard to tell. To be fair, we don’t typically judge a game based on graphical impressiveness at The Escapist, but they didn’t really give us much to judge fairly with Black Ops. The story is ridiculous and poorly implemented, the levels are a mishmash and the gameplay feels like the worst elements of Modern Warfare were tossed into a bag then dumped out on the carpet without any of the heart that glued them all together into a good game the last time around.

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What I’m trying to say is, when a game fails you on as many levels as Call of Duty Black Ops, all you have left is to ask yourself: Is this game visually impressive enough to recommend based on the experience alone? And, in this case, the answer is: Absolutely not.

In Call of Duty Black Ops, you play as Mason, a special forces operative interrogated into revealing the details of his missions, which you then get to re-play. Unfortunately it seems as if most of his missions involved following people around and waiting to shoot things, so that’s what you do. This is not fun.

The script is full of exactly the kind of clichés you would expect, yet none of the “wow” that serves to elevate previous installments in this series. Mason is the Forrest Gump of the black ops world; present for every major event in history, but not really all that important to the outcome of any of them. Worse, the voice acting is so bad it’s hard to take anything happening on screen seriously enough to even want to be a part of it, plus the frequent screen flashes and “breaks” in the interrogators’ control over Mason make the experience of simply playing a level so distracting and disjointed that you’ll jump for joy every time the game just gets out of your way and lets you play. Which doesn’t happen much.

Again. Let’s take the Pentagon cutscene as an example. After you finally meet Kennedy, you’re given your mission and sent to a loading screen. By the time the next level opens, more than 10 minutes have passed since you last had control over your actions in the game and, although you are now able to move your character, you’re still not playing the game. You follow your partner, Woods, to a nearby hilltop where he hands you a pair of binoculars and tells you to watch the scene unfolding below. At this point the game takes control again, another cutscene plays out, and then you follow Woods down the hills. Then you stop, unable to move or act, as helicopters fly overhead. Then you walk over to some guards, the game puts a knife in your hand. You use it. You dress as a guard (custscene), then follow Woods again, where you bluff some Russians into thinking you’re one of them (Woods does the bluffing), then crouch (behind Woods) while two more of your buddies get to actually kill people while you watch. Then you’re moving again, following Woods to a building where, after you wait around and listen to your friends killing some guards, you watch Woods kick open the door and THEN you finally get to fire your gun and play the game. Total elapsed time: over 20 minutes.

When the game gets out of its own way and allows you to actually play it, the experience is somewhat satisfying, but not anything that hasn’t been done before, better. There is a pleasant variety of weaponry and all of them go bang. Some, like the scoped, exploding crossbow, offer brief moments of excitement, and the varied missions do make for an interesting smorgasbord of scenarios. Storming the Soviet Baikonur missile base, for example, would be good fun, if only the game had the confidence in its own impressive play style to let you have at it. All told, the 6 – 8 hour campaign feels like half gameplay, half cutscene, even if that ratio is far less.

Bottom Line: There are games that deserve to be relegated to the bargain bin, or played when there’s simply nothing else on the shelf. This is one of them. It’s not broken, it’s just bad.

Recommendation: Playing Call of Duty Black Ops is an exercise in futility and frustration punctuated by brief moments of genuine fun. I can’t recommend the game to anyone who doesn’t hate themselves and want to inflict pain on their own psyche.


Please note that our original score of two stars was based solely on the single-player portion of the game. Owing to a recent change in policy, we will be awarding scores based on the combined single-player and multiplayer experience when possible. As a result, this game has been awarded an additional star in recognition of its multiplayer excellence.

To read more about Call of Duty: Black Ops multiplayer please see John Funk’s excellent review

What our review scores mean.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: Call of Duty: Black Ops
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: November 9th, 2010
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, DS, Wii
Available from: Amazon

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